Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reliving Suva's glory days

 Waikato Times - 28 April 2009

With echoes of its colonial past never far away, MARTIN TIFFANY takes you on a quick trip around Suva


Whenever anyone asks me about places to go in Fiji, I seldom recommend Suva.
In fact, I can't even think of one time when I pointed someone in the direction of the capital city.
Ironically, Suva is where I head as soon as I get off the plane in Nadi.
It's my home town, it's where I'm comfortable, it's where I relax and have fun.
So, it can't be that bad.
I suppose it is a perception thing. It is not the big tourist trap in the way, say, Denarau is, and you never see a package deal for five nights in Suva.

It's all about Nadi, the Coral Coast and the outer islands as far as selling the country to tourists goes.
And that is fair enough as those places have all the attractions sun, sea, sand and the related activities.
When friends and colleagues in New Zealand ask me where the best places to go in Fiji are, I ask them what they want to do, what their budget is and recommend accordingly.
Suva never really enters the equation.
It was only on a recent trip back that I had something of an epiphany.
I had just finished an excellent lunch at the Suva Bowling Club ... yep, take note, the Suva Bowling Club offers great meals at reasonable prices and is a popular lunchtime haunt of many workers.
Plus a couple of swift icy cold Fiji Bitters at the bar never go wrong.
Anyway, back to my epiphany.
I had just had a few ales and a great lunch with my best mate and was wandering back to the car rather slowly as my seafood lunch settled in, when I suddenly began to take notice of where I was.
I walked past the remains of the once proud Grand Pacific Hotel (or the GPH as it is better known) and looked with sadness at the rather derelict state of the once grand "old lady" of Suva.
But the sadness was tempered with fond memories as I recalled some of the history of the place.
According to the history books, it was built by the Union Steamship Company in 1914 to serve the needs of passengers on its trans-Pacific routes.
The design of the hotel was to make the passengers think they had never gone ashore, as rooms in the GPH were like first-class staterooms, complete with saltwater bathrooms and plumbing fixtures identical to those on an ocean liner.
Its many famous guests have included Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and Queen Elizabeth.
Michener's description of the Grand Pacific Hotel in 1944 was this: "one of the memorable hotels of the world, not majestic and not particularly spacious, but a haven to all who crossed the Pacific on tourist ships or who now came by airplane ... a big squarish building of several floors, with a huge central dining area filled with small tables, each meticulously fitted with fine silver and china, bud vases, and a facing porch leading out to the lawn that went down to the sea. It was grand, and it certainly was Pacific, and the barefoot Indians who served the meals had a grace that few hotels in the world could offer and none surpass."
My family, including two-year-old me, stayed there in 1969 as we waited for a house to be made ready.I also have a bit of history of my own as far as the GPH is concerned.
My father worked for the then colonial Government and, as is still the case, people in certain positions are entitled to a house.
If you get a certain position you get a certain house, which was kind of a pain as a kid because every time my dad was moved to another department, we had to move house.
In later years I recalled the days following the 1987 coups when the GPH was one of the few places you could get a beer on a Sunday night.
I was a frequent visitor on the Sabbath after church of course.
Apparently it is being restored to a five-star hotel with the help of the Fiji National Provident Fund which is seeking joint venture partners to begin a $50-million revamp.
But I understand at present an army regiment that is responsible for providing security for the prime minister, Cabinet and Government House are staying there dorm style.
I live in hope.
Over the road from the GPH is Albert Park, named after Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert.
The pavilion opposite the Government Buildings is named after Charles Kingsford Smith, the Australian aviator and first person to fly across the Pacific.
Smith was unaware that a row of palm trees stretched across the middle of Albert Park, his intended landing place in 1928.
A local radio operator figured out Smith's predicament, and the colonial governor ordered the trees cut down immediately.
As I gaze across at the park fond memories of the many games of hockey I played there come flooding back as do the memories of the numerous Hibiscus Festivals I went to usually ankle-deep in mud and eating candy floss.
As a young cadet sports reporter I also covered many cricket matches at the park, which was great as I could usually have a bit of snooze under the trees.
Across the road is the once spectacular Thurston Gardens originally the Suva Botanical Gardens. It is the site of the original Fijian town of Suva, whose former inhabitants moved across the bay in about 1882.
It was once a busy fortified town that in 1843 was burned and was the scene of one of the fiercest and bloodiest scraps in Fijian history.
According to documents at the Fiji Museum, in 1879, Sir John Thurston, the Governor of Fiji, asked John Horne, the director of Forests and Botanic Gardens in Mauritius, to visit the colony. After some discussion, Horne recommended that the land be turned into a Botanical Garden and Plant Introduction Station.
This work was approved and by 1905 a large number of exotic trees were already established.
The Fiji Museum, which was built in the Suva Botanical Garden grounds in 1955, still believes that the garden has great potential to become a natural and cultural outdoor museum that complements the existing exhibitions within the museum buildings.
There are now plans to work closely with the council to improve the gardens and I understand they are actually working on it now. It could be a spectacular asset for the city.
On the other side of Albert Park are the old Government buildings which have a lot of character. Complete with clock tower, these were built in the late 1930s and were the setting for the first coup in 1987 as this is where Parliament used to sit until Siti Rabuka and his boys stormed in and changed the course of the country's history forever.
So, in this one small corner of Suva is a great wealth of history.
A bit sad in some ways as the former glory has gone but still interesting.
On a more vibrant note, and not too far away along Victoria Pde, is the heart of Suva's night life with a proliferation of clubs and bars catering to different tastes.
People take partying very seriously and while 1am is the official closing time there are a number of places to go after hours or so I am told.
Step into any of these places and you are guaranteed to have a good time.
Food is also taken very seriously and Suva offers a huge range of cafes, restaurants and takeaway places with cuisine including Fijian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian. Each time I go back to Suva there always seems to be a new eatery.
One favourite of mine is Joji's, a rather interesting Chinese takeaway where your meal is cooked on the spot by a Chinese man with a big wok.
It is pretty hard to find if you don't know where to look as it's round the back of the Civic Centre and doesn't have any signs.
But follow your nose or the line of people that snakes out on to the footpath (yes it's that popular) and you'll be right.
Trust me you won't be disappointed.
A trip to the Suva market is an experience in itself with its wide range of fresh produce and seafood.
Shopping in Suva is great, and often underrated.
Obviously there are the modern shopping malls but walk out of the town centre and head up the back streets of Cumming St and Marks St or up Waimanu Rd.
You will be surprised at what you discover and don't be afraid to bargain.
Admittedly, Suva does have a seedy feel, which is part of the attraction for me.
You are well advised to hold on to your hand bag and wallet and take other obvious precautions just like you would do in most other capital cities.
Fiji's capital always appears to be struggling to contain its seething mass of its 200,000 multiracial inhabitants and you fully expect it to burst at the seams one day.
City streets are always busy with a mass of people and around the fringes of the capital squatter settlements hang on for dear life.
SUVA IS on a large peninsula and was declared the capital in 1882, after 26 years of having the old capital at Levuka on the island of Ovalau.
Whoever made the decision to move the capital must have visited on a fine day as Suva is noted for its considerable rainfall.
Apparently the first governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, said that it rained in Suva like he had seen nowhere else before and that there was hardly a day without rain.
I have only touched on a fraction of what the capital holds but what I'm trying to say is don't forget to give Suva a try next time you are in Fiji.
Tell them I sent you.
"City streets are always busy with a mass of people and around the fringes of the capital squatter settlements hang on for dear life." - Martin Tiffany

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