- 01. Fiji…Again?
- 02. Fun & Games
- 03. Growing Indigenation
- 04. Coup de Grâce?
- 05. Friends Go Away
- 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
- 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
- 08. Walk Like A Man
- 09. Extreme Retirement
- 10. Get a Grip
- 11. Dangerous Cargo
- 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
- 13. Fit for Purpose
- 14. Emotion Sickness
- 15. New Fiji’s Eve
- 16. One Helluva Christmas
- 17. Enough is Enough
You may be as delighted as I am to know that Boxing Day was our last full day in Fiji. I’m a little weary writing about Fiji, so I can understand if you are getting a little weary reading about it.
Boxing Day was also Lucy’s birthday. People with birthdays around Christmas are generally assumed to bear a grudge about it, having endured a lifetime of being gypped with combined presents and multi-purpose parties. Certainly that was assumed about my mother, who was born on Christmas Eve. Looking back, I cannot recall her complaining about it, and she was never the sort of person who kept complaints to herself. Even so, no one who knew her would dream of describing a gift to her as a Birthday/Christmas present for fear of the reaction that might ensue.
I may never know whether or not Ma would have blown a gasket over it. She turns ninety this coming Christmas Eve, so I suppose I could try to find out, but in her current happily demented state, the results are likely to be inconclusive, and moreover it seems kind of cruel. I could give her the same gift ten days in a row, telling her each day was her birthday, and she would accept it gleefully each time. I envy her in this regard.
From all outward appearances, Lucy seems quite unlikely to be miffed over such an implied slight. Nevertheless, none of us was eager to test those waters, so part of the day was spent sorting out how to celebrate appropriately. We agreed that a dinner at the newly renovated Grand Pacific Hotel might be the answer, and decided to stroll over there to check out the restaurants, menus and facilities.
The Grand Pacific Hotel, built by New Zealand’s Union Steamship Company in 1914, is undoubtedly the Grand Dame of Suva. It has hosted pretty much everybody who is anybody that has visited Suva, which is to say Kingsford Smith and various members of the royal family, none whom had much choice in the matter. When we visited in 2012 it was an abandoned wreck, closed since 1992, yet still emitting a vibe of grandeur and elegance through the dust and debris.Since then the get-things-done government of Bainimarama actually got something done, leading the development of a stunning and architecturally faithful restoration. Photographs on the lobby level document The Commodore’s appearance at its recent grand re-opening.
Our inspection of the top-level restaurant found it wanting, partly because it cost a bloody fortune, but mostly because the dining rooms felt rather stuffy and our group wanted to sit outside. The mid-level restaurant offered outdoor seating with reasonable prices, but the trade-off was that it was a buffet, always cause for concern. To their credit, the menu was quite exact about the buffet content, with something appealing to each of us. We booked a table for the six of us.
I was particularly stoked to see there would be a Caesar salad station. A properly constructed Caesar salad is a thing of simple beauty. In this part of the world, it is something of a rarity. Otherwise reputable chefs persist in coddling diners who order Caesar salads yet don’t actually like them, adding bacon, mayonnaise, chicken and other objects that ought to remain foreign to a Caesar salad. Presumably, the staff at the Caesar salad station would heed instruction to prohibit such a foreign invasion.
But what to wear? Some shopping was in order, so we determined to walk the length of Victoria Parade, towards the retail district.
On the way we passed the buildings housing the new Parliament of Fiji, which was also the original Parliament of Fiji before it became the former Parliament of Fiji. After Fiji’s independence and British abandonment of 1970 Parliament convened there until the coup of 1987, when it moved it to the suburbs. Now things had gone full circle, with Parliament back in the art deco Government Buildings, built in the 1930’s well before Fiji had any Parliament. Today, it was closed for the public holiday, but appeared to have been steam-cleaned recently, now a proud yet incongruous yet appropriate symbol of the New Fiji. Or the Old one. Whatever.
We found the shopping district teeming with dazed and confused cruise ship tourists. This seems a permanent condition in Suva these days. It got me to wondering whether any government attempt to attract cruise ships was smart, economically. Ships require a lot of infrastructure and support, yet it seems to me that cruise passengers contribute very little to the local economy. They don’t stay in the hotels or eat in the restaurants; all that is free “back on board”. Suva in particular has a shortage of pier births, with the priority given cruise ships frequently resulting in large vessels sitting at their moorings with their cargo unloaded for days at a time. That’s an expensive proposition for an asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars. You need to sell an awful lot of Bula shirts to make up for it.
As luck would have it for the local economy, Frank and I were happy to oblige. We braved the iconic store Jack’s of Fiji in search of Bula shirts. In Suva, Jack’s takes up the best part of a city block, with its main entrance nearer the cruise ship terminal. On entry I was aghast at the prices, many shirts upwards of $100. Frank and I exchanged stunned glances – there was no way either of us would pay that kind of money for what was, essentially, a piece of novelty clothing. We shrugged and headed for the exit, the sunlight from a rear door drawing us. As we delved further into Jack’s bowels, the prices dropped considerably. By the time we got to the rear exit – the one next to the supermarket used by the locals – the shirts were a much more reasonable $25. They were hideous, but then, that’s Bula wear. We bought two.
We met up again with the rest of our mob who had been wine shopping. If one knows where to look in Suva – and Aydell knows – one can find a surprisingly wide variety of quality wines at reasonable prices imported from the world over. It may not be Bordeaux, but it is one of those minor things that makes the place liveable.
Dressed and primped, our contingent walked back to the Grand Pacific for dinner at eight o’clock. In the lobby three handsome young men stood in Santa Claus outfits, bored to tears. More than happy for our distraction, we posed for photos with them. Frank asked one how long he had been standing there, to which he replied “My shift started at seven this morning, and we are here until ten this evening.” Yikes.
The restaurant staff appeared to be shocked by a party with an eight o’clock booking arriving at eight o’clock. We were seated promptly at a lovely table on the veranda overlooking the swimming pool area and the harbour, the setting sun finishing the picture postcard.
The service was classically Fijian, which is to say that the setting sun was the last trace of prompt service for the evening. We were in no hurry, so enjoyed the idyllic surrounds whilst awaiting instruction. Or menus. Or a wine list. Or water. Or flatware.
After about fifteen minutes Frank went inside to see if perhaps a tropical plague had killed all the staff. He returned, his fists full of flatware and napkins, with the plaintive instruction “Help yourself.” He pointed at the buffet. He did not have to repeat himself.
Aydell asked for a jug of tap water, but received only a single glass. On repeating his request, a server informed him that the hotel did not serve tap water to guests. That was more than Aydell could bear, so he appealed to a manager. After some negotiation it was agreed that since Aydell was a local, the table would be permitted to have a jug of tap water.
Meanwhile, inside, Clara managed to convince a passer-by to provide her with the wine list. A bottle of red and a bottle of white were ordered and were delivered in a reasonable amount of time by a waiter who hadn’t the slightest idea how to extract a cork. The table watched nervously as he struggled, the red-drinkers rising as one to offer assistance when he began to shake the bottle.
Despite its enticing description on the buffet menu we had reviewed earlier, there was no Caesar salad station. I expressed my disappointment to the manager. To his credit, a large bowl of greens labelled “Caesar Salad” soon appeared – all mayonnaisey and bacony. Oh, well, nice try.
As the restaurant got busier, the staff grew more frenetic. Our plates were cleared, but oddly stacked on an adjacent table rather than delivered back of house for cleaning. I helped myself at the ice cream station, honestly overlooking the sign that quite clearly instructed me to wait to be served. The manager intervened, shooing me in a manner at once apologetic and brusque.
Towards the end of the evening an overdressed chap with an Italian accent presented himself at our table as the director of something-or-other, asking how we were enjoying our dinner. I imagine if he had it to do over, he wouldn’t. Let’s just say that each of us had a suggestion or two.
Aydell, who can be disturbingly observant when he decides to be, explained his view of things. “I saw you inside when we arrived, and a couple times since. When you are on the floor, things happens – but when you aren’t, they don’t. The moment you go away it all falls apart.” I had not noticed the director earlier, but I have no doubt that Aydell had.
The director’s response was, well, shocking. “I have three restaurants to run, I can’t be everywhere at once, I have been on duty since six this morning, I try to train the staff, but they have no background and require constant direction…” A litany of excuses from the guy doing the hiring, firing and training – when the answer should have been “Thank you for your feedback, I will take steps to remedy these things.”
I will say that the quality of the food was excellent, and the variety wonderful. Opening a new hotel is never easy. This is doubly true if you are opening the only five-star hotel in a city – as was the case here – since properly trained staff is thin on the ground. So I have to cut the Grand Pacific Hotel some slack, expecting that in the fullness of time they will iron out the wrinkles.
It was time to go home. This meant packing up and getting ourselves to the international airport in Nadi. In planning this trip, I made it quite clear, using numerous expletives, that there was no way I was ever taking a bus between Suva and Nadi again. Thus we had purchased tickets to fly from Suva’s tiny two-gate airport to Nadi’s sprawling eight-gate international juggernaut.
Clara arranged to have her favourite taxi driver deliver us to the Suva airport. By four o’clock we were trudging across the tarmac in a driving rain towards a dual-prop airplane that looked as if it had spent its heyday with Fred and Ginger in Flying Down to Rio, daredevil young ladies dancing on the wings. Inside we found no provision whatsoever for carry-on luggage. With each of the eighteen tightly-spaced seats taken, we prepared for the thirty minute hop over Fiji’s highest mountains with our bags crammed between our laps and the seats in front.
We started to taxi out to the runway, the cockpit door wide open, all the actions of the pilot and co-pilot clearly visible, as was the instrumentation. As we went full throttle down the runway, both pilot and co-pilot held hands upon the flaps lever. I presume this was a safety procedure to ensure the flaps were held in proper place, but it gave the distinct impression of two men in fervent prayer. Hardly re-assuring.
The world disappeared in a sheet of white as we ploughed into a cloudbank, turbulence throwing the plane about. I noticed the altimeter topped out at ten thousand feet, which made sense given that there was no provision for cabin pressure, and one tends to die without cabin pressure if one flies much higher than ten thousand feet. On the other hand, I recalled that Fiji’s highest mountain topped out at about five thousand feet, which didn’t leave a whole lot of room for error, especially with zero visibility.
We levelled out at seven thousand feet. Now and again there would be a break in the clouds allowing an invigorating glimpse of the lush green mountain peaks scraping the bottom of the plane. Happily my life did not end as a red puddle of pulp amidst that lushness.
So ended my third and possibly final trip to Fiji. Surprisingly, I am not even tempted to swear never to return, as I did after my first two trips. Indeed, it is almost as if Fiji and I are destined to collide once again. It would seem that Fiji is getting better. I only wish I could say the same for myself.