Magic recreated : The GPH

2014 will be a landmark year in Fiji’s history and not just because of the scheduled return to democracy. After an expensive renovation, the once bright jewel in the crown of Suva – the celebrated Grand Pacific Hotel – will also be opening its doors for the first time in more than two decades. Because of what that will mean not only for tourism but for everyone, the whole city eagerly awaits what is bound to be an exciting event.

The glorious old days

The GPH – as it was known to generations of travelers – is set to regain its position as the capital’s most luxurious and glamorous hotel. And its legendary status around the world is certain to draw thousands of well-heeled visitors to Suva who’ve long become accustomed to giving the capital a gigantic miss. No longer will it be enough for the real jet set –affluent travelers – to simply arrive in Nadi and head straight for the island and coastal resorts. “Yes, Darling, Wakaya is lovely but have you been to the new GPH?”

The renovation in full swing (photo"Fiji Village)

The “Grand Old Dame” of Suva is set to become a special favourite of the “Raffles Set”, those who love the atmosphere of the old colonial haunts of Empire – Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo and the great hotels of the Raj in India. And especially those who hanker after the old Pacific, embodied further north in the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Hotel, “the first lady of Waikiki” – potted palms, slowly revolving fans, “Mai Tais” and attentive staff in sparkling white. All that awaits the visitor to Suva.

The way we were

Yes, we’ve already got the Holiday Inn but glamour? Er, a pleasant enough place if you have to do business in the capital but hardly worth the detour. And who knows? Maybe the revival of the GPH might trigger the revival of other faded colonial era gems around Fiji like the Rakiraki Hotel, the Grand Eastern in Labasa and the sleepy old Levuka Hotel. They’re just crying out for the same treatment. Nostalgia is big business everywhere else in the world. Why not Fiji? In Suva, get set – thanks to the jet set – for jobs, jobs, jobs, not just for hotel workers but a host of suppliers, taxi drivers, tour operators, shops, restaurants and even the most humble market vendor. The entire city economy will almost certainly get a boost from the revival of this iconic landmark.

Reviving the most important precinct of old

The building itself – proud and resplendent again -will also lift the general tone of the entire city, and especially its most important precinct – the area around Government Buildings, Albert Park, the Botanical Gardens, the Fiji Museum and Government House. This golden half-mile has long been tarnished by the ugly face of the derelict, decaying, rat-infested hulk to which the once “Grand Dame” had been reduced.

For a long time, it was fit only to house junior soldiers and then not fit for anything at all. For too many years, the GPH has sat as a brooding reminder for everyone of Suva’s decline from its glory days as a place of elegance and beauty and a source of national pride. It’s been an ugly carbuncle on the capital’s face and now, finally –mercifully – that carbuncle is being removed. Why has it taken so long? Partly because of the fluctuating financial fortunes of successive potential developers, notably the government of Nauru. But much of it has to do with the lack of confidence that’s been needed to make such a big investment. And you don’t have to go too far to explain that.

The GPH in 1925

On the street outside in 1987 – where once the Queen had gazed down on her adoring subjects – marauding gangs of indigenous supremacists randomly attacked their Indo-Fijian fellow citizens. Across the road, gunmen entered the then parliament and removed the government. It happened all over again in 2000, though by now most of the action was taking place across town at the new parliamentary complex. And then came Frank Bainimarama’s “clean-up” takeover in 2006 aimed at getting the country back on track.

Famous guest :Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

Investment bankers and their borrowers don’t like this sort of disruption and especially people in the hotel business. They need high occupancy rates just to break even and, strange as it seems, wealthy travelers tend to have an aversion to guns and beatings on the street outside. All of which explains that it’s taken a period of relative national stability to drag the Old Dame off the floor and put her back on her feet. That plus a unique Pacific partnership – the superannuation savings of every Fijian through an investment by the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) and the superannuation savings of every Papua New Guinean through our Melanesian neighbour’s National Superannuation Fund.

PNG is, in fact, the dominant partner. The GPH will be 50 per cent owned by its super fund, the FNPF holds 25 per cent of the shares and the remaining 25 per cent comes from a PNG company called Lamana Development Limited. If anything else, it’s a practical demonstration of Melanesian commercial solidarity as Fiji and PNG also strengthen their diplomatic ties.

Even more famous guest: The Royal Ball of 1953

By the time the army of workers completes its task by November next year in advance of the official opening early in 2014, the whole renovation will have cost more than $78 million dollars. There’ll be 113 standard rooms and ten executive rooms in the old building and a mixture of suites in the new building being constructed beside the main hotel. Everything preserved from the old GPH is undergoing a painstaking restoration to its original condition, a highly complex and difficult task according to Jaoji Joroi, the acting CEO of the FNPF, because of the challenges of recreating the building methods of 100 years ago.

Because the hotel has been closed for so long, only older Fijians will remember its stately magic. In the boy Grubsheet’s mind’s eye is the indelible memory of drawing up at the imposing portico, being greeted by a huge Fijian doorman and being ushered into what seemed a vast atrium dotted with rattan furniture and potted palms at floor level, with balconies all around leading to the guest rooms. Immaculate staff glided around dispensing gin and tonics, glasses of Fiji Draught, and in the case of the wide-eyed missionary’s son, ice cold lemonade. It had never tasted so good and I had never been in a grander place, feeling so small and insignificant amid such opulence. Later, of course, it all began to unravel and towards the end, the GPH was a shadow of its former self, visitors preferring the modern comforts of the Travelodge next door to sleeping fitfully on old beds surrounded by the ghosts of the past.

Isa Lei : The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on the GPH "brow"

The GPH was built by the Union Steamship Company in 1914 to service the needs of its transpacific passengers. The famous design of atrium looking in and balconies looking out was to make travelers think they’d never gone ashore. The rooms were like first-class staterooms, with saltwater bathrooms and plumbing fixtures identical to those on an ocean liner. It all reeked of a special atmosphere recalled years later by James A Michener – the celebrated American author of Tales of the South Pacific – in his 1992 memoir, The World is My Home.

“And then came the target of my trip… to Fiji: 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. It was the Grand Pacific Hotel, famed G.P.H of the travel books, 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.”

Suva Makawa : Elegant and glamorous

The famed British author Somerset Maugham was another South Seas traveler who enjoyed the GPH. But few arrived in more style than the great Australian aviator, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who quite literally dropped out of the sky and into Albert Park on the first transpacific flight between the United States and Australia in 1928. His Southern Cross Trimotor skidded to a halt just before hitting the trees at the end of the park and, surrounded by hundreds of excited well wishers, the dashing aviator and his co-pilot, Charles Ulm, strolled into the GPH for a well-earned shower and rest.

Welcome back! It's been a while.

But by far the GPH’s most distinguished guests were a young Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh making their celebrated first visit to the Colony of Fiji in 1953. The then Governor, Sir Ronald Garvey, hosted a ball in their honour attended by the cream of Suva society and then the royal couple appeared on the balcony facing Albert Park is front of thousands of candle-carrying spectators. The whole crowd joined a choir in singing the traditional farewell song, Isa Lei, before fireworks concluded what must have been one of the most magical evenings in Suva’s history.

How wonderful that half a century later, some of that magic – the glory of a bygone age – is to be recaptured with the restoration of the balcony on which the Queen stood. The re-opening of the GPH will be more than the renovation of just another hotel because it isn’t just another hotel. It’s the best. And when the doors open again, it’s bound to be a symbol of the revival of Fiji’s fortunes and the hopes of the whole country for a brighter and more prosperous future in the years ahead.

Apologies for the lack of picture credits. Some are known only to God.