A Capital Time in Old Fiji

The Kays are San Francisco free-lance writers.

Set like a sea gull's nest below precipitous green cliffs, Fiji's former capital of Levuka, with its rambling main street, weather-worn church steeples and clapboard storefronts, looks like the setting for a John Ford Western or a Colonial trading post.

On the island of Ovalau (a 10-minute Fiji Air flight from the new capital of Suva), Levuka is off the tourist track.

Miraculously, perhaps because it is a backwater hamlet, Levuka (pop. 1,400) escaped postwar development. The old capital remains an intact 19th-Century seaport, much the same as when Kipling visited here at the turn of the century.

Established in the 1830s by English and American vagabonds, beachcombers and fugitives, the town gained prominence as a trading center and regular port of call for whalers, slave traders and merchant vessels. In its glory days, square-rigged clipper ships from many nations packed the harbor and drunken sailors filled the 50 waterfront bars and hotels.

Mixed Population

As the town flourished, the settlers took Fijian wives (sometimes more than one), and their offspring became the founders of Fiji's half-caste or kai-loma society. One of the most famous of the part-European families are the Whippys, direct descendants of David Whippy, an American seaman who came to Levuka in 1824 and became the town's leading citizen.

Part-Europeans speak fluent English and Fijian; Fiji became independent in the British Commonwealth in 1970 after 96 years as a colony. Conversations may be carried on in both languages simultaneously, with jokes made in the tongue that best suits the story. Many kai-loma still make a living as planter, shipbuilder or seaman. The part-Europeans proudly trace their heritage on both sides and may enjoy native land rights.

Dora Patterson, the 83-year-old matriarch of Levuka and descendant of David Whippy, exemplifies the best of the part-European. Looking 60 and sounding younger, she told me of the reputation Levuka had as an open port.

Telltale Bottles

"When I was a young girl," she said, "the old folks said that hardly a day went by without a drunken sailors' brawl or a scrap of some sort. It was said that sailors knew they were getting close to Levuka by the gin bottles floating out from the harbor."

Patterson, whose extended family varies from pale to dark, said that Fijians respect her ancestry, which goes back three generations to a Fijian chiefess. She said that her son, a surveyor in his youth, used to trudge deep into the hinterlands and stay overnight in villages. Somehow the villagers knew of his lineage better than he did and accorded him the full respect due his ancestor's title.

A walk around town, which takes half an hour, will show you some of the finest examples of 19th-Century colonial architecture in the South Pacific, including the first Masonic lodge in the South Pacific and the marvelously preserved Levuka public school, the oldest in Fiji.

Visitors to the old capital might consider spending an evening at the Royal Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in the South Pacific. Constructed in the 1850s, it was rebuilt at the turn of the century by Capt. David Robbie, a retired seaman who thickened the walls to withstand hurricanes.

Looking like a roadhouse or stagecoach stop in the old West, the Royal speaks of another era when the hotel catered to traders who stepped ashore from China Clippers.

Atop the roof is a widow's watch, or ship's lookout. The Ashley family, kind people of part-European stock, run the hotel in the manner of four-masted schooners days--slowly and deliberately.

Oldest Social Club

Just down the street is the Ovalau Club, a whitewashed structure resembling a grange hall surrounded by a white picket fence. Formerly a bastion of Levuka's colonial elite, it is the oldest social organization in the South Pacific. Although a sign outside warns "Members Only," visitors can be advised to cheerfully ignore it; in Fiji, all are made to feel welcome.

The Ovalau Club is the best place to ease into Levukan society. Beefy Dick Taylor, the 6-foot-4 president of the club, will welcome you with a crushing handshake and possibly "shout" the guest a beer.

This is headquarters for the No. 1 social activity in town--drinking beer. The bartender, a robust woman named Annie Powell, claimed that Levukans drink more beer per capita than any other community in Fiji. The Ovalau Club can also supply the local gossip.

Though mercifully few tourists get to Levuka, compared to the droves who deplane from DC-10s at Nadi Airport on Fiji's sun-drenched western side, those who end up here help maintain the existence of this community. Since the capital was moved to Suva in 1881, Levuka has steadily decreased in population and influence.

Little Room to Grow

Because the town is built on a narrow coastal fringe bounded by steep cliffs, there was no room to expand, so the capital had to be moved elsewhere and business moved with it. The old capital hangs on by a narrow thread, thanks to employment at the PAFCO fish cannery constructed in the early 1960s, and to the few tourists who find their way here.

A recent controversy exemplifies Levuka's pride in its history and its zealousness to keep the town from turning into another paradise exploited. A businessman from Suva quietly bought a turn-of-the-century building on Beach Street and made public his plans to raze it to build a disco.

Levukans were repelled by the idea, and the town council quashed the plan. One resident, Suli Sandys, a part-European with German, Tongan and Fijian roots, said that the council had nothing against discos, "but not at the expense of a historic building. Besides, who needs another disco?"

Like its old capital, Fiji must be relished with an open heart and mind. When your airplane's tires hit the runway at Nadi International Airport, cool your heels and realize that except for a few misguided tourists, no one rushes around in the Fiji Islands. If possible, soak up the sun and bask in the good will of these splendid people. You may learn something from them and take it back with you.

For more information, contact the Fiji Visitors Bureau at 6151 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles 90045, or phone (213)417-2234.

The Royal Hotel ($12 double a night) is the best in town. However, the Old Capital Inn is revamping its facilities; check with Emosi Yee Show about the Capital's upscale accommodations.

Emosi, an engaging and entrepreneurial chap of Chinese and Fijian extraction, is the unofficial mayor of Levuka and its best tour guide. He leads a frequent overnight trip to Cagelai, a tiny jewel of an island where he has several Fijian bures (grass shacks) for rent at $5 a night. He takes visitors to the island and feeds them for about $20. It's a worthwhile trip.

The newest establishment is the Ovalau Holiday Resort about three miles outside of town. It has tidy, modern cabins that go for $10 single and $18 double.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°