SUVA: A Face of Paradise Only a Maugham Could Love

Margoshes is a Washington, D.C.-based free-lance writer who has lived in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Australia.

My husband and I had been warned extensively about going to Suva, the steamy Fijian capital. One travel agent told me, "Suva is really sleazy now. It's gone completely downhill since the coup (three years ago). Why don't you go to Vanuatu instead."

Tourists generally head right for Fiji's posh resorts, either on the west coast of Viti Levu (the main island, on which Suva is also located) or for what's called the Coral Coast, on the southwest side of Viti Levu.

But for the thousands who live scattered on islands surrounding Viti Levu, Suva is still the "Big Smoke." It's still the Paris/London/Rome of the region. I found it fascinating. The incredible mishmash of architecture--Hindu and Sikh temples, old Christian churches, Muslim mosques and even an abandoned Jewish cemetery--is extraordinary and visually powerful.

Its attraction to me was precisely this atmosphere, like something out of a Somerset Maugham story. So each morning while my husband, who had business there, worked diligently in a nearby hotel, I went off in search of mongooses--large, rat-like animals--and for vestiges of Maugham's South Seas. I was ultimately rewarded for my compulsion. During our 10-day stay, I saw a total of 12 mongooses, sightings of which are believed to bring good luck, before we left for Sydney.

As for Maugham, I had to satisfy that lust by sitting pool-side at the Grand Pacific Hotel, an elegant, white-porticoed, "former colonial glory" landmark building, which, like Suva itself, has seen more glamorous times. The gin fizz, though, was excellent.

The hills surrounding the city are dotted with temples and several mosques. And the view of the harbor (Suva has one of the most beautiful naturally protected harbors in the South Pacific) is breathtaking.

The 10-mile city is, admittedly, more than a little frayed around the edges, run-down even. But it's more atmospheric than seedy. The fishermen Please see SUVA, L15 bring their daily catch right up to the harbor's edge across the path from the Metropole Hotel (an old yellow, two-story building with a pool hall on the main floor and rooms for rent on the top floor). The fish are all the colors of the rainbow, and the bargaining is exciting and fast-paced. At lunchtime, the government workers and bank employees bring their lunches down to the harbor. Everyone strolls down the main drag, Victoria Parade, under the sporadic shade of the Fijian fan palm trees.

Since the coup--in which a Fijian colonel seized power in order to divest Fijian-Indians of political access--Suva has lost some of its charm. The hustlers at Lucky Eddie's disco are a bit more desperate in their patter. And the "sword-men," the young men who come in from the various islands to sell "genuine Fijian swords with your real name engraved on them," tend to overwhelm you with their sales chat.

But because Suva is Fiji's capital, it's where the power--in both government and the private sector--is. It's also where the newspapers and the radio stations are based (Fiji has no TV; it has been promised for some 15 years). And Suva has the most polyglot population of any South Seas city. There are Fijians, Indians, Chinese, Micronesians, Tongans, Samoans, Solomon Islanders, Europeans, Americans and "fruit salad" (the local term for mixed-race folks). It's still the most exciting city in the region.

It is filled with the remnants of British colonialism. And the Fiji Museum, located in Thurston Gardens off Victoria Parade, has one of the best collections of Fijian artifacts in the world.

Sightseeing in Suva is simple. You just take an umbrella (it seems to rain--briefly--every day), put on a pair of comfortable shoes and start walking down Victoria Parade.

The best place to begin is the Municipal Market, where Polynesians, Chinese, Indians and Fijians have their stalls and hawk fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, coconut oil and a variety of other household odds and ends. There are spice vendors and even a room dedicated solely to " kava drinkers."

Kava is the extremely popular, milky-looking, licorice-tasting drink that Fijians think of as their coffee. It numbs the mouth and lips and induces a languorous relaxation, but is nonalcoholic. Of late, kava drinking has become somewhat controversial, but apparently is potentially harmful only if drunk to excess. If you do take up the " kava invitation," one thing is extremely important. It's de rigueur to buy drinks for the group. For a few cents you can make friends for life (well, for the day, at any rate).

Facing the sea, on Stinson Parade (just behind Victoria Parade), is the Handicrafts Market. The market caters exclusively to tourists. (There's another market, government-run, on nearby Carnavon Street, that's smaller, more expensive and offers basically the same goods.) Items for sale include kava bowls, carvings, Fijian-style bark cloth, Tongan-style tapa cloth, sea shells, handbags made from bark cloth and lots and lots of seashell necklaces.

The market is a great place to shop--but, again, watch out for the perambulating swordmen. The swords on offer are probably about 100 years younger than the swordmen will claim. If you absolutely must have one (hey, there is no accounting for on-vacation taste), don't pay more than $5 Fijian. For a view of real Fijian artifacts, go to the Fiji Museum. Nothing is for sale, but at least you'll be seeing a genuine article.

Several streets east of the market is Cumming Street, the commercial center of Suva. It has some good (not great) duty-free shops and some very good restaurants. Another street known for its cost-effective cuisine is Pratt. The Hari Krishna restaurant has the best vegetarian food in the city. You can get a terrific meal there for less than $5 and the ice cream is wonderful. The Red Lion, on Victoria Parade, has some of the city's best, reasonably priced seafood.

Near the beginning of Victoria Parade is the "triangle," the true center of Suva. There are four interesting historical markers here, three of which are historically inaccurate. SUVA PROCLAIMED CAPITAL IN 1882, reads one. Suva was actually proclaimed the capital of Fiji in 1877. CROSS AND CARGILL FIRST MISSIONARIES ARRIVED 14th OCTOBER 1835, reads another. Again, not true. The first missionaries arrived on Oct. 12, according to the excellent "Suva--A History and Guide" (Pacific Publications) by Al Schutz.

One, though, is correct: BRITISH CROWN COLONY 10th OCTOBER 1874.

After you see the market, Cumming Street and the center of Suva (where you'll no doubt marvel over the vagaries of historical mis-representation), stroll down Victoria Parade to the Grand Pacific Hotel. And stroll is the operative word. No one rushes in Suva. It is simply too hot and humid to go faster than a modified trot. Also, if you race, you will be stared at with vague disdain, the only disdain you're likely to be shown in ultra-friendly Fiji.

Dedicated joggers would be advised to run only after dark, or at dusk, along the seawall facing Government House. Here you will find other like-minded, climate-defying foreigners and a smattering of enthusiastic locals. Government House is next to Thurston Gardens, on Victoria Parade.

The Grand Pacific Hotel was opened in 1914 to "set the standard for the entire Pacific," to quote Schutz. It was constructed by the Union Steamship Co. as a base for New Zealand and Canadian shipping services in the North and South Pacific. The hotel's design mirrored the first-class accommodations found on ships of that day. The bedrooms opened onto wide decks on one side. On the other side, they opened to balconies overlooking the main lounge. The bedrooms had marine-type plumbing and saltwater baths.

The hotel today is considerably less glamorous. It's also not air-conditioned. But it offers excellent value (less than $60 per room) and is right on the water. The bar has ceiling fans and wicker chairs and is a great place to go if you're in a Maugham frame of mind. Ironically, it's located next to the Travelodge, generally considered the best hotel in town. The Travelodge has excellent restaurants (including a reasonably priced coffee shop with a terrific daily lunch buffet).

No visitor to Suva should miss the Fiji Museum. In 1971, one of the largest collections of Fijian artifacts outside of Fiji became available when their British owner, James Hooper, died. Over 60 of Hooper's artifacts were purchased by Mobil Oil Australia on behalf of the museum, and returned to Fiji in 1979. The museum collection includes war clubs, ivory necklaces, spears, bowls, pottery, tools, cooking utensils, combs and a replica of an ancient double-hulled canoe.

One of the war clubs is particularly chilling. It has several notches chiseled in it; each one stands for an enemy slain in battle. The museum, which is also a teaching and research institute, has exhibits that document the period in which Indians were indentured to Fijian landowners, and the infamous slave trade that brought Micronesians and Melanesians to Fiji. Relics from the famous ship, the Bounty, are also featured.

Scattered on the hills overlooking the harbor are Hindu and Sikh temples, Muslim mosques and a variety of Christian churches. They're nestled in among the residential houses and small compounds but are easy to find. One of the best ways to see both the commercial and residential parts of the city is to start at Cumming Street and walk uphill. You'll soon see a variety of temples and churches and different types of private houses. And because Suva is far from overdeveloped, there are masses of flowers, bushes and trees surrounding the colorful pink-and-blue wooden bungalows. (There are also mongooses--so watch out for them.) Many of the houses have wide verandas; some have tin roofs.

At dusk, all of the office workers, the government employees, the Indian and Fijian shopkeepers--everyone comes down to the harbor to sit and watch the sunset. Full-blown, pink-and-red South Seas sunsets. Large-bodied Fijian men sit reading the Fiji Times. Indian families gath1701978217gathering of born-again Christians in a building near the water's edge.

A large ship is pulling away from the port. It glides slowly across the harbor. Down the street, at the old Metropole Hotel, young Fijian men are playing pool under florescent lights. Sitting next to me, at the water's edge, is a teen-ager reading the Bible. An old Indian man to my right offers me part of his papaya. The sun suddenly drops into the harbor. An Indian woman near me arranges the top of her sari and sighs.


Visiting Suva

Islands info: The average year-round daytime temperature on the 300 Fijian islands is 78 degrees Fahrenheit. No visa is required for entry, just a current passport.

Getting there: Air Pacific flies from Nadi International Airport to Nausori Airport, 12 miles from Suva. The flight takes about 15 minutes and costs approximately $75. Take a cab from Nausori Airport to downtown Suva for approximately $20. Or one can hire a cab from Nadi International for the five-hour drive to Suva for about $50, but be prepared to bargain over the fare.

Where to stay: The Travelodge on Victoria Parada is the "best" hotel in Suva (from $140 per room); telephone 011-679-301600. The second best is the newly renovated Suva Courtesy Inn on Malcolm Street (from $85 and up per room); 011-679-312300.

Where to eat: The Travelodge coffee shop (for Americanized food) and the Red Lion restaurant (for continental and seafood), both on Victoria Parade, are among the best restaurants in the city. Hari Krishna on Pratt Street has the best vegetarian food.

The best-kept eating secret in Suva is Mary's restaurant, across from the U.S. Embassy on Loftus Street. Mary's has terrific Fijian food at incredible prices. A full lunch costs less than $5. Try the chicken and Fijian "spinach"--wonderful.

Day-trips out of Suva: Orchid Island is an old mangrove swamp (not actually an island) that features a small museum, a zoo and a replica of an old Fijian village. Local villagers demonstrate tapa making, pottery and basket weaving in an intimate, non-glitzy environment; 15 minutes by car from Suva, transportation from all hotels.

Tourists view Pacific Harbor, a massive, Disneyland-like island, from a boat that stops at various cultural exhibits: tapa making, pottery, basket weaving, fire walking, mock battles, dance theater. But one cannot actually go on the island; some 45 minutes from Suva, transport from all major hotels. Recommended only if you have never seen any aspect of Fijian culture and don't mind viewing it from a boat.

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