Suva's ruin restored: the historic Grand Pacific Hotel
Updated: Aug 15, 2023
When I first moved to Suva twenty years ago, my husband and I prowled around an abandoned waterfront site fenced off with cyclone wire. At the best end of Victoria Parade, opposite Albert Park and the impressive limestone Government Buildings, the site was worthy of a heroic landmark, not the decrepit ruin crumbling behind the fence. We soon found out this was the Grand Pacific Hotel (GPH), formerly gracious host of royalty, the victim of insolvent owners and political instability which drove potential investors away. Ten years later, when I last saw it, the ruin was an even sadder sight.
The historic Grand Pacific Hotel
As early as 1908, the Union Steamship Company New Zealand (USCNZ) planned a luxurious hotel for passengers disembarking in Suva. The site on reclaimed land was purchased, architects drew up a cutting-edge ferro-concrete design and on 23rd May 1914, the gleaming white colonial style hotel opened to fanfare and acclaim. Each guest room boasted French doors opening onto the deep wraparound verandahs. This feature, together with the lofty atrium and roof terrace, ensured a cool retreat from the tropical heat. With only 35 rooms and shared bathrooms, the hotel was too small from its beginning, but world events delayed further investment until 1960, when the next owner, Cathay Hotels, opened a new wing of 45 rooms, and a waterfront swimming pool.
Guests of renown
The year after opening, the hotel welcomed world-famous operatic soprano, Dame Nellie Melba. Another notable guest was Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who landed his plane, Southern Cross, just across the road on Albert Park on his record-breaking flight across the Pacific in 1928. Southern Cross was the first plane to land in Fiji. Before refuelling, Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot strolled across to GPH for a drink and were invited to stay as guests of management until ready to take off for Australia. Sir Don Bradman (legendary Australian cricketer), and Burt Lancaster (Hollywood star) also stayed there. Acclaimed writers Somerset Maugham and James Michener both enjoyed the hotel's ambience and comfort. Indeed, Michener mentions GPH with nostalgia in his Tales of the South Pacific, the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein's wonderful musical, South Pacific.
To Fijians, however, the royal guests who stayed at GPH or attended state functions there, were by far the most important. The first was Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), followed by the Duke of York (later King George VI). In 1953, newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a Grand Ball held in their honour. This photo shows them greeting thousands of loyal Fijian subjects bearing candles, gathered in Albert Park below. What a magical sight that must have been! In 1973 the royal couple visited again as guests of honour at a state dinner. Their son, Charles Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) has also attended state occasions at GPH.
Fiji Saves the Grand Pacific Hotel
The ghastly sight of the GPH ruin must have intruded on Fiji's elite daily, given its location on the doorstep of the higher echelons of government, just down the hill from Parliament and around the point from the President's residence. After two decades of decay and the absence of investors, the government stepped in.
The joint saviours were the state pension funds of both Fiji (25%) and Melanesian neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG) (50%), with 25% taken up by a private PNG company. Once the deal was done, no time was lost. The GPH is listed by Fiji's National Trust, which required the meticulous restoration of the original building, while adding modern necessities.
A new building creates a protected quadrangle facing the sea. The renovation project's boost to Suva's economy and spirits cannot be underestimated. Best of all, the restored GPH was finished on time for its centenary, celebrated with gusto on 23rd May 2014. All friends of Suva hope that, in James Michener's words, the historic Grand Pacific Hotel has again become "one of the memorable hotels of the world, not majestic and not particularly spacious, but a haven to all who crossed the Pacific" (Tales of the South Pacific).
Note: Although I've not seen the restored GPH yet, the hotel is a minor character in two of my Fiji Islands Mysteries: Death by Tradition and my upcoming release Death Off Camera. Click the link to find out more. On the other hand, Albert Park opposite features in all my novels as the rugby training ground for Inspector Joe Horseman's team of shoe-shine boys and other street kids, the Junior Shiners.
* Wiki Commons License attribution.
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