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Written By : Source: Sydney Morning Herald. At 7pm on a Friday, the Planters’ Club in Savusavu, on Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu, is empty save for a lone drinker who scurries off as soon as our group arrives. The barmaid predicts her regular patrons will be back the next afternoon when there’s a draw for a substantial money prize.
The club has history – for years the region’s copra planters gathered here for G&Ts after a hard day on their plantations. The old black-and-white photos on the walls reveal the Planters’ Club isn’t quite what it used to be.
Neither, we gather, is the post-colonial town (and district) of Savusavu. Young Indo-Fijians, educated at university in Suva or abroad, are leaving for Australia and other countries, yet as one planeload leaves another arrives at Savusavu’s tiny shack of an airport – carrying American Peace Corps volunteers and adventurous tourists. Travellers also come via the airport at Labasa and a 90-minute taxi ride through rugged mountains.
Originally a port for sailing ships collecting sandalwood and beche-de-mer, Savusavu still lives up to its nickname of the “Hidden Paradise”. Yachties have long known this, mooring their boats in the protected deep-water harbour and drinking at the minuscule yacht club.
I’m staying at Daku Resort, an affordable, friendly option, which also runs courses on writing, singing, snorkelling and yoga. A Brit called John Rothnie-Jones (known as JJ) and his wife, Delia, bought the resort from the Anglican Church 25 years ago. After a yoga session one morning, we watch an older but super-fit i-taukei man with knives attached to his boots shimmy up a tree to cut down coconuts. “We’re retaining the magic of traditional Fiji,” Delia says.
The motivational guru, Anthony Robbins, also has a resort at Savusavu called Namale; however, seeing rich Americans leap off poles doesn’t seemed to have changed the area either. The actual town of Savusavu gets busy on Saturday mornings when all come for the market but in the heat of a weekday afternoon it’s languidly slow. Everyone says “bula” to you, people sit on benches in the shade at the water’s edge and mothers wait outside the internet cafe (where the internet has been “off” all afternoon) for kids to get off the frangipani-painted school bus.
Reggi Macgoon moved her hairdressing salon to Savusavu from Suva 15 years ago at the persuasion of her Savusavu customers.”We’re just hoping it stays like this,” she says. “With all the development happening, a lot of Americans are looking into Savusavu; they want to make it into a little Hawaii.”
Next door in the Waterfront building, which he co-owns, Ratu Sailosi Quomate’s old photos give you a picture of an even gentler era. One is a Vogue ad showing him in his earlier guise as a 1960s Suva traffic cop, shot by the renowned Australian photographer Laurence Le Guay.
Quomate is worried by the changes as well and considers Savusavu too “commercialised”. We’re sitting on the deck of Robin Mercer’s house overlooking his tropical garden and the bay. Mercer moved to Savusavu from Suva in 1969. He built the first tourist resort here, known as the Koro Sun, on a 60-hectare working copra plantation. Later, he built Namale, then sold it to Robbins. “You have to have something unique to bring people to Savusavu,” Mercer says.
While Fiji’s fragile political situation is not something most people are prepared to openly discuss, it has an influence on tourism and development, even in remote Vanua Levu. The other co-owner of the Waterfront, Denise Melinsky, is a New Yorker who came here 22 years ago, building a home and, later, marrying a Fijian Indian.
“It’s human nature to think nostalgically about the past but here it was just so quaint,” Melinsky says.
Savusavu retains its sleepy, backwater charm, its main asset. But if you’re thinking of visiting, don’t leave it too long.
n The writer was a guest of Daku Resort, Jetstar and Air Pacific.