July 4, 2003
Savusavu, Vanua Levu, Fiji
The Saga of Susie’s Plantation—Taveuni
By Lois Joy
I awoke this morning chilled from the damp air of Savusavu Bay but
no longer having to push aside mosquito netting. I rose up from our
firm foam mattress relieved of the backache I’d experienced during
the past week. “I miss Bliss,” Gunter had lamented each
morning as he climbed out of the lumpy bed in our bure on Taveuni. Well,
now we have Bliss back, enveloping us in her caring bosom, a self-contained
resort right here. We have coffee from our French Press and solar panels
providing us with instant power. As I write at my familiar perch on
the helm seat, the air is still and yachts moored all around me are
turning every which way on the shiny, aluminum foil Bay. The sun breaks
through the damp mist hung over the little island nearby. It is our
Independence Day. I’ve hung our American flag and some decorations
made for us by our daughter-in-law JoEllen. But my mind is still immersed
in our most recent adventure—mulling over the Saga of Susie.
How had we managed to land square in the middle of an island intrigue
during our one week’s stay at Susie’s Plantation? The saga
had only come together in the end. Barely. Even now, the characters
remain mysterious to me: Viola and Roland—the Europeans—had
not been overly forthcoming; their talk was understandably focused on
their own dilemma. Abie—the other European in the story—was
always secretive; he never did level with us. Steve—Susie’s
Australian brother-in-law—was immersed in his own problems and
saw the week there as an escape. The talkative Aussie grandparents—a
feisty couple in their ‘80s and ‘90s—could have told
us more if we’d had a few extra days to spend there. (To know
them is to love them!) And then, Susie herself was an enigma. She appeared
cold and aloof, the princess about whom everything revolves, but who
never dirties her hands. Did she deliberately stay behind the scenes,
pulling the strings like the master of a puppet show? Or is she just
another wooly-headed Fijian—albeit one of chiefly birth, trying
to sort out her path through a treacherous world—wealthy in land,
yet struggling for survival like all the other Fijians living in Taveuni?
When we disembarked from the ferry, we looked around for the promised
ride to Susie’s Plantation. As the passengers all left the wharf,
we and a nicely frocked lady were the only ones apparently without a
ride. The Fijian lady turned to us, “Where are you headed?”
“Susie’s Plantation. They were supposed to pick us up.
That’s what the tour agent said.”
“Well, they may have gone to the ‘regular’ ferry.
That’s what they would have expected. But that one doesn’t
run on Mondays,” she said. “I know the way, was going out
there anyway,” she added. “We’ll share a taxi.”
“I’m Susie’s aunt.” She held out her hand and
we introduced ourselves. This was our first surprise. We had been told
that Susie’s was run by a Swiss couple.
Well, it was all true, to a point. It turned out that ‘the couple’
was Viola—originally from Frankfurt, Germany—and her partner
Roland, who is Swiss. Viola is the resort’s manager; Roland runs
his own dive operation on the premises.
We were sitting with them at dinner that evening. I described how we
contacted them. “We found you through the June 2000 Edition of
the Lonely Planet Fiji,” I began. “It said, ‘The resort
was operational, but pretty run down at the time of writing.’”
“That’s correct,” said Viola. Susie owns the Plantation.
It has been in her family for generations. I’ve managed it for
three years, and put a lot of effort into it.”
“It shows,” I said. “I love the landscaping, all
the flowering hibiscus trees—red, orange, and yellow. I can tell
that they’ve been pruned and taken care of.” (I didn’t
discuss what else I’d noticed, the thatching blown off the roofs,
only the tin showing, the generally run-down nature of the bures and
the Plantation House. It appeared that effort had been put into the
place, but very little money.)
“We tried to buy the resort,” said Viola. “But Susie
had unrealistic expectations. She’s Australian. Hardly ever comes
here. Roland runs the diving operation. You cannot really run a profitable
resort here on Taveuni without diving.”
The couple added that they planned to leave the Plantation to run a
diving operation across the Somosomo Strait. The divers would then be
taken to most of the familiar sites.
“It’s too bad,” said Roland. “Viola has done
a lot, with little money. But so much more needs to be put into it to
make it a good operation. It had been a backpackers’ place when
she took it over; she’s upgraded it to budget status.”
“Yes, I had to have three basic things in place before I would
take the job of managing it: hot showers, internet access, and wine.”
We were curious about how she ended up here, and after a glass of that
wine, she seemed eager to tell us the story.
She had moved from Germany to Santa Barbara, California. Her career
had progressed to the point of having her own business as a consultant
to a World Trade organization.
“In fact, had I continued that career, I might have been located
at the Twin Towers by the time 9-ll occurred. But Providence intervened.”
She met Roland on a vacation to Fiji; they had a fling, but neither
could let it end there. Back in California, her phone bill ran up to
$5000 (no internet at that time) and she decided that it was less expensive
to just fly back to sort it out. It worked. Lovestruck, Viola returned
to sell her home, dispose of her collection of high heels and business
suits, and move to Taveuni.
“Now she has a collection of flip-flops,” Roland interjected.
“One of every color.”
First, she moved into Roland’s ‘bachelor bure’. She
cleaned and organized it stem to stern. Then she started on the dive
“I think you need something to do,” Roland stopped her.
She checked into managing Susie’s.
A few failed managers had preceded her, but she was making the resort
work. Until now.
It was obvious to us that Viola had not only fallen in love with Roland;
she had fallen in love with the Plantation as well. As we retired that
first night, we speculated as to what would happen next.
We walked into our bure equipped with the lantern—charged from
the generator—to set on the bedside stand. The bed had been made
up when we were at dinner. The setting reminded me of ‘Arabian
Nights’ or one of those fantasy theme motels for lovers. Mosquito
netting cascaded from a knot at the center and had been carefully tucked
under the mattress. I lifted up one of the corners, crawled inside,
and beckoned to Gunter…
In the morning we met the waiter, Patrick, at the Plantation Dining
Room. He had already plucked a giant red hibiscus bloom and placed it
behind his ear. It would be awhile before he would have coffee ready.
We took Boxer, his brown and white tail wagging expectantly, down the
two-tire entrance road and then to the main road encircling the island.
We followed it as it wound around the Plantation property: 300 acres
that had been in Susie’s family for generations. Coconut groves
gave way to fields, uncultivated now. An undergrowth of vines fought
their way to the tops of spreading shade trees. An abundance of wild
flowers lined the roadside, with hues ranging from white to yellow to
blues and purples. Bright yellow butterflies darted crazily across an
abandoned taro field under a wild hibiscus tree with yellow blossoms.
Boxer raced in and out of the thick growth, apparently finding animals
Our ‘island walk’ ended at the local butcher shop, run
by an Indian with long white hair and beard, wearing a beatific smile.
We had passed a rather dilapidated Hindu Temple along the way. At 0700,
Fijian workers were already out and about. We met the men on their way
to work in the farms, riding in the back of covered trucks. We met three
Fijian women walking along the road as it turned to follow the seawall.
They were on their way to visit relatives, they said. The sun rose from
behind the mountains of Taveuni, placing the tops of coconuts palms
in its glow. It was as if God was setting up a perfect photo op just
Breakfast was basic: coffee and a plate of fruit, followed by bread,
butter and jam, served on the patio of the Plantation House. Diving
appeared to be the main event; a morning and an afternoon dive were
planned. Gunter took a refresher course taught by Roland, who was thorough,
skilled and patient. I settled into a lawn chair on a bank overlooking
the sea, where I could write to the sounds of the tide lapping against
the shore. Whenever I needed a break, I could walk partially down a
ladder and see the fish right there, swimming among the coral. It was
the perfect creative environment, a welcome change from writing on board
Right off the resort, according to its brochure, one can find lionfish,
moray eels, sea snakes, cleaner shrimp, ‘Christmas Trees’
and sea cucumbers. And occasionally, dolphins, turtles and manta rays
come close to shore. Out on the dives, one can see white tip reef sharks,
gray reef sharks, schools of barracudas, and batfish. The Vuna Reef
dive locations include such imaginative names as Orgasm Reef, Tabua,
Pinnacle, Yellow Fin Wall, and Fish Factory. The South Cape sites include
a site called Cabbage Patch, named for the coral there. The House Reef
includes Octopus Gardens, Mike’s Wall, Steve’s Corner, and
Lionfish Wall. Then there are the two big attractions of Somosomo Strait:
the famed Rainbow Reef with its white-tipped reef sharks and barracudas,
and the Purple Wall, with purple soft corals, whip corals, sea fans,
and manta rays. Finally, there’s the Great White Wall, 30 minutes
away and 30 meters down, with white tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks,
eagle rays, lionfish and squirrel fish. The season varies for all of
these, of course. We were not in the manta ray or turtle season, but
had seen enough of these in other countries. Gunter saw lots of parrot
fish and barracudas during his dives while at the Plantation, but never
any sharks, which he didn’t seem to mind! I found a lot of the
little fish, watching from shore or snorkeling in the shallow water
right near my ‘writing spot.’ It was a nice, relaxing few
days for us.
But for the players on stage at Susie’s, the week was far from
relaxing. I went to have a massage by Josephine, a Fijian lady who is
a “Jill of all trades” at the resort.
“You’re probably the last customer I will have here,”
Josephine informed me.
“Why? Are you not busy?” I asked.
“I was earlier this week, four massages,” she answered.
That seemed a large number to her. “But Viola is leaving. She
gave us all notice to go.” Her voice became sad. “I have
been working for this resort for the last ten years, cooking, cleaning,
waiting on tables, and now massages,” she continued. “I
fill in whenever someone doesn’t show up for the job. I live at
the village only ten minutes’ walk from here.”
Josephine told me that she has two girls, one eight and the other only
three months. “Still nursing the baby?” I asked.
“Yes, my husband feeds her the bottle when I’m working,
though… I might have to move to town to find work if this Plantation
doesn’t work out.” She was intent on telling me about her
As I left the old backpackers lodge where Josephine had her massage
room, I met the husband waiting along the path—a perfectly-toned
specimen, extremely good-looking and muscular—gently cradling
the baby. I wondered what he was doing to support their family. Later
that day, I recognized him drinking kava with the men and some of the
guests for hours.
Dinner seemed strangely subdued that evening. I could tell that the
servers, including Patrick, did not seem their usual exuberant selves.
Viola never did appear. We inquired of Roland: “She’ll be
OK tomorrow. Perhaps too much sun or dehydration.” But we suspected
that emotions had a part to play. Susie and her in-laws had arrived.
The in-laws had moved into one of the guest rooms in the Plantation
House and Susie had moved into the Big House edging the Resort, where
they were all taking their meals. The drama was unfolding.
On Wednesday morning’s walk, we took a path off the road and
down to the sea. Gunter—always one to take the ‘road less
traveled’—had spied a clearing there. As we came out of
the bush, we encountered a family of five on the shore, cleaning their
catch from a night of fishing: a string of barracuda and a nice-sized
coral grouper. We talked with them awhile.
We returned to find the Plantation was bustling with activity. The
divers had shortened their day to one short run. The workers were scouring
the grounds and woods across the road for banana leaves, palm fronds,
red ginger and hibiscus. A grand buffet setting was being staged inside
the Plantation House. The bar area was being covered with leaves. Two
giant pots with banana leaves stood on either side. Outside, a lovo
was being prepared. Piles of dalo and kumara had been stacked on the
grass; a group of men were lining the oven with stones and kindling.
Anticipation was building.
By evening, the inside dining area had been cleared for the meke (dance).
The tables for the diners had all been placed outside on the patio.
At dinner, Gunter and I were seated next to Susie’s in-laws; her
mother-in-law is feisty 85-year-old, making plans for her husband’s
95th birthday. She did most of the talking. The plot thickens:
Susie, she told me, had been born into an aristocratic family. Her
father, now deceased, was Ratu (chief) of Taveuni. She was brought up
on the 300-acre plantation much like royalty. Everything was done for
her. A tutor was brought in from New Zealand to teach her English and
other subjects. Huge parties were thrown on the Plantation grounds.
The guests who could not be housed on Taveuni Island were put up at
the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, the bustling capital of Fiji located
on the main island of Viti Levu. It was one of those times Susie was
in Suva meeting guests that she met Brian, an Australian from Sydney.
He had first seen her on the plane landing at the Nausori Airport near
“Maties, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes
on,” the mother-in-law continued. “But he never expected
to see her again. Imagine his surprise when he met her in the hall of
the Grand Pacific! This time, Brian was determined to follow up. Susie
was enthralled. And from then on, they were together constantly.”
“Luv, do you know Brian married Susie right next door at the
Big House—twenty-seven years ago! There were 70 invited guests.
The reception spilled over into the Lodge…that’s demolished
now. My mate here helped build this house here for the newlyweds…didn’t
you?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “He pounded
these very supports that hold up this patio we’re sitting on.”
During the following years, copra production waned. The prices fell
and the natives no longer wanted to work the Plantation’s coconut
groves and taro fields for the pittance they would get. Susie tended
to the house and her flowers and though she had been brought up a Princess,
she discovered that she like to cook.
“She was a mighty good cook, too,” the couple continued
on. “In later years, she turned their house into a resort and
hired a succession of managers.” They had started with the simple
backpackers’ dormitory. Then Susie’s parents passed away;
they are buried in plots with huge limestone gravestones near the Big
Fast-forward to the Year 2000. Brian became ill with leukemia. He went
back to Sydney for treatments. Eventually, he became too sick to return
to Taveuni. He died in Sydney with Susie by his side. And she remained
with her in-laws.
Steve, Brian’s brother, had also arrived with the family, with
his own two pre-school sons in tow. He talked to me during a break in
the meke: “We tried for three years since Brian’s death
to make her an Australian citizen. We hired attorneys—we must
have written about 40 letters in all. If she had applied even one day
before Brian died, they tell me it could have worked, but now they have
officially deported her.”
“That’s sad,” I interjected.
“Well, not really,” he surprised me by saying. “In
the end, it is better. Here she is a princess, and always will be. In
Australia, she doesn’t really fit in. Why not be some place where
people look up to her?”
So now it was all coming together. Susie had come to live in and fix
up the Big House and to run the resort. “She has plenty of relatives
here to help her,” her mother-in-law had stated. “It will
work out.” I wasn’t so sure, and neither were a few others
The only other one who thought it would work was Abie. He was a German
ex-pat who had lived in Viet Nam for awhile, then moved to Fiji. He
was hanging around the resort, and had joined our table the second night
we were there. He divulged that he is related to Susie, but never explained
how. Then on Wednesday afternoon while was working around the lovo,
a Fijian lady—young and beautiful with short, straightened hair—arrived
on the scene. Abie introduced her as his wife. But she was never with
him for dinners, even on Meke Night. How did he fit into the story?
Viola was all dressed up for the occasion. She performed the ‘Master
of Ceremony’ role perfectly but her stress showed on her face—especially
when the generator conked out yet again and the recorded music for the
dancers was halted. I was reminded of her requirements: wine, hot showers
and internet access. The generator had been on the fritz for most of
two days, and the phone lines down the other two. There had been no
hot showers and internet access this week. I felt for her.
Susie was now in the audience, urging on her two daughters. One was
blonde and looked European; the other looked Fijian, but with dark,
straight hair. As they took center stage, Susie got up from her chair
on the sidelines, (she hadn’t participated in the lovo) and pulled
down the ponytail of the dark girl, letting her locks drape down to
her shoulders. That is the only time I ever saw Susie actually DO anything.
The girls did a slow dance resembling a Hawaiian hula. While I watched
them, I wondered how two pre-teens would adapt to leaving their Aussie
friends and living in Fiji.
“Susie plans to get her children, all her cousins, nephews and
nieces here, involved in the Mekes,” my new confidant leaned over
and whispered. Other Fijian dancers took the stage in front of our table
and then the Meke was over. “Would it be the last one for Viola?”
I speculated as we carried our charged lanterns back to our bure.
It was Thursday morning and our last breakfast at the Plantation. Our
driver would be here mid-morning to bring us to the ferry. We said our
good-byes to Roland and Viola. We discovered that they are leaving themselves
sooner rather than later. “Susie said that we could stay until
the end of the year,” said Roland. “But January—that’s
into the cyclone season already, past the holidays, and last year here,
we didn’t have a guest for four months from January through April.
But yet, the monthly pay-off to the local chief here and the rent still
continued. We’ve already begun advertising our new eco-dive operation
and have bookings; we’ve ordered the safari tents; we’ll
be pulling out of here within two weeks.” The staff was friendly
to us, despite working late the evening before. One of the women hung
flower wreaths— made especially for us—around our necks
while the others gathered around our table. My eyes began to tear. Good-byes
are always hard.
We had been invited over to the Big House and only had an hour to spare.
After packing, we rushed over there. My eager octogenarian confidant
invited us in. She led us through the massive dining room with its huge
wooden table and hutch, ending up in a screened porch, that she called
‘the parlor’, where everyone sat. She introduced us to Susie,
who briefly said Hello, and that was that. Was she cold or just merely
shy? I couldn’t figure it out, but then her mother-in-law was
the one who had invited us there. Abie was also sitting there and greeted
We followed our leader through the porch and outside. Her husband joined
us for a walk through the un-kept garden. “It needs a lot of fixing
up, but Susie will get it done,” she continued. “That parlor
is just where Susie’s father used to sit when he ran the plantation.
He would ring the bell and then all the plantation hands would scurry
to meet him there to get their orders. This was the only plantation
of its kind in all of Taveuni. He was a big man here. Would you like
to go to see his grave?”
“No, we don’t have much time,” Gunter answered her.
We could see the towering limestone gravestones from where we were,
plus a lot of wild undergrowth to get there.
“Here was the big kitchen,” she pointed to a typical Fijian
outside cooking area constructed as a lean-to onto the back of the House.
This plantation was built in the 1800’s. It was the only one on
all of Taveuni. It was a hoppin’ place in its time.”
“This was the orchid garden,” she pointed as we followed
her around again to the front of the House. Most of them will bloom
in December. They climb up these tree stumps.”
“It’s a lot of work to fix this up, but Susie will do it.
She’s upper crust, but she doesn’t act like it. Her brother
does. They live in Suva, acting high and mighty. But not our Susie.”
“Of course, Susie also will have to manage the resort next door,
but she has relatives to help her here…and Abie, he’ll run
the dive shop for her.” Now, the pieces of the puzzle were coming
together! That explained why Abie had been hanging around Susie’s’
Plantation—to learn the operation. But I wondered about her relatives.
They had been gathering around the big kava bowl since Susie came back,
but I didn’t see them doing much of anything. Could they take
the place of that loyal Plantation staff?
I would have loved to talk with this spunky couple some more, but as
they began to tell us of their travels—still continuing at their
ages—we had to excuse ourselves and take leave.
“I give Susie three months.” Our driver shed more light
on the Saga. “She’s a Fijian (so was he, I noted) and they
don’t have a head for numbers like the whites. Her relatives won’t
help her. They will hang around, but they are not used to working. Abie
ran the resort for awhile before. He plans to run the dive shop this
time while Susie runs the resort. It won’t work.”
Now I understand Viola’s mixed emotions. She had been mistress,
so to speak, of a Plantation that would go again downhill. She had seen
her own dreams thwarted. I too felt a sense of sadness at the Plantation’s
obvious fate. It would be so nice to have that slice of history preserved.
But even the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva had not been that fortunate.
Once a grand symbol of the South Pacific extolled in Michener’s
novels, it sits there on prime ocean-front property, its history decaying
along with its balconies and balustrades. Only the advent of the South
Pacific Games this year caused a commercial benefactor—Colonial
Paints— to provide a new exterior paint job. The inside, I understand,
still smells of urine and rotting wood.
On the way to the ferry, our driver stopped to let us set foot on the
International 180° Meridian. We walked across a field to the sign
positioned there. We found a hefty white-robed Fijian with a long black
beard to take a photo of us pointing to TODAY and YESTERDAY. He turned
out to be the pastor of the to-be-built Meridian Church, the only church
in the world to be positioned across a dateline. “You could use
the phrase, “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,”
I said. May he have better success than most endeavors encounter here