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Lautoka’s Hidden Secret, the Northern Club

I stumbled upon the Northern Club by chance. I needed to huddle with a business partner in Lautoka but had no idea where to stay that was friendly, clean, reasonably priced and hopefully interesting.

A friend recommended the Northern Club. I didn’t know about their accommodations nor did I know much about the organization. I decided to take a chance.

Before I knew it, I was transported to Lautoka’s historical and physical epicenter–its inner sanctum.

Steeped in history, this sprawling complex, located in the heart of Lautoka was once a bastion exclusively for white folks, mostly executives from the nearby Lautoka Sugar Mill. It was a colonial country club, albeit rustic, where a “local European” or an expat could get snockered at the bar after work and bring the family over to the pool on and he weekends.

It was a sanctuary for the ruling class.

Consumption of beer and other beverages by a multi-ethnic population plays a significant role at the Northern Club.

It’s still a haven from the frenetic hustle of Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city and center of manufacturing. However, the “white’s only” policy started shifting the 1960s as “part-Europeans”, members of mixed ethnicity, sought their rightful place in Fiji’s political and social scheme of things. Following their integration in the organization, which paralleled Fiji’s independence from Great Britain, slowly but surely other members of once disenfranchised citizens were welcomed.

Today the Northern Club offers all the pleasures of a recreational club to Lautoka’s societal melting pot. This includes Rotumans, Fijians, Chinese, Indo-Fijians, part-Europeans and even Caucasians.

On a typical evening I observed an Indo Fijian family sitting around drinking beer, chatting away in Fiji Hindi while their teenagers, at the periphery of the table, blasted music videos on their mobile phones. In the background a rugby game aired silently on an Australian cable TV channel and a local radio station played the old Kenny Rogers standard, “The Gambler” on the PA system.

At other tables, guests of various ethnicities engaged in animated conversation, no doubt fueled by large quantities of Fiji Bitter which ranks close behind kava as the national beverage.

Buy those tickets for the fund raiser!

Being a club, everyone knows each other. Not only do they know each other says Manager James Manulevu (whose last name translates as ‘big bird in Fijian’) they’ve known each other, for generations. “If look at the old photos from the last 30 years,” he says, “you see toddlers who are now adults with their own toddlers”.

The NC is a family with a stability that you sense from the environs.

The shiny, picnic style tables and benches that populate the premises, are thick with shellac and equally robust in construction. They are manufactured from Fijian-grown mahogany and they are deceptively heavy.

The rambling building, which feels like an aircraft hangar, is constructed with steel posts and girders. Clinton Ho, who runs the kitchen, remarked that after Cyclone Winston a few years ago, the club was one of the first establishments to open after the storm cut a swath of destruction on the western side of Viti Levu, smack across Lautoka.

Everything about this place shouts, ‘I’ve been here forever, and no storm is going to take me down’.

It’s still very much a private club, but like similar orgs in Fiji, it also caters to guests from outside their membership, including foreign visitors.

The sign says in all…

Aside from the amenities, which include great food, tennis courts, a pool and comfortable (reasonably priced accommodations) the NC has a value added that won’t be found in any hotel. Stay here and you’ll meet local people. Not just the professionals who occupy the upper echelons of Fijian society, but you’ll also rub shoulders with the staff such as Chef Clinton, his assistant, Joey, and the others.

Public service is a big deal at the Northern Club. Club members regularly raise money for charitable purposes such as childhood education.

Although the org’s membership is confined to the middle and upper middle class, the club allows children of less fortunate backgrounds to use the pool for water safety classes and training for swim competition. I witnessed one group of privileged Fijian high school aged youngsters at the pool, put through their paces by a coach. It could have been a scene at a tony swim club in Santa Clara County.  Later that afternoon, Chef Clinton was poolside, coaching a group of children from more humble circumstances.

Staying at the NC

The Northern Club is not for everyone. If you want to stay at a conventional resort in Denarau, you’ll have a very predictable and no doubt pleasant stay at the beach. You’ll be surrounded by other visitors, you’ll eat the standard fare and your biggest adventure might be a cockroach in the bathroom.

Northern Club Fiji - Lautoka
You get this huge, clean, self contained room with balcony at the Northern Club for about F$200 or a smaller one for F$125.

The Northern Club is for independent visitors who are ready to sink their teeth into local culture. My only complaint was that the accommodations are next to a main road that has its share of traffic during morning rush hour. In the evenings it’s not an issue.

I was impressed by the staff.

On my first full day the city was working on the water main and our water cut off for a few hours. The house maid, unsolicited, brought up a five-gallon bucket of water and a basin for my room so at the minimum I’d be able to wash my hands or take a sponge bath. I can’t imagine someone doing that (without asking) anywhere else.

If you’re doing an around the island tour, the Northern Club is a great place to spend the evening in the West.

Really excellent food at a reasonable price.

On the grounds of the property is a two-story apartment—four units on the bottom and four on top. Nothing fancy on the outside but inside it’s quite comfortable. The premium unit has a mammoth king-sized bed and a single. All rooms are airy and outfitted with a bulky balcony curtains that will keep out ambient light and offer sleep hygiene.

There’s a sliding door with screen that opens to a large lanai with a glass-top table. It’s a perfect place to eat breakfast, which is not served at the Club. (It opens at 10 am). Since food isn’t served in the mornings you can stock up on fresh papaya, mandarins, bananas and other fruit at the massive public market just a few blocks away.

The units are self-contained with plenty of countertop, a gas stove, refrigerator and tons of cabinet space. A combination armoire, safe and clothes closet abut a writing desk that’s ergonomically designed for your laptop use.

There are two types of rooms available, one deluxe unit with two beds (top floor) for F$195 and the others, a single for F$125.

The club’s modest little kitchen is quite good. I prefer fish and the meals prepared by Chef Clinton Ho’s staff – pan fried walu, fish curry, or a vegetable soup with cubed walu was outstanding. The fish was always incredibly fresh. Carnivores will not feel left out. All the standard stuff such as lamb chops, hamburgers, chicken chow Mein, chicken burgers, steak and eggs.

Vinaka to the Northern Club for photos borrowed from their FB page.

Rob Kay

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner Rob Kay wrote the original Lonely Planet Fiji Travel Guide, and is Founder of Fijiguide.com.

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