Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why would you come to Rabaul and isolate yourself from this wonderful place?

by Geoffrey Heard

What does "international" mean in the name of a hotel? In the case of the new Gazelle International hotel in Kokopo (the new Rabaul) it seems to mean a commonplace box surrounded by a pretty much totally unnecessary security fence cunningly designed to negate the obvious advantages of a scenic and historic site.

There is some ugly stuff in Kokopo, a combination of leftovers of an era when Kokopo was a mere sub-district headquarters, and the pellmell development of the town when its new role as provincial capital was forced upon it in the wake of the volcanoes erupting and destroying Rabaul proper in 1994.

The Gazelle International hotel is the new ugly, possibly the most inappropriate development on a wonderful site that Rabaul/Kokopo -- in fact Papua New Guinea generally -- has ever seen.

Did the architect ever visit the lovely, clifftop site adjoining the airy, relaxed old Ralum Club? Was he familiar with Rabaul/Kokopo?

If he did visit, either he or his investors must have been remarkably insensitive to ethos and environment.
The hotel is built on the site where the fabled Queen Emma had her mansion in the 1880s. That was a spacious, airy place built to present to its residents one of the most beautiful views in the world -- a panorama of sea, land and sky, St George's Channel, the Duke of York Islands, New Ireland.

There are pictures extant of Queen Emma's mansion. Indeed if the architect had visited the site, he could have seen some of them on the wall of the Ralum Club next door. After inspecting the old pictures, he might have relaxed with a cooling gin and tonic on the Ralum Club's wide verandah (it is almost all verandah), looked out at the vista, and conjured up visions of how he could go about creating a truly outstanding building that would enhance an historic site.

Instead we have ugly box, surrounded by ugly, sun-blasted car park, with the wonderful vista screened off from the the hotel's public areas by a two metre steel picket fence to be topped by razor wire! Yes, you can see the view through the fence. Well, almost. No, it doesn't look at all attractive viewed that way. I was told with a straight face that the hotel couldn't consider itself truly international without that fence.

The dopey thing is that that level of security is unnecessary in Rabaul. If you were building the hotel in Port Moresby, where the raskols roam free and carjackings, armed hold-ups, and break-ins are daily occurrences, then, yes, you would need that fence. But in Kokopo you simply don't. It's a town where residents and tourists alike are the ones roaming free and are plenty safe. Oh, and that raises another point -- no convenient entrance arrangements exist for those who would arrive at the hotel on foot after roaming free.

As for those public areas... Let's just say that even without you having to peer through the pickets to see the view they make no significant contribution to the claim that the Gazelle International is in anyway of superior quality. I have to admit that the kitchen's is good, though.

I escaped from the Gazelle International's cramped, over-airconditioned dining room to the wide open spaces of the good old Ralum Club -- but even that is only a partial escape today. The busy hum of the hotel's airconditioning system invades that once peaceful space. An architect sensitive to the site might have situated the airconditioning at the back of the hotel facing into the car park and added some sort of noise screening to protect the neighbours. Given the other design atrocities, though, that would probably be too much to expect.

My advice for what it is worth: if you're visited Rabaul, the best accommodation is Kokopo Beach Bungalows, right in the middle of town, built to take full advantage of the views and the environment. Rapopo Plantation Resort is another good choice; it's in the spirit of its name and site and the kitchen there is pretty good. Takubar Beach Resort has been recommended to me, the Kokopo Village Resort has its points, and I'm always open to the suggestion that for a relaxing holiday, Kulau Lodge, on the north coast an hour or so from Kokopo, is a great place to be.

And if you want to stay in the old Rabaul close to the volcanoes, then the Hamamas Hotel is the place to go.

Of course, the Gazelle International is ideal if you want an airconditioned box that insulates you from the tropics and a fence that isolates you from Kokopo/Rabaul and the Gazelle Peninsula.

But if you go that route, you'll be looking AT this tropical paradise -- you won't be IN it. And you'll be missing a truly memorable experience. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010. The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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