The "real world" for them was full of excitement, famous clients, limousines, courtroom drama, fancy restaurants, the Academy Awards, television appearances......what is commonly referred to as "life in the fast lane"... the stuff of Hollywood movies and best selling books. The plan to escape started innocently enough, one Friday night in late 1980, when they finally made it back to the sanctuary of their hillside home, behind their protective electric gates.
It was about 10:00 p.m. and the end of another grueling, 14 our day, practicing law, when they settled on the floor in front of their giant, 8 foot television screen to eat dinner and to watch a movie. While devouring a "Leon Salad" (take-out from La Scala Boutique) and a bottle of French wine, the topic of conversation was how good it felt to be back home and what a shame it was that the demands of the life they had created left so little time for them to enjoy the splendors of their magnificent home overlooking Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, and the simple delight of sitting on the floor and watching a movie.
The same could be said for their little-used cabin in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains or their ski condominium in Colorado. Their lifestyle was one of intensive, high pressure, 90 hour work weeks for 8 or 10 weeks at a time. Followed by a long weekend to depressurize in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and 2 weeks in the South of France in the summer. Their personal overhead had escalated each year and with it the work load in order to support that overhead: the gardener, live-in housekeeper, pool service, 3 cars, 2 motorcycles, truck, insurance, mortgage payments, dog grooming and the ever expanding list of "things" that they owned or needed. In their "real world" even a luxury car for the housekeeper to go to the market seemed an absolute necessity.
During that fateful discussion, Barry made an off-hand remark that if they "cashed out", i.e,. sold everything that they owned and converted it to cash, there would probably be enough money for them to retire from the practice of law, so long as they were content to live a very simple life away from Beverly Hills.
As the saying goes, after that, Los Angeles was history. That chance remark had an appealing element in it for both of them that would not go away. Some simple calculations confirmed the feasibility of cashing out and the idea became firmly rooted in their minds. The next question was: "What will we do if we retire?" Gradually, a rough plan evolved.
Look for Paradise, in the form of a white sandy beach on some remote, tropical island and build a small bar, hamburger stand and a few shacks on the beach for themselves and for the few good friends who would visit them. The plan became a bit more defined when Jennifer took Barry, while on a trip to Maui, Hawaii to visit her favorite bar, "High School Harry's". The name of the bar was actually "The Windsock Lounge", but everybody called it High School Harry's (for reasons that have never been made too clear), referring to the character named Harry who ran the bar. In any event, it was located on the second floor of the very small "A" frame building that served as a passenger terminal at the Kaanapali, Maui airstrip. In those days, the Kaanapali airstrip was quite short and only small, propeller planes landed there. In order to get to the bar you had to go up a very narrow, winding staircase. There simply wasn't enough room in the building to build a proper stairway. And once you got to the top, there wasn't enough room to stand upright, except at the center of the building where the apex of the "A" was located. At one end there was a tiny bar, with only a couple of stools and there were about a dozen tables scattered around. Everywhere you looked, business cards had been stapled to the sides of the sloping roof by previous customers. Harry provided the stapler. This was Jennifer's favorite bar! Now, if you are thinking that you might like to visit High School Harry's, I should warn you that progress and time have taken their toll. The old airstrip has been replaced with a long, sealed runway to accommodate the jets that now land there, the quaint little wooden building, and High School Harry's Bar have been torn down and High School Harry died a number of years back - at a too early age. But, after that visit, Barry and Jennifer's dream of Paradise took on a little more definition and it included Jennifer's own little 3-stool bar, just like High School Harry's, where she could tend bar, in some far away tropical Paradise.
Finally, in February of 1984, they left Beverly Hills, having sold (or given away) virtually everything they owned and told all of their friends that they were setting out to find Paradise and to build Jennifer's 3 stool bar. The expectation had been that they would find Paradise somewhere in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, after a year of searching, they realized that a combination of too much development and a spreading wave of racial tension between the local residents of these islands, and the outsiders who wanted to settle in, made the region a far cry from Paradise.
Indonesia and many parts of South- east Asia, although quite beautiful and exotic, seemed to lack a certain something, which they later understood to be the unique charm and hospitality of the Polynesian people. They next turned their attention to the South Pacific. With so many islands and countries to explore, they decided to "get organized".
A data base was set up on a Macintosh Computer to define Paradise in terms of some 50 different criteria, covering everything from the physical size of an island (too small and you get "rock fever") to the stability of the government, and including such items as safety from crime, absence of serious disease (such as malaria), status of infrastructure, availability of food staples (fruits, vegetables, spices) for the restaurant and a myriad of other items. Each of the different criteria were weighted in accordance with the importance which the Rose's placed upon them. A literature survey was made which filled in some of the blanks. Then letters of inquiry were sent to private and governmental agencies of every island-nation, such as Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Owners Association, Economic Development Department, etc., and more blanks were filled in. Then, starting in early 1986, a visit was made to all of the countries in the South Pacific that were malaria-free on the main island, and contained an island of some significant size, like Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, The Cook Islands, Tahiti, American Samoa, Western Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji. First hand observations were then entered into the database.
As you may have guessed, the computer acknowledged what the Rose's had already known - Western Samoa was Paradise. Having found Paradise, the remaining problem was to obtain land, on a white sand beach to carry out the rest of the dream. The initial meetings with the Matai of Maninoa, to lease the land where Coconuts now stands, were held in 1986. Since obtaining the land seemed to be uncertain, the Roses continued to look for a "runner-up" Paradise, following up on every lead that came their way. In 1987, while stopping off in Honolulu, Barry & Jennifer had a chance to have dinner at The Bistro Restaurant, owned by a friend of theirs, Michael Pirics. Michael had been the owner of a French restaurant in Honolulu called "The Bistro" for many years, and was an established and popular restauranteur in the community. The Bistro and Michael were so well known, that they had both achieved the status of "an institution" in Honolulu. On this particular occasion Michael was working behind the bar listening intently while the Roses described their search for Paradise, their discovery of Western Samoa and their plans to open a restaurant and 3 stool bar. At the conclusion of their story he stopped his work and said very simply:
"Let me know when you are ready and I will join you. You really need me, since neither one of you know anything at all about the bar and restaurant business." Looking very much at home in his starched shirt, tie and three piece suit, behind the elaborate bar in his million dollar restaurant, Jennifer and Barry had a few good laughs at the idea of Michael leaving all of this behind to join them in Maninoa, Western Samoa, where they didn't even have electricity.
Because the lease negotiations were going very slowly and showed signs of never materializing, the Roses moved to Australia in 1987 to establish a small resort on the Queensland Coast, to be known as "Pirate's Cove Resorts". Negotiations for the lease of the Maninoa property were ongoing. In early 1989, the Pirate's Cove project was optioned to another hotel developer and, coincidentally, they received word that the lease in Western Samoa would be ready for signature. So, the Roses left Australia en route to Western Samoa in 1989. Stopping off in Los Angeles, they met with Robert Ross, a personal friend of the Rose's for many years, and a well known architectural designer in Los Angeles, to discuss the forthcoming project. Robert had done a great deal of work for Barry & Jennifer in the past, as well as for Hollywood film stars and many famous people in the film industry. Robert immediately contributed many valuable ideas to the project and ultimately traveled to Western Samoa on several occasions to become the guiding force behind the overall design of Coconuts. Upon learning that the signing of the lease was imminent, Michael Pirics, true to his word, sold everything he owned in Honolulu, divorced his wife and immediately joined the Roses in Samoa, never having previously been there himself.
The lease for the Maninoa village land was eventually signed in November of 1989, and clearing of the land commenced in early January of 1990. Construction of the infrastructure, restaurant fale, kitchen and public bathrooms was sufficiently completed to permit opening of the restaurant and bar in November of 1990.
On Opening Day, Jennifer (who had taken the Samoan name of "Sieni" during meetings with the Chiefs and Orators of Maninoa Village some years earlier) was there, mixing drinks behind her "3-Stool-Bar". Of course, as can be readily seen, the bar has grown a bit from the original concept, and it now accommodates 18 patrons. However, to be true to all of their friends who knew of her plans for a 3 stool bar in Paradise, only 3 "stools" were permanently placed in the sand in front of the bar, and the remaining places were constructed as moveable bar chairs. Michael Pirics (who had taken the name Mika during a Kava ceremony with the Matai of the Village) had been Jennifer's mentor in opening the bar, and was on hand to cook for the first customers of Coconuts. Once again, there was a deviation from the original plan to serve a few hamburgers, and Mika was turning out some of the finest French and Island cuisine in the South Pacific.
The bar and restaurant were an immediate hit and the original fale was first expanded to include the "Palm Terrace" and later the "Sand Pit". Construction of the first Hotel Rooms, "Fale Masina" (House of the Moon) was commenced in March of 1991 and was scheduled to be opened Friday, December 13, 1991.
Unfortunately, Cyclone Val struck on December 6th 1991 forcing the opening to be delayed. Although Coconuts did not suffer any structural damage, the Government supplied electric power was lost, not to be regained until some 6 months later, and the Coconuts back-up generators suffered severe damage. Without any power, work came to an abrupt halt. Ultimately, the first 4 rooms were readied and the hotel had it's unofficial opening, hosting guests from the United States, in February of 1992. The remaining 4 rooms were opened in April of 1992.
Now a labor of love, as much as a commercial enterprise, the grounds of the hotel continue to be improved, additional buildings constructed, and the existing hotel rooms further refined. Coconut's Gift Shop is expected to open in December of 1992.
October 19, 1993 Maninoa Village, Siumu District
Well, it is now one year later, almost to the day, and so much has happened that the story needs updating. So here is Chapter II.:
The Gift Shop did, in fact, open for Christmas of 1992 with Sieni behind the counter, hand painting "T" shirts whenever she wasn't busy with customers. Since there weren't too many customers then, it meant that she had lots of time to paint. She soon was joined by Julia, who had been a waitress in the Bar and Restaurant and a regular dancer in the Fiafia. It wasn't long before Julia became an expert painter and the object of Mika's lust and affection. In a short time (February of 1993) Mika, once again recited marriage vows (with Julia) and they went off for a brief but very happy honeymoon. The honeymoon was so good that upon their return they promptly got married again. To this day, they are very much in love and you can usually find Julia in the Gift Shop during the day and dancing in the fiafia on Saturday nights.
In November of 1992, the Asia Pacific Editor for Conde Nast Traveler magazine was in Samoa to write a story about the forthcoming Robert Louis Stevenson Centenial, and wound up spending a great deal of time at Coconuts. In February of 1993 he called to say that he had written a story about Coconuts which had been accepted for publication. Photographers from Los Angeles came to Coconuts in April for one week of shooting and the story ultimately appeared in the August, 1993 issue/cover story, called "Living the Dream".
Meanwhile, on May 8, 1993 (Sieni & Afa's Wedding Anniversary) ground was broken for the start of seven, new accommodations called the Coco Village Fales, another Robert Ross design. These rooms were finished in September, just in time for the surge in interest in Coconuts, following the publication in August of "Living the Dream".
While Robert Ross was at Coconuts designing the Coco Village Fales, he also found time to draw a plan to transform the old "sand pit", (a small covered area, with a sand floor, adjacent to the bar), into a new dining room. At the present time, work is underway on the dining room and completion is anticipated in about 30 days.
It is now some 3 years since Sieni's 3-STOOL-BAR first opened and the labor of love continues ....
Maninoa Village, Siumu District ; April 12, 2003
Well, it is now almost 10 years later and the story definitely needs updating! So, here is a belated Chapter III.
Our new dining room did, in fact, open in 30 days and it was (notice the was) very romantic and intimate and could seat about 40 people. More than enough for our needs! It had a low ceiling, real wooden floor (not sand), the first restaurant banquette seating in Samoa, and open on all sides with “windows” that folded up and, with the aid of three strong Samoans, could sometimes be dropped down in inclement weather.
To backtrack a bit, in late 1992 we had all of the 8 rooms of The Treehouse completed, but rarely found ourselves with more than 4 of them occupied. So, Sieni and I decided to move out of the converted tool shed at the rear of the property where we had been living for the past two years and moved into room #5 of the Treehouse. That was really exciting! What luxury and what a view! By the beginning of 1993 we had started to receive a lot of interest from surfers from the United States and Australia, both young and not-so-young. Sometimes, we happily found ourselves with nights when all 8 rooms were filled. So, we decided to build some more rooms. This time it was decided that we would build budget type accommodations that were earmarked for the young surfer crowd that was showing up with greater frequency. Thus, on May 7, 1993 (our wedding anniversary) we started to build 7 Courtyard rooms, adjacent to the Treehouse.
The rooms were completed by July 1993 and were slowly filled with young surfers, mostly from Australia. When the Courtyard rooms were completed we decided that we would move in to one of those rooms (room #16) and let the guests enjoy the relative luxury of our Treehouse room - #5.
The Conde Nast Traveler article created a lot of interest in Samoa and Coconuts Beach Club and the result was a lot of inquiries from visitors as well as other journalists. I am happy to say that the stream of visitors and journalists that started in late 1993 has never abated – to date. But, you have to realize that even though we had a great increase in the amount of inquiries and visitors, the term “a lot” is quite relative. To increase awareness of Samoa and Coconuts, in November of 1993 Sieni went to Europe to attend a series of trade shows to promote our new resort. While there she mentioned to me that she wasn’t coming back to Samoa until such time as I built a proper house for us and we stopped moving in and out of guest rooms. Recognizing the brilliance in her suggestion, I immediately set to work to build the Villa – our first to be located right on the beach. I cleared a small patch of the jungle adjacent to the area in front of the Treehouse and in December of 1993 we moved into the Villa – with a sitting room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and three bathrooms.
It had always been our dream to build fales on the beach. So, when we built the Villa it - along with the completion of Sieni’s Three-Stool-Bar in 1991- represented a major milestone in our lives in Samoa! There was only one problem. Our original idea was to have one fale for us, but also to have a couple of fales for friends or guests. So, as soon as the Villa was finished I immediately set out to build two more fales on the beach. In short order (March of 1994), we opened the first fale (called Fale A – very original naming!) adjacent to our Villa. Fale A embodied all of the characteristics that we wanted for our guests as gleaned form our travels around the world. Our dear friend and talented designer from Los Angeles, Robert Ross, came to Samoa and designed our dream fale. It was split level, with a King size bed that allowed you to look at the sea from the bed, a separate sitting room and an outdoor bathroom with a waterfall shower that came out of the rocks into a sunken tub.
Quite happy with our design we decided to build a second fale on the beach, but this time a fale with two bedrooms. Thus, four months later, in July 1994, we opened Fale B (another clever name) adjacent to Fale A – right on the beach. True to our original criteria, this fale also had a separate sitting room, split level design, a view of the sea from the bed, and an outdoor bathroom with a waterfall shower and a sunken tub. But, to make Fale B just a little bit different, we added a bidet to the bathroom – the first in Samoa!
In 1995 Mother Nature started playing games with us. It all really started soon after cyclone Val in 1991, but we were unaware of what was happening. During the cyclone we lost the beach in front of the restaurant due to the heavy pounding of the storm surf. We managed to reestablish the beach over the next six months and everything seemed fine. Except we noticed over the next couple of years, once or twice a year, we would get very heavy seas coming at the beach from a strange angle and a great deal of the beach would be washed away. As far as we could tell, this had not happened in the years before Cyclone Val and seemed to be related to the cyclone. Then, we noticed that the heavy seas and resulting erosion of the beach was occurring more often – like every three months! We soon found ourselves in an unending activity of replacing the beach sand – just as soon as we would finish replacing the sand, Mother Nature took it away again. So, in 1995 we decided to erect a seawall in front of the restaurant in order to retain the sand there and protect the restaurant and bar – which was only meters from the sea. The sea wall worked very well, so in 1996 we decided to extend it and reclaim some of the sea in order to build a swimming pool on the beachfront.
We didn’t want to just build a “generic’ swimming pool. If Coconuts Beach Club was to have a swimming pool then it had to be unique and serve our unique needs. Once again – Robert Ross to the rescue! Together we came up with a unique design that seemed to make sense. First and foremost we incorporated a swim-up bar into the design. Sieni and I had always loved the swim-up bars in places we visited around the world.
Then came the idea of making it into the shape of a gecko to introduce some “fun” into the design. We decided to make it a 30 meter long pool with a more-or-less constant depth of 5 feet so guests could swim laps for exercise. The four gecko “feet” (and the “head”) became sitting ledges where guests could comfortably read a book or sit and have conversations, while still in the pool.
The final design incorporated all of those ideas, with the tail of the gecko wrapping around the swim-up bar. To make it ecologically sensitive, we employed salt water chlorinating – a unique way of chlorinating a pool by passing an electric current through slightly salt water to convert the sodium chloride into chlorine. That eliminated the need to import toxic chemicals and the problem of disposing the used containers of chlorine. The construction was completed in April of 1996 with the help of Phil Brent from New Zealand and his helpers from Australia that used a revolutionary “pebble” technique to finish the pool and create the mosaic of a gecko on the bottom with colored pebbles.
In May of 1996 the Coconuts family gained an important member when Ned Brown joined us as general Manager. At the time Ned was well into his professional hotel management career having graduated the prestigious Cornell graduate school in Hotel Management and worked his way up through the ranks with various international hotel chains, to be in charge of operations at an 800 room hotel in Honolulu. During a meeting in Honolulu, Sieni did her best to discourage Ned from making the change from a “professional” hotel in Waikiki to our little operation in Samoa. Undeterred, Ned decided to visit Coconuts for a week to see the operation first hand. Following his visit to Samoa, he made the logical choice and decided to leave his career path, take a substantial cut in pay, and join our family in Samoa – where he is today.
With Ned at Coconuts to run the day to day operDuring our travels in Tahiti, during the 70’s, we stayed in several Over-The-Water bungalows on various islands, but were never really “thrilled” with the experience. They were nice experiences, maybe very nice, but not thrilling, as I thought it should or could be. So, Robert Ross and I got together to design and build the first (and only) Over-The-Water Fales in Samoa. The idea was that the Fale should not be dark (like most of the ones that we stayed in) and should be intimate and have some very special appeal – while maintaining a sense of privacy. The resultant design was anything but dark, with glass windows all around and two sliding glass doors to a deck which overlooks the distant reef and the pristine adjacent beaches. As a bonus, the fale has a beautiful tiled shower and a separate two person tub – with a view to the sea – and air conditioning and a glass floor to see the sea life below. In April of 1997 we opened two Over-The-Water Fales - the first in Samoa -on the extreme western side our property, off a pier that extends 20 meters into the sea. While building the two fales I had the impression that I was on a boat, and many guests who have stayed in these fales have remarked that it was like sleeping on a boat – except there was no rocking. ations, we decided to take our act on the road to Trade Shows to increase awareness of Coconuts, and to open an office in Honolulu to take advantage of the excellent telecommunications available there and enter the emerging world of the Internet. We also found that the Honolulu office could better supply Coconuts with all of its import needs – from construction materials to foodstuffs. One other bonus was that it enabled us to care for my elderly father and mother whom were living in Honolulu. With Sieni and I traveling back and forth between Trade Shows and Honolulu and Samoa on a regular basis we found it impractical for the Villa to remain empty during our absences. So, in June of 1996 we started to make it available to guests, giving us now three beach fales for guest use.
In 1999 we decided to build 4 more beach fales on the remaining stretch of undeveloped beachfront between Fale B and the over-The-Water Fales, to bring us to a total of 24 rooms. The idea was to have the fales ready to celebrate the Millennium. So, Robert Ross improved upon the original design concept and in July of 1999 we opened the last of the Beach Fales – Fale C through F (again, clever naming). To build them we cleared just enough of the jungle for the Fales and even built around a lot of the existing palm trees. Fale E has a very large palm tree right in the middle of the bathroom! We maintained the split-level design, with a sea view from the king size bed, and an outside bathroom with a waterfall shower falling into a sunken tub.
At the beginning of 2000, after living in Samoa for more than 10 years, I was approached by the highest chief in Maninoa, Atanoa, and asked if I would accept a high chiefly title from Maninoa. After much discussion and preparation, in April of 2000, in a ceremony in Maninoa attended but the chiefs and orators of the Siumu district, I was honored with the matai title of Tautaimatapalapala. This was a very moving ceremony and marked a further acceptance of our Coconuts family into the local village community.
To start off the new Millennium we decided to build our often-delayed Guest Lounge Room. Picking the site and the design was the most difficult decision we had experienced so far. We ultimately decided to build it as an adjunct to our new (at the time not even designed) entrance and reception – adjacent to the restaurant and bar, along the eastern edge of our property. The design criteria required a room that was open to the outdoors, comfortable for guests to lounge in and to accommodate small meetings, private functions, house our guest library and serve as a state-of-the-art cinema in the evening. The resultant Robert Ross design incorporated all of these elements, in a structure built entirely of poles, open on three sides, with 10 foot high bi-fold doors, slate floors and furnished with unique and beautiful furniture from Bali Indonesia. Started in the beginning of 2000 and completed almost one year later in January of 2001, we call the building Fale Afa. Afa is the Samoan name for the senet or “string” that is made from coconut husk fibers and used to bind things together.
Needless to say, Fale Afa has a lot of afa in its construction. The fale quickly becomes a first rate cinema at night with a digital projector, 12 foot screen, DVD player and theatre sound – but with a bonus! Large comfortable sofas and chairs to watch the movies, and full bar service too! The beauty of the building and the cinema experience actually exceeded my expectations.
But, when it was first finished in January of 2001 it was not used as intended. Instead, we decided to use it as a temporary dining room for the restaurant and to tear down the existing dining room that had been built at the end of 1993. Due to our increased number of rooms, the old dining room had gotten too small to accommodate the number of guests for dinner as well as the large dinner crowd for Fiafia Night every Saturday. Plus it had a number of poles in the center of the room that made it difficult to see the fiafia for many diners. Continuing the theme of Fale Afa, Robert Ross designed a beautiful, open structure, with no supports in the center, and one of the most beautiful ceilings around. The entire ceiling is a constructed of exposed trusses, made of poles, that span the entire room – some 40 feet long. The new dining room, located on the same site as the old one but almost twice as large, opened in October of 2001 – complete with banquette seating (like the original one) and lovely teak tables and chairs.
No sooner was the new dining room constructed, then we decided to undertake the one project that we had been promising ourselves we would do since we opened our first hotel rooms in 1991 – a new reception. I must digress for a moment to explain that the building that we had used as our reception since the beginning of Coconuts was never designed to be the reception for a hotel. It was built when we started as a Beach Club and served as Mika’s original home. The front part was used by a security person who opened and closed a pole barrier for Beach Club Members. So, it was nothing more than a “temporary” reception building –temporary for more than 10 years! So, in February of 2002 Robert Ross came to Coconuts Beach Club and designed a new entrance and reception. Work on the new reception started in March of 2002 and the new reception was officially used for the first time in March of 2003.
The new entrance and reception reflects a continuing evolution in the architecture of Coconuts, retaining many traditional aspects of Samoan construction – lava rock walls, poles, afa – but with a contemporary flair to the roof structure. The large roof permits natural light to enter as though it was one large skylight, and there is a 30 foot long waterfall wall.
It is truly a beautiful addition to Coconuts and was built entirely by our local carpenters, without any heavy equipment – as is true of all of the structures at Coconuts.
For our next project we decided to tear down the Courtyard Rooms since their intended purpose – catering to young surfers – had long since ceased to exist, and their “budget’ nature seemed out of place. So, once again Robert Ross came to Samoa and designed a grouping of three Suites for the site that the seven Courtyard rooms formerly occupied. On February 1, 2003 the demolition of the courtyard rooms was started and, at the present time, the construction of the new Garden Suites is underway. We hope to have the Garden suites finished by the end of May.
At the moment one of them is almost finished and I do believe that these suite will become favored accommodations at Coconuts. Each suite will have a bedroom with a king size bed, a separate sitting room, two bathrooms and a covered terrace. When completed, we will have 20 rooms – 4 less than when we started this project.
What’s on the horizon? Who knows! Sieni is saying, once again, that she wants a fale of our own and that she is tired of packing up and moving rooms every time we are here. Then, there is also the one remaining project from our earliest dreams that has never been built – Disco Duck! Stay tuned!
--Tautaimatapalapala, Barry Rose
Maninoa Village, May 1, 2012
(continuation from December 28, 2007)
I guess an update is in order, if not because of the 4+ years since the last one then certainly by virtue of everything that has taken place since then. So, here goes ………..
We did, in fact, totally remodel our two oldest Beach Fales – Fale A and fale B – in June of 2008, which was significant because upon completion it was the first time, since we started Coconuts in 1990, that we did not have a major building project underway or planned. For the remainder of 2008 and until September 19, 2009, we busied ourselves with little projects that were timely, but not very exciting – like upgrading our sewage and potable water distribution systems.
Then, on September 29, 2009, all hell broke loose – literally. At about 7:00 in the morning a huge earthquake struck the region, about 100 miles away from us, and produced a 10 meter high tidal wave that struck the southeast coast of our island with devastating results and with only about 15 minutes advance notice. Unfortunately, Coconuts was not spared the fury of the rushing water (and boats and cars, and, and), resulting in almost total destruction of all of the buildings and infrastructure at Coconuts, the loss of one life -a guest from Tasmania - and injury to many people.
Sieni and I were in Honolulu when the tsunami struck Coconuts, but Lina Bell, our General Manager, called me from her cell phone minutes after the first wave struck. Needless to say, Lina was in shock and after that we were too. I wont go into great detail about the tsunami itself. There are numerous articles and at least one book that have been written that tell the story far better than I could ever hope to do. Our initial reaction was to get on the first plane out and join everyone in dealing with the aftermath. After a lot of phone calls and soul searching it was obvious that we could be far more effective if we stayed in Honolulu and arranged for an emergency shipment of supplies and undertook the master planning for those things that had to be done in Samoa for the short term. Frankly, those initial days following the tsunami are a blur in my mind – like an old dream (or nightmare) that you can’t quite remember, but whose terror remains with you.
It soon developed that the situation, while quite bad with one fatality, could have been worse. Only one of our staff was injured sufficiently to require significant medical attention, and none of the guests who were injured had life threatening injuries. All of the structures at Coconuts were totally destroyed, with the exception of the second floor of the Treehouse rooms which escaped without any water damage – although the entire Treehouse structure had been knocked off it’s foundation. So, while the Treehouse was a bit shaky, rooms 5, 6, 7 and 8 were “livable”. Within a relatively short time a temporary electric line had been strung to give power to the Treehouse, a water tank rescued from the debris and put into service and the four Treehouse rooms became staff housing for some of our management staff, while others, including Mika, moved in with friends in Apia.
Two weeks after the tsunami Sieni and I flew into Samoa and arrived at Coconuts to see the devastation, first hand. I was not too shocked by what I saw because I had been receiving hundreds of photographs of the damage and been analyzing them for two weeks - but I was devastated. Sieni, on the other hand, had not really studied the pictures in detail and she was both shocked and devastated. We quickly got over the emotional aspects, thankful for what we had and that the human toll was not greater than it was, and moved into room #5 where we had once lived some 15 years before. Thus, we were amply reminded of the fact that we were pretty much starting all over again. We set up a temporary kitchen in one of the wrecked rooms, used the Treehouse Tower as a dining room for our management staff and mobilized all of our employees into a full scale clean up operation.
As soon as Lina called us to tell us what had happened we were intent on rebuilding, no matter what, notwithstanding my mistaken belief that our insurance coverage did not extend to tsunamis. Thereafter, we immediately started working with Robert Ross, our dear friend and architect, to plan for the reconstruction. Pretty soon we were contacted by our insurer and told that we did, in fact, have insurance cover for tsunami, and started negotiations to settle our claim. On December 24, 2009, a little over 3 months after the tragic event, we settled with our insurance carrier for a sum that was far less than the limit of our coverage and a sum that we believed to be quite a bit lower than it should be. As a lawyer I had spent a significant part of my life doing battle with insurance companies to extract fair compensation for my clients, so I was well aware of the claims process. Sieni and I discussed it and decided that it was more important to us to be able to get on with our lives and the reconstruction of Coconuts than to fight the insurance company for what we believed we were owed. Thus, as they say, “we left money on the table” and settled in order to begin the climb back from the destruction and despair – a decision we have never regretted.
We worked with Robert Ross to come up with a plan and one evolved – we would rebuild everything that was destroyed and try to keep the same “feel” as the old resort, but with a bit more of an up-scale look. And, we would take the opportunity to correct those small things we wished we had done differently when we built the original Coconuts. We also decided that we would start accepting guests as soon as we had three accommodations, a bar, a restaurant and the swimming pool operational - even though we were sill under construction – an unconventional and “gutsy” move. Our reasoning, if you want to call it that, was that since that was the way that the original Coconuts was built – starting with only 3 rooms and adding accommodations and facilities while guest were staying with us – this approach was nothing more than returning to our roots. Naturally, we offered significant discounts to our early guests to compensate them for their pioneering spirit.
At the end of February, 2010 we had our three Coco Suites, a new Bar. Kitchen, and our swimming pool open and we started welcoming our first guests. After that, over the next 24 months, we opened 8 rooms in our Treehouse, our 7 Beach Fales, a new office, reception, dining room, and our lounge room - Fale Afa. I am happy to report that our guests were most understanding and kindly accepted the inconvenience caused by the ongoing construction and many of them returned, more than once, to see the progress first hand – not unlike what happened when we first started Coconuts some 20 years before.
It is now May 6. 2012 and all is well in Paradise. Yes, we are still under construction to some extent, but most of that is landscaping and putting the finishing touches on our Gift Shop which we hope to open in about three weeks. As I look around the “new” Coconuts I am delighted by what I see and experience. Everything is a little larger and a little nicer than the old one – but it still feels the same.
So, you ask – what about the future? Well before the tsunami we had two Over-The-Water fales which, as you can imagine, did not survive the tsunami at all. Although one of them, fairly intact, did wash up on a beach about a mile from Coconuts to be claimed by some local villagers. Our present plan is that starting in September we will rebuild the Over-The Water fales, but instead of two of them we will build six of them. Is that “gutsy”, stupid, ill conceived or all of the above? Who knows - but considering our past would you expect anything less from us?
……………………………………….. Tautaimatapalapala Barry Rose