Sheraton Hotel, Rarotonga, Cook Islands [2013; published 2021]
It seemed like a dream even then: a broken arm, ill-starred wedding, a father-in-law's strange vendetta - and a location that adhered, almost in its entirety, to lifelong visions of desert islands and distant archipelagoes.
We visited seven years ago - at the behest of R's sister and her fiancé - staying in a small hotel on the west of the island. R was to be a bridesmaid, and so we had used the last of our overdraft to make the trip. I had not long left teaching, while R was similarly adrift - and that whole trip now seems clouded in doubt and uncertainty. This insensibility was compounded by the constraints of my broken wrist (which assumed the role of an unwelcome non-sequitur in every conversation) and was certainly not helped by my feral haircut and misjudged cricket hat. I see now that we were lost, both flailing in different ways (me more so, because of the hat) - feelings that are difficult to translate, and that were certainly inimical to family celebrations. It was only on that final day, when the overgrown remnants of The Sheraton Hotel hove into view, that a pattern seemed to be broken - though such was the strangeness of the spectacle - the trailing vines and drained swimming pools straight out of Ballard's fiction - that a sense of irreality persisted long after we had left the island.
The Sheraton was supposed to be Rarotonga's first five-star resort; the government of Tom Davis seeking to ride the tourist boom of the 1980s by building a vast hotel in Vaimaanga (a patch of ancestral land claimed, amid some protest, by the family of his wife, Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki). In early 1987, after struggling to attract foreign investment, the government were eventually approached by a mysterious Italian businessman and work on the project began in May of 1990. The hotel was to be managed by the Sheraton Group, with construction the responsibility of Italian contractors; though in an act of staggering incompetence, the whole project was underwritten by the Cook Islands' government.
Waves of workers came over from Europe - the majority from the Piedmont region of Italy - and the complex soon began to take shape, though even at this early stage, rumours of ineptitude and corruption were rife. As much as $20-30 million disappeared amidst allegations of mafia involvement, money laundering and embezzlement - and by the mid-90s, the government's liability had ballooned to almost $120m, more than twice the level of the national debt.
With the Cook Islands virtually insolvent, and New Zealand unwilling to bankroll its former colony, construction ground to a halt with 80% of the hotel complete. The contractors - their companies now dissolved - returned to Italy, and with them any hope of recovering the missing money. (When asked, years later, about the missing millions, Cook Islands' President, Sir Geoffrey Henry, claimed: "We know where the money went.... approximately" but with the companies responsible for the build now "non-existent", there was "no way to get to the facts").
The New Zealand government - then in thrall to economic rationalists - sent in a team of debt consultants in an attempt to avoid the Islands' bankruptcy. Fixated upon deregulation and privatisation, they sacked over 2,000 government workers (in a country with a total population of 15,000) while Rarotonga's most valuable assets - from resorts like the Aitutaki Hotel to schools and airports - were sold to the highest bidder. Many skilled workers left to work overseas, while others were expected to return to living off the land (problematic for those with mortgages and bills) or to become, as if by magic, successful entrepreneurs. Inevitably, many families struggled greatly from the cuts; the burden, as ever, falling mostly on the poorest in society. The economic and social costs of the government's ineptitude - discernible in everything from educational attainment to spikes in levels of suicide and mental illness - were catastrophic; and continue to be felt by many Islanders to this day.
The photos and memories of our trip were quickly filed away when we returned to Europe - dismissed almost as an hallucination - and had I not stumbled across them last month, would certainly have remained forgotten. I had little inclination back then to write about the hotel, and even now feel somewhat ambivalent - my memory poor; the chronicling of abandonment feeling like a cul-de-sac (and in many cases exploitative) even a decade ago, when I last wrote here.
I have long felt a fatigue about the ways in which abandoned places tend to be documented: devoid of any context save the visitor's own awe, and fatally undermined by an incuriosity about the lives - human and non-human - linked to each location; as well as an unwillingness to confront the causes of decay (be it corruption, lack of accountability, globalisation, government neglect or a contempt for certain communities).
With hospitals, at least, it was possible to foreground patients and staff; and to provide some context - both personal and historical - for each visit. With Rarotonga and The Sheraton, however, the situation was different as I visited for only a few days and knew nothing of the site until that final afternoon. I remain uneasy documenting places about which I know or have learned little - and it feels particularly acute in this instance - failing, whilst there, to engage meaningfully with the island's culture or problematic past (perennial shyness a factor, of course; but a deeper insularity and passivity also contributing) - a failure which can only be redressed in part when 17,000km away.
And yet even in its heavily caveated form, there's probably still enough of interest from my trip to share. While demanding context, it is disingenuous to deny the pure aesthetic appeal and allure of such ruins - the profound sense of transience and loss they can evoke - in person and in photographic form. It is precisely the sense of collapsing time - of past, present and future co-existing; of the beauty in what inevitably passes and fades - that accounts for their appeal and steady flow of visitors.
Revisiting the images, the hotel remains extraordinary - a crumbling palimpsest overwritten continually by resurgent flora and fresh waves of vandalism. Stripped of all original function (or never quite attaining one to begin with), its broken forms become the perfect site for projection and appropriation - for temporal leaps and re-imaginings - at once an evocation of all historical wreckage, and a portal to a ruined future (and the logical endpoint of late capitalism).
To the receptionist in our hostel, it was principally an eyesore and embarrassment, a symbol of failed government and historic corruption, while to a taxi driver it was seen through the prism of ancient tribal disputes and settler violence. Some other tourists seemed to welcome its state of curated decay, pointing to the environmental impact of a fully-functioning resort, and to the returning insect and bird life. Almost every opinion I encountered was different; the site's ambiguous status and uncertain future creating the perfect conditions for the full exercising of subjectivity.
Like most of the buildings in Rarotonga, our hostel was a simple low-rise construction, shaded by coconut palms, ferns and other fruit trees - and only a few short steps from the beach and the coastal lagoon. Those first few days, we spent most of our time visiting family or in the water - my special cast allowing me still to swim (albeit in circles) - though once the wedding was over, we hired a scooter and went spluttering around the island's perimeter.
A long circular road of 32 kilometres - Ara Tapu - clung to the coast, and this was where most development occurred - a largely unbroken ribbon of hotels, housing, fishing shops and limestone churches; the majority rather small and characterful. An ancient inner road - Ara Metua - dating back to the 11th Century and serving several sacred marae - was located a few hundred metres inland, but survived only in fragments (its ancient coral surface paved over after WWII), and in any case seemed too private to traverse. Beyond Ara Metua, lay pockets of lowland forest and farmland, before the ground rose sharply towards the eroded summits of a long-extinct volcanic complex and the snag-tooth peak of Te Manga.
The central hills were largely inaccessible and blanketed in trees: montane rain forests on the upper slopes, with cloud forests enveloping the peaks. Locals talked of ancient marae nestled among the trees and of their ancestors once living higher up, though the only available route into the centre was a steep path rendered impassable by my injury.
And so, on that final afternoon, we stuck to the perimeter; the dense, unpeopled centre exerting a powerful centrifugal force. We paused at various points to explore the beach, play with a wandering dog or venture down a muddy side track, before stopping abruptly on the south shore when we noticed something extraordinary and unexpected; something that just shouldn't have been there.
The Sheraton Hotel sits on a bitterly-contested plot of land that many locals believe is cursed. The site of many bloody battles in the pre-colonial era, it became the subject of a fierce dispute between two rival clans - the Pa and More dynasties - at the end of the nineteenth century. Both More Uriatua, the leader of the More family, and Pa Ariki, Rarotonga's paramount chief, claimed ownership - though full legal control of the Vaimaanga plot was eventually awarded to the Pa family in 1902. Arguments continued, however, and More Uriatua was murdered in 1911 by William Wigmore, a European settler who intended to use the land for one of his businesses (and who claimed to have been aiming at a chicken when the fatal shot was fired). Following the death of More Uriatua, his daughter, Metua A More, placed a curse on the site, claiming that any business operating on the land would fail until the site was returned to its rightful owners.
While the current landowner, Pa Marie Ariki, dismisses the idea of the curse, nothing appears ever to have succeeded on the site. The Wigmores' pineapple plantations and citrus orchards both failed in the 1950s, as did several other smaller ventures before the construction of The Sheraton. The curse was even renewed in 1990, as if to ensure that the latest venture would founder. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the hotel, Metua's grandson, More Rua, entered the site in traditional high priest regalia (Kakau and Rakei Taunga) and proclaimed the continuation of his grandmother's curse. He then took his spear and struck a rock bearing a commemorative plaque that had been unveiled moments earlier. According to locals, the rock cracked from the point of impact, on the left of the plaque, all the way down the ground - a certain sign, in the eyes of many, that the project was destined to fail.
Attempts to resurrect the project were similarly doomed. The leaders of a Japanese and Hawaiian consortium were jailed for tax fraud, with Mark Lyon, an Auckland property developer, later convicted of a range of sex and drug offences. More recently, businessman Tim Tepaki has made repeated efforts to develop the site, his first attempt in the 2000s derailed by the Global Financial Crisis, while his claims, in 2017, to have hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese backing eventually came to nothing. The current More Ta'unga, Amoa Amoa, refuses the lift the curse until the land is returned to his family; and there seems little prospect of imminent development.
Parking our scooter opposite the hotel, we found ourselves approached by several dogs - a regular occurrence on an island teeming with canines (the majority friendly, and almost all displaying extremely sophisticated road sense). I had assumed at first that they were strays, but around 90% have owners, and are simply given the freedom to roam (the only fences I recall on the entire island surrounded the airport). Although a frequent source of complaints, I enjoyed seeing their social side given free rein - itinerant packs bowling along the roadside like teenagers on a night out; other dogs frolicking in the foam as tourists baked nearby - struck always by the playfulness and calm afforded by their freedom (though a recently-mauled Norwegian tourist would probably disagree).
Once the promise of food and affection receded, most of these animals continued on their way - though on this particular afternoon, a small black mongrel insisted on accompanying us as we explored the site's perimeter. After those first few scraps, it was largely indifferent to food, but trotted alongside or ran ahead to wait for us at bends in the road. In a rocky stream by the side of the road, it bounded and splashed, then disappeared beneath the surface before rising slowly - a canine version of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now - while in a field with a bull tethered to a long rope, it seemed to enjoy sprinting past and narrowly avoiding impalement; running the gauntlet several times before collapsing exhausted at our feet. Oblivious to our focus on the ruins to our left, it seemed eager to lead us further inland, perhaps to Papua Falls and the forested centre, and I was unable to shake the (surely erroneous) sense of someone proudly introducing us to their favourite places.
From the beach, half-glimpsed through dense foliage, the buildings resembled doric temples - crumbling remnants of a lost civilisation scattered amongst the palms. As we drew nearer, the reality was more banal, though a sense of dislocation and rupture persisted. Some of this was due to the size of the complex - how anomalous it seemed, both in scale and spirit, when compared to the rest of the island - but of even greater significance was the extent of the overgrowth. Many of the buildings were completely consumed by vegetation, prompting a strange sense of inversion - as if the resort were some subterranean complex that had risen up through the soil (a switch flipped and a network of cranks, gears, and pulleys lifting the ancient city into the light). It proved impossible to reconcile these two sensations - the resort at once aberrant yet so tightly embedded in the landscape that it felt like part of its natural topography.
Despite no sign of security, R was understandably reluctant to enter the complex - the grass almost head-height in places; the purpose of the buildings still unclear - and so I limited myself to thirty minutes inside, R remaining on the path with our canine friend. After wading through the grass, I soon found myself in front of a large accommodation block of around fourteen suites, each with a balcony and wooden railing, the sliding doors in most of the rooms open and intact. Mindful of security, I moved quickly towards the side of the block, and was confronted by an identical building less than ten metres away, and then beyond that another, and then another - the complex appearing limitless; the absence of roads or paths heightening the sense of disorientation.
Most of the rooms were mere shells: just bare concrete walls, though a few had tiled floors and basic fittings. In one room, there was even a towel draped casually over the side of an old bath - a remnant of an earlier squatter, perhaps, or a joke by an explorer - although it is not inconceivable it had been there since construction stalled in the mid-90s. Certainly there were many other relics from that time: piles of fuseboxes, air filters with their original packaging draped on top, chipboard slats for bedroom furniture. In most of the rooms, shredded curtains and mosquito nets still hung from the windows.
It was easy, at first, to overlook any human stories tied to the hotel. Unlike Ballard's ghost resorts, this was a place that had never been, existing merely as a gesture; everything feeling half-formed, thwarted. And yet there must still have been many people passing through: migrant workers far from home; local workmen plying their trade; youths in search of somewhere clandestine or unseen; the people who sheltered here during the recession caused by its failed construction; the slack-jawed tourists, accidental or otherwise, who traversed the site in search of answers. In contrast to most abandoned sites, however, there remained few, if any, traces of of these visitors - the overwhelming sense was of aftermath; of painful memories being expunged with nothing offered in their place.
The Sheraton is one of those places, like the zone in Tarkovsky's Stalker, that promises something extraordinary around every corner - though here nothing ever materialises. No secret room or spectral mists; no disembodied voices, dripping flues or strange portals; no rooms full of undulating sand and disappearing birds. There are walls and staircases, bath tubs and empty rooms, and little else. While the Zone in Tarkovsky's film was presented as a gift - animate and eternal - The Sheraton feels contingent - crumbling pillars and upturned paths suggesting the process of erasure is already well-advanced.
I arrived eventually at what was surely intended as the main entrance and reception; a large central column protruding from its frontage. The pyramidal spire and aerated chambers resembled a hospital water tower mid-construction, though it may have already attained its finished state. The upper sections featured criss-crossing steel cables; the arrangement too harmonious to suggest mere structural support. It seems likely, then, that the tower's purpose was pure ornamentation; a bludgeoning attempt to induce a sense of scale and majesty.
The ground floor of the main building was mostly bare: a cluster of rusted ventilation shafts, some moulting piles of stained insulation, but very little else. Even the light felt scarce - refused, almost - calling to mind a dank multi-storey car park or underpass. A large quarter-turn staircase led up to the first floor, though this level even more barren; vines limiting their incursions to the lower level. As elsewhere, building materials lay stacked up in corners, wires hanging limply from the walls - but unlike the ground floor, a small area of tiling had been laid in one of the corridors. The pattern was commonplace, and it had progressed only a few metres; and so passed unnoticed as I raced around the site indiscriminately. And yet scrutinising my photographs now, the tiles become the unexpected punctum (a detail which, in the view of Roland Barthes, "rises from the scene" and moves you) of an otherwise unremarkable image - the sole instance of patterning in the complex, and a reminder of how arbitrary that last day of construction must have felt; how feeble and futile such assertions can seem years later.
In an indication of how close it came to completion, much of the complex appeared to be wired too (if lacking actual sockets or connection to the grid) - bundled cables cascading from the ceiling or erupting from coloured flues in the corner of the room. (I paid little attention at the time, but now have strange visions of some subterranean neural network - the resort as some kind of superorganism - each building interconnected and communicating in some way.. (Such a network exists, of course, in the form of the mycorrhizal fungi linking the roots of the island's trees and plants).
More recent debris - mostly in the form of bottles, cans and other litter - was scarce; and hardly commensurate with the amount of graffiti across the site; the buildings no doubt given a superficial clean whenever there was the hope of redevelopment (as recently as 2007, proposals still involved the renovation of existing structures).
After leaving the main building, I recall stumbling across some smaller villas, a bare pergola that seemed to repel any vines, and, of course, the swimming pool and its murky green depths. Looking at other people's photos, I appear to have missed little; perhaps just a mouldering bus and a view of the pool's island bar and sunken stools. A far bigger oversight was the island's wildlife. Racing around the site, I lacked both the time and inclination to look closely and to stop; to allow the ripples of my impact to disperse and to see what surfaced (a similar inattention evident in my movements in the island's lagoon: blundering around barefoot, oblivious to the dangers of stonefish and fire coral).
In one room a long-tailed lizard skittered noiselessly up the wall, while towards the perimeter a handful of farm animals were loosely tethered to small posts (suddenly, a goat!) - but I can recall nothing else. There must have been birdsong, cicadas, a flurry of activity beneath my feet. There may even have been a kakerori - a bird that exists only on Rarotonga and neighbouring Atui, and that was recently on the brink of extinction - but my memories are only of concrete and grass.
With time running out and a suitcase to pack, I retraced my steps back through the hotel, discovering R reading happily in the long grass, dog asleep at her feet. I cannot remember the journey home to our hostel, nor how much I told R of what I had seen. All I remember of that final afternoon is bidding her sister goodbye and a final swim together in Arorangi, our packed suitcases lying a few metres away on the deserted beach.
"The finished building encloses the imagination within a circle and forbids it to go beyond that. Perhaps the sketch of a work gives so much pleasure because each one finishes it to his liking." - Eugune Delacroix, Journals
Since rediscovering these photos, I often find myself dreaming of The Sheraton. It is always different, the hotel's surviving structures merely the starting point: excavations and secret hatches, subterranean rivers and bouldered streams (me drifting along stomach-first like bloodied flotsam).
Perhaps it has something to do with the incompleteness of the site - its empty spaces and scattered raw materials - or perhaps it's the limited amount of time I spent there; an attempt to fill in the gaps or to ascribe some greater meaning to my visit. The Sheraton is particularly unusual in that it is both ruined and unfinished, tilting both to the past and future - though as it flares more prominently in sleep, I find my ability to write about the hotel fading - a familiar slump into inanition and silence. At times it seems like the most remarkable place I've ever been; at others, a grotesque folly.
My memories of that time are bound also to the conflicts that accompanied the wedding and their aftermath - and this is perhaps the main reason why it has taken more than seven years to write something. It is an odd feeling: to find yourself held up to the light like some kind of dubious stone, and to be found wanting. As someone who has sought always to be invisible, the knowledge - acquired some time later - that I'd been subject to a whispering campaign, was profoundly unsettling.
While their search for co-conspirators failed, every aspect of that week now seemed clouded in the same uncertainty; the same desire to turn away and to flee. It is possible, of course, years later, to rationalise this behaviour; and I have since been reconciled, to some extent, with those responsible - and yet, looking back at that time, there remains a profound sadness that the malice of others cannot be kept at bay for ever; that relationships do not happen in a vacuum; that love is not always enough...
Since we visited in 2013, activity has increased noticeably on the site. Various small businesses - most recently a paintball company - make regular use of the grounds, while the custodian of the site now offers tours for $5. In 2017, some homeless teenagers also began living in some of the hotel's rooms, paying their way by working for the caretaker's gardening business. In a newspaper article from that time, each spoke of escaping family dysfunction and valuing their new, comparatively stable, home. As far as I can tell, the teenagers were still occupying the site contentedly in 2019 - chaotic lives steadied by the kindness of the caretaker and his wife.
It's almost as if the conditions for my visit were too dreamlike, too dramatic - the hotel visited when it was at its most verdant and overgrown, at that time seeming on the verge of being subsumed forever. And yet the narrative of reclamation is, in this instance, false. While there has been some rebalancing, it is highly contingent - merely a pause or glance skyward - with the vegetation trimmed at the slightest hint of redevelopment. In more recent photos of the complex, it seems greyer, more moribund - the grass cut, the sky overcast; the buildings stripped back to their dull, concrete essence. It seems more like what it is (and had always been): a monument to corruption, hubris, and greed. Only in the home it has provided to those in desperate need, is there any hint of redemption.