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FAMILY LIFE

Laguna Couple Made Fantasy of Polynesian Refuge a Reality

December 28, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We all entertain the notion from time to time--especially when sitting on the Santa Ana Freeway--of chucking it all and moving to a Pacific island to lie on the sand and thumb our noses at the world.

Then traffic loosens up and we get back to reality.

Besides, if we brought the idea home, our spouses would pronounce us mad and that would be that.

Bob and Patti Arthur's case is something like that. They were living in Laguna Beach in 1968 when Bob returned from a trip to Polynesia and announced that they--meaning he and Patti--were going to build a thatch hotel in a place called Pohnpei.

"You are nuts," said Patti, with a great deal of conviction. "We don't know anything about the hotel business, we don't have any money and we have a bunch of kids to raise." When he persisted with the idea, she pulled out the stops. "Then you are going alone."

"No," said Bob, "you'll come because you can't resist an adventure."

He was right and the upshot is that the Arthurs just marked their 18th holiday season in Pohnpei, a Micronesian island a long nine hours by air from Honolulu.

In those 18 years, they have built their hotel, made a success of it, raised four children, started several ancillary businesses and--probably most amazing of all--remained married and close to one another.

But none of it has been easy.

Their first five years were like a chapter out of Swiss Family Robinson.

"When we arrived here," said Patti, 52, by phone last week, "there was a dock strike and the only way we could get any meat to eat was to wait down by the shore with mobs of other people hoping to buy something--anything--from the fishermen when they came in.

"We spent a lot of time scrambling for food."

Then, the friend's house they were using was needed for other purposes and they had no place to live. Finally, they were able to lease land for the hotel site about five miles outside the central town (you can't buy land in Pohnpei) and Bob built a platform with a thatch roof.

"We slept with the four kids between us so that if anyone tumbled off during the night, at least it would be someone who was responsible for them being here.

"The kids loved it because it was like camping."

During the first five years, while they were building the house and working to secure everything needed to construct the hotel, they lived without electricity, running water or much money. How did they survive? "We cut out snacks," Patti says with a laugh.

"But we were sustained by the fact that every nail was progress, one little more step toward our goal."

Bob put together the first native corporation through the Micronesian Foreign Investment Board and construction began. In June of 1976, the Village opened with eight rooms and a group of Peace Corps volunteers as the first guests.

"They were great for our shakedown cruise," says Patti. "We made every conceivable mistake and they didn't notice or care because they all had been living in the jungles somewhere for more than a year."

Their first big break came after they entertained a group of conceptual artists and the hotel was written up in Art in America magazine. Then came more publicity, in particular a Charles Hillinger piece in The Times, and before long the Village was running at near-capacity.

They added more rooms (there are now 20) and Bob literally built a beach. "The jungle just ended at the water," says Patti, "and where there weren't mangroves, there was nothing but mud and rock."

So Bob got ahold of a mail-order pump and a leaky barge and each day for months chugged the vessel two miles to the outer reef to dredge sand. "When they got a load, it was a race to see if they could get back before the barge sank," says Patti. "Most of the time they made it, but there were a couple of times they had to raise the barge."

Looking back over the 18 years, Patti says there are no regrets, "although now I think it's not just Bob--we're both nuts."

The most satisfying part to her, in addition to literally building a business from the ground up, has been the growth of their daughter and three sons into self-reliant individuals.

"This is the most perfect place on earth for kids," says Patti. "They can do no wrong (in the eyes of native adults); there's nothing here that can hurt them; and children in general are considered part of an extended family that stretches through the entire population of 25,000 on the island.

"Children are very special here. Everyone keeps an eye on them and takes care of them. There's no macho nonsense; you see everyone, including the few thugs, picking up children, kissing them, hugging them.

"There are also no words in the Pohnpein language for child abuse because it never happens."

As far as the marriage lasting and even getting stronger over the years, Patti says the secret is simple: "You face problems square-on, mainly because it's damn hard to run away from them on an island this size."

Next week: The Arthurs' eldest son talks about growing up on an island paradise.

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