Who hasn’t seen the film South Pacific and wanted to go there? The fabled islands of Polynesia, all blindingly white beaches with towering palm trees dripping into mirror calm turquoise seas are the ultimate bucket list destination. Yes, they are an awfully long way away but the perfect tonic to banish the winter blues. I was lucky enough to visit Samoa, in November last year. Samoa, five hours from Australia’s East Coast consists of 10 islands of which only four are inhabited, the main islands being Upolu, home to over two thirds of the population and the thriving capital Apia and wilder, remoter Savaii. Here are a few of my highlights.
Robert Stevenson House
The famous Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, known as ‘Tusitala’ (Samoan for ‘teller of tales’) spent his final years in Samoa where he wrote most of his books including Treasure Island. His home Vailima has been converted into a museum set within lush gardens and is well worth a visit. Visitors can also visit his grave at the top of Mt Vaea, along a trail named by the locals as ‘The Road of the Loving Heart’. Stevenson in return referred to the locals as ‘Easy-going, merry and leisure-loving’ and it’s good to see that not much has changed since.
Time honoured customs are still an integral part of everyday life in Samoa. Fa’a Samoa (The Samoan Way) is a 3,000 year old custom not found anywhere else in the South Pacific and plays a vital role in village and community life. It’s a guideline for every Samoan on how to lead their lives, celebrating and embracing traditional values, culture and visitors. Fa’a Samoa has three key elements to it, the matai (chiefs), aiga (the extended family) and the church. There are over 362 nu’u or villages in Samoa with a total of 18,000 matais (chiefs). Matai are the heads of the extended family unit and their complex role covers family, civic and political duties in the village. Churches of various denominations feature in every village. Sunday is observed as a day or rest with families visiting church and enjoying toonai (Sunday lunch), be sure to catch a service, I celebrated mass in the cathedral where even if you are not religious , it’s a chance to sit down for an hour and be charmed by the angelic voices of the Samoan choir.
The Samoa cultural village and a FiaFia show
The communal way of life is easy to observe but Samoa’s rich cultural heritage can also be explored through The Samoa Cultural Village in the capital Apia. There are workshops on woodworking and siapo cloth making, lunch from the umu (hot-stone oven) and traditional dances. Food and dance are central to Samoan culture and every hotel and many restaurants will host a FiaFia night, showcasing Samoan dances and songs along with Samoan cuisine. FiaFia means ‘happy’ an appropriate name as the singing, dancing, slapping, enthusiasm and energy within the dances is both contagious and joyous. The Siva performed by females is more graceful, all elegant hand movements whilst the Siva Afi, a fire knife dance performed by males makes for a spectacular finale.
Samoa is one of the few places in the world where tattooing is practised in the traditional way by tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists) using handmade tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. Striking examples can be seen on individuals, the pe’a being the traditional tatau given to men. It begins at the waist and covers just about every bit of skin, right down to the knees with intricate designs.
Almost everyone comes to the region to get wet, the lagoons and reefs around the islands are home to some 900 species of fish and over 200 varieties of coral. Turtles are regular visitors to Samoa’s warm waters and you can share a memorable experience by swimming with them. One beach particularly stands out, pristine Lalomanu Beach on the South Coast (recently voted as one of Lonely Planet’s top ten paradises on earth), no high rise resorts here, it’s the place to soak up the sun whilst admiring the views of the pacific and scenic mountains of Upolu. Return to Paradise Beach was made famous by the 1951 Gary Cooper film whilst the deeper waters of Aganoa Black Sand Beach offer safe, sheltered swimming.
The rugged, lush interior of Upolu reveals yet more water based fun with plunging waterfalls and inland waterholes including To Sua Ocean Trench, an idyllic 30 metre deep crater filled with sea water accessible down a steep ladder. There are in fact two deep trenches, one of which is can only be reached through a cave and is not for the feint hearted. Not to be outdone, emote Savaii provides its own natural wonders to explore. Afu Aau Falls waterfall with a natural swimming pool at its base and The Alofaaga Blowholes demonstrating the sheer power of nature as sea water rockets hundreds of feet upwards. Watch what happens when locals throw a coconut husk in to the hole. In the early twentieth century, the volcano Mt Matavanu erupted leaving five villages destroyed by its wake. The Saleaula Lava Fields are a fascinating, geological site including half buried churches and lava mounds. Upolu and Savaii are linked by an inter-island ferry service with the crossing taking approximately 1 hour.
Beach resort and hotels
There’s no shortage of luxury high end beach resorts in Samoa, many all on one level with sloping paths and very few bothersome steps. In the case of Saletoga Sands Resort and Spa on the South East Coast of Upolu and Le Lagoto Beach Resort your individual villa is right on the beach, a question of falling straight out of bed into the sea. I also enjoyed the tropical setting of Sinalei Reef Resort and Amoa Resort, Savaii’s top boutique hotel. If you’re looking to be in or near the capital Apia, I can recommend Taumeasina Island Resort and Tanoa Tusitala Hotel whilst The Sheraton Samoa Beach Resort has a great location near the airport. Every hotel will host a FiaFia show. At the end of every FiaFia show and sometimes even by the hotel staff as you are leaving the ‘Tofa Mai Feleni’ song is sung. The Samoan’s mournfully sing the words “Oh, I never will forget you”, ditto my thoughts entirely.
For general information on Samoa visit www.samoa.travel
For travel to Samoa Silver Travel Advisor recommends adding on a visit to an existing trip to either Australia or New Zealand with Australia Sky or New Zealand Sky.