Sun, sand, spectacular water and a wonderfully welcoming attitude - Samoa is where nature and culture come together perfectly, writes Flip Byrnes.
I'M STANDING on the precipice of a waterfall in a garden of Eden. Dappled sunlight filters through the jungle canopy to the pool below. The jump is high; high enough that I've dared someone else to go first and, as my companion surfaces giving the all-clear, I take a flying leap into the pool, into Samoa, one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Beautiful but boring? I admit I approach Samoa, a group of 10 islands in the South Pacific, with a drop of trepidation. I'm the type who likes a shot of action in my holiday cocktail. Little did I know I'd find more hiking, swimming and adventure here, set against a backdrop of azure water and palm-tree perfection, than expected. All enhanced by Fa'a Samoa, the Samoan way of life.
The Polynesians can be traced back to Samoa some 3000 years ago. Not much is said to have changed until missionaries arrived in the 1800s. Devout Christianity replaced cannibalism (island-wide curfews exist for prayer between 6pm and 7pm), before Germans arrived, followed by New Zealanders and, finally, independence in 1962.
The Christian pull is omnipresent. The chief executive of the Samoa Tourism Authority, Sonja Hunter, says Samoa operates on a strict hierarchal system, consisting of family units within villages, based on the Christian principles of integrity, honesty and respect, all stemming from love. ''Love for yourself, your neighbour and the environment,'' Hunter says. ''Just watch, in a few days, you'll feel this yourself.'' I'm ready to feel the love and the first port of call is a hike up Mount Vaea, 15 minutes outside the capital, Apia. At the mountain's base is nestled the residence, now museum, of Samoa's most famous former resident, Robert Louis Stevenson.
The Scottish author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde lived here for almost five years, penning 13 books in his airy plantation house. Samoans adored ''Tusitala'' (the teller of stories) and the love was reciprocated. Stevenson chose to be buried in Samoa, still in his boots so as to carry Samoan soil to the next life. And so his coffin was passed hand to hand in a human chain to the summit of Mount Vaea in what has become known as the Road of Loving Hearts.
For us it's not so much the road of loving but beating hearts. Entering the humid jungle the ascent begins - quickly. It's muddy, steep and 45 minutes later the reward is a scenic view to the coast, a white line of surf breaking on surrounding reefs and a patchwork of fertile green below.
But the scene stealer (for me) is not the view, nor Stevenson's grave with his self-penned epitaph but that of his wife, inscribed: ''Teacher, tender comrade, wife/A fellow-farer true through life/Heart whole and soul free/The August Father gave to me.''
It's an emotional echo, a glimpse into sentiments that endure in stone long after the bearers have passed. It's a poignant place and we pause, to the delight of the mosquitoes, before descending, leaving Stevenson eternally facing Edinburgh, interred in his beloved Samoan soil.
We cool down nearby at Fatumea Pool, where fresh spring water flows from the mountains, exiting via a cave beneath a Methodist church. Separated from the ocean by a rock wall, it is alive with fish plumbing the transparent depths. But the real allure is the cave and its mystical powers.
Or so I think, swimming behind a local into the cave's depths. Sounds echo off rock walls and limbs seem to turn an Avatar blue in the subterranean grotto before he sinks and disappears. I look around frantically; it's haunting in the dark, confined space. Submerging, I spy feet kicking wildly through an underwater tunnel towards sunlight and an interconnected lagoon.
I'm not quite ready to see the light at the end of the tunnel, if you know what I mean. I prefer heights to depths but, heading a few minutes down the road to the next waterhole, the adage ''be careful what you wish for'' rings true. We're coming face to face with the To-sua Trench. Or, more specifically, the ladder of the Trench.
Samoa does water well. Any way you want it. From salty ocean spanning the blue colour wheel, to fresh springs and pools ringed by waterfalls guaranteed to release the inner child. But the star of this water-world is, hands down, the Trench.
Near Lotofaga village, it is, in essence, a big hole reached by a 35-rung vertigo-inducing ladder. At the top of the ladder, we are city slickers trying to shrug off quotidian cares. Ten seconds later, following a herculean leap, we're part of the postcard, floating nymphs softly buffeted by invisible waves sweeping through underwater tunnels from the ocean beyond. I'm having my adventure, while being gently wound down like an ageing grandfather clock.
But, continuing onto Lalomanu, we are about to learn all has not always been so idyllic in Samoa, voted No.7 beach paradise in the world by Lonely Planet. If this is No.7, I'd like to see the rest.
Lalomanu ticks every cliche box: white sand, water that merges with a cloudless sky, an offshore island, reef break beckoning surfers and charming beach huts. The only dilemma is: eat or swim? A restaurant prepares fresh tuna sashimi, encouraging us to wait by cooling off in the shallows.
The most remarkable element of this setting is there's no one else here (25,000 Australians contribute to Samoa's annual 122,000 visitors). True, it's off season - during peak season bookings are recommended - but we feel we've made a gargantuan travel discovery.
So it's difficult to imagine this area was hardest hit by a tsunami in 2009. Backed by a sheer rock wall, there was no escape for villagers, about 60 of whom perished. The beach was once lined with huts, now there are three operations. But there is no sense of lingering malice; the rebuilding resembles an emerging tranquil gem on the up, rather than a place in recovery. No tsunami could ever steal the natural beauty of this wondrous place.
On the south coast, Sinalei Resort, one of few luxury hotels in Samoa, was partially hit by the tsunami and proudly show its Randwick TAFE volunteer-built water-sports shack. ''They arrived with their surfboards, got stuck in and now they're returning to the local village,'' the owner Joe Annandale ays. In his opinion, along with walls of water, the tsunami unleashed human kindness - and in Samoa, where kindness is king, the students are considered extended family.
We leave Upolu for the ferry to Savai'i, the largest Samoan island. This is where Samoans come to relax (because Upolu is so stressful?). How much slower can life become?
The slogan for Samoa, nestled by the date line, is ''we're so relaxed it's yesterday''. In which case Savai'i is last millennium. We pass the sole traffic light (broken), horses graze in spotless front yards, buses christened ''Queen Maggie'' and ''Skippy Express'' and painted in rainbow-colours stop when flagged - there are no bus stops on Savai'i.
We're excited to be staying Samoan-style in beach fales, traditional huts. Arriving at Stevenson's (Robert Louis clearly got around), I score the hut named Maria, nestled beneath palm trees. Maria is open-air, apart from woven blinds, boasting a wooden platform with a bed, mosquito net, a light and en suite bathroom with cold running water. But nothing beats the 18 footsteps to the water's edge for a natural - though salty - shower.
We're making ourselves presentable to meet Craterman, an island legend, the custodian of the crater of Mount Matavanu. Between 1905 and 1911 the volcano spewed rivers of molten lava, tearing swathes to the coast 13 kilometres away. Nowadays it is a jungle oasis with island-wide views.
Energetic hikers take four hours from the village of Safotu to the crater's rim.
The not-so-energetic take a four-wheel-drive to Craterman's hut before a 45-minute stroll. We arrive at a blue fale, where we find our guide sporting a face-splitting grin. Just in case we are in any doubt as to his identity, he announces ''Hello! I am the world-famous Craterman!''
It's a big call but true. In his pocket rests a guest book, signed by people representing 121 countries in 11 years. We commence hiking to the crater, on a velvet-soft grass track reclaimed from the jungle. This is Craterman's doing. He spends four hours a day, dawn and dusk, with his whipper-snipper, taming the green carpet he lays out for guests all the way to the crater's edge.
Craterman is quite the entrepreneur. Wooden signs, transcribed from guests' notes (for a small fee), dot the path, featuring impressive spelling efficiency. ''Cr8erman! Fan q 4 da best trip eva!''
My favourite, however, is by Italian honeymooners. ''Ritornermo fra 50 anni, sempre piu innamorati''. We shall return in 50 years, even more in love.
On matters of love (Samoa's recurrent theme), Craterman needs a crater princess. Staring towards the coast, a sign catches my eye. ''Cr8erman needs da cr8ter princess! Must like jungle treks, cooking and cr8ters!''
It was commissioned by an English couple, who've assumed it's lonely sleeping with only whipper-snippers for company.
But as far as he's concerned, he's one of the luckiest men in the world.
We retreat to Le Lagoto resort near Stevenson's, discussing dating candidates for Craterman. Le Legato aptly translates as ''sunset'' and we arrive at that golden time of day when shadows meld with twilight. Locals loiter in the shallows, silhouettes beneath a palette of apricot and dusky hues, the sun a dying orb sending out slivers of rays.
The final country before the dateline, this is the world's last sunset. Sunsets around the globe have simply been practice runs and the best has been saved for last. When the sun sinks in Samoa, it is with the panache of a stage full of showgirls performing the final number in a dazzling cabaret show.
That night before bed I leave Maria, slipping oceanwards, towel in hand, to find my companions already immersed, an unplanned midnight rendezvous in the 28-degree water. Beneath the star-studded sky we agree it's preferable not to stay five-star when you can sleep under a billion.
There is so much more to tell of Samoa. Of the colourful Sunday church services where villagers mingle before the to'onai (all-day Sunday brunch cooked by menfolk); of dozens of leap-enticing waterfalls; of blowholes roaring like 747s and the island of Manono (which received electricity only four years ago), where school kids play on palm trees instead of PlayStations.
But it is, as Sonja promised, the sense of hospitality that lingers. Out jogging, I would be stopped frequently by locals asking ''Where are you going?''. It's their way of greeting. ''Samoa,'' I'd joke. They would grin in reply, already knowing what tourists are learning. That there is nowhere else to go; if you're after a tropical paradise with adventure and culture, the buck starts and stops in Samoa.
The writer was a guest of Samoa Tourism
Polynesian Blue has three direct flights from Sydney to Samoa weekly
Tickets for the hour long Upolu-Savai'i ferry cost from 12 talas ($5) for adults. Be prepared to join the scrum at the ferry wharf ticket window or head to the separate business-class window (from 50 talas a person).
Upolu: Family-owned Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa. +685 25191, sinalei.com.
Apia: Aggie Grey's: an institution since entertaining WWII sailors. +685 22880, aggiegreys.com.
Airport: Aggie Grey's Lagoon Beach Resort & Spa. +685 45611, aggiegreys.com.
Savaii: Stevenson's at Manase, (fales and rooms available. +685 58219 or 54357 samoa.travel.
Samoa is perfect for independent travellers. There are more than 20 rental companies to choose from (samoa.travel) so grab a map, a car and travel the easily navigable islands. Otherwise, if time is your friend, jump on a local bus. There are no bus stops, so flag a bus and pay as you leave.
See + do
Mount Vaea, just outside Apia, can be hiked solo from Robert Louis Stevenson's Museum. +685 20798, robert-louis-stevenson.org. Admission to the museum is 15 talas for adults and 5 talas for children.
Admission to Fatumea Pool (also known as Piula Cave Pool) is through the Methodist Theological College, 5 talas, open Monday-Saturday.
Access to To-sua Trench costs 5 talas. Both are about an hour's drive from Apia.
Many waterfalls and pools on the island can be found by visiting the Samoa Tourism Office in Apia or samoa.travel.
Need to know
There is an island-wide curfew for prayer between 6pm and 7pm, during this time activities such as jogging are not recommended. Likewise, Sunday is a day of rest.