22 October, 2012
Escape the tourist trap in Samoa
By Michael Wright
Samoa's international airport looks like a community centre. If you picked it up and plonked it in say, Ashburton, it would serve as an excellent place to host rugby club prizegivings, fundraising quiz nights and pot-luck dinners.
The Pacific nation boasts many great treasures the world wants to see, but has spent no time trying to make its airport one of them.
Situated in the northeastern corner of the main island of Upolu, the airport is about a half-hour drive to the capital, Apia. The journey to the south side of the island, where I am staying, takes almost as long again. There really isn't anything in Samoa that's more than a couple of hours away.
Any drive of length reveals the homogeneity of Samoan society. That might sound bad, but it's not. Aside from Apia (population 37,000), the entire country is made up of villages, none of which has more than about 50 houses.
These villages appear all the same. Of course, they are not, but to the untrained tourist eye, they blend easily into one another.
They all have fales - wall-less buildings of varying size that serve as a family's social centre or meeting areas for an entire village - windowless houses, the odd shop and at least one enormous, magnificent church. Many houses have graves in front of them.
Within an hour we are at Sinalei Reef Resort. Its name meant nothing to me until about a week earlier, but that's the case with almost everywhere on the island. There is no Samoa Hilton. No Four Seasons, no Sheraton and no Hyatt. If you want resorts where westerners can experience a tropical island's climate and little else, you have about three choices. Sinalei is one of them and, yes, it's fantastic.
My room has a veranda out over the beach, so I can slip under the rail and go for a swim if I feel the pool is too far away.
The hut is new. Its predecessor was wiped out in the devastating 2009 tsunami. No-one died here, but put that down to good luck as much as anything.
The resort was fully booked two days before the earthquake hit and was only half full on the fateful day. Staff and guests had about eight minutes to get to higher ground.
On the southeastern corner of the island, villages such as Aufaga, Lepa, Saleapaga and Lalomanu tell their story.
Nearly three years after the tsunami, the skeletal remains of already fragile fales serve as reminder of what happened. Sixty per cent of the tsunami's victims came from this area, and its geography tells you why. From the golden beaches, flat terrain stretches about 100 metres inland before jutting into a steep, insurmountable hillside. Those who fled had no chance of getting past this point. A half-built escape track now zigzags its way up the hill, in case there is a next time.
If the south coast of Upolu bears the scars of the 2010 tsunami, the north side of Savai'i has the effects of devastating cyclones and volcanic eruptions etched into it.
Bigger and with fewer people that its neighbour Upolu to the south,
One of the bigger ones, Mt Matavanu, erupted on and off for six years between 1905 and 1911. Lava flowed above ground from mountain top to foreshore for 18 straight months and is still there today - in the form of a 100sqkm expanse of black basalt rock.
The sight of anything as far as the eye can see will usually command one's attention. In the case of the Saleaula lava fields it's what you feel as much as what you see. The oppressive heat that beats off it like a giant radiator enters your body through every pore, rendering you powerless to do anything except stand and take in the sight.
Beneath our feet are tubes, some hundreds of metres long, marking the path underground that lava flows took to the ocean once those on top had solidified. These dank cylinders, many easily big enough to walk through, are now home to peapea - tiny birds fast enough through the air to beat your torchlight. Only when they whizz past your ears do they betray their presence.
The Peapea Cave entrance is near the village of Letui, on Savai'i's north coast. Drive west from there and things get quiet. Villages, sparsely populated, are infrequent. The odd fale, decaying and half hidden from view in roadside forest, hints at settlements that once were.
In 1990, cyclone Ofa ripped this section of Savai'i apart; in 1991, Cyclone Val followed suit. Two of the strongest cyclones ever recorded, their dual force has had a permanent effect, reducing some villages to dots on outdated maps.
Near the western tip of the island all that remains in one village is a house and a giant, brand-new church. A bare-chested man stands outside the house, doing nothing in particular and unwilling to talk.
There are two other structures nearby. One is an old church; unusable for more than two decades but still standing. The other is an ossuary. A kind of open sarcophagus which holds, in plain view, once-buried bones of villagers, brought to the surface and exposed when the cyclones tore through.
Back on Upolu and at a new hotel, the excellent Coconuts Beach Resort this time, I recharge for a night of independence celebrations. After a bout of pre-Independence Day partying in Apia's few but fun nightspots the previous evening, the day-time formalities to mark 50 years of self-rule prove hard work. Tonight is different. UB40 are here, and everyone is heading to Apia Park for the highlight of the weekend.
I'll be honest. I don't like UB40. They have, like, two good songs. They play their best one first (Take Me By The Hand, since you're asking) and the crowd is enraptured.
Half a bar into each new song and they unleash another roar of appreciation. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I like UB40 a bit more now.
Fiafia nights, a staple of a Samoan resort holiday, are a contrivance designed to hit tourists square between the eyes, but a good one.
It is a mixture of traditional Samoan singing, dancing and the crowd pleaser - fire dancing. Boys and girls with sticks about four feet long, alight at each end, spin them around at a frenetic speed. The singing and dancing is sedate by comparison - a sea of rhythmic arms and legs.
As a Pacific island holiday spot, Samoa has a point of difference from more established destinations like Fiji and Rarotonga that it is only now coming to terms with.
It has escaped the tourist trap. Apia has a gritty edge to it, and places such as Sinalei and Coconuts, while resorts, are surrounded by a community you cannot help but take in. Hospitality and the indefatigable friendliness is inescapable.
The sign over the road that bids you farewell at the airport captures their nature best:
"Good luck, God bless and goodbye."
Michael Wright travelled to Samoa with Virgin Samoa and was a guest of the Samoan Tourism Authority, staying at Sinalei Reef Resort and Coconuts Beach Resort.
- © Fairfax NZ News