25 October, 2010
Is this the next Fiji?
By Tracey Spicer
WE'RE standing on the precipice of a pool of blood.
Vaisuatoto, a vast cavern where the souls of high chiefs do battle, is surrounded by thick jungle on the tip of the westernmost point on Earth.
Our guide Dominic hacks through the undergrowth to reveal the untamed beauty of Sunset Point the only place on Earth where you can see tomorrow. A blazing ochre orb dips over the horizon, casting an eerie glow on the shore just metres from the international date line.
"I wanna swim in the blood pool," pleads four-year-old Taj, oblivious to the spiritual significance of this place.
It's ironic that the gentle people of Samoa have such a bloody mythology. While most tourists visit Upolu the most populous of Samoa's 10 islands a one-hour ferry trip takes you back 100 years. The largest island, Savai'i, remains untainted by tourism.
A drive up the east coast is a snapshot of what a tourist brochure would look like: turquoise and emerald waters to the right; a sepia portrait of days gone by on our left. A naked toddler chases a pig to cook for umu (Sunday roast); Methuselah cuts grass with a rusty machete; teenagers play kirikiti, a local version of cricket using a three-sided bat.
In the front yard of each fale - the open-sided huts serving as family home and budget accommodation - there are elaborate headstones. Eighty per cent of the land is owned communally, so Samoans can stay together well beyond this mortal coil.
"These houses look simple but if you were honoured enough to be invited in, you would have the best meal of your life and sleep on the best linen," Dominic says.
Samoans believe that "greeting a guest should be like the joy of the birds greeting the dawn". Smiling families file into the venerable churches that dominate the streetscape; Samoa embraced its Christian missionaries with a messianic fervour. We can hear the gospel singing from our luxury accommodation at Le Lagoto, on the remote north coast. While these 5-star fales are walled and airconditioned, we open the louvres at night so the gentle lapping of the ocean lulls us to sleep.
The island's two main tourist attractions are just down the road the lava fields and turtle sanctuary. Fishermen bring injured greenbacks here to be rehabilitated in the saltwater pond. I dive into the water fists-first, anxious that the prehistoric creatures will mistake my digits for dinner. All fear is forgotten once Crush, from Nemo, glides over to nibble on the papaya leaf in my hand. Three-year-old Grace squeals with delight.
Equally prehistoric-looking is the lava field, the legacy of a devastating volcanic eruption in 1905. Houses and schools have been built on this moonscape, while a historic stone church is frozen in time: folds of black gunk spilling from its doors.
Continuing our circumnavigation, the gin-clear waters of the north morph into wild surf breaks in the west. Here you'll find a series of dramatic blowholes. For a couple of bucks, a friendly local will throw a coconut on to the 200m spout.
Perfect for families
An extremely comfortable, family holiday is on offer at the famed Aggie Grey's on Upolu. In 1942, Aggie, a part-Samoan woman who married a Danish sailor, opened a boarding house for American seamen, which became a world-renowned hotel frequented by celebrities. She was later immortalised as Bloody Mary, a character in the novel Tales of the South Pacific.
There are two hotels now: the old one in the capital Apia and a new property near the airport. At the latter, the kids' club is so good we want to stay there. For us, this is paradise: flower-bedecked bedrooms, tick; beautiful beaches, tick; delicious food, tick; sensational snorkelling, tick (apart from our guide breaking off a branch of coral and giving it to me as a bouquet). The highlight is the fia fia where gorgeous, well-oiled young Samoans perform traditional songs and fire dancing.
Samoa's other famous resident was the author Robert Louis Stevenson, who moved to the warmer climate to improve his health. The author of Treasure Island dubbed Samoans "the happy people", adopting the name Tusitala (storyteller). His magnificent Queenslander-style home, Vailima, in the foothills of the giant Mt Vaea, is now a museum.
A few minutes' walk along the Road of Loving Hearts is Le Manumea, a boutique hotel with ocean views. Across the road is the best pub in town, the Zodiac cafe with its sprawling gardens and rockin' house band. We're happily sipping gin and tonics when the band stops suddenly.
"Hey," yells the drummer, "let's sing something for the kids."
Four burly, tattooed Samoan blokes proceed to sing Incy, Wincy Spider complete with hand actions to our delighted children.
Leaving Samoa, I'm convinced this is the next Fiji. It's cheaper, friendlier and untouched by hordes of tourists. Despite the devastating tsunami last year, for these special people the sun will rise again tomorrow, with the promise of a brighter future.