23 August, 2010

Island Reprise

The tsunami took a terrible toll but Samoa is returning to its laid-back, blissful best, writes Peter Gearin.

SOMETHING caught my companion's eye as we walked along the edge of the soft, sandy beach. He reached between the smooth rocks and coconut husks in the clear tepid water and carefully picked it up. It shimmered in the afternoon sun.

It was a shard of glass, longer than my longest finger, and at least a centimetre thick. Jagged to a point, it was a sharp reminder of what happened in Samoa last September.

The tsunami that slammed into the South Pacific islands claimed 176 lives, most of them on the south coast of Upolu, Samoa's main island. The three- to four-metre waves wiped concrete buildings from their foundations.

Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, regarded as Samoa's most luxurious resort, was directly in the tsunami's path. Five beachside fales, the spa complex, water sports building, presidential suite, honeymoon villa and overwater restaurant were all lost when the ocean reared.

No one died at Sinalei because of the quick thinking of the resort's general manager, Sose Annandale, and her son, Nelson. Before an official warning came, they sounded the resort's tsunami alert and guests were shifted to higher ground. The siren saved lives in nearby properties, too, although one woman was killed at the neighbouring Coconuts resort.

Sinalei, however, wasn't saved from tragedy. Co-owner Tui Annandale, Sose's sister in-law, was killed in the village as well as Tui's mother, Anna.

Tui's husband, Joe, immediately closed the resort but was determined to rebuild. The Samoan government and banks helped with finance, friends flew in to provide support and volunteers appeared from around the world to help with the reconstruction.

The pace of Samoan life is famously slow but progress at Sinalei was rapid. Incredibly, the resort was ready to take guests in April and the new presidential suite and water-sports building were soon reopened. The overwater restaurant, Ava i Toga, and three new spa treatment fales followed in May, and a new gym and sauna will be launched soon. Five new beachside fales opened in June and another five will soon follow.

Visitors to the resort need to look hard to see evidence of the tsunami's destruction. There are bare patches of beach where vegetation was uprooted and pieces of glass and wood will probably wash up on the shore for some time; however, the transformation from battered wreck to luxury resort has been stunning.

In many ways, Samoa is the "untouched paradise" that has launched a thousand Pacific cliches; Sinalei is its apogee. Coconut trees sway in the breeze. The sea comes in a range of blues and seems set at the perfect temperature. The brilliant surf break beyond the reef is within view. Samoans are engaging and warm hosts.

Nothing is rushed at Sinalei these days, of course. Breakfast is available between 8am and 10am, if taken at all. A bowl of cereal with a side of fruit is all that's needed in the hot climate, although a cooked breakfast seems to be a popular choice for many, presumably energetic, honeymooners.

The rest of the day just melts away. As you linger, it's easy to think that staff outnumber guests 10 to one. Even with Sinalei at 90 per cent capacity, you can spend hours around the resort pool, or reading a book on your fale, and not be aware that anyone else is there.

There are things to do. Guests can play tennis or golf on a small course with coconut tree-lined fairways, or explore the inner reef with a snorkel or in a kayak. But this is a gentle, relaxing place best suited to those looking for ways to be indulged.

The ultimate expression of this is a two-hour "serenity" spa treatment. In a bright, louvred fale overlooking the Pacific, you are massaged from head to toe by two Samoan women and your skin is caressed with ti leaves dipped in coconut. After a hot shower, your body is rubbed with sea salt and moisturiser.

Other spa treatments are available, though I can't see why you'd want anything else. Paradise, indeed.

There are four levels of accommodation: fales that have garden views, ocean views or are beside the beach. And the presidential suite. This "suite" is actually made up of a huge bedroom, sitting area and bathroom, plus a separate lounge room and its own beachside fale.

The more typical fales are also light and comfortable, with simple and elegant furniture, large, soft beds and airconditioning.

The restaurant is still finding its feet and offers a good range of steady lunch and dinner options. It's at its finest on Wednesdays - fiafia night - when guests are entertained by local musicians and fire dancers and can try food prepared in traditional ways, such as oka (raw fish) and palusami (taro leaves, coconut cream and onions).

The best thing is seeing smiles return to Samoan faces. It shows that time has passed since the dark days of last September and that Samoa and its best resort can once again shine in the afternoon sun.

The writer was a guest of World Resorts of Distinction.

Trip notes
Where   Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa in the south of Upolu, Samoa. +685 25191
Getting there  Pacific Blue has direct flights from Sydney to Apia on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Sinalei is a 40-minute bus transfer. 13 16 45, flypacificblue.com.
How much   Airfares to Apia start from $322 one way. Fales from $US245 ($272) a night.
Top marks  This is a place for consenting adults - definitely no kids under 12.
Black mark Goldilocks might find something to whinge about - the beds are too soft.
Don't miss A stroll through friendly local villages to see their brightly painted fales. No colour has been invented that a Samoan doesn't like. 
Source:  theage.com.au