25 September, 2011

Keeping the faith

By Steve Kilgallon

As the sun sets over a typical Samoan village, kids play touch and volleyball, men mow the lawns, women sweep the paths, and almost everyone says hello to the strange palagi running through.

But on the return loop of my daily run, a conch shell sounds and the kids are shepherded inside their fales. As I crest the hill down into Siumu, on the south coast of Samoa's main island, Upolu, a cadre of solemn village men wait for me, lining either side of the road.

Curfew has begun and nobody is allowed to pass through the village until the locals have completed their compulsory prayers – and the sentries are posted to ensure they don't.

It's typical of the Samoan welcome that while their deep religious faith won't permit me to jog past, they are happy to sit down and have a yarn until the conch sounds again – and by then, the villagers are already inviting me to visit again.

Religion – and rugby, almost a second religion – dominates Samoan society.

Spectacular, beautiful churches litter Upolu, towering over the basic fales; the best house in every village usually belongs to the pastor. We attend one colossal whitewashed Catholic church, where it's strange to hear a keyboard reworking of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and service is prolonged by 20 minutes as the priest berates his flock for their behaviour and hands down guidelines for the week.

While some hospitality workers may earn as a little as two tala (about a dollar) an hour, the Siumu villagers tell me they raised ST40,000 in one weekend to build a new church on the next-most populated island, Sava'ai.

With that religion – the four dominant branches are the Congregationalist, Catholic, Methodist and Mormon churches – comes strong adherence to family-based society and discipline.

That forms part of the "fa'a Samoa", or "Samoan way", an all-encompassing term to describe the traditional Samoan lifestyle, still practised everywhere bar the urban chaos of the capital, Apia. For the Samoan Tourism Authority, the "fa'a Samoa" has commercial potential, offering them an edge when they sell Samoa to tourists as an alternative to the Cook Islands and Fiji.

The target markets are disparate – backpackers, surfers, honeymooners and high-end resort tourists – but says Dwayne Bentley, principal marketing officer for Samoan tourism, "everything we offer is underlined by the Fa'a Samoa experience, regardless of what you are here for ... it's unique, it underpins our way of life and your interactions with our people".

For the average tourist (about 40% of Samoa's 130,000 annual visitors are Kiwis), what "fa'a Samoa" really means is an unusually friendly reception and a stress-free holiday. From my experience, it seems extremely unlikely you'll be mugged, robbed, conned, taken to someone's cousin's best-friend's carpet shop or treated in any other way than warmly by the locals.

If you're staying in the more basic beach fales – open-sided, wooden, thatched huts nestling in the white sands – you'll have no choice but to interact with the local people, whose homes are likely to be a few metres inland. But if you're in one of the growing number of westernised resorts, the challenge is to rise off your pampered behind and actually have a look around, given that your resort will undoubtedly offer you three square meals a day, several bars, a swimming pool and various other diversions. It's worth it, the best memories of our trip came when we got out and saw some real Samoan life.

Any prejudices about a primitive tourism industry were shattered by the opulence of our first place of stay, the very welcoming Sinalei Reef Resort, rebuilt in the wake of the 2009 tsunami, which claimed the life of the owner's wife and destroyed most of this beachfront complex. Amazingly, there is no trace of the destruction in the manicured grounds; we stay in a gorgeous dark-wood enclosed beachfront villa and stroll to the outdoor bar for drinks and dinner and enjoy a massage in the spa, which has sweeping ocean views. The resort also offers themed dining nights, a tennis court and nine-hole golf course. It's as good as anywhere I've stayed before.

Almost next door, Coconuts Beach Club Resort & Spa hasn't quite finished its rebuild, although they too offer a pool, bar and restaurant, rated by the tourism guides but lacking the beaming friendliness or the style of Sinalei.

But while Siumu shows little lasting tsunami damage, once our guide Tracy Warren takes us around Upolu's southern coast to Lepa, the now-abandoned home village of Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, it's a sobering sight. There's rubble everywhere, and only the skeletons of most buildings. The locals have decided not to rebuild, and moved inland to safer higher ground. But a kilometre along, the staff at Taufua Beach Bungalows report booming business as we lunch on marinated raw and smoked fish, chop suey and taro, accompanied by the smooth-drinking local brew, Vailima.

We stop for a swim, and again in the azure-blue water of the To Sua Trench, an amazing 30m-deep swimming hole. They've recently replaced the reportedly rickety old ladder with a sturdy new one. It's still a nervous but entirely worthwhile climb down.

Then a 20-minute ride on a half-metre-wide wooden boat with no lifejackets to tiny Manono Island, for a walking tour of this sleepy (literally – most of the locals appear to be on an extended siesta) islet – a mere dress rehearsal for a more substantial nautical excursion.

We leave Upolu on the ferry Lady Samoa III for a night in Sava'ai, which we're told is laid-back, as if Upolu was not. Sava'ai is green, sunny and ultra-friendly, and the charming Le Lagoto Beach Resort, in the village of Fagamalo, boasts an infinity pool overlooking one of those picture-book white sand beaches.

With a dash of entrepreneurial spirit, one of the owner's daughters has set up a pizza shack 20m down the road. I hire a snorkel from a French-run dive shop over the road and discover the teeming reef reaches right up the beach. Going for a run through the village, kids kicking a plastic drinks bottle want to show me their best Daniel Carter impression and customers at the village shop – like most of them, a one-room roadside counter – stop for a chat as we buy lollies to take home to the kids.

When we got married in March we couldn't afford a honeymoon, so this trip is something of a substitute and Le Lagoto is the sort of place you could elope to – they've been near capacity since April, they tell me, and have six weddings booked for 2012.

Most attractions in Samoa are owned by the local village, whose residents take turns to sit sentry and charge a visitor's fee – usually around ST10 ($5). There's plenty to see in Sava'ai: the Afa A'au waterfall, a favourite haunt of photographers; the Saleaula lava field, the product of a 1905-1911 volcanic explosion, which swamped the local church, so you can walk through the remains at roof-level on lava flows; the Tafa Blow Holes, where locals, if asked, will drop a coconut in the hole as the waves come in so you can see it fired 20m in the sky, a curiously entertaining sight.

It's also entrancing to watch the intricacies of tapa-making, from raw wood bark to finished cloth, by a local woman, Fa'apito, in Vaiola village in the Palauli province.

Sava'ai is great, but perhaps not for the uneasy of stomach: faced with a 90-minute rollercoaster ride on white-capped seas back to Upolu, my breakfast makes an unplanned early exit.

"Home is the sailor, home from sea / And the hunter home from the hill."

The last two lines of his own epitaph are perhaps the best known of author Robert Louis Stevenson's canon. They form the final couplet of a longer verse, inscribed on his mausoleum atop Mt Vaea, overlooking Apia.

Stevenson spent the final four years of his life on a 162ha estate, Vailima, in a colonial mansion built using New Zealand kauri. He was a popular figure with the locals and when Stevenson died in 1894, they fulfilled his burial wishes, cutting a path up the mountain and carrying up his coffin. Stevenson's old home, which later housed the New Zealand consul and the Samoan president, was damaged in a 1990 cyclone, then bought and restored into a museum by millionaire American Rex Maughn.

Stevenson's epitaph, set to music, became a popular Samoan song, sung lustily by our guide "Nitro" Nigel, as he toured us around the homestead.

Apia appears a bustling metropolis after Sava'ai's charms. The capital, and only city, is very distinct from the rest of Samoa. A harbour city of 37,000, its potholed roads stretch from the waterfront, where the old courthouse, last reminder of German colonialism, and the legendary 1930s Aggie Grey's hotel (Aggie's, incidentally, is block-booked by the Survivor crew) sit incongruously alongside tower blocks built with Asian aid money.

It's a cultural mix – yards from a McDonald's, we watch a grimacing tourist having a traditional pe'a tattoo (the pe'a stretches from knees to midriff); he's a week into an expected 10-day session and looks painfully weak.

We stay at the immaculate Tanoa Tusitala Hotel on the waterfront, and venture out to discover the food isn't bad: the Italian-influenced menus at Paddles and Scalini's aren't cheap but it's just as good as any in Auckland. My wife Kelli enjoys the bustle of the Fugalei Fruit Market and the Savalolo Flea-market, where she buys tapa and lavalava cloth to make into tablecloths. It means dinnertime in our house is a welcome reminder of my first trip to Samoa, a place I want to revisit time and again.

Fact file
Where to stay: Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, www.sinalei.com Coconuts Beach Club Resort & Spa, www.coconutsbeachclub.com,  Le Lagoto Resort - Savai'i, www.lelagoto.ws, Tanoa Tusitala Hotel - Apia www.tanoatusitala.com.

What to do: Manono Island tour, www.samoascenictours.ws

For more information go to www.samoa.travel

Steve Kilgallon visited Samoa courtesy of the Samoa Tourism Authority and Polynesian Blue.

Source: Sunday Star Times (www.stuff.co.nz)