13 December, 2009

Samoa is calling you

A vacation to the country ravaged by a tsunami in September offers pure delights – in other areas and ways, TAMARA McLEAN writes .
 
‘‘It’s Savai’i’s time to shine’’ thanks to its natural attractions such as beautiful beaches and blowholes, below.

As the hefty Pacific tide rolls in, our host grabs a fresh coconut and stands poised, statue-still, waiting for his moment to pounce. In a second he leaps forward, hurls the nut into a small hole on the rocky cliff top, and then recoils to safety.  A deafening ‘‘ker-thump’’ fills our ears before a massive hydrant of water beams up into the sky, catapulting the brown ball improbably high out over the ocean.  ‘‘Woo-hoo,’’ he yells, drenched in spray but beaming his huge island smile. ‘‘Best in Pacific, I tell you.’’  Awestruck and hearts racing, we’re sure he’s right. Blowholes are a quintessentially Polynesian experience but never before have we seen such extreme force.  We’ve come to the tropical island of Savai’i in search of a guilt-free Samoan holiday, a vacation to the country ravaged by a tsunami but an island untouched by those deadly waves.  The idea was to be able to support the beautiful nation celebrated as the Pacific’s friendliest without the confrontation of dealing with destruction.  It’s a concept that Samoa’s tourism authority hopes Australians will fervently adopt, with my enthusiastic guide exclaiming, ‘‘it’s Savai’i’s time to shine’’. ‘‘If Australians want to come and support us in these hard times then this is the place to go,’’ he says.

Aussies have only started to really embrace Samoa as a destination in very recent times.
Our visitor numbers, for example, have doubled in the past four years as more travellers, generally intrepid types happy for a laid-back authentic experience, fall in love with the place.
By far the majority were flying into the capital, Apia, and then tracking over to the picturesque south coast to sun themselves at rustic family-run villa accommodation or one of four more upmarket resorts.

All but one was badly damaged on September 29, and while rebuilding plans are afoot the coast is largely closed to tourists for several months to come.

Enter Savai’i, an island the same size and just 90 minutes away by ferry.

It’s not exactly an undiscovered gem. New Zealanders realised years ago that it has the same sweeping white sand beaches, superslow island pace and welcoming, locally run resorts as tsunami-hit Upolu. Just far fewer people.

‘‘Look, there’s no one here,’’ says my guide as we cruise the oceanside road in our rental car. ‘‘Just a dog here, a chicken there. Oh!’’ he says, breaking to allow a litter of piglets to cross safely.

Sure enough, the coastline is clear and open, the sole domain of white, aquamarine and the green of swaying palms.

We pass several little fales (traditional thatch huts) on the beachfront that charge the equivalent of a mere $A25 to $A40 a night per person for breakfast, dinner and a traditional rustic shack just a few steps from the water. Elsewhere there are more luxurious resorts, such as Le Lagoto and Siufaga, which carry a bigger price tag but the comforts to match.

There’s definitely no shortage of places to lay your head, nor things to see or do, for that matter.

First stop in our whirlwind trip is the famed Turtle Swim, which basically involves climbing into a freshwater pool to feed a dozen of the creatures as they paddle their stubby flippers around you. Mouths open, they keenly grab chunks of papaya out of our hands and are happy to take a ticklish nibble of our legs, too. We’re assured these amazing shelled beasts are only held in captivity temporarily, until the turtles reach a certain size and are freed into the ocean.

Further along the road we pass over a field of dried lava, the remnant of an eruption that wiped out a village in 1905.

Samoans love an ancient fable so of course there’s one to explain this gluggy black mess.
‘‘Legend has it that the village was filled with bad people who didn’t go to church so the lava punished them,’’ says my guide matter-of-factly.

Soon we pass Afu Aau waterfall and swimming pool, a spectacular display set in virgin rainforest, but we’re bound for the island’s highlight.  The famed blowholes at Alofaaga are barely signposted, so watch you don’t miss them. We’re here for the natural fireworks but of course there’s a story to go with these too. ‘‘This one’s a goodie,’’ says my guide before outlining how the impressive holes are symbols of the love between a woman and an eel. ‘‘She found him in the ocean and kept him in the pools, so they’re all about that love.’’ And power, too, we conclude after watching the thundering display and the coconut being tossed 25m into the air.

It’s hard to drag ourselves away but now it’s time to return to the port.

We’ve seen enough to be convinced this beautiful island is a destination in its own right and we’ll be back, next time for all the beachside lazing and cocktail slurping that accompanies a gorgeous guilt-free island holiday.

The writer was a guest of the Samoan Tourism Authority (www.samoa.travel)
Source - Sunday Canberra Times