31 January, 2011

The Precious Land

A HEAVENLY RETREAT FOR ALL THE FAMILY. TOM POUNTNEY DISCOVERS PARADISE IN THE PACIFIC ON THE ISLANDS OF SAMOA

“Come to my house for dinner!” booms Elisapeta, barely ten minutes after meeting us. “You must visit my home and family and eat from my plantation,” she proclaims with pride.

The 62 year-old stall owner at Savalalo Flea Market barely looks a day over 30, and certainly doesn’t act it as she charms locals and tourists alike with abundant charisma and kindness. A discussion on the small matter of 36 grandchildren proves that her  declaration of age is not just another good-spirited fabrication. She elaborates on a life that went to Miami and back, has witnessed great heartache and great joy, exuding a boundless energy and passion for everything in her Samoan way – it is just fascinating.

To this point, on the final day of a fleeting week long trip to the Pacific Island of Samoa, precursory fragments have been difficult to collate. Tourism, in the traditional sense is a strange phenomenon for the locals. They hold so dear every thread of their own land that for them to comprehend those from afar is almost overwhelming. But with great spirit and natural inquisitiveness, they become perfectly mannered, hospitable hosts of the highest order. This is tourism Fa’a Samoa – ‘the Samoan way’.

We arrive at the airport following a hefty, but comfortable flight to five middle-aged men with traditional ‘Pe’a’ (male body tattoos) dancing in Lavalava (skirts) to a customary Samoan beat at 5.30am local time before a fresh ring of flowers are ceremoniously presented to us. In simply stepping into Faleolo International Airport, we are tied to people and their precious land.

The two main islands, Upolu and Savaii lie just over an hour boat trip apart sharing many similarities whilst enjoying a unique identity. Upolu is the more commercial of the two with the port-town of Apia bringing trade in the form of tourism, fishing and an eclectic mix of small business ventures. The holiday island of Savaii is rich, authentic and draped in utopic beauty.

Natural features are the order of the day on Upolu with Papaseea Sliding rocks providing hours of entertainment, the picture-perfect cave pools at Piula and Sua Trench and Togitogiga Waterfall, a magic inland treasure.

These phenomenons are the very reason Robert Louis Stevenson migrated to Samoa.  The sick Scotsman found remedy in the air and inspiration from the island – it was here he wrote ‘The Beach of Falesa’, ‘Catriona’, ‘The Ebb-Tide’, and the ‘Vailima Letters’. The Stevenson residence is now a grand museum at the foot of Mount Vaea where he is buried. A 30-minute tour gives a fascinating insight into why he found his peace on Samoa.

Wednesday night is Fiafia night at Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows, which means traditional dancing, a huge buffet selection of Samoan delicacies, a few of the local brew, Vailima. The Samoan Haka followed by a flame infused war dance has the audience enthralled – pride in performance is unbounded as this is the opportunity for a very modest group of people to beat their drum long into the night before returning to serve breakfast in the morning. Aggie Grey Jnr is now the life and soul of the complex that her grandmother first established in 1933 as a burger bar. Now, 92 standard rooms, 36 luxury rooms and 26 Fales (traditionally styled huts) make this one of the most popular resorts on Samoa. With disabled access, highchairs and cots available, plus a 24-hour gym alongside a great poolside bar and restaurant, the Resort has everything. Amongst many illustrious names to have graced Aggie Grey’s is Marlon Brando and the Japanese International rugby team who were competing in the Pacific Nations Cup at the time.

Rugby is a way of life for the Samoans – it it is a way of defending rights and testing resolve. The game holds one key to understanding the culture of these people, and in turn, much of the inspired All Black ethos is revealed. During our stay, Samoa lost to Japan and the nation’s mood reflected it as if disaster had struck. A week later, they won their first ever Pacific Nations Cup with a huge victory over neigbouring Fiji.

Celebrations like this are essential to a nation that has experienced more than a fair share of natural disaster. The physical scars of cyclones and tsunamis remain prominent but people continue to smile in the face of adversity and accept that every now and again, they will fall victim to Mother Nature.

While there has been no eruption on Samoa for almost a century, the island, slightly the east of the international date line, is in a highly active techtonic area and there are 450 visible volcanoes. You can visit the lava fields from the last eruption that finished in 1911 on the north coast of Savaii with Australian geologist Warren Jopling who will guide you to Afio Mai, Saleufa Village where the lava ran through a church but – as local legend would have – parted around ‘The Virgin’s Grave’ behind. He will also help you climb Tafua-Savaii, the second largest volcano on the island, from where you watch flying foxes (the world’s largest flying bat) frequent the cavernous and incredibly fertile crater.

Nearby is the wonderfully relaxing retreat Stevenson’s at Manase, offering a wide range of traditional accommodation from the rustic Fales to the top end of the deluxe beach suites and villas. A very warm welcome, followed by lobster and cocktails, (‘Stevenson’s Special’ recommended) is incredibly well received after a long, hot climb with Warren. Metres from the doorstep of the luxurious suites, you can enjoy earth’s last sunset of the day from the pillow soft white sandy beaches or the shallow, warm crystal clear waters.

Sunday is a day of worship and here lies another key to Samoan culture. Teeming trucks ferry the island’s population to their nearest church, one of 52 Christian denominations on the island, where the services celebrate in song and readings (ensure you have a minimum of two Tala – around 60p – to make a contribution).

But not before the first meal of the day – a  melee of fresh fruit with pastries but of course all of the Western options are available. The continental breakfast at Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa (www.sinalei.com) is nothing short of exceptional with bircha muesli taking centre stage on a glorious buffet set out on a stunning peer on the south coast of Savaii. The resort is a wonderful place to retreat and indulge in the delicacies of Samoan life. There is an 18-hole golf course, an ocean-side spa  and bar-side pool shallow enough for young ones to enjoy safely while adults enjoy a drink. Le Manumea Hotel in Apia offers a similarly tranquil retreat on Upolu. Food is fresh from the boats supplying Samoa’s markets.

Samoa – believed by many to be the most authentic and best value for money – is a magical holiday destination for children. As ex-All Black John Kirwan explains, “It’s an important life lesson for children to learn. To go into villages and see that it’s not all about Playstations. The kids are smart, they learn from young about how to live off the land.”

A great time to visit is for the Teulia (national flower) Festival in mid-September at the end of the dry season.

Source: FQ Magazine (UK)