Katrina Lobley finds the fales and restaurants reopening on Samoa's tsunami-ravaged south coast.
Lumepa Apelu is almost apologetic, pointing to a menu of just a dozen items framed with flowers on the wall of her family's shiny new beach restaurant. On a quiet Monday in January we're the first customers of the day, pulling in for lunch at Lalomanu on the south-east tip of Upolu, Samoa's main island.
Almost four months earlier, Lalomanu - with its ridiculously picturesque coastline framed with coconut trees and dotted with beach fales standing just metres from the baby-blue waters - took the brunt of a series of deadly waves.
The September 29 tsunami claimed about 200 lives and wiped out the restaurant that previously stood on this spot servicing guests at the family's Taufua Beach Fales - semi-enclosed huts with such a pretty outlook that Samoan families often came here, too, to holiday alongside tourists.
Taufua's 18 fales - along with all the neighbouring ones - are gone. The only clue they ever existed is a battered sign propped against the new restaurant and bar, which opened for business just three days earlier.
Former guests, expats and friends came from all over to celebrate the opening, as symbolic as the first eucalyptus leaves sprouting after an Australian bushfire. They ate themselves silly, then camped overnight on the restaurant's floor. It was, by all accounts, quite a party. But as we wait for our plates of crisp battered tuna, chips and salad to arrive, my companion tells me the tsunami also killed one of Lumepa's two young daughters.
As we pay the bill, I can't ask Lumepa directly about her loss; her sadness is as visible as a black mourning dress. Instead, I ask if it was a difficult decision to rebuild the shattered business.
"You have to rebuild in memory of your loved ones," she says. "If we didn't rebuild, we wouldn't be showing them love and respect. This shows we still think about our loved ones."
Her uncle, Fuimaono Taufua, lives in New Zealand but made a beeline to Lalomanu when he heard how the tsunami had devastated the clan - he reels off the relatives lost - and organised a building team. Now the restaurant's up and running, he plans to get cracking on the first fale tomorrow (five fales have since been rebuilt, with more under construction).
The psychologist Dr Pamela Connolly, married to comedian Billy Connolly, is well known in these parts - her company, Frangipani Productions, has made stars of several Samoans and she once retraced the South Sea travels of Fanny Stevenson, the wife of Samoa's most famous resident, Robert Louis Stevenson. Late last year, she spoke on Sydney radio about the incredible resilience of the Samoans. Now I'm beginning to understand what she means. Uncle says that those lost "are still alive to us". "We loved the people who lost their lives here," he says. "They were lost here and they are still here."
It's a sentiment that's been given a dark twist of late. In a nation full of myths and legends - a far-fetched story accompanies pretty much every Samoan landmark - some are gossiping about ghosts haunting the tsunami-wrecked area (which runs from Saleaaumua on the non-touristy east coast to Maninoa on the south coast; about 20 kilometres west of Maninoa lies the area where two seasons of Survivor were filmed back-to-back last year, pre-tsunami). My companion from Apia, who spent the night of the tsunami making soup and hot dogs and collecting bottled water to sustain emergency workers the next day, shakes his head in disgust at the rumours. Lumepa's family and others who are rebuilding are desperate for visitors to return; that kind of talk isn't helpful.
As we leave, we notice the family is following a post-tsunami suggestion to use traditional thatch roofing instead of corrugated iron (which killed and maimed many in the disaster). The suggestion - made at a meeting in November when those in the tourism industry looked at ways they could move forward - came from the owner of the Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa, Joe Annandale, who lost his wife, Tui, in the disaster (the Sinalei plans to reopen on April 1).
Heading for the Cross Island Road that will return us to Apia, we press on westwards along the south coast. To be frank, it's still a wreck. There's little heavy machinery; much of the cleaning up is done by hand. Everywhere are concrete slabs that were once part of somebody's home or an open-walled meeting house. Others that withstood the seawater are crowned with twisted iron, while random structures stand miraculously untouched. A sign announces Habitat for Humanity volunteers are busy building a house.
At Saleapaga there's a motley collection of fales sandwiched between sea and road. The owner of the Faofao Beach Fales, Koroseta Legalo, rebuilt her fales, restaurant and bar a mere six weeks after the tsunami, figuring it was a waste of time waiting for a cheque to arrive. You can't help but admire her determination. If I didn't already have a bellyful of lunch, I would have pulled in here for another meal to support the family's efforts.
Lots of visitors will come to Samoa and submerge themselves in the other parallel universe here, the one where you slide down mossy waterfalls as though you're 14 again, snorkel among technicolour fish, take the ferry over to the even more beautiful "big island" of Savai'i, work on your tan, swim with turtles, lounge in the hotel pool and slurp cocktails.
I did all of that and could have returned home sated by those adventures. Going to the south coast wasn't without some fear - the main one being that I'd feel like a voyeur of the worst kind or that people might stare me down or shout at me as a nosy intruder. It turned out to be the best thing I did in Samoa. It was an emotional lesson in optimism, in how people can survive the worst and pick themselves back up.
At Satitoa, on the east coast, as I watch young guys shovelling beach sand into a truck, Sinapi Lemalu tells me he's turning this sand into bricks for his new house to save on the cost of building materials. We sit on what remains of his former home and he talks openly and easily about what happened, who he lost and how he's rebuilding further inland.
He is, he says, grateful for the help from New Zealand and Australia. And then - heartbreakingly - he smiles for my camera, as though it were just another day in paradise.
The writer was a guest of the Samoa Tourism Authority, Aggie Grey's hotels and Le Lagoto Resort on Savai'i.
Polynesian Blue flies from Sydney to Apia. Phone 13 16 45, see polynesianblue.com .
Rent a car in Apia to travel to the south coast or hire a taxi for the day — expect to pay between 200 and 300 tala ($88-$132). If you swim, snorkel or surf, remember all land belongs to someone and you will need to pay a small fee.
WHERE TO STAY
The garden bungalows at Aggie Grey's Hotel and Bungalows in Apia are the last word in old-fashioned South Pacific glamour. Ask for No. 93 if you're a Marlon Brando fan. $US130 ($145) single, $US160 double/twin a night, see www.aggiegreys.com .
Aggie Grey's Lagoon Beach Resort & Spa is 10 minutes' drive from the international airport and five minutes' drive from the Savai'i ferry, $US200 a night. See www.aggiegreys.com .
On Savai'i, the boutique Le Lagoto Resort, near Fagamalo in the north, fronts one of Samoa's best snorkelling beaches; $US220 a night for oceanview bungalows, $US275 a night for the unbeatable beachfront bungalows. See www.lelagoto.ws .
On the south coast, visit the Samoa Tourism Fale in Apia, open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm and Saturday 8am-noon, for the latest information about accommodation and eating options along Upolu's south coast or see samoa.travel .