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)
  13 September, 2011     

Go the Manu!

  06 September, 2011     

Celebrate Samoa

The Samoans have something more to rejoice– it is the year to Celebrate Samoa - where the nation celebrates key sporting and cultural milestones and anniversaries!

The celebrations kick off the first week of September with the 20th Anniversary of the Teuila Festival – one of the biggest cultural festivals in the South Pacific. The festival showcases numerous cultural activities such as choral exhibitions and traditional entertainment such as the Siva Afi (fire knife dancing). There is also the Fautasi (long boat) regatta, wood carving demonstrations and tattooing. The celebrations culminate in the annual Miss Samoa pageant.

One of the most exciting events in the nation is the annual Palolo Rise. Twice a year, summoned by the waning moonlight, the palolo reef worm rises from the coral to spawn. The palolo is deeply embedded in the Samoan cultural and culinary history and its short lived annual appearance during spawning is celebrated during the last quarter of the moon in October and November.

On a sporting level, the rugby crazy Samoans want you to cheer with them at the Apia Park International Stadium. This multi-function sport complex is home to Samoa national rugby union team, Manu Samoa and will play host to the Marist Samoa 7s and Oceania 7s Championships in October.

2012 starts the most unusual way when on 29 December 2011, Samoa officially travels in time and changes time zone to be in line with Australia and New Zealand. Samoa will jump from the 29th to the 31st of December and will be one of the first nations to greet the New Year. From Saturday 31 December, Samoa will be an hour ahead of New Zealand and three hours ahead of Australia.

Celebrate Samoa culminates in the 50th celebrations of Samoa’s Independence. Expect some amazing activities during this week-long cultural celebration in the country’s capital.

According to Adele Leathan of Samoa Tourism Authority, “There really is no better time to go to Samoa than in the next twelve months”.

“There is something happening almost every month catering to every kind of traveler. We have events that the whole family can enjoy such as the Teuila Festival, we have the 7s rugby championships, Samoa Open Golf Tournament, Judo World Cup and International Game Fishing Tournament for the sporting buffs plus Palolo Rise and the International Tatau Festival for those craving a cultural experience.

“The 50th Anniversary of Samoan Independence will be one of the biggest events in the Samoan event calendar. We are expecting families and friends from all over the world to come to our island and join in on the celebrations so make sure you book early to avoid disappointment!” says Adele.

Source: Samoa Tourism Authority

  05 September, 2011     

Samoa: Rebuilding a South Pacific paradise

By Belinda Henley

For those of us who saw the images of Samoa after it was devastated by a tsunami in 2009, it was impossible to imagine it ever returning to its former glory.

But two years on and it is almost harder to believe the remarkable reconstruction which has gone on, and the fact that this small island paradise has lost none of the natural beauty, warmth, culture or charm which make it such a unique and special holiday destination.

I've been wanting to visit Samoa for quite some time. And I felt strongly that if I was going invest my tourist dollar in visiting a South Pacific Island, it should be Samoa, a place which still desperately needs the support of international visitors.

The flights to Upolu, the most densely populated of the Samoan islands are incredibly easy from Auckland and with Air New Zealand's new fare structure, much more affordable.

We decided to spend our first few nights at Aggie Grey's, the historic hotel located on the waterfront in Apia. I wanted a chance to check out Samoa's biggest centre and this hotel, which was established in 1933, is one of the country's most iconic buildings.

Originally constructed as a resting place for American troops during World War II, it is still run by the Grey family and has lost none of its original charm.

The original Aggie Grey is largely responsible for creating a tourism industry in Samoa, her granddaughter (also Aggie) now runs the hotel and one of the real highlights was seeing her perform a beautiful Siva Samoa (Samoan dance) at the hotel's weekly fia fia night.

The hotel is run like one big family and it is a group from the incredibly talented 300-strong contingent of staff who entertain the guests each week at this celebration of Samoan culture, song and dance.

As well as a captivating show, the hotel puts on an elaborate banquet of local specialities and more 'western' offerings for the less adventurous.

At the centre of the hotel complex is an expansive pool surrounded by tropical plants and flowers, including the most vibrantly coloured hibiscus. We spent the entire first day by the pool, swimming, dozing, eating and drinking. A full menu of meals and drinks is offered poolside - everything is in the local currency, the tala, and it very affordable by resort standards.

We ventured out of the hotel to take in Apia's bustling food and flea market, a great place to pick up cheap and traditional souvenirs or to sample some authentic food and hang out with the locals.

Also nearby, on the Cross Island Road, are a couple of great eating spots: Encounter is a cafe with great food, atmosphere and coffee and a bit further up is Giordanos, a pizza and pasta place with a shady cool courtyard, perfect for kids.

On the same street is Vailima - which is not only the name of the local beer but the stunning homestead where Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his final years. Visitors are now able to visit the homestead and museum which houses some of Stevenson's personal belongings. His tomb is at the top of the nearby Mount Vaea.

After two largely lazy days in Apia, soaking up the city and the Aggie Grey's hospitality we headed across the island to the southern coast and our base for the next four nights, Coconuts Beach Club.

Established first as a bar and restaurant in 1989 by American couple Barry and Jennifer Rose, over time it was lovingly expanded to become a twenty-room hotel and spa.

The morning the tsunami struck the hotel was near capacity: miraculously, all but one of the guests managed to get out alive.

Less than six months after being virtually wiped out, Coconuts was partially reopened, an overwhelming and emotional project which is now virtually complete.

We stayed in one of the newly rebuilt beach front fales, with the water virtually lapping at our front door. The resort is built out into the water with a white sandy beach curving off to each side.

We opted for the 'meal deal' which is incredibly good value and allows you to pre-purchase all your meals and drinks in advance, it is a good feeling to go an entire holiday without putting your hand in your pocket once.

One of the real highlights is the weekly 'cultural' day where the Coconuts staff educate you on Samoan folklore and tradition and demonstrate coconut tree climbing, how to turn coconut water into coconut cream, Samoan-style cooking and you can take part in an 'Ava' drinking ceremony. Beware the lip numbness and mouth tingling afterwards!

The day finishes up with its own fiafia night, featuring a seven-year-old girl performing with fire and knife dancing!

There is plenty to do that doesn't involve putting on shoes, or getting into a car.

You can wander up the beach to visit the beautiful, adults-only Sinalei Reef Resort. Much of the coral and marine life was damaged in the tsunami but there is still plenty to see and paddling around in the crystal clear waters is a wonderful way to spend a morning.

The Coconuts staff also offer tours to the village of Maninoa (meaning 'beautiful'). We had the rare privilege of seeing the local children rehearsing for their Sunday School concert. Churches are the centre of all the villages, there are nine religions practised in Samoa, the most popular being Catholic and Methodist.

Once the novelty of cocktails at the swim-up bar wore off (it took a while) we hired a driver and headed further down the coast to take in some of the areas worst affected by the tsunami.

Some 220 people lost their lives, 'too many' my driver says for a country with a population of just 169,000.

Some of the villages which were entirely wiped out are now virtual ghost towns. Some fales have been rebuilt but many people have opted to resurrect their lives on higher ground.

In some villages we see school children having their lessons outside, as their classrooms are yet to be rebuilt. One of the most devastated villages was that of Lalomanu. The beach is one of the most stunning pieces of coastline I have ever seen, anywhere in the world.

There are basic fales on the beach if you are wanting to spend some days there; just a few metres out from shore is wonderful snorkelling. According to my six-year-old it was 'just like being in Finding Nemo'.

There are plenty of other stunning natural attractions along this piece of coast too: waterfalls, native parks, and the spectacular To Sua Trench, an ocean trench which you can climb down into for a swim in the pristinely clear water below.

A holiday in Samoa can be as active (or as lazy) as you make it.

For our family it was the perfect escape from winter and from the chaos of daily life. It is a country rich not only in its landscape and culture, but in the warmth and resilience of its people.

I will be back.

Source: New Zealand Herald

  01 September, 2011     

Samoa: Simple pleasures

A no-frills break on the island of Savaii proves uniquely soothing, writes Vaimoana Tapaleao

SSHH ... KRRR ... SSHH ... KRRR. Ah, the sound of the ocean. It's something I have loved since I was a child. It's a soothing sound to fall asleep to and it's the song that stirs me awake on this particular morning.

I'm staying at the Vacations Beach Fales in Savaii, in my motherland of Samoa. It's a resort made up of several traditional huts, called fale, that offer tourists a unique cultural experience.

With just a bed and a mosquito net, for some it's living rough, but there's something special about sleeping next to the sea and waking to its sound each morning.

Getting up to a scene that's far from what you're used to at home also has its perks. No high-rise buildings, fast cars or city buzz; but a tropical view of the Pacific, palm trees and golden sand.

Just a few tourists are staying here, which is lovely, as a resort that's teeming with people can sometimes defeat the purpose of getting away from it all.

Most people I speak to say they chose the beach fale option, as opposed to the resorts, precisely in order to get away from what they are used to.

A German couple and their two children love it here, they tell me. "I went swimming yesterday morning and the water was so clear, it was amazing," the woman says. Laughing, she points to a spot where she almost drowned and warns that it's not a place to take children swimming. Being named after the sea, you might think I was a good swimmer - I'm not - so I take a mental note of this. It's better to take kids about 10 minutes away to the Le Lagoto Beach Resort.

Another favourite activity among the tourists is snorkelling. The area's marine animals, for some reason, are not scared to approach you, so there are plenty of colourful fish to see up close.

Many tourists I meet are here to do absolutely nothing. But there are others keen to see more of Samoa and its culture, and they head out with a tour guide to see some secret treasures.

Among the best of these is the Taga Blowholes, where jets of water shoot out of holes in the volcanic rock that stretches along the coast. Depending on the tide, the water can shoot up to 30m into the air - sometimes higher. If you're feeling brave, chuck a coconut into one of the holes and watch it fly (but remember to run away before it comes back to earth).

Another favourite with tourists is seeing how traditional Samoan siapo (tapa cloth) is made. There's a family in the village of Taga that has taken it up as a business. A woman uses a small knife to remove strips of bark from a branch and then begins to pound it with a large mallet.

The result is a slightly soggy, crumpled bit of paper that is stretched and then dried before it is painted with diluted clay.

Later, we head back to the Le Lagoto Beach Resort to dine on traditional Samoan cuisine, including raw fish, pork and luau (made from taro leaves and coconut milk). Yum.

A fiafia night - a celebration - is being held and the tourists are on their feet, dancing and singing with the cultural group.

Later that night, I head back to my fale, where I fall asleep to the sound of the moana ... bliss.

Getting there: Air NZ offers up to seven direct flights a week between Auckland and Samoa. Fares start from $270 per person, one way.

Where to stay: Vacations Beach Fales are on the web at www.vacationsbeachfales.com

Further information: See www.samoa.travel

Vaimoana Tapaleao was assisted by Samoa Tourism Authority, Aggie Grey's Hotel and Le Manumea Hotel on Upolu and Vacations Beach Fales in Savaii.

Source: New Zealand Herald

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