18 August, 2013     

Life's just a sea breeze

It has a lower profile than many tropical getaway destinations, but this really is the original treasure island, writes Karen Halabi.

It was less than two years after Australians Chris Booth and his wife Wendy built their coastal resort on Samoa's main island of Upolu - in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson who built a home and settled here - that the 2009 tsunami hit. Chris recounts how he clung on to a door jamb as waves of water and mud washed over him, and Wendy held on desperately around his waist.

After it was all over they walked uphill, over broken glass and debris, to join incredulous guests. Staff who washed their feet found them totally unscathed. Now it's as if they can walk on water. Their survival, while the resort around them was destroyed, has given them "miracle" status on this religious island. Samoa has an abundance of waterfalls.

Samoa has an abundance of waterfalls.

That door jamb was virtually the only thing left standing, but they started rebuilding almost immediately, and the new Seabreeze Resort opened in 2011. The point where the door jamb stood is now the exquisite honeymoon villa and, with two other beachfront villas, the most deluxe accommodation in Samoa.

Seabreeze, in the horseshoe-shape Paradise Bay, in Upolu's south-east, has just won two 2013 TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice awards, as a top romance and bargain destination in the south Pacific.

I am staying in the honeymoon villa, a private gated villa with glorious deck and 280-degree unimpeded ocean views from the bed. The bathroom has louvred windows opening out on both sides to the ocean so you can take a fresh sea-breezy shower starkers and not worry about the neighbours. Two huge day beds strewn with hibiscus petals, robes, slippers, his and hers walk-ins, an outdoor shower, and I'm on holiday.
Smiling children in Upolu

Samoa means "sacred centre" and the Samoan people are deeply religious. Churches are outnumbered only by the ubiquitous fales that line every beachfront and sit in front of every home as a kind of outdoor open-air living room. Often they are bigger than the houses.

There's a saying that explains why the weather doesn't bother the Samoans: "The rain is God watering his children." There's a sign on the back of the brightly painted buses: "Welcome to heaven." And there's a slogan (that even makes an appearance on bottles of the local beer, Sama): "God's best kept secret." The national motto is "Samoa is founded on God" and signs painted on walls tell me "Jesus is the King of Samoa". Everything here has religious significance.

One Sunday we attend church to watch the singing, which is reminiscent of a gospel gathering in the US's bible belt.

Village women leave their coconut stalls and discard their lava lava (sarongs) for fine white dresses with wide-brimmed hats. They walk miles with brightly coloured umbrellas along country roads to get to church.

Afterwards, there's an umu feast where meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves are cooked over coals in the earth.

God's Samoan children certainly are well-watered. The islands are lush, green and cornucopian, with swaying palms and swathes of green jungle interspersed with coconut, cacao, yam, taro and banana plantations.

Survivor: South Pacific was filmed here in this soft adventurer and surfer's paradise. Amazing Race wants to do the same, but flight schedules aren't regular enough to make it work.

Samoa's natural beauty is of the tropical volcanic kind. There are volcanic lava fields, amazing blowholes and waterfalls, stunning beaches and clear, tranquil, turquoise waters ringed by coral reefs. With its white sandy beaches and blue water, Lalomanu, on the south-east coast of Upolu, takes my breath away. Regularly rated among the best in the world, it's listed No.7 on Lonely Planet's top-10 paradises on Earth.

At To Sua Trench, I muster the courage to climb down a 30-metre ladder, a vertical drop into a crystal-clear blue ocean-water swimming hole formed by this gaping volcanic hole in the earth. Even if you're not game, the trench is worth visiting for its jaw-dropping ocean-side setting.

Daredevils used to dive off the ladder, but I choose a safer option and swim at low tide through a lava tube out to sea. Later we swim in a waterfall. They're everywhere, but the best are Papapapaitai and Togitogiga on Upolu and Afu Aau on Savai'i.

They say you haven't seen Samoa until you've seen Savai'i, Samoa's second, and biggest, island. Here we swim with turtles at the wetlands sanctuary in Satoalepai village. They are so friendly that they nudge us into the crystal-clear water for a frolic.

At Taga, on Savai'i's south coast, we watch the leathery old "coconut man" throw coconuts into the Alofaaga Blowholes that hurtle them up to 40 metres into the air.

On the western coast at Falealupo, and also at Le Lagoto Resort, we swim among the coral that comes up almost to the beach. Within metres we discover all kinds of tropical fish. Savai'i has many stunning beaches like this - shallow, calm, wave-less inside-reef white-sand beaches fringed by palm trees - as well as beaches with dark sand and volcanic rock.

Back on Upolu, we hire a car but we also take a ride on a colourful, wooden, open-sided local bus (buses stop anywhere you want and the driver will tell you how much when you get off).

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of his love for the tropics and island life in Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but the inveterate traveller and travel writer chose Samoa to settle and build a home in 1890 after sailing through the south Pacific for three years. To him, these "treasured islands" were the unspoilt paradise he'd been writing about and searching for.

At the author's gracious colonial-style family home, Villa Vailima, I see his writing desk, library, first editions of his classics - even his medicine chest. This is where he died and it is now a museum. It is set atop a breezy hill in botanic gardens.

Samoa has no relentless hawkers, no cities, no built-up areas, and no hard "Where are we going to eat tonight?" decisions to make. There are no "restaurant strips" - you eat at your resort or fale, where breakfast and dinner are included, and until last week when global hotel operator Starwood announced it had signed a deal with Apia's historic Aggie Grey's hotel, Samoa had no chain resorts. (The new Apia Sheraton is expected to open in August 2014.)

Better still for visitors, Samoa represents value for money. Most quoted rates include breakfast, dinner and taxes. An eco "sustainable" destination, most properties have their own water supply. Sinalei Reef Resort, for instance, pumps its supply from an undersea freshwater spring (you can jump off the end of their pier and swim in it).

And, apart from the markets in Apia and Salelologa, there's no real shopping.

The Samoans make great big, beefy, strong footballers but you won't meet a gentler race of people.

Samoa may not have the high profile and the tourist numbers that lure people to other island destinations such as Bali or Fiji, but that may be about to change. Surfers already know about its surf breaks, divers and snorkellers about its underwater wonderland, and backpackers know how cheap a beachfront fale stay can be.

However, until recently, mainstream Australian travellers have largely overlooked Samoa. They eschew this part of Polynesia in favour of the some of the more glamorous, highly promoted, big-budget destinations, parts of which are becoming so overdeveloped and Westernised that sometimes it feels as if you haven't left home. You find yourself yearning for the good old days before shopping malls, bitumen roads and staged cultural shows arrived.

By contrast, on the Samoan islands, there are almost no foreign properties. Land is tightly held by families and considered a part of the village, and development is tightly controlled.

However, Samoa has a whole range of resorts, covering the gamut from budget to luxury, and can be the perfect family, honeymoon or couples' destination. Some (such as Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa) cater exclusively to couples (children under 12 aren't allowed); others cater to families and children (such as Le Lagoto).

There are a few luxury villa properties (such as the boutique Seabreeze and the newly opened 18-room Aga Reef Resort) and for the quintessential Samoan experience, I would highly recommend staying in a fale for at least a night or two and listening to the waves crashing on the reef.

The writer travelled as a guest of the Samoa Tourism Authority.

Take a day trip to Namu'a. A 10-minute trip by boat off the coast of the south-eastern most point of Upolu Island, this Robinson Crusoe-style island is uninhabited except for 11 traditional beach fales. There's no power, but you get a bed and a mosquito net, breakfast, dinner and the boat transfer.

Eat umu-style (meat and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves then cooked over coals in the earth) or revel in the bounty of fresh seafood — often caught just hours before you eat it. Try fresh tuna, mahi-mahi and lobster. Samoa's three most popular dishes are oka (raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk), palusami (taro leaves baked in coconut milk) and the umu feast.

Witness a traditional tattooing ceremony called the Pe'a. Horrifically painful, it can take months to do — intricate geometrical patterns go from the knees to the ribs. Girls have it done from the knees to upper thighs.

Go game fishing. Catch your own lunch and have it cooked for you at your fale. Fish available all year round include marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, giant trevally and masi masi.

Swim with turtles at the wetlands sanctuary in Satoalepai village on Savai'i — so friendly they'll nudge you into the crystal-clear water, where they'll frolic with you.

Virgin Samoa has direct overnight flights to Samoa three times a week (less than six hours) getting you there in time for a day of fun. 13 67 89,virginaustralia.com

Seabreeze Resort, +685 41 391, seabreezesamoa.com; Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, +685 25 191, sinalei.com; Le Lagoto Beach Resort, +685 58 189, lelagoto.ws. Stay in a breezy beachfront open-air fale. Open-sided with mosquito nets, some have electricity and ceiling fans; rates from 70 tale (about $32) a night, with breakfast and dinner. Litia Sini and Taufua Beach Fales on Lalomanu Beach, samoabeach fales.com. On Savai'i, Vacations Beach Fales at Manase Beach and Falealupo Beach Fales. For an island escape, take a day trip to Namu'a. Just a 10-minute trip by boat off the main island, it is uninhabited, except for the 11 traditional beach fales, which don't have any power.

Check out the fusion cuisine at Seabreeze or dive into seafood often caught just hours before you eat it.


Source: Sydney Morning Herald

  17 August, 2013     

Samoa resorts and hotels bounce back

IT'S been a tough few years for tourism in Samoa.

Just as the island nation was starting to get back on its feet after the devastating 2009 tsunami, it was hit by tropical Cyclone Evan last December.

Many resorts, which were nearing completion, were badly damaged in the cyclone and work had to start afresh. But with the fourth anniversary of the tsunami next month, Samoa has plenty to look forward to with several new resorts and refurbishments planned.

Last week Starwood Hotels and Resorts signed a deal to rebrand the iconic Aggie Grey's Hotel in the capital, Apia, and Aggie Grey's Beach Resort and Spa, near the airport. The properties will be renamed Sheraton and upgraded to bring them in line with the hotel group's standards.

"It's big news and everyone is very excited about it," Samoa Tourism Authority spokesman Peter Sereno says. "For us it shows that these guys have got their eyes on Samoa as an emerging destination."

Much of the original Aggie Grey's, which was the first hotel in Samoa, was bulldozed after the river burst its banks during the cyclone. It is being rebuilt in a similar colonial style and due to reopen in August next year.

As well as plans for the $60 million Taumeasina Island Resort, which is being built on a man-made island near Apia, several resorts are in the pipeline for the south coast of the largest island, Upolu.

Aga Reef Resort, which caters mostly to couples, opened in July and the family- friendly Saletoga Sands Resort is scheduled to open in April. The latter is a 30-minute drive from the beautiful Lalomanu Beach (often voted one of the world's best) which was one of the worst-hit areas in the tsunami.

Another resort is set to open at Lefaga next year on the site where the 1953 Gary Cooper film Return to Paradise was filmed. It will, naturally, be called Return to Paradise Resort and Spa.

"Nothing has been built on that beach for generations," Mr Sereno says. "It will be one of the biggest resorts on that side of the island with 60 to 70 rooms."

The popular Coconuts Beach Club Resort and Spa also reopened in July, seven months late due to the cyclone.

Mr Sereno says Samoa is a great destination for travellers who want a quieter alternative to Fiji with pristine beaches, rock waterslides, swimming holes, great surfing, Polynesian culture and history.

"There are some really good deals out there in the market at the moment," he says. "You can get seven-day land and flight packages for as low as $1100.

"If people want to try a traditional Samoan experience, they can stay at a fale and pay as little as $35 a night for a bed with dinner and breakfast included."

By Angela Saurine
  11 August, 2013     

Seeking Savai'i's sunsets

Savai'i is not only Samoa's largest island, it's one of the biggest in all Polynesia. Densely clad in impenetrable jungle, it boasts the highest peak, (Mt Silisili at 1866m), spectacularly rugged beaches and plenty of sheltered sandy coves. Being a volcanic creation, the island is pockmarked with close to 450 volcanic cones, a testament to its many baptisms by fire.

These days, you'll find Savai'i a peaceful place. There's only one set of traffic lights and loads of places to kick back and unwind. If you prefer a more active holiday this popular patch of paradise offers excellent hiking, cycling, fishing and diving.

Getting there is easy. Either fly from Upolu or take the ferry. It's said the bus service on Savai'i is erratic, although the buses themselves, with names like Bon Jovi, Queen Maggie or In Jesus I Trust, are gorgeous. But if you're here for only a short time and don't have all day to sit waiting for a bus that may never come, rent a car.

Straight off the ferry, we nipped into Salelologa Market where you can buy fruit and veges, snacks, toothpaste, enamel mugs, undies, souvenirs, toys and much more. You can never have too many sarongs.

All shopped out, our next port of call was one of the island's best-known attractions, the Alofaaga Blowholes at Taga.

Follow the signposts from Main South Rd, pay the small fee and continue along the rutted track. This natural wonder, created by holes in hardened lava, sees water shoot 60m into the air. If you pay a little extra, the nice man will toss a coconut into the mouth of the hole. Next thing you know the coconut shoots into the sky like a cannonball.

With the mercury at 33C we needed to chill out before calling it a day so took a detour to the Afu Aau Waterfall, a swimming spot with cool water and movie-set surrounds.

Heading along the coastal road to Lagoto Resort, the sky was the most extreme blue. It's a cliche, but I'll call it azure, and the sea looked as if it had been through Photoshop.

Arriving at our digs we were told Lagoto is Samoan for sunset and sure enough we were treated to a spectacular twilight sky of crazy colours. Our room was a treat, with a balcony on the water and, beyond that, a little jetty we could swim off if we wanted a break from the pool.

That first night, all cosy in our fale, we were roused by booming thunder and lightening. The next day we woke to a very different palette - the sky a gunmetal gray, the sea cut from RAF cloth. Undaunted, we struck out for the westernmost village in the island to the Canopy Walkway, which is part of the Falealupo Rainforest Preserve. Assuming you have a head for heights, pay the modest entrance fee and head into the jungle to a sturdy 9m spiral steel stairway. The atmosphere at the top was uplifting, compromised only when we realised we had to cross a rickety 24m swing bridge, one at a time.

Safely on the other side, we climbed even higher into an ancient banyan tree. This is the tree house a giant might build.

What is it about fear that stimulates the appetite? Happily the Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge was open for lunch - a heavenly spot on the beach. You'd be silly not to have fish so fresh that it may as well have been flapping. Our appetites were whetted to do some angling of our own.

It was easy to organise a fishing charter through Va-i-moana Lodge. You can go out all day or just for a few hours, and we were quickly hooked up with a boat and skipper. For the first hour I was sure we'd return empty-handed, but no, we caught a couple of decent barracuda, but the one that got away had to have been the biggest beast of all time.

Talking of beasts, I am so glad we made time to visit the turtles at Saleapaga Village. Lured with the promise of pawpaw, they arrived snorting water from their nostrils. They were at least 1m long, with beaks like parrots. Their flippers were silky and leathery, reptilian and meaty - although don't go there, to ensure their survival these creatures are off the menu for good.

Savai'i is heaven on Earth and I appreciate its charms all the more, writing this at home amid a polar blast, hail peppering the roof.

The Lagoto Resort is for families, couples or independent travellers. Be sure to have a massage, they are seriously amazing.

Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge offers food, fishing trips, snorkelling and accommodation.

Elisabeth Easther and her son were guests of the Samoa Tourism Authority.

- Herald on Sunday
By Elisabeth Easther   08 August, 2013     

First global chain arrives in Samoa

Starwood Hotels and Resorts will become the first major global hotel chain to enter the Samoan accommodation market after it was revealed the country’s most iconic hotel brand, Aggie Grey’s, would be rebranding its two properties as Sheraton hotels.

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Starwood and Aggie Grey’s in Apia on Wednesday, will see both properties – Aggie Grey’s Hotel and Aggie Grey’s Beach Resort and Spa – become part of the world’s largest luxury hotel family from next year.

Speaking at the gathering, Samoan Prime Minister Honorable Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Dr Sailele Malielegaoi said the arrangement marked “a milestone in the journey of Samoa’s tourism industry”.

“Having the presence of a luxury hotel chain will make a vast difference to the development of the tourism industry,” he remarked.

As well as gaining from Starwood’s extensive marketing networks, highly developed reservation systems and a loyalty program which would drive return visits and greater spending, the PM said the new deal would have “significant spin-off benefits through improved status in the hospitality and service sectors”.

But perhaps most importantly, the move represented “a clear demonstration of foreign investment and confidence in Samoa”.

Signing the MoU for Aggie Grey’s Beach Resort and Spa, chief executive Lupesina Frederick Grey said the deal would take Samoan tourism to “a whole new level”.

“Samoa is at that stage now where it needs a lift in terms of its next growth area in tourism,” he told reporters after the announcement, which was made at the Samoa Conference Centre.

“We believe that having a global chain partner with us in Samoa will take the destination to that level.”

Representing Starwood at the event was Starwood chief executive North America Robert Hermany and Vice President North America Global Acquisitions and Development Siddharth Narang.

Stay tuned for more news from Samoa, where e-Travel Blackboard was on location.

Source = ETB News: Mark Harada

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