21 October, 2010

Australasia: Samoa

By Dave Richardson

Author Robert Louis Stevenson fell in love with Samoa more than 100 years ago. Dave Richardson discovers what the 10 remote islands offer visitors today

It may only be a four-hour flight from Auckland to Samoa, but crossing the International Date Line means visitors can be rather confused on arrival. I leave on Friday and arrive on Thursday, but soon forget about that as I delve into Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales. He was fascinated by Samoa and is buried here. How much of the magic remains?

I soon realise Samoa is unlike any other country I have visited. On the 20-mile drive from the airport to the small capital, Apia, there are no dual carriageways, no traffic lights, no neon signs. But the villages are busy, even late at night. People are crowded into large fales – traditional houses without walls and with roofs held up by poles. I think they must be having some sort of meeting, but they are in fact watching rugby on TV. A few days later, this nation of 200,000 people beats Australia in the final of the Sevens World Series.

I ask my guide why some people sleep outside their fales, on beds decked out with flowers. She explained patiently that they are not beds but graves – Samoans are buried in the heart of their communities. I visit a village on Savaii, the larger but less populated of the two main islands, where the men tend plantations of coconuts, bananas and root vegetables while the women look after children. Extended families gather to cook on hot stones covered by earth. One man shows me his bed – a mattress covered with a mosquito net – and his “shower” – a hose pipe hanging from a tree. It’s baffling that his cousin is Everton footballer Tim Cahill, an Australian whose mother emigrated from this village. Does he envy Tim? “Not at all,” he says.

Christianity is central to the Samoan way of life, so they usually ask visitors which church they belong to. Since the first missionaries arrived in the 1830s, every denomination has set up here, and imposing churches tower over the fales. Watching everyone go to worship in their Sunday best is a treat. But few visitors come because of Samoa’s culture. Most are from New Zealand, and the main appeal is sun, beaches, watersports and nature. There are blowholes on the coast of Savaii and waterfalls on both main islands, but the mountainous interiors are accessible only to trekkers.

Upolu, the most populated island and entry point, has the best beaches along its south coast. The area was devastated by a tsunami in September 2009, but most resorts reopened within a few months. Savaii, reached by a 90-minute ferry crossing, has one main road around its perimeter and no sizeable towns. It’s a true tropical getaway with small-scale resorts, kids, cats, pigs and chickens running about. Samoa’s location against the International Date Line means Cape Mulinuu on Savaii’s western tip is the last place on earth where the sun sets each day. It’s a place of legend, and many Samoans will not come here after dark because of spirits. Twice a year, demons are said to emerge from the sea and walk up a hill as all the dogs start barking.

No doubt the missionaries tried to drive out these superstitions, as did the German colonialists who briefly ruled Samoa, but one European settler defended their culture and they loved him for it. They called Robert Louis Stevenson “Tusitala” (Teller of Tales). His mansion at Vailima, near Apia, is now a museum and the only major attraction around the capital. He wrote several books there from 1890 until his death in 1894. In a Stevenson story called The Ebb-Tide, a character called Attwater is asked why he came to the South Seas. He replies: “Youth, curiosity, romance, love of the sea and an interest in missions.” It may be one of the remotest places on earth, but these are still good reasons to visit Samoa in the 21st century.

The Samoa Tourism Authority lists nine UK operators to the islands, but some are direct-sell only. Samoa is usually part of a tailor-made holiday with Fiji, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Zealand or Australia.

Go coco-nuts: Agent-friendly Transpacific offers a 12-night holiday-only to Samoa, with seven nights at Coconuts Beach Club on Upolu followed by five nights at Le Lagoto Resort on Savaii, from £2,439.

Tailor-made: A typical tailor-made tour by Jetset includes three nights in Los Angeles, four nights at Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Samoa, three nights in Auckland and four nights in Hong Kong from £1,989, all on Air New Zealand flights.

Air New Zealand: This airline is the main carrier with weekly direct flights from Los Angeles to Apia (10 hours and 15 minutes), connecting with Heathrow departures on Tuesdays. Fares start at £1,018 return. It also offers daily flights from Auckland (four hours), from £264 return.

Air Pacific: Operates flights from Fiji (including connections from Hong Kong), and a weekly direct flight from Honolulu.

Polynesian Blue: Flies from Sydney (six hours and 30 minutes) and Auckland.

Samoa has about a dozen hotels of international standard and lots of wooden fale resorts on stilts, without private bathrooms, where you sleep on a mattress. Luxury fale accommodation is available at some resorts.

Family-run: Le Manumea on the outskirts of Apia is typical of Samoa’s small, family-run resort hotels, with 12 rooms and bathrooms open to the stars.

Boutique: Le Lagoto is Savaii’s top boutique property, with its own beach and a choice of apartments or fale-style accommodation.

Source: TTG Live

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