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