10 July, 2013

Warm hearted Samoa

By Matt Nippert

There's only one traffic light in the Samoan port of Salelologa, and it's often on the blink.

If island time is traditionally an hour or two late, in Savai'i - home to 44,000 souls and countless free-roaming domestic pigs - the clock's wound back another decade.

The only games of chance played here appear to be bingo tournaments raising funds for churches that dot the coastline.

Samoa is no Sin City, and for family travelling - and I'm here with my wife and 2-year-old son - Samoa's a happy tropical medium between the first-world expense and comfort of the Gold Coast and the cheap-but-challenging Southeast Asia.

If your child can manage the flight - and fellow passengers will be praying they can - Samoa is a dream respite from winter with almost every attraction and landmark only a few hours' drive away. And the biggest danger is seemingly wandering livestock on the road.

Arriving at Faleolo Airport on Upolu, the main island, you immediately know you're not in Changi.

Having flown direct from wintry New Zealand, the airport's open-air design makes queuing for customs akin to standing in front of a wall of hair dryers as fans recirculate the 30-degree afternoon.

And once processed and acclimatised, it quickly becomes apparent that the temperature isn't the only thing to have risen in the four hours flying across the Pacific Ocean.

Wireless access seems to start at $10 an hour.

Allied to brutal international roaming rates, there's no better excuse to disconnect from home and work - and 2013 - and drop off grid.

But Samoa is clearly on the way up.

The United Nations has flagged the island - free of political instabilities seen in other parts of the Pacific - as a candidate to graduate from Less Developed Country status.

Tourism's been a big driver of this imminent transformation as the industry is the country's second-biggest export earner, only behind remittances from Samoans who are seeking their living offshore.

Savai'i has less a national roading network than a circulation of rough roads skirting around volcanic rocks.

None of the geothermal activity is active, but past explosions and eruptions have left their mark with black-rock cliffs, lava fields and seaside blowholes that channel waves into explosive geysers.

One practical side-effect of this busy geology are endless swimming holes and waterfalls. With an aquatic wife, and a tadpole-like 2-year-old, every swimming opportunity demands to be taken.

Changing sheds, along with fences and barriers, are non-existent at these informal pools. On occasion, ladders climbing down to swimming spots are covered in moss - Osh would have a field day - but managing minor risks is worthwhile as a respite from the heat.

Togitogiga, on Upolu, and the Afu Aau Waterfall, on Savai'i, are the pick of the bunch but locals can point to dozens more if resort pools and beaches become boring.

And some of the glorious beaches may become boring just because they're empty.

At Savai'i's Falealupo Beach Fales, a picturesque beach is entirely deserted; bicycle tracks in the white sand from a tour group earlier in the day are the only evidence of human activity.

Away from the water and back to the dining table, Samoa's foodie culture is also moving rapidly from less developed to budding culinary hotspot.

For New Zealand-born international chef Robert Oliver, bringing the foods of the South Pacific to the world has turned into a crusade.

His recent book, Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, picked up the top gong at 2010's Best Cookbook in the World competition, and his follow-up - including a television series provisionally titled Real Pasifik - will focus on the kitchens of Samoa.

There's more to the local diet than starchy taro, with Apia featuring a number of Ponsonby-quality restaurants and tourist spots around both main islands catering to travellers wanting more than fish and chips.

Well, some are still after the old favourites. My son is pleased to find that using one of his few words - "chips"- results in consistent delivery of fried potatoes.

Fish, pulled straight from the sea, is uniformly good even without batter.

Slabs of tuna or diced mahi-mahi marinated in citrus as oka almost compare with free-range pork that could well have walked off the road and into the kitchen.

There's good swimming and good eating, but the pinnacle of Samoa for my son sees him add to his vocabulary: "Turtle."

The green turtles of the ocean were historically hunted for food in Samoa but, with numbers dwindling, efforts have been made to protect a now-endangered species.

At Satoalepai village in Savai'i, a sanctuary has been set up to nurse injured turtles, mostly those caught in fishing nets, back to health.

Their recuperation is the tourists' gain, as dozens of the giant-shelled creatures are only too happy to share their pools with the curious.

These turtles aren't your small home aquarium variety either, being up to 10 times heavier than my 18-kilogram son.

Not that it stops him try to ride on their backs.

Fortunately, these are not the carnivorous snapping variety, and these gentle giants will only ponderously lunge for papaya.

With new words, full bellies and a welcome touch of sun, it is a shame to come home.

On the flight back, where the only noise out of my son is the repeated chanting of "turtle", I already begin to miss a place where the only chance of a polar blast comes with the spilling of a blended margarita.

Matt Nippert travelled to Samoa courtesy of the Samoa Tourism Authority.

Source: stuff.co.nz

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