Thirty-five thousand feet up in the air, the journey from Australia to Samoa is exquisite; a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of tiny atolls scattered across the turquoise ocean, ringed by haloes of coral reef and white surf. Bigger, lusher islands pass beneath, thickly forested along spiny ridges and long-dead volcano cones, that are now shimmering lakes where lava was once bubbling up from the earth’s core.
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The elegant wing of the Samoa Airways 737, painted blue and white in traditional island patterns, tips sharply upwards as we turn in a massive arc, merging sea and sky, to descend into Faleolo Airport. This smart new airline, borne of the former Polynesian Airlines, started flying out of Sydney back in November; a very doable hop that takes you from urban mainland Australia to an island paradise in around five hours.
Beneath us lie Samoa’s two islands, shaped like a couple of curious fish hovering nose to nose, a small band of sea between them. Savai’i to the west is bigger, and Upolu to the east is longer and narrower. It’s early in the morning and the sun is just coming up. Once one of the last places on earth to greet the day, Samoa jumped westwards over the international dateline on 29 December, 2011 to bring it into the same timezone as Australia and New Zealand.
As we emerge from the plane, women in bright prints with flowers in their hair are beaming at us and beckon us into the terminal. The air is filled with singing. Welcome to the warm heart of Polynesia.
The word ‘paradise’ could have been coined for Upolu, a lush green island fringed with palms lolling horizontally over white sand, and circled by the clearest green water. It’s an island that is so spectacularly beautiful, utterly unspoiled and populated by friendly, tattooed islanders living harmoniously in traditional thatched, open houses – fale – all exemplifying the island way of life, faifai lemu, meaning ‘take it easy’.
Whizzing along the one road around the island, we pass chubby, laughing children by the wayside, a scatter of chickens scratching in the grass and a gaggle of well-dressed ladies on their way to church. Churches are big in Samoa, where the Christian faith is at the heart of village life, and the singing, which you will hear everywhere, is literally quite heavenly. Gardens filled with sweet, tropical frangipani, vivid-red ginger blooms and bright yellow pualulu blossoms also house the occasional black lava-rock tomb of departed relatives. It might appear strange to Westerners, but it’s a way of life here to keep your loved ones closer to you, even in death.
It’s not hard to see why the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) was drawn to Upolu. In the late 19th-century he came in search of a climate to heal his tubercular lungs and fell in love with the island and the people, inspiring a great devotion that exists still today. The Samoans called him Tusitala – “teller of tales” – and if you visit his grand verandah’d house at the foot of Mount Vaea, the sweet-faced guide will sing you a song about the great man with tears in her eyes. The much-loved writer enjoyed only four years on his beloved Samoa and died in 1894 at the age of just 44. His house, now a beautifully kept museum, remains just as it was (complete with the two fireplaces that were never used) and is worth an inclusion on your itinerary.
The island’s interior is a hiker’s dream, with steep mountains covered in thick rainforest dotted with magnificent waterfalls, lush green valleys of towering banyan trees and shimmering views to the sea. One of the island’s biggest attractions is the spectacular To Sua Ocean Trench, a natural swimming hole connected to the ocean by underwater cave channels. This perfect circle of cool, clear emerald water is entered via a stomach-churning climb down a steep slippery ladder. But once you’re in, it really is a special experience as you lie on your back gazing up at the sky from this magical volcanic grotto.
But for most visitors, the pull of Samoa’s dazzling coastline is irresistible. Protected by a coral reef, these lovely warm waters are calm and safe for bathing and water sports, such as paddle boarding, snorkelling and diving. And it’s gorgeously romantic too, so it’s no surprise that the island is fast becoming a very popular destination for laidback beach weddings among Westerners.
Famed for its cocktails and fine cuisine is Coconuts Beach Club on the south coast. Offering the island’s only overwater villas, they feature a glass floor for fish spotting – there’s even a ladder you can climb down to join them in the water with your snorkel and fins.
Enjoy the memorable experience of being serenaded by the staff as you arrive at the beautifully-landscaped Saletoga Sands Resort. Seamlessly blending into its palm-fringed surrounds and flower-filled gardens, this is a lovely, laid-back resort where lazing around is encouraged.
Beyond the pool and the sunken bar, snorkelling and kayaking are available for the more adventurous, and if you paddle out to the edge of the reef and look back, there is a heart-stopping view of this dramatically mountainous island.
Named after the 1953 Gary Cooper movie filmed in the bay there, Return to Paradise, is a resort owned and run by Samoans – and it’s a very special place where nothing is too much trouble. You can expect most of the staff to tell you that their grandparents were extras in the film and that they are proud to be a part of this Samoan family business. Look out for the handsomly-tattooed singing gardeners, who will pop up from pruning the resort’s shrubbery to croon to you as you’re walking by, just when you are least expecting it.
At the other end of the scale, if you fancy just winging it, there are lovely traditional beach fales to be found on Lalomanu’s pristine white beach for only a few dollars per night. Here, after a simple meal of fresh fish and local beer, you can stretch out under coconut thatch and a few million stars as the ebb and flow of the waves lull you to sleep.
Whether visiting the local market in Apia, sipping a cocktail at the pool bar or taking in a fiafia cultural show of traditional singing and dancing, you will quickly discover that Samoans are wonderfully warm and friendly people with a genuine desire to show off the very best of their island.
They are invested in this beautiful place; they are not merely resort staff or taxi drivers or chefs or teachers, but ambassadors for a culture and way of life they proudly wish to share and celebrate with visitors. It’s both impressive and heartwarming, and something that sets Samoa apart from similar destinations.
More than its beautifully romantic vibes, its tranquillity, its extraordinary volcanic landscape and turquoise seas, Samoa’s real charm is that it remains completely unspoiled and untainted by that frenetic pace of life that most of us city dwellers yearn to escape. And that makes it a pretty special place to just kick back, relax and let go of all the stresses of daily life. May it always be so. Faifai lemu indeed.
Image credits: Kirkland Photography and Laura Mattocks
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