Samoa’s worth the long journey, says Nick Redmayne
Battling the challenge of a remote island is reality TV’s bread and butter. However, among the Polynesian states of the South Pacific, on the two islands and eight islets of Samoa, survival is rarely in question.
Fertile soil, plentiful fishing, a sympathetic tropical climate and, since 1830, a population generally dissuaded from cannibalism, have all played a part in creating a lifestyle few seem inclined to change.
Samoans welcome travellers as far-flung relations, and whereas some destinations squirrel away their tourists in air-conditioned enclaves, no such apartheid exists in Samoa. Just as traditional Samoan fales (houses) are built without walls, so visitors are rarely out of sight of an authentic village lifestyle that’s endured for centuries.
A relaxed outlook and a refreshing commercial disinterest form part of the volcanic archipelago’s lotus-eating allure.
“Why Samoa over other island destinations? Samoa is a place with true heart,” says Davina Took of the Samoa Tourism Authority.
“The people are warm and friendly, there’s a 3,000-year-old Polynesian culture and, of course, it’s an island paradise.”
Just west of the international date line, Samoa is undeniably distant – though this adds to its exotic appeal. Only American Samoa is a near neighbour, a 45-minute flight east over the date line to yesterday from Faleolo International airport.
Temperatures range from 22C to 30C throughout the year. However, as with all tropical climates, rainfall varies greatly, and the best time to visit is June to September’s ‘dry’ season. January to March is best avoided, when tropical storms and cyclones can complicate travel.
Flying from Europe to Samoa without a break requires an additional six-hour journey on top of the flight to Sydney or four hours beyond Auckland – and requires buttocks of steel.
Although there’s definitely a niche Pacific Island market, most European traffic is likely to come from travellers en route to or from either Australia or New Zealand.
Until flights from Los Angeles are reinstated – and don’t hold your breath – a transpacific stopover in Samoa most often involves a round-trip from Fiji. Virgin Samoa, a joint venture by Virgin Australia and the Samoan government, serves Faleolo from Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane, and is the most-used gateway airline.
In the capital, Apia, the Samoa Tourism Authority has created a showcase cultural village. The free programme at Samoa Cultural Village illustrates key features of Samoan life and its strict social codes.
However, be under no illusions, the ‘Fa’a Samoa’ – the ‘Samoan way’ – continues long after the show ends.
On the main island of Upolu, highlights include the flooded volcanic crater of To Sua Ocean Trench swimming hole and the sandy expanse of Lalomanu Beach – featured in Lonely Planet’s top 10 ‘paradises on Earth.’
Also on Upolu, Robert Louis Stevenson’s carefully preserved Villa Vailima is a poignant reminder of the great writer and traveller. The house, now a museum, and his grave atop a nearby hill are places of literary pilgrimage.
On the lesser-populated ‘big island’ of Savai’i, Afu Aau Falls has carved out an impressive natural swimming pool, and makes an exceptional picnic stop.
Elsewhere, along a bumpy coastal track the island’s geyser-like Alofaaga Blowholes are impressive enough without the added nuance of coconuts, thrown in by locals, being ejected up to 30 metres into the air.
Also on Savai’i, Samoa’s volcanic origins are apparent. Evidence of Mount Matavanu’s eruptions between 1905 and 1911, including a lava-engulfed church, can be explored at Saleaula Lava Field on the north-eastern coast.
Visitors interested in Samoan village life should spend a night on the tiny island of Manono. The friendly but basic Sunset View Fales will send a boat to pick up adventurous guests.
Clients easily disturbed by spiders or whose expectations include air-con and a pillow menu should be steered towards a day-trip.
Excellent visibility, rich fringing reefs, the 100-year-old Juno wreck dive and a fecund population of sea turtles have put Samoa on the scuba map. The dives may not rival the Pacific’s most exciting sites, but they have the advantage of being pristine.
On the surface, a growing crowd of experienced surfers are searching out the big waves of both the north and south shores. However, breaks often fall on coral reefs, so Samoan surf can teach the unwary painful lessons.
Along with seafood, pork and chicken, coconuts feature heavily in Samoan cuisine, together with taro, breadfruit and bananas. Recommend that customers seek out a traditional ‘umu’, which involves food being baked under banana leaves over hot rocks.
Apia’s Fugalei fruit and vegetable market gathers together an astonishing variety of colourful island produce. Grab a chilled coconut drink and wander stalls piled high with papayas, cocoa pods, pineapples and bananas, as well as myriad unrecognisable fruits.
Souvenir shopping means a trip to Apia’s Savalalo Flea Market, near the bus station. It’s hot and crowded but is pretty much a one-stop-shop for knick-knacks. Carved wooden bowls, fabrics and T-shirts feature on most stalls and pricing is fair – haggling is foreign to Samoan culture.
In 2009, Samoa switched to driving on the left. The main routes are quiet and car rental is a popular and flexible way to explore. Foreign visitors do have to obtain a temporary Samoan driving licence – it’s a simple speedy process – but do warn clients to avoid errant pigs, chickens and those still driving on the right.
For visitors who prefer to take a back seat, Samoa Scenic Tours offers transfers, half-day and full-day guided programmes with English-speaking guides on both main islands and Manono.
The regular inter-island ferry between Upolu and Savai’i is a pleasant one-hour trip that is worth taking in its own right. The ferry accommodates vehicles as well as foot passengers and both terminals are well served by taxis and buses.
Across Samoa, traditional open-sided fales are strung along idyllic beaches, taking full advantage of the cooling breeze. Facilities range from basic mattress and mosquito net set-ups favoured by backpackers to rooms inspired by fale architecture but offering comfortable en suite hotel-style accommodation.
On Upolu’s south coast, the four-star Coconuts Beach Club Resort & Spa has spacious and characterful thatched beachfront rooms, Samoa’s only over-water bungalows and two villas for larger groups.
The sound of waves and the rustle of wind in the coconut palms create a laid-back feel which, combined with a first-class restaurant and friendly bar, makes this is a top choice for first-time visitors.
Also on the south coast, built around its own cove, Seabreeze Resort is a quiet adults-only four-star-plus property run by an Anglo-Australian couple who have made great strides to integrate, recently adopting Samoan citizenship.
For clients of a foodie inclination, the resort’s award-winning menu will not disappoint, and neither will exceptional sea views from the restaurant itself.
Elsewhere on Upolu, the four-star-plus Return to Paradise Resort is named after the 1953 Gary Cooper and Roberta Haynes movie filmed on the same stunning stretch of coast.
The resort is very much a Samoan concern, built on village land comprising 16 separate leases, funded by local capital, and taking pride in providing jobs and reinvesting in the community. A sublime sandy beach, assured kitchen and practised front-of-house team make the property particularly popular for weddings and conferences.
On Savai’i, the four-star Le Lagoto Resort’s scattering of 10 fales and two family rooms overlook a tranquil bay, perfect for swimming and sunsets.
A protected reef lies an easy swim from the shore, and for those interested in encounters with the coral’s colourful fish, the dive shop across the road rents snorkels and organises specialist dive trips farther afield.
In January, Sheraton became the first international five-star brand to establish a presence in Samoa with Sheraton Aggie Grey’s Resort, near the airport. The resort has 133 rooms, three restaurants, 24-hour room service, a casino, a kids’ club, an 18-hole championship golf course and a spa.
The similarly named but historic Aggie Grey’s Hotel, off Apia’s Main Beach Road, will reopen in December following a substantial refurbishment, also under Sheraton’s management.
Cox & Kings offers an 11-day/eight-night holiday from £2,995, including flights from London, transfers, accommodation at Coconuts Beach Club Resort & Spa, Le Lagoto Resort and Tanoa Tusitala Hotel, a full-day tour of eastern Upolu, a half-day Apia tour and ferries between Upolu and Savai’i.
Travel 2 offers a five-night stay on Upolu at Coconuts Beach Club Resort & Spa in a Coco Suite from £849, including transfers and a full-day Manono island tour. Flights are extra.
Austravel offers a six-night, three-star-plus island-hopping package staying at Siufaga Beach Resort and Sinalei Reef Resort on Upolu, and Le Lagoto Resort on Savai’i, from £939, including transfers and ferry. Flights not included.
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