Breathing heavily as we ascend Samoa’s leafy Mt Vaea, our guide Anthony offers up a homespun Samoan gem to effectively push us to the scenic summit. When he opines, “paradise is sometimes hard to get to”, he could well be talking about the Samoan experience as a whole.
Inexpensive and untainted, Samoa is free of Fiji’s desperate consumerist lunge or Hawaii’s American cultural sway, thus emerging as a pristine précis of Polynesia’s glories. Known as Western Samoa until 1997, the country was a burgeoning tourist destination until 2009’s deadly tsunami claimed almost 100 lives on the main island of Upolu. The proud nation has comprehensively rebounded, with September’s 20th annual Teuila Festival a robust showcase of the country’s culture. The vibrant week-long celebrations in the capital Apia promotes national customs and events in front of crowds of locals and international travellers, but beyond the city perimeter lies opportunities perhaps even more unique than witnessing age-old rites, canoe races and ceremonial dances.
Finally arriving at Mt Vaea’s peak, we take in the view of Apia and its harbour as we rest beside the tomb of Samoan resident Robert Louis Stevenson. Searching for a climate that would arrest his chronic health issues, the Treasure Island author moved his family to Samoa in 1890 and was warmly welcomed by the locals. Stevenson’s benevolence towards the villagers of Upolu ensures he’s still a revered figure of Samoa, despite dying within four years of his arrival. Dubbed Tusitala (‘The Teller Of Tales’) by the locals he’d regularly invite for meals at his stately colonial home, the Samoans fulfilled Stevenson’s dying wish to be buried on this picturesque mount. The Scottish author now has the best view in town.
After witnessing a hard-fought fautasi canoe marathon back down in Apia harbour, which sees villagers from across Samoa arriving to cheer on their hydraulically-armed brethren, we watch the Samoa Tourism Authority’s presentation on the local art of tattooing. Athletically-built guide Chris Solomona proudly displays his hip-to-knee tribal markings, but 10 years on from submitting himself to a 2000-year-old ritual his description of the tradition remains graphic. With a sharpened pig tooth, the blue ink is scratched into the flesh during 12 eight-hour sittings of intense pain. The bleeding skin is a hub for flies, while a post-session bathing in the sea to prevent the wounds from becoming septic brings hungry fish to feast on the lesions. “The pain is agonising, it’s pure hell,” Chris remarks. “When I was young my grandfather had the tattoos and I saw the way he carried himself: a good speaker, a humble person, a good leader and someone who had the ultimate respect of the village. I told him one day that when I grew up I wanted the full tattoos and he sat me down and said, ‘Don’t you ever, ever let those words come out of your mouth again’. He told me about the agonising pain and the consequences, but I wasn’t listening. One day I packed my bags and went to the south coast where the artist lived. He tried to talk me out of it, asking me if I was mentally and physically prepared for it. I said yes, but boy was I wrong.”
There’s not a tattoo to be seen when we witness the demure contestants of Miss Samoa fight it out for the 2012 title later that evening. A throwback to an earlier age of entertainment, the Miss Samoa competition is a quaint, sometimes hilarious affair. Watched on by a crowd of 4000 and broadcast live on local television, it accidentally offers tourists accustomed to finesse and gloss all sorts of farcical fun. The bafflingly askew answers the Miss Samoa hopefuls offer in their interview round ensure it’s a delirious highlight of the Teuila Festival – imagine a 1959 Eurovision with more coconut husk dresses, lower production values and intriguing definitions of ‘talent’ and you’re almost there.
Travelling across Samoa, it’s hard to tell which is more prevalent – the makeshift DIY shanty delis offering cheap hits of junk food or the immaculate presented churches with impressive architecture and ornate embellishments. These houses of the holy are everything the average humble villager’s abode isn’t. Even in the most frugal communities, large amounts of money are poured into churches – a more ornate church is seen as indicating a better unity with ‘Iesu Keriso’, Jesus Christ. Given Samoa lacked a pervading faith system prior to the arrival of missionaries in 1830, Christianity was embraced absolutely. The common Samoan funereal practice of dispensing with the dead via canoes sent out to sea was banished as Christian burials were introduced. Maintaining the strong familial bond in death, Samoans now bury the majority of their dead on their own land. Raised grave cairns in front gardens are used as seats to laze upon or as prime positions to dry clothes on – it’s good to know grandma is still helping with the washing even after death.
While the intrinsic Christian social structure of Samoa might seem unusual to westerners used to multiple – or lapsed – faiths, it seems the influence on the political, cultural and social spheres ensure strong moral values; name another country where 18-year-old boys sitting at their parked cars outside clubs late at night would offer an innocuous ‘Good evening - have a nice night’ to visiting young female travellers rather than drunkenly leering.
Upolu’s south coast proves to be even more surprising than Apia’s well-mannered youth. While one of Samoa’s key selling points is that it isn’t clambering to erect sprawling, homogenous resorts on every sandy shore, majestic accommodation does exist. Rebuilt in the wake of the tsunami devastation, Seabreeze Resort looks south onto an ocean that doesn’t hit another land mass until it reaches Antarctica’s ice floes 8000km away. An idyllic cove that acts as a holiday spot perfect for honeymooners or those with a love of boutique lodgings, it’s a fairytale setting. Cheaper – but no less memorable - accommodation options along the coast include thatched beach huts known as fales, where visitors can bed down on modest, traditionally woven mats and fall asleep as the waves lap like a comforting marine metronome mere metres away.
We wake at 5am, with our meticulous guide Anthony shoehorning a trip to the blissful island of Savai’i into our schedule. Speeding down Upolu’s winding roads peppered with obstacles such as pigs, chickens and blasé pedestrians, our morning race to a far-flung ferry is soundtracked on the car stereo by adopted Samoan favourites including Akon, Flo Rida and Rihanna. The car horn is also particularly musical this morning, with Samoans fond of beeping to say hello, cut through traffic, move errant livestock or basically as a means of living life via a cheery, single-tone existence.
We arrive on Savai’i to find the crystal waters and sandy beaches postcard perfect, with Tuasivi’s waterfront scene straight out of a Bounty chocolate bar commercial. Offsetting the majestic calm of this scene are the angry Alofaaga blowholes located just 30 minutes down the coast, where crashing waves are violently forced through black tubes of petrified lava. Locals showcase the astonishing ocean power via coconuts thrown into the blowholes, with the coconuts exploding in a shower of husk as the pressurised seawater is spurted 20 metres into the air. It’s an awesome way to break up any sedate and scenic days, albeit something of a waste of delicious local coconuts.
We stop at Afu Auu Falls – a beautiful lagoon where small forest streams cascade into a waterhole. A dam upstream has recently changed Afu Auu’s water flow, but for the time being these pools remain filled by pure mountain streams. With the local village earning the majority of its cash from the tourists who stumble upon this undervalued site, the local tribal council sit in a fale at the entrance like weathered Jedis, collecting entrance fees and watching over proceedings with sage-like eyes.
Although natural wonders such as Alofaaga and Afu Auu inject cash into villages, an abundance of fresh fruits and fish ensure some areas of Savai’i are basically cashless and self-sufficient. Locals are unapologetically relaxed and appear free of nine-to-five expectations, with shirtless groups lazing at beach-side bus stops in the shade of beach palms, seemingly unconcerned if their bus never arrives. “Why work?” Anthony laughs rhetorically as we drive past a large, impromptu Thursday afternoon cricket game that sees fielders drawn from all over the village and amusingly sprawled out across the road.
Another ferry ride later and we’ve arrived at Manono Island, an even smaller scenic escape with few amenities or luxuries. This is genuine island culture rather than a feeble re-creation to snare the tourist dollar; despite our Spartan accommodation, the islanders are friendly and our hosts’ hearts are as big as the centipedes in the bathroom. Big. A circumnavigation of the island on foot takes around 90 minutes, with local children cheerily coaxing us to to photograph them with a shout of “Pue-Ata”, which translates to ‘take my picture’ or, more directly, ‘capture my smile’. After yielding to their beaming charms in the shade of the breadfruit trees, we return to our village and feast on fresh crayfish, tuna and rice in the communal fale while watching the sun set over the Pacific.
It is true that paradise is sometimes hard to get to, but when the results are as rich as these, a journey to Samoa is emphatically worth the extra effort. Before reflexively booking your next holiday to an overcrowded, horrifically westernised island, instead seek out this natural jewel in Polynesia’s crown.