By Sandy Savos
I lost my 33-year-old wedding ring and heart in Samoa. They were not hard to achieve, really, although you probably could guess which one proved to be the most embarrassing for me.
I lost my heart to this magnificent country within minutes of landing at Faleolo International Airport, Apia, Upolu Island, amid a sea of smiling faces and a band playing soft Samoan music. Families and friends welcoming loved ones made me slightly emotional. True happiness was in the air. It was a great start to an eight-day epic adventure.
I was one of four travel writers from Australia who had been invited by the Samoan Tourism Authority’s PR agent Peter to witness the colourful and hugely popular Teuila Festival and see some of the country’s spectacular natural attractions. My colleagues were Craig (Fairfax Media), Nikola (Get Lost magazine) and Claire (Expedia website); all seasoned travel writers and among the beautiful people of this world. Peter joined us for our insights and our absolute craziness.
Virgin Australia flew the Aussie media team from Sydney to Apia … in five hours AND one minute (according to the captain). I was surprised, pleasantly, by the generous leg room in economy. It was ”smooth sailing” as a (tiny) bottle of Chivas Regal whisky helped me snore softly, dreaming of faraway lands and unknown adventures.
Samoans are renowned for being friendly and hospitable to visitors, and the first Samoan to officially greet us was the embodiment of everything that is wonderful about this country: the lovable, affable Kristian Louiz Saitofiga Lam-Scanlan, who became our tour host for most of our journey. I wanted to be like him: tall, brown skin, pearly white teeth, hibiscus behind an ear, an abundance of black hair and an outrageous ”Hawaiian” shirt. He became my brother ”who lives across the great ocean”. Chi Chi (Kristian’s nickname) was a dancer who had spent nine months with a Samoan troupe in Berlin. The Germans loved the troupe, extending its contract by a month. Sun, surf, sand and Samoan singing in the German capital. Das cool, bro.
Festivals, the Samoan way
The Teuila Festival (named after Samoa’s national flower) surprised me. I did not know what to expect. Sure, I was interested (!!) in the 2013 Miss Samoa Beauty Pageant, which would end the week-long festival, but I was ignorant (shamelessly) of other cultural activities. Ooh, boy!! What a marvellous, tantalising, breathtaking kaleidoscope of the Polynesian way of life … traditional, cultural, spiritual and the strongest focus on family, friendship and community. Spellbinding. Riveting. Colourful. Memorable. A visual feast for the eyes that never became tired.
The opening ceremony outside Government Plaza, Apia, set the scene for what was to follow: dozens of performers, in traditional costumes and from every part of the country, danced and sang in the hot, humid weather which did not faze them in the least. The South Pacific at its most spectacular. Nothing like this on Earth. The evening highlights (over several nights) enhanced our Polynesian experience – choir singing, siva afi (fire knife dancing) and the Chiefs Fiafia island cultural spectacular, with Chief Tauasa Sielu Avea and his entertainers performing traditional dancing and singing from Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa.
The cultural village near Government Plaza had the ta mea taulima (wood carving) and flower arrangement competitions, and the tattoo and umu (traditional cooking) demonstrations. Samoan tattooing (tatau) unnerved me; not, the splendid, intricate designs – which denote status – on various parts of the body (male and female), but the steps taken. Painful steps – one prick of ink at a time – with a ”needle” and mallet until the job is completed which could take days (with rest periods). Jab one, jab two, jab three. Jab, jab, jab.
I saw a woman (surrounded by men) having a tattoo on one thigh; it would have been painful but she showed no signs of anguish. She seemed more interested on what was being played on her iPhone. Traditional Samoa meets modern Samoa; the blending of the past and present. Tatau is an ancient art; some experts say more than 2000 years old. A man’s tattoos can go from the middle of his back, down the sides and to his knees; a women’s tattoos are less extensive. An imprint of tradition for life.
A more enjoyable scenario for me was watching the umu preparations to feed the hungry visitors including dozens of schoolchildren who had come to the cultural village to learn, and respect, the Samoan traditions. The above-ground umu is an earth oven (hangi in New Zealand [Maori], imu in Hawaii, lovo in Fiji) which begins with a fire (done the ancient way of rubbing two sticks together) to heat the rocks, which when hot enough, are placed around banana-leaf parcels of food. Then the oven is covered with leaves and the cooked food should be ready to eat within several hours.
The 2013 Miss Samoa Beauty Pageant at the EFKS Youth Hall, Apia, was a dazzling evening before a packed house of enthusiastic supporters for the eight contestants including Miss Australia, Muliagatele Renera Thompson, 25, who became the first runner-up for 2013. We met Muliagatele at the airport for our flight home to Sydney. She is a beautiful woman with a most charming personality; the perfect ambassador for Samoa. Australia is blessed to have her.
Pride of place went to an auditor, Susana Reti Fanueli (sponsored by Apia Insurance Company), who was crowned by Janine Tuivaiti, Miss Samoa last year and the reigning Miss South Pacific. Susana, 23, had been a Samoa College student and had studied at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The beauty pageant was a fitting end to a most glorious festival. The women, contestants and supporters, were ”dressed to the nines” and the social event of the year resembled a Cinderella ball, island style.
Homes away from home
Our first home was the Orator Hotel in Tanumapua, Apia. This is a popular place for many Samoans who come here in the summer months because of its cooler temperature compared to the humid capital. One of the guests at breakfast was a jovial Californian, Robert, who was representing one of the tenders (SunWize) to help Samoa become dependent on solar energy, especially in remote parts of the country.
I was impressed with the Samoans embracing modern technology and keeping up with the world. Recent achievements included Wi-Fi (introduced two years ago), driving on the right-hand side of the road and moving the International Date Line to the left (both actions to conform with Australian and New Zealand standards). FYI: the tala currency is about two for one Australian dollar.
A visual highlight of the Orator Hotel, apart from its appealing bungalow-styled rooms, are its hectares of manicured gardens, with the majority of the plants and trees hand-picked by the owners, Jerry and Charlotte. Craig (Fairfax Media) and I were lounging by the pool when the skies darkened overhead and an almighty bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by an ear-splitting clap of thunder, and most of Upolu Island blacked out until well into the evening. A thunderous applause to nature!
Our second home was straight out of the pages of James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize novel, Tales of the South Pacific. I am talking about Stevensons at Manase, Savai’i Island. No connection to the famous author, this jaw-dropping resort has beach fales (open huts) literally 10 steps from the ocean’s edge. Ten steps to the clean, pristine, sparkling blue Pacific Ocean, with sand so soft and the sea so warm.
The sun had started to sink (ever so slowly), shadows were creeping over the palm trees hugging the water’s edge and my colleagues were enjoying a refreshing swim (it was hot) when I lit my Cohiba cigar and timidly walked into the shallow sea and knew … oh, how, I knew … that I was in paradise. In those splendid moments, everything in my world was perfect. I felt like the main character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.
We spent two nights at Stevensons, and sleeping in a beach fale was a new, and enjoyable, experience for me. Although they were the resort’s budget accommodation (there are luxury-appointed suites and beach-front villas), I was comfortable … even with the cold showers. I am grateful to Stevensons staff who prepared an umu (such divine flavours), and performed traditional singing and dancing at the resort’s Tusitala Restaurant. Just beautiful to watch and listen.
I did not think the sunset ”dreamtime” could be topped but I was wrong. My media colleagues decided to enjoy an evening swim before bed, and I waded out to join them. There was light from some of the beach fales but not strong enough to dampen the awestruck mood … because the stars, in their thousands, were out that moonless night, and it was a magical, magnificent, exhilarating, enchanting sight. You could not help but gaze in awe. Several of my colleagues saw shooting stars. Did they secretly make a wish?
My two female colleagues – Nikola (Get Lost) and Claire (Expedia) – and I, with the help of a guide, visited a village near Stevensons to experience one of Samoa’s strongest foundations: the community. Religion is monumental in this country; 95 per cent of the population (about 190,000) go to church. Although I did not witness it, I have been told that some of the best choirs in the world are in Samoa, and that parishioners wear white to Sunday church. Most of the country’s 360 villages have at least one church – and some are old and huge. The country’s official motto is: Samoa is founded on God.
Village life is orderly, with members of an extended family (aiga) close together and the chiefs (matais) respected. The standard house is the fale, which usually does not have walls; woven blinds are used for privacy. Try that housing concept in Sydney or Melbourne! Our village guide gave us a much-welcomed bonus. She showed us the spot where the Palolo reef worm leaves its coral home to spawn for a brief period just before dawn … twice a year. Apparently this short-lived phenomenon has been observed by the Samoans for centuries. The spawn is skimmed from the surface as quickly as possible since it will dissolve in the water as the sun rises. Collected spawn becomes the caviar of Samoa, a rare delicacy traditionally cooked in an umu.
Our third home was Aggie Grey’s Lagoon Beach Resort & Spa, Mulifanua, just a five-minute drive from Faleolo International Airport, Upolu Island. This four-star resort has serious credentials, boasting 91 hectares (224 acres) of tropical gardens, with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
I came across a white-walled church in the middle of the resort’s manicured gardens and became curious (as most journalists are) why a place of worship ”happened” to be in a place of hospitality. Well, when the resort was being built about four years ago, construction workers uncovered the remains of a 100-year-old church, and it was decided to resurrect it to its former divine glory. Bravo. Applause for giving new life to a remarkable building.
Please, don’t get me wrong; although I enjoyed the beach fale-experience immensely at Stevensons, the fluffy pillows, soft bed, air-conditioning and hot showers in my room at Aggie Grey’s were … divine.
Our fourth home was something ”out of the blue,” something unexpected, something that makes all your senses go into overload and ”blow off” the top of your head … especially after a bumpy ride along a pothole-ridden dirt road which seemingly lead to nowhere!
Sa’ Moana Resort, at Salamumu Beach, Upolu Island, is in a lush coconut grove with absolute beachfront bungalows (2-6 persons), a saltwater swimming pool at the ocean’s edge, and a natural reef within easy view. The 3.5-star resort opened in 1999, originally for surfers and their families to enjoy the waves and just chill out in a breathtaking setting. The two hammocks in the coconut grove were a subtle touch to the theme: total relaxation.
Another relaxation I enjoyed at Sa’ Moana was tasting kava (Greek for intoxicating); it’s the cultural drink of Polynesia and plays a serious part in the traditional ceremony to welcome visitors to the islands. We were invited to sit cross-legged in a semi-circle as the kava was prepared by several people (aumaga) and given individually in a polished coconut half by the ava server (tautua’ava). Kava is not for everybody; the plant root can have a bitter taste. Personally, I loved it; wanted more!
Two delightful (and beautiful) Kiwis had joined the Australian media team at Sa’ Moana: Rachel (campaign manager, House of Travel) and Amelia (journalist, New Zealand Herald). It was not all relaxation for Rachel; she actually came to this beautiful country to work!
”Being on the ground in Samoa, especially during the biggest cultural and sporting events of the year, provided a rare insight into this unique and impressive island nation.” Rachel says. ”Thank you Samoan Tourism Authority! I’m managing the upcoming South Pacific edition of House of Travel’s Inspire Magazine which will be available instore nationwide, online and in the Sunday Star Times. Samoa will be one of the key features in the magazine, and additional to Inspire will be ongoing campaign activity throughout the year, all with an objective of bringing tourists to this stunning island nation.”
OK, so Rachel did have some relaxing moments; it’s hard not to at the pamper-those-guests resorts dotting Samoa. Her thoughts? ”Absolutely stunning! The country is so … photogenic. The people, the land, the sea, everything,” Rachel says. ”The culture is what really stands out to me – the people are so proud, very friendly and absolutely stunning. Add to this the picturesque waterfalls, turquoise seas, powder-fine white sandy beaches, lush tropical rainforests … there’s the colourful buses that blast sweet reggae music and pumping nightclubs, fresh seafood, ice-cold Vailima [local beer], a complete range of accommodation options, the list goes on … mmm yes … Samoa is so … yummy.”
We quickly made friends later with two Victorian surfers who were told of this fascinating place by a friend of theirs, a former staff member. Simon, a financial planner, and Gareth, in construction, came to Samoa on an 11-day surfing and diving holiday. Ah, but the best-laid plans of mice and men …
”We had 50km/h trade winds for two weeks straight which killed all the activities we had planned but to experience the local people and their culture made up for everything,” Simon says. ”On Sunday, we were invited to church where they all sang for two hours and then went back to the high chief’s village to have their traditional umu. Amazing people. I will definitely go back but maybe not pack the surfboards or dive gear next time. Sa’ Moana was good but its staff are the biggest asset. The fact that the resort hires Samoans with such a beautiful temperament made our experience exceptional, despite the unsettled weather.”
Taste temptations of Samoa
Among the first-time Samoan tastings that I experienced was an astonishing, refreshing beer, Vailima (awarded the grand gold medal at the Le Monde Selection in Brussels in 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1998). This is a LOCAL product that is comparable to any world-class beer. Definitely one of Samoa’s most lucrative commodities. Pity Vailima is not available in Australia, although it is in New Zealand. Another first-time tasting was oka, a Samoan delicacy of raw fish marinated in lime juice with fresh coconut cream, cucumber and tomatoes. Easy to digest, easy to enjoy with … a Vailima.
One of the most unusual restaurants in Samoa is Paddles at Matautu Tai, Apia. The heart of its cuisine is a splendid fusion of Samoan and Italian (northern region) cooking. Definitely works for me. The paella, with fish chunks and mussels, was a superb dish right down to the last rice grain. The fish of the day also caught my eye: fresh local, peppered, sauteed, masi masi on a warm potato and green bean salad, with buttered mix vegetables drizzles with dill butter sauce. Paddles is in a delightful setting, overlooking a marina. One of the restaurant’s walls is dedicated to a serene scene of Venice, with the gondoliers guiding their boats along the Po River … or was it the Piave River? Italian opera was piped through the music system.
What topped off this night of culinary temptations? Real Italian coffee, a true godsend in a country that has just started to ”stir” to the smell and the undeniable taste of authentic coffee beans. Another staunch supporter of real coffee is the Bean HQ cafe, in Apia, an obvious favourite hideaway for visitors. It was gratifying to see Samoans drinking that golden brew (and some of the cups were huge).
One of my favourite ”secrets” was the dining area of Va-i-Moana Seaside Lodge at Asau Harbour, Savai’i Island. We had been sightseeing all morning; the weather was hot, and thirst and hunger took hold. Our spirits lifted the moment we entered Va-i-Moana and saw the shimmering, magnificent turquoise of the Pacific Ocean. It was the perfect setting for a memorable lunch with an impressive selection … grilled fish, seafood mix, lobster salad (hugely popular), chicken basciolla, tui chicken with prawn, oka, palusami and faiai fe’e. Vailima quenched that thirst!
Samoa’s splendid attractions
There are 10 islands in Samoa but only four are inhabited: Upolu (with Apia, the capital), Manono, Apolima and Savai’i, the third largest island in the South Pacific. It will take you about seven hours by vehicle (at 50km/h, official speed limit) to go around Savai’i. Best go with a group and guide. Is it worth the effort? All that driving? Yes, it is because Samoa has outstanding natural attractions; some that will take your breath away (literally). Plan to stay at least a week. Samoa will love you for that.
My enthusiasm was at fever-pitch when we approached, probably, one of the most iconic residences in the South Pacific … the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (the famed author’s last home) at Vailima, Apia. This is a beautiful, serene place; a two-storey Queenslander-type home on a grand scale, surrounded by lush and ultra-cultivated gardens. It’s more than a museum of treasured memories, it’s an eternal monument of gratitude and respect by the Samoans who loved RLS for taking a determined stand against the colonial powers and their insufferable administrative policies.
History tells us that when RLS died at his home (1894), the Samoans carried him to his requested resting place, overlooking the sea, at nearby Mount Vaea. I would take a leaf from one of RLS’s most loved novels and say that he had found his … Treasure Island.
Not far from the museum is a popular cave pool within Piula Methodist Theological College, east of Apia. We enjoyed the coolness of fresh water from a natural spring. Some of my colleagues took a deep breath and entered a short, submerged tunnel which took them to a smaller cave. I was not that brave as I have a fear of swimming ”out of my depth”. Two near-death drownings as a child have kept my feet on terra firma. I did get my feet wet … briefly.
Our next natural adventure was on Savai’i Island and to get there we had to take a 45-minute journey on Lady Samoa 3, one of three huge ferries that transports people, vehicles and cargo to and from Upolu and Savai’i.
The Taga (or Alofaaga) blowholes are for those who like their excitement to reach sky high … but there is an element of danger in this natural phenomenon at Palauli, south-west of Salelologa wharf (where the ferries berth). This is lava rock country, dotted with some of the tallest palm trees that I have ever seen, at the ocean’s edge. Enter at your own risk as the blowholes shoot frequent mountain sprays to astonishing heights and making the area very, very slippery. Taga villagers will encourage visitors to throw a coconut into a blowhole but (please) don’t stand in the same spot when the ”cannonball” shoots into the air seconds later. It’s a spectacular sight but from a safe distance.
Onwards to the Afu Aau waterfall (Olemoe Falls) which plunges from the rainforest into a pool of fresh water. This pool is much, much larger than the Piula cave pool, and deeper. Fortunately, the pool becomes shallower towards the land. A wonderful place to enjoy a lazy, hazy afternoon.
Another attraction I thoroughly enjoyed was the canopy walkway in the Falealupo rainforest preserve. Man, oh man, let’s rumble in the jungle. You cross a one-way, hanging footbridge which is 30 metres long (98 feet) between two huge banyon trees. The walkway does sway slightly but you are safe. Climb several flights of timber stairs to be rewarded with panoramic views across the top of the jungle canopy. Magnificent.
Swimming with (about 10) huge turtles is an unusual but relaxing pastime. The turtle farm is a large pool enclosure atSato’alepai Village, on Savai’i Island’s central north coast. Want to make a turtle happy and become your friend for life? Feed it fresh paw paw. Just watch your fingers!
Back on Upolu Island, we came to Sa’Moana resort to enjoy the To Sua ocean trench tour and the surf, snorkel and sunbake tour, both with the professional Surf X crew. The trench (To Sua means big hole) has been converted into a swimming area, with a sturdy, long and safe ladder that leads to a rugged timber platform. Parts of the trench are 30 metres (98 feet) deep.
The garden estate surrounding the ocean trench (an incredible freak of nature) is inspirational; its beauty invites solitude, meditation, happiness. Lotofaga villagers loving maintain this oasis with its outstanding collection of native plants and trees. Sweeping ocean views, with lava fields to the east and sandy beaches to the west, complete this picture-postcard paradise. This place (to me) on the island’s south coast is sacred; it contains the tomb of Masiofo La’ulu Fetauimalemau Mata’afa (1928-2007), wife of Samoa’s first prime minister, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II.
Another natural ”attraction” stopped us from enjoying the surfing-snorkel tour on our last day in Samoa. The weather had gone troppo and the Surf X crew did not want to risk our lives in the turbulent ocean. Thank you, gentlemen.
We (reluctantly) left Sa’ Moana at 3am to catch our Sydney flight from Apia at 6.15am; our hair-raising trip along the dirt road from the resort to the main road could have been a scene from Indiana Jones and the Samoan Tempest. Action, adventure, all senses on high alert. Loved every minute of it. Really. The wind and rain had not stopped all day and night. The potholes on that dirt road had become mud holes, each with their own swirling riverbeds. At one stage, Craig (Fairfax Media) had to test the depth personally to ensure our van could go safely across. Miraculously, we made it to the airport where it was … calm and dry. WTF?
Hell of an exciting way to end a memorable week in Samoa. A (tiny) bottle of Chivas Regal whisky on the plane home helped me snore softly, dreaming of more faraway lands and unknown adventures.
Oh, I almost forgot. How did I lose my 33-year-old wedding ring? I could say that I fell head over heels with the constant flow of female beauty in Samoa and threw it, like a garter, to the first woman who winked at me, but, then, I would not be alive to write this article. I lost the ring when I took it off to (umm) apply insect repellent cream to my hands before I ventured into the jungle surrounding the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. I was so engrossed in that jungle walk that I forgot about the ring and did not realise my mistake until 24 hours later. The museum staff searched thoroughly but the ring was not found.
So, Samoa has claimed my heart and my wedding ring. Well, I just have to buy a (small) machete and go back to those fabled islands and start hacking the jungle on my quest to find the ring.
I could be in Samoa for a very long, long, long time.
For more visit:
Samoan Tourist Authority: www.samoa.travel
Orator Hotel: www.oratorhotel.com
Stevensons at Manase: stevensonsatmanase.com
Aggie Grey’s Lagoon Beach Resort: aggiegreys.com/resort
Sa’ Moana Resort: samoanaresort.com
Paddles Restaurant: firstname.lastname@example.org