By Michelle Karaman-Jones
Bright fuschia teuilas a species of ginger flower greet me as I land in Samoa. The blooms are the biggest and brightest I have ever seen which seem to typify almost everything that grow in these treasured isles.
Little is known about this tropical paradise which, for many years, has been the least visited of the South Pacific islands.
The past couple of years have seen Samoa experience a resurgence of interest and, quite frankly, this previously undiscovered treasure of the South Pacific does not disappoint.
Vibrant greens and blues interspersed with sunflower yellows, royal purples and deep ruby reds compete for your attention and the landscape all around me look as though Van Gogh and God had collaborated to draw up the plans for this island nation.
But nothing warms your heart more than the pearly whites from the locals. Here, the smiles are infectious: locals on the buses and on foot raise a hand in salutation as if welcoming you back home.
We arrive during the Teuila Festival – celebrated annually on the first week of September and considered the biggest festival in the South Pacific.
Bright ginger flower and frangipani garlands greet the hundreds of visitors who descend upon Upolu island to take part in the festivities.
The celebrations are a profusion of colour, melodic songs, and hip shaking drums beating together with the delicious smells emanating from the traditional oven or umu; this event is a feast of the senses.
We watched girls from a local school perform the gorgeous siva dance, moving in perfect unison as their school friends sang folk songs. Their graceful moves and beautiful melodies reminded us that we were in the heart of Polynesia.
We were jolted out of this dreamy South Pacific picture by the energetic performance of a group of local young men from an all-boys school.
They came out in their lava lavas (sarongs) and danced to drum beats, with moves that incorporated hearty slaps to their oiled, copper-toned skins in sync with the rhythm.
Despite the celebration of an ancient tradition, there is a determined march towards the 21st century led by a dynamic and enterprising prime minister.
The Samoans will always retain their core cultural identity defined by a 3000-year-old tradition – Fa’a Samoa = which means the Samoan Way and it’s what sets Samoa apart from other South Pacific destinations.
Although the South Pacific region has coconut trees, white sand and beautiful turquoise waters, what truly makes Samoa stand out is its cultural offering a way of life that I can only describe as Polynesia at its most authentic.
Surprisingly, one westerner had an important contribution in preserving this ancient tradition.
Celebrated author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Samoa and finished his book Treasure Island while there.
His fascination of the locals led him to study and learn the Samoan culture and, as a result, he became a mediator and mouthpiece for the Samoans and the colonialists, earning the famed title of Tusitala (story teller).
So appreciative were the Samoans of his efforts that on his death, every Samoan in the country regardless of age and sex descended by the hundreds upon his village and lined up shoulder to shoulder up the trail along Mount Vaea to pass his heavy lead coffin from one pair of hands to another.
Samoans named this trail The Road of the Loving Heart as a sign of their devotion and respect.
His house has been lovingly converted into a museum, which makes a wonderful day tour.
This act exemplifies the Samoan way – you arrive a visitor but leave as a member of the family.