It has a lower profile than many tropical getaway destinations, but this really is the original treasure island, writes Karen Halabi.
It was less than two years after Australians Chris Booth and his wife Wendy built their coastal resort on Samoa's main island of Upolu - in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson who built a home and settled here - that the 2009 tsunami hit. Chris recounts how he clung on to a door jamb as waves of water and mud washed over him, and Wendy held on desperately around his waist.
After it was all over they walked uphill, over broken glass and debris, to join incredulous guests. Staff who washed their feet found them totally unscathed. Now it's as if they can walk on water. Their survival, while the resort around them was destroyed, has given them "miracle" status on this religious island.
That door jamb was virtually the only thing left standing, but they started rebuilding almost immediately, and the new Seabreeze Resort opened in 2011. The point where the door jamb stood is now the exquisite honeymoon villa and, with two other beachfront villas, the most deluxe accommodation in Samoa.
Seabreeze, in the horseshoe-shape Paradise Bay, in Upolu's south-east, has just won two 2013 TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice awards, as a top romance and bargain destination in the south Pacific.
I am staying in the honeymoon villa, a private gated villa with glorious deck and 280-degree unimpeded ocean views from the bed. The bathroom has louvred windows opening out on both sides to the ocean so you can take a fresh sea-breezy shower starkers and not worry about the neighbours. Two huge day beds strewn with hibiscus petals, robes, slippers, his and hers walk-ins, an outdoor shower, and I'm on holiday.
Samoa means "sacred centre" and the Samoan people are deeply religious. Churches are outnumbered only by the ubiquitous fales that line every beachfront and sit in front of every home as a kind of outdoor open-air living room. Often they are bigger than the houses.
There's a saying that explains why the weather doesn't bother the Samoans: "The rain is God watering his children." There's a sign on the back of the brightly painted buses: "Welcome to heaven." And there's a slogan (that even makes an appearance on bottles of the local beer, Sama): "God's best kept secret." The national motto is "Samoa is founded on God" and signs painted on walls tell me "Jesus is the King of Samoa". Everything here has religious significance.
One Sunday we attend church to watch the singing, which is reminiscent of a gospel gathering in the US's bible belt.
Village women leave their coconut stalls and discard their lava lava (sarongs) for fine white dresses with wide-brimmed hats. They walk miles with brightly coloured umbrellas along country roads to get to church.
Afterwards, there's an umu feast where meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves are cooked over coals in the earth.
God's Samoan children certainly are well-watered. The islands are lush, green and cornucopian, with swaying palms and swathes of green jungle interspersed with coconut, cacao, yam, taro and banana plantations.
Survivor: South Pacific was filmed here in this soft adventurer and surfer's paradise. Amazing Race wants to do the same, but flight schedules aren't regular enough to make it work.
Samoa's natural beauty is of the tropical volcanic kind. There are volcanic lava fields, amazing blowholes and waterfalls, stunning beaches and clear, tranquil, turquoise waters ringed by coral reefs. With its white sandy beaches and blue water, Lalomanu, on the south-east coast of Upolu, takes my breath away. Regularly rated among the best in the world, it's listed No.7 on Lonely Planet's top-10 paradises on Earth.
At To Sua Trench, I muster the courage to climb down a 30-metre ladder, a vertical drop into a crystal-clear blue ocean-water swimming hole formed by this gaping volcanic hole in the earth. Even if you're not game, the trench is worth visiting for its jaw-dropping ocean-side setting.
Daredevils used to dive off the ladder, but I choose a safer option and swim at low tide through a lava tube out to sea. Later we swim in a waterfall. They're everywhere, but the best are Papapapaitai and Togitogiga on Upolu and Afu Aau on Savai'i.
They say you haven't seen Samoa until you've seen Savai'i, Samoa's second, and biggest, island. Here we swim with turtles at the wetlands sanctuary in Satoalepai village. They are so friendly that they nudge us into the crystal-clear water for a frolic.
At Taga, on Savai'i's south coast, we watch the leathery old "coconut man" throw coconuts into the Alofaaga Blowholes that hurtle them up to 40 metres into the air.
On the western coast at Falealupo, and also at Le Lagoto Resort, we swim among the coral that comes up almost to the beach. Within metres we discover all kinds of tropical fish. Savai'i has many stunning beaches like this - shallow, calm, wave-less inside-reef white-sand beaches fringed by palm trees - as well as beaches with dark sand and volcanic rock.
Back on Upolu, we hire a car but we also take a ride on a colourful, wooden, open-sided local bus (buses stop anywhere you want and the driver will tell you how much when you get off).
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of his love for the tropics and island life in Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but the inveterate traveller and travel writer chose Samoa to settle and build a home in 1890 after sailing through the south Pacific for three years. To him, these "treasured islands" were the unspoilt paradise he'd been writing about and searching for.
At the author's gracious colonial-style family home, Villa Vailima, I see his writing desk, library, first editions of his classics - even his medicine chest. This is where he died and it is now a museum. It is set atop a breezy hill in botanic gardens.
Samoa has no relentless hawkers, no cities, no built-up areas, and no hard "Where are we going to eat tonight?" decisions to make. There are no "restaurant strips" - you eat at your resort or fale, where breakfast and dinner are included, and until last week when global hotel operator Starwood announced it had signed a deal with Apia's historic Aggie Grey's hotel, Samoa had no chain resorts. (The new Apia Sheraton is expected to open in August 2014.)
Better still for visitors, Samoa represents value for money. Most quoted rates include breakfast, dinner and taxes. An eco "sustainable" destination, most properties have their own water supply. Sinalei Reef Resort, for instance, pumps its supply from an undersea freshwater spring (you can jump off the end of their pier and swim in it).
And, apart from the markets in Apia and Salelologa, there's no real shopping.
The Samoans make great big, beefy, strong footballers but you won't meet a gentler race of people.
Samoa may not have the high profile and the tourist numbers that lure people to other island destinations such as Bali or Fiji, but that may be about to change. Surfers already know about its surf breaks, divers and snorkellers about its underwater wonderland, and backpackers know how cheap a beachfront fale stay can be.
However, until recently, mainstream Australian travellers have largely overlooked Samoa. They eschew this part of Polynesia in favour of the some of the more glamorous, highly promoted, big-budget destinations, parts of which are becoming so overdeveloped and Westernised that sometimes it feels as if you haven't left home. You find yourself yearning for the good old days before shopping malls, bitumen roads and staged cultural shows arrived.
By contrast, on the Samoan islands, there are almost no foreign properties. Land is tightly held by families and considered a part of the village, and development is tightly controlled.
However, Samoa has a whole range of resorts, covering the gamut from budget to luxury, and can be the perfect family, honeymoon or couples' destination. Some (such as Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa) cater exclusively to couples (children under 12 aren't allowed); others cater to families and children (such as Le Lagoto).
There are a few luxury villa properties (such as the boutique Seabreeze and the newly opened 18-room Aga Reef Resort) and for the quintessential Samoan experience, I would highly recommend staying in a fale for at least a night or two and listening to the waves crashing on the reef.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Samoa Tourism Authority.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN SAMOA
VISIT AN ISLAND
Take a day trip to Namu'a. A 10-minute trip by boat off the coast of the south-eastern most point of Upolu Island, this Robinson Crusoe-style island is uninhabited except for 11 traditional beach fales. There's no power, but you get a bed and a mosquito net, breakfast, dinner and the boat transfer.
Eat umu-style (meat and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves then cooked over coals in the earth) or revel in the bounty of fresh seafood — often caught just hours before you eat it. Try fresh tuna, mahi-mahi and lobster. Samoa's three most popular dishes are oka (raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk), palusami (taro leaves baked in coconut milk) and the umu feast.
WATCH AND LEARN
Witness a traditional tattooing ceremony called the Pe'a. Horrifically painful, it can take months to do — intricate geometrical patterns go from the knees to the ribs. Girls have it done from the knees to upper thighs.
CATCH YOUR LUNCH
Go game fishing. Catch your own lunch and have it cooked for you at your fale. Fish available all year round include marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, giant trevally and masi masi.
MEET THE WILDLIFE
Swim with turtles at the wetlands sanctuary in Satoalepai village on Savai'i — so friendly they'll nudge you into the crystal-clear water, where they'll frolic with you.
Virgin Samoa has direct overnight flights to Samoa three times a week (less than six hours) getting you there in time for a day of fun. 13 67 89,virginaustralia.com
Seabreeze Resort, +685 41 391, seabreezesamoa.com; Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, +685 25 191, sinalei.com; Le Lagoto Beach Resort, +685 58 189, lelagoto.ws. Stay in a breezy beachfront open-air fale. Open-sided with mosquito nets, some have electricity and ceiling fans; rates from 70 tale (about $32) a night, with breakfast and dinner. Litia Sini and Taufua Beach Fales on Lalomanu Beach, samoabeach fales.com. On Savai'i, Vacations Beach Fales at Manase Beach and Falealupo Beach Fales. For an island escape, take a day trip to Namu'a. Just a 10-minute trip by boat off the main island, it is uninhabited, except for the 11 traditional beach fales, which don't have any power.
Check out the fusion cuisine at Seabreeze or dive into seafood often caught just hours before you eat it.