Samoa's don't miss attraction: Unearthing dark secrets behind a strange photo inside a mad house

She sits grim-faced in the sunshine, a Queen Victoria doppelganger dressed in black.  Beside her is her son, a bemused-looking Robert Louis Stevenson in an open shirt. He seems much more at home with the Samoans who are seated around them. By now his books have made him famous and wealthy and he has persuaded his family to come and live with him at Vailima just outside Samoa's exotic capital Apia.

 For his adventurous, doting, yet formidable mother, this is a hardship. She will make no concessions to the weather and she is soon known by the Samoans as the woman in black who complains endlessly of the heat. 

And who else is in the picture? To the right is Robert's American wife Fanny, who sits head resting on her hand. Then there is  Robert's stepdaughter, a sad-faced woman who sits with her son, aged about 10. Her demeanour may be explained by the fact that she in an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic. No prizes for picking him. Yes, he's the one on the far left with the jaunty hat, a parrot on his shoulder and a sarong which may or may not be hiding a bottle of something.

Sitting next to him, all in white, is a young ladies' maid who had apparently just arrived from Tasmania before this picture was taken. She sits ramrod straight, her whole being seeming to scream silently… how did I end up here?

The picture is one of hundreds of fascinating keepsakes of Louis Stevenson's which are on display in the grand home he built in 1890 surrounded by lush gardens on Samoa's main island of Upolu.

While it would be wonderful if these walls could talk, the meticulous detail that has gone into the museum conjures up a pretty strong whisper of what transpired within the house where Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island and Kidnapped, lived with his wife, American Fanny  Osbourne, for five years until his death on December 3, 1894, at just 44.

 From all accounts the household was a happy and productive one, with Louis Stevenson and Fanny, who was 10 years his senior, taking a strong interest in Samoan culture. The writer was loved and respected as a storyteller in Samoa, where he was known as "Tusitala" – a teller of tales. 

The library upstairs is testament to this. It was here that he penned 14 books in just four years. Here are copies of manuscripts, personal effects, photos and letters. Nearby, Fanny's room echoes his interest in Samoan culture with  portraits of local Samoans on the walls. There's also a sewing machine and an almost completed dress fashioned by Fanny, who must have had plenty of time on her hands a world away from the distractions of Europe and America that she was used to.

See also: Why this hole is one of the world's most incredible swimming pools

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But there were also tensions in Vailima. Louis Stevenson's stepson-in-law, Jo Strong,  mentioned earlier, was not only fond of a tipple, he was also rumoured to be a little too fond of a local woman, and he and Louis Stevenson's stepdaughter, Belle, eventually divorced. 

It's hard to imagine what Louis Stevenson's imposing mother, Margaret Balfour Stevenson, would have made of these goings on, but it's easy to picture even a rogue like Strong wilting under her gaze. Her formidable presence still lingers in the large bedroom that was assigned to her, and we swear her eyes follow us around the room from a gloomy portrait on the wall.

The house is a treasure trove. There are lion skin rugs from the family's travels in Africa, antique pistols, and two ornate fireplaces shipped from Scotland to remind the family of the home country. These, of course, were never lit. There is also an imposing metal-lined safe –  the size of a wardrobe – that once housed  the writer's valuables, including his original manuscripts.  It's said the safe was hauled on the shoulders of Samoans all the way from Apia harbour.

A shiver zips down my spine as I look at a photo on the wall of the dining room and realise I am standing in the exact spot where Robert stands in the photo. This is just feet away from where he famously asked his wife if his face looked strange before he dropped dead of "apoplexy" – or more likely, a cerebral  haemorrhage.

Louis Stevenson was buried at the top of nearby Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea. Visitors to the museum are welcome to visit the grave but keep in mind it can be a trek in the heat. There's a 45-minute walk along a track, or a shorter, more strenuous half-hour trail.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum gives great insight into a famous writer, but perhaps more interestingly, it provides a vivid snapshot of a family who chose to live a world away from the cultures, the material items and the people they knew best, at a time when the world was a much larger place.

It's a "don't miss" attraction in Samoa – a country which boasts many others, including stunning waterfalls on both of its main islands, a rugged coastline punctuated with mysterious tidal pools and blowholes, great snorkelling, diving and fishing, and of course, the famous and mysterious deep island trench on Upolu.

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GETTING THERE

From Sydney, it's a five-hour flight with Virgin Australia to Samoa. See virginaustralia.com. Samoa is an easy place to drive in and hire cars are readily available. The museum is open Mon-Fri,  9am to 4.30pm.  The last tour is at 3.30pm and tour guides are required for entrance. Saturday hours are 9am to noon.  Admission is $S15 an adult, $S5 for children.

STAYING THERE

Seabreeze resort on Upolu offers beautiful views and a personal touch. From $391 a night, including breakfast, a restocked mini-bar and snorkelling gear. The song of farewell sung to you as you leave is something hard to forget.

See seabreezesamoa.com  Le Logoto resort and spa, Fagamalo, in Savai'i, Samoa's other "big island". 

Jane Richards travelled at her own expense.

See also: What's it like to stay in a tree that's actually a resort

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