Pounding surf, cartoonish vegetation, hidden coastal tunnels and explosive blowholes: Samoa is an adventure movie set on steroids.
It's a hole. Yes, a hole in the ground. But there are good reasons why thousands of visitors turn up to Samoa each year to visit and swim in the breathtaking To Sua – or "big hole with water coming out of it".
For a start – it has to be one of the most unusual places to swim on the planet. The 30-metre, almost perfectly symmetrical swimming hole surrounded by lush vegetation sits in the middle of a lava field near Lotofaga village atop a jutting edge of spectacular coastline on the south coast of Samoa's main island of Upolo.
The only access into the sparkling emerald green waters of the pool is via a single ladder with a small sitting/viewing platform at its base. Yet despite its amazing depth and size, To Sua is hard to see as you approach across the parkland surrounding it, which is dotted here and there with fales (small shelters) and picnic areas.
In fact, if it weren't for the odd warning sign and a small fence, you imagine an awful lot of tourists would end up with super swift access into the sparkling waters below.
To Sua, formed during an ancient lava eruption when the land around it slipped away, consists of two large holes joined by a lava tube cave. The main hole – the pool – is filled with seawater and is connected to the ocean by an underwater cave. The pool is fed by a series of canals and tunnels with water from the ocean pounding just metres away.
The climb down the narrow ladder is nerve-racking but you are rewarded the instant you reach the bottom. The water is exceptionally clear, coloured fish dart about, and the bottom – when you can reach it – is sandy. The second thing to hit you is the strength of the tidal surge. In fact it's so strong, a rope has been suspended midway across the water hole to hold onto so you can avoid being pulled towards underwater tunnels into the pounding surf outside. We choose not to think too much about this as we float on our backs – still gripping the rope – and enjoy the lapping water, the dappled sunshine and the distant thunder of crashing surf.
Not all visitors enter the pool via the ladder. Some choose to jump from the moss and palm-fringed sides of the rim instead. We watch nervously as one American argues with himself for about 10 minutes before finally taking the plunge. He bobs up near us soon afterwards grinning madly. We hear of other brave exploits as well, such as the Samoans who let themselves be propelled underwater through the rock tunnels to bob out the other side. The first person to try that must have been mad, I decide, but then Samoa's amazing natural attributes perhaps encourage the brave. After all, this is not scenery for the fainthearted. Samoa's coastline, both on Upolu and the bigger island of Savaii, is pounded by giant surf, and dotted with blowholes, sunken caves and hidden tunnels. Head inland and you'll encounter majestic waterfalls tumbling past vegetation straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For another unique experience, head to the Alofaaga blowholes on the island of Savaii.
Here, saltwater shoots tens of metres into the air as pounding waves force it through natural rock pipes.
Like the trench, these blowholes are easy to stumble across, and we are happy to hire a guide, Leilani, for a few dollars. We follow her as she sneaks up to a blowhole and calls out to the sea. She then waits a few seconds and throws a coconut inside at just the right time so we can witness it seconds later shooting through the rock and up into the air, dancing on a giant cartoon spout.
We look at each other – and laugh.
From Sydney, it's a five-hour flight with Virgin Australia to Samoa. See virginaustralia.com
Samoa is an easy place to drive and car hire is easily accessible.
Seabreeze resort on Upolu offers beautiful views and a personal 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, Fagamalo, in Savai'i, is low-key, reasonably priced and authentic.
THINGS TO SEE + DO
To Sua ocean trench costs $15 to enter.
The Alofaaga blowholes are in the village of Taga on south-west Savaii. Entry fee $10 per person.
The Robert Louis Stevenson museum near Apia on Upolu is open Mon-Fri, 9am to 4.30pm. Cost $S15.
Jane Richards travelled at her own expense.