Samoa is a laid-back paradise, writes Nina Karnikowski.
When I was 10 years old, I had a teacher who was completely enamoured with Samoa. I recall her getting misty-eyed as she talked about its natural beauty and I wondered, as I cut the silhouette of what I imagined Samoa might look like (a lump with a palm tree sticking out of it) from black cardboard, what could be so special about this small glob of land.
Two decades later, as my husband and I arrive on the wooden deck of our villa at Samoa's Seabreeze Resort, I begin to understand.
The deck, shaped like the bow of a ship, juts out from a rocky outcrop and is surrounded by 270-degree views of azure ocean. To our right is the private lagoon that the 11-villa resort hugs. Behind us is lush, vine-choked rainforest. And directly in front of us - a black rock islet with a palm tree sticking out of it.
It's utterly bewitching.
As I learnt those two decades ago, Samoa's two main islands are Upolu and Savai'i (Seabreeze is on the former, about an hour's drive from the capital, Apia). The country has almost no crime, thanks to an indigenous form of governance called fa'amatai, and, as I discover the next morning while preparing to head to a traditional Samoan church service, almost no ownership.
I'm keen to attend church because I've heard wonderful things about the devoutly religious Samoans' gospel singing. The only problem is, I don't have the appropriate white lavalava sarong to wear.
"One of our staff has one," the owner of Seabreeze assures me, "and in Samoa there's no ownership, so if she has one, you have one."
Sure enough, within 10 minutes I'm wrapped in a fresh white lavalava and am being driven to church, past the traditional open-walled houses, or fales, that highlight how loosely the Samoans grasp their possessions.
The service is magic. The locals are clad head to toe in white, the women with elegant hats perched on their heads, and almost everyone is waving palm-leaf fans to combat the morning heat. Listening to the deep, resonant voices singing gospel hymns, as ceiling fans lazily shift the smoke-infused air emanating from the Sunday umus (earth ovens), is just about as close to a religious experience as I'm likely to get.
From this point on, my husband and I effortlessly slip into the lackadaisical rhythm of Samoan life.
By day, we swim and snorkel in the warm waters of Seabreeze's lagoon, watching tropical fish of the most startling colours dart around the rocks and midnight-blue starfish spread themselves across the seabed. We take the resort's glass-bottomed kayaks out for a paddle to the neighbouring deserted beaches, where we climb about in hollowed-out trees and watch dozens of hermit crabs, some just a couple of millimetres long, scuttle over sea-buffed chunks of silvery driftwood. We indulge in a massage on our deck and a glass of bubbles in our very own plunge pool, and are served a dinner of local tuna carpaccio on our deck. Samoa is the first place in the world to see the sunset, a fact of which we remind ourselves as we watch the sky become a technicolour dream of tangerines and starburst yellows.
By night, we laze on our deck's outdoor circular lounge, gazing up at the thick blanket of stars and talking in a way we haven't had a chance to in months. We leave the doors and the slatted glass windows surrounding our spacious suite open, and fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing all around us.
It's all our island holiday dreams come true, and the perfect pause in the forward thrust of our lives.
Eventually, at about the day three mark, we manage to peel ourselves away from Seabreeze and begin exploring the island. A fellow guest got us excited about nearby Vavau Beach: "It's just like the one in the movie The Beach, only better!" he enthused. And, after traipsing rainforest paths by the sea, past a couple of seemingly deserted fales and two young local boys who ask us for 5 tala (about $2.60) each for entry, we discover he was absolutely right. Another palm-fringed crystalline lagoon surrounded by that vine-choked rainforest, Vavau Beach is the kind of place that makes you want to get a bit wild.
We paddle out to the mouth of the ocean and when we spot a hole in the rock face that protects the beach we scramble through and find ourselves facing a string of even more idyllic lagoons. It feels as though we're the first travellers ever to have discovered them.
Just 10 minutes' walk away is the famous To Sua trench, which costs 15 tala ($7) to enter and that immediately transports us to a surreal dream world. Sunken 30 metres into the earth and surrounded by lush green grasses, it's actually a giant tidal hole that formed when the roof of a lava tube collapsed. We manage to stop photographing it for just long enough to descend the steep ladder for a dip, and watch a couple of mad Danish tourists dive in from the lip.
As time slowly inches forward, we discover more of these breathtaking and deeply affecting natural wonders, all of which are virtually devoid of tourists and totally devoid of touts. There's the Piula cave pool, a freshwater swimming hole that reaches into a series of caves with an underwater cavity leading to a secret exit; Papapapaitai Falls, which tumble 100 metres into a vast green gorge; Lalomanu Beach on the south coast, a palm-fringed white slash of sand dividing blue water and green craggy volcanic peaks, ringed by candy-coloured beach huts; the Pupu Pu'e national park's coastal walk, which weaves through a pandanus forest and emerges at an expansive field of wrinkly lava, created when a nearby volcano erupted 3000 years ago, and now pockmarked with blowholes fed by the ocean.
All visits are accompanied by a symphony of cicadas and gently falling waves, and legends whispered by gentle, friendly locals.
Our favourite is the tale of Sina and the Eel, which tells of a beautiful girl, Sina, who, when her pet eel fell in love with her, got scared and asked the village chiefs to kill him. As the eel was dying, he asked Sina to plant his head in the ground, from which a coconut tree grew.
That's why, say the Samoans, when the husk is removed from a coconut there are three circular marks that appear like the face of the eel - one of these is pierced for drinking the coconut, so whenever Sina took a drink she was kissing the eel, forever more.
My husband and I can't look at our coconuts the same way for the rest of our trip - and we see a lot of them. We drink at least one each day, and they're used every which way in the fresh local cuisine - palusami, a spinach and coconut-infused dip, is a favourite.
On our final night, as we sit half-submerged in Seabreeze's ocean-front infinity pool sipping our last local Vailima beer, I find myself getting misty-eyed and spare a thought for my teacher. This beautiful place has certainly cast its spell on me, too.
The writer travelled courtesy of Seabreeze Resort Samoa.
From Sydney, it's a five-hour flight with Virgin Australia to Samoa. See virginaustralia.com.
Seabreeze Resort offers 11 rooms for couples and families, starting at $325 a night, including breakfast. Honeymoon Point House (the villa in which we stayed) has a minimum three-night stay, at $557 a night including breakfast. Full and half-day tours of the island are run by Seabreeze in-house staff. Charter boat fishing can also be arranged. Traditional Samoan handicraft lessons are held on Fridays, followed at 6pm by the Seabreeze staff's own Fiafia show - including traditional dancing, singing and fire twirling on the beach - and Samoan feast. See seabreezesamoa.com.
THREE OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The Samoa Tourism Authority's Cultural Village, in the heart of Upolu's capital, Apia, is a good place to stop off on day one or two if you're keen to get familiar with the local traditions and culture. Watch demonstrations of carving, weaving, umu and handicrafts-making, and, if you time your visit right, see a wince-inducing full-body tattooing session take place. While you're in "town" (Apia is small), have a peek inside the flea market (conch shells, carved bowls and shell necklaces all feature prominently), and stop off for top-notch local flavours at Bistro Tatau. See bistrotatau.ws.
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, had fabulous taste. You will discover this if you visit his stately mansion-turned-museum in Vailima, in which he wrote and lived for the five years before his death in the 1890s. If you're feeling energetic, take the 40-minute uphill hike to the author's tomb at the top of Mount Vaea behind the house. It's 20 tala (about $9.30) for entry, tour and, if you're lucky, a song. See rlsmuseum.com.
Papaseea Sliding Rocks, a series of mossy waterfalls that function as a natural waterslide, is 6 kilometres from Apia town. They're definitely worth a whoosh, but make sure you check there's enough water in there before you make the effort to head over. Entry is 2 tala (about 90 cents).