If you right now took a spade, went out to your back garden and started digging, you would – eventually – come out on the other side of the world. You'd probably be underwater, but not a million miles from the South Pacific island of Samoa.
Of course it's much simpler to board a flight and a few airport lounges later emerge blinking into a tiny country (pop: 200,000) that looks like a movie version of paradise: white sandy beaches, lush tropical vegetation, smiling people, a warm turquoise sea - even garlands of flowers for us on arrival. “Talofa,” they said. It means 'welcome' and they meant it.
Samoa, the heart of Polynesia, is located between New Zealand and Hawaii and is made up of two main islands, Upolu and Savaii, plus a few tiny islets. English is widely spoken — it's the second language — and the country has been independent since 1962 (unlike American Samoa, 64km away). Though holidaying visitors play a big role in the local economy, tourism isn't yet as corporate as it is on other South Sea destinations such as Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga or the Cook Islands.
We arrived during the annual Teuila Festival, a week-long island-wide party that celebrates both the national flower and all that's best about their rich Polynesian culture. Of course, as happens so often on islands, what we found to be best about Samoa is the people. Not to mention the delicious food. Oh, and the weather, that's pretty good too. And the Pacific Ocean, always warm, always close at hand. And the bright starry sky at night, with the Milky Way clearly visible. Yes, they've got plenty to be happy about in Samoa.
They're also very big on family, with sons and daughters setting up house on the extended family holdings granted them by one of the 25,000 tribal matai (chiefs) that still hold power — locally and nationally. With that many chiefs, if you're not the hometown king or queen, chances are you know someone who is.
To get our bearings, we rented some bikes and went for a cycle along the coast, passing by strings of picturesque villages. Every family homestead kept hens, most also had a couple of pigs ambling about — but everything under the sun was in use: red and yellow flower gardens were cheek by jowl with fields of green taro and yam, under banana and breadfruit trees.
And it was all brilliantly colourful and meticulously clean — we even saw teenagers sweeping the lawns and simultaneously smiling. No, really.
Everywhere we looked there was colour. At every fala (an open-plan house, no walls - just columns and a roof) we passed, we were met by a chorus of young kids waving and cutely calling out “bye bye” repeatedly.
When it comes to places to stay, you're spoilt for choice. Thankfully the big US hotel chains haven't yet imposed themselves on Samoa, so everywhere has an endearing stamp of distinct personality. The Sinalei Resort and (guys and girls take note) spa centre is where you'd aim for if you were honeymooning after winning the lottery. It features luxury beach-style huts set in lush tranquil gardens that slope to a beach and a wooden jetty, waves lapping over the nearby reef make a soft white noise that lulls you into a Samoan state of mind — somewhere between dreams and reality.
On the same southern coastline Coconuts Resort raises the bar with its falas set on stilts over the azure sea — you have your own private pier balcony (with hot tub) and a view over the sun rising in the eastern sky. And just in case you hadn't noticed that persistent ocean lapping at your door, thick glass panels in the floor let you periodically check that the Pacific hasn't dried up just yet.
Aggie Grey's Resort on the north shore is a bit of a legend — it's where the contestants in US 'reality' TV show Survivor stayed while filming the series (you didn't think they really stayed in the jungle, did you?). It's on the coast — private beach, pool bar etc — and is right close to the airport, but in terms of facilities the hotel's 18-hole golf course is knocked into second place by the underwater wonders of Aggie's Reef.
About 1km out to sea, right where the reef drops off into the deep ocean, there's a carnival of colour. Fish, all hues of the rainbow, dart for cover under coral tinged with deep reds, browns and yellows. Turtles, fully three foot long and graceful swimmers, blink their black eyes at the clumsy humans swimming by.
All these places boast every luxury known to man, and a few more besides, but the traditional beach fala is probably the most picturesque sleeping option available. Nights on Samoa are warm, so you can simply enjoy the cool night breezes and let yourself be lulled to sleep under a net in simple and inexpensive resort like at Virgin Cove.
Hitting the town in the capital Apia, we found initials were this year's black. We wandered from Club X to The Y Not but ended up at The RSA (Returned and Services' Association) along with most of the locals. More dancehall than disco, the RSA house band featured 10 or so musicians and singers belting out slow sets, fast sets, lovers rock and Polynesian reggae.
Watching the punters strut their bulky stuff, we couldn't avoid the fact that Samoans are big. Only recently Samoa's prime minister weighed in to this debate, after the diminutive Miss Philipines (47kg in her stocking feet) won the Miss World contest, noting that “Obviously that part of the world prefers the skinny scrawny-looking girl. For us in Samoa, it's the big healthy voluptuous girl.
“There's plenty of chow in Samoa,” the prime minister added sagely.
Indeed there is. Samoa prides itself on its food, all of which is organic, free range and fresh as the day. Traditionally, everything is cooked in an umu, where a fire is built and river stones placed on it (apparently river stones don't split and crack apart). When the fire is down to the embers and the stones glowing with heat, the food - breadfruit, taro, pork, fish - are placed on the stones, covered with the huge leaves of the banana plant and left to cook.
Samoans also go crazy for oka — sashimi marinated in lemon juice, coconut cream, onions — but the local dish that floats all boats is taro with coconut cream (and maybe a tiny bit of onion). Lu'au they call it, and it's got a depth and delicacy that's balanced by the chunky carb taste of taro. For someone with even a passing regard for the spud, taro is a revelation and worth going to Samoa for.
Maybe that’s why Robert Louis Stevenson chose the island as his home. The author of Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is still revered by islanders and his house is now a museum. Apart from the lovingly restored rooms, the house features the first formal fireplace built on Samoa. It’s never been used.
On the hill above the house is his tomb, on it engraved the words that children no longer learn in school: “Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”
Surfers might wonder about the waves ringing the islands, which can take both north and south swell - but they'd want appreciate the size and speed of Pacific waves. Let's just say that it's a tad much for a beach break surfer like myself, but even though I was continually wiping out, I was doing it in just a pair of shorts (no need for a wetsuit in the warm water), and that was something else.
You'll need to get a boat out to the breaks. Email Steve at www.samoanaresort.com and tell him I sent you.
Local boatmen will take you out to the smaller islets, and a car ferry shuttles back and forth between the two big islands. Of course, you can also fly Samoan Airlines, where they like to say: “If it weighs, it pays.” Basically, the price of your ticket depends on your weight — and 42c per kg for a 10-minute flight to Savaii in a tiny four-person Cesna put such a grin on my face that I'm still ironing out the wrinkles.
Savaii is the less developed of the two islands, and all the better for it if you want to immerse yourself in nature.
We trekked up Tafua — an extinct volcano now covered in tropical creepers, bright songbirds high in the trees warning of our approach. From the lip of the crater we saw far below us huge flying foxes, and we marched back down again, pausing at a 10 metre high Olemoe waterfall for a refreshing dip in the sweet water and a chance to clamber behind the curtain of water.
A short drive along the coast brought us to the Taga blowholes, where a network of fine lava tubes connects the flat clifftop to the ocean below. If you lean your head down to the rockpools you can hear the rock breathe as air is pushed through. More spectacularly, the sea is also pushed through, creating 20 metre high jets of water (strong enough to hurl coconuts 50 metres into the air).
As the jet plume separates into a fine mist falling about you, the light refracts and forms tiny rainbows encircling you for a few seconds before fading away. But for that moment I held both ends of a rainbow in my two hands. You don’t forget things like that.
All too soon we had to leave the island. Too many things not done there. I'll hope to do them, and maybe someday I will. Samoa puts a hook in your heart and reels you in slowly. Maybe it's my rose-tinted memory, maybe I'm just lucky — but if I think back to childhood, my overwhelming memory is of just being happy. And that's the impression you get every time you turn a corner in Samoa. Just being happy.
Earlier at the Teuila festival we'd asked some schoolkids what games were popular in Samoan schoolyards.
“We play hide and seek,” one boasted.
“We played that too, back in Ireland,” I countered.
“Maybe,” shot back the kid with the gap-tooth grin, “but we've got a jungle.”
Shane flew courtesy of Etihad airlines with the assistance of the Samoan Tourism Authority
email: firstname.lastname@example.org (www.samoa.travel) T: 0044 20 8877 4512
For bike hire on Samoa, you should try: www.outdoor.co.nz/samoa-cycles
Coconuts Resort & Spa: www.cbcsamoa.com
Sinalei Resort & Spa: www.sinalei.com
Aggie Greys Resort: www.aggiegreys.com
Virgin Cove: www.virgin-cove.ws
Surf hire and guiding: www.samoanaresort