The friendly islands of Samoa

By Chris Garner

Ever had a rare green turtle nibble your toe while you're in the water patting its shell? Watched tapa cloth being made by an expert in the time-honoured tradition? Or shared a meal with a Samoan family and then watched their children perform traditional dances?

If your idea of a holiday in the South Pacific is to spend all day lazing in the sun on a glorious beach, Ecotour Samoa is not for you.

That's not to say Samoa doesn't have beautiful beaches, blue water and sunshine - it does, in abundance - and Ecotour Samoa offers all of those things.

But the main focus is to give visitors a chance to experience village life, meet locals, see wildlife, swim with turtles and learn about Samoan history and society.

We booked our holiday over the internet at short notice, and were obliged to arrive at 2am, on our first day in Samoa.

When the man behind Ecotours, Dr Steve Brown, introduced himself, any worries vanished. Brown, originally from Adelaide, is small, softly spoken, and the gentlest man I've met.

He arrived at the Princess Tui Inn, where we spent our first few hours in Samoa, driving his unforgettable multi-coloured Green Turtle bus, and took us off to see the beautiful home of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.

It wasn't on our itinerary but we weren't complaining.

After that it was back to the Travellers Lounge in Apia, home of the travel operation and a delightful place to enjoy fresh, ice-cold lemonade and meet our driver-guide, Sam, who would show us the real Samoa.

To make this sort of holiday possible, Steve and his partner Lumaava Sooaemalelagi had to overcome obstacles, not least winning the approval of village matai (chiefs) to take visitors into once prohibited areas. These days Brown is seen almost as a hero, the man who created much-needed jobs and income.

Many of the villagers he works with now offer beach fale accommodation, which is the most popular and inexpensive way to holiday in Samoa.

Steve also started Green Turtle Holidays, and visitors can take the Green Turtle bus around the two major islands, Upolu and Savai'I, to see many of the sights we saw on our travels, but for less than the ecotours.

In our hastily booked holiday we asked to study the history, culture and wildlife of Samoa.

So it was off down the coast of Upolu, in bright sunshine, past a glistening sea, through vividly green tropical foliage. We saw a beautiful waterfall and took a refreshing swim in a freshwater pool in a giant cavern as we made our way to the western tip of the island.

There we hopped in a boat for a short voyage to Namua Island, small enough to walk round in a couple of hours, and home to a small family-run resort. We were the only visitors there for our one-night stay so had our pick of the fales and first choice of the seafood and fruits the family had gathered.

First we plunged into the sea to cool down, then went snorkelling over the reef, and afterwards sat back with a cool Vailima beer before dinner.

We ate fish caught just a few hours previously, the most delicious pawpaws and bananas, and other local delights, including tasty coconut cream cooked in taro leaves.

We slept on comfortable mattresses, under mosquito nets, in an open-sided fale built on piles above the sand.

Back on Upolu next morning we had a chance to see more of the Samoan bush, not unlike New Zealand's, though more lush and tropical; full of skinks, geckos, butterflies and birds.

Our resting place that night was our favourite, at Sa'nanapu, where our hosts were Ray, originally from Papakura, and his Samoan family.

After a great dinner, their children and a few ring-ins performed traditional dances and gave us home-made shell necklaces.

Next morning we took an outrigger canoe through the amazing mangrove forest of the Manuia wetland.

On our third island, Manono, we got right in to Samoan life.

It was Sunday and we went to the Methodist church. The service was in Samoan but we enjoyed the atmosphere, especially the singing.

The minister gave a hellfire and damnation sermon, but Sam said he was telling the local canoe team to behave when they went to Apia to race the following week.

We took a car ferry to our fourth island, Savai'i, Samoa's biggest and probably its most interesting.

There we swam with dozens of turtles kept in breeding ponds of clear spring water. They nibbled curiously at our white bodies.

Sam showed us a lava field. The lava flow wreaked havoc in 1905, but stopped at a local church and the grave of a good Christian woman.

Later we watched an elderly woman strip the bark off a mulberry tree and patiently scrape and pound the inner material into a piece of tapa cloth. "It takes a lot of muscle," she told me.

We saw the most spectacular blowholes further down the coast at Satuiatua. Sam tossed some coconuts into the water and the force sent them rocketing into the air.

We learned a lot from Sam about the local culture. He was an easygoing guide and, when our seven days ended, we parted the best of friends.

The cost of our seven days with Ecotour Samoa wasn't cheap by island standards but it was great value. We had our own guide/driver, all the food we could want and a unique insight into a beautiful country.

* Chris Garner paid her own way to Samoa.

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