Luxurious sister act

By Phil Taylor

I had always planned to return to Samoa. The friendliness of the people was a reason in itself. But it was mainly because on my first trip I hadn't seen the real Samoa at all.

What a difference this time. Everywhere there was order where there had been chaos, beauty where there had been debris.

This time was on holiday with my family. Last time was to report on the damage done by Cyclone Ofa. That was 1992, and my memory was of ruined settlements, twisted corrugated iron strewn through coconut groves, chunks of torn-up road and of a massive ship stranded on a promontory in Apia's harbour as though flung by some giant hand. I didn't get to see the beauty of Samoa, the colour of the villages, the strips of flowers which line the roadside, the vibrant sarongs strung up for shade.

What the two trips did have in common was that both times I stayed at Aggie Grey's Hotel on the waterfront.

The hotel is known throughout the Pacific simply as Aggie's, and its fame is attributable as much as anything to the character of its founder.

Aggie Grey started in the hospitality business flipping hamburgers back when United States Marines with money in their pockets flooded into Samoa following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Hungering for a taste of home, lonely servicemen showed her how to make hamburgers and she turned selling the comforts of home into a thriving business.

A hamburger and a coffee for a quarter. She set up business in a store which was once her father's pharmacy and is next door to the hotel today.

Next came a bar, then accommodation fales which have expanded into the rather grand premises of today.

Aggie Grey died in 1989 aged 90 but her granddaughter, Aggie jnr, retains the companionship the hotel was renowned for even though the hotel and its newly opened sister, Aggie Grey's Lagoon and Beach Resort Hotel and Spa, are much bigger.

The resort is run by Fred Grey, grandson of the original Aggie Grey, and is Samoa's first five-star resort. It's at the western end of the island, about an hour's drive from Apia but only 10 minutes from Faleolo airport.

The resort has all you would expect. Nestled among 90ha of tropical gardens, it fans out in two long arms along the foreshore, providing all 140 rooms with a view of the beach. There are two impressively large dining fales, sans walls to better view the sinking sun over dinner, and plenty to keep the kids occupied.

Before we arrived out of a New Zealand winter, I'd checked the website and sent the wife a self-satisfied email: "Dolphins Club for the kids, papaya facial for you and 18-hole golf course for me."

I was a bit quick off the mark. While the Dolphin Club (free for children aged 3 to 12) was operating, the golf course wasn't completed, although it looks likely to rival the best in the Pacific Islands.

Cunningly, the 18th green is a wedge shot from the resort's Manaia Polynesian Spa, which offers to rejuvenate the tired golfer with massage and hot-towel treatment called The Par Four.

While the wife underwent a process I gather involved mud (essential oils and Amazon rainforest mud, I was told) the 7-year-old, the 3-year-old and I soaked in a spa pool in an open-air fale at the end of one of the decking pathways which reach like slender fingers into bush scented by the fruit-laden banana and papaya trees. Bliss. Even the kids thought so, though their favourite spot was the huge swimming pool with its rock mountain, waterfall and swim-up poolside bar.

The spa is the domain of Fred Grey's wife, Priscila, a former Brazilian model who has combined ancient Amazon Indian remedies with traditional Samoan massage and the latest beauty treatments. Manaia means "all the things that are good in life", says Priscila, who wants entering the spa to be like "walking into heaven". She chose the right spot then, on a point where the jungle meets the sand.

We met families who had come purely to soak up the sunshine and had hardly left the resort. The beauty of Samoa is you can choose your holiday experience, relax by the pool, or explore the villages and markets.

Despite centuries of European influence, Samoa retains its customs and social system. Fa'a Samoa it's called, "the Samoan way". Save for Apia, its capital and only sizeable town, it's a nation of villages where life centres on family, church and sport.

It's an hour on the ferry to the bigger island of Savai'i, where the coastal road takes you past waterfalls, blowholes, lava caves and forests, through one scrupulously neat village after another.

In each, vibrant sarongs strung up for shade flap in the late afternoon breeze, the roadside is adorned with flowers as colourful as a Cezanne masterpiece. This, I was to learn, was the village garden. Tended by its women, it's a display of communal pride as much as beauty.

Games of touch rugby and Kirikiti (Samoan cricket) are being played everywhere on vast village lawns cut by men equipped with weedeaters and the patience of Job. Pigs trot in front of the car, confident of their right of way.

The architecture is simple but functional, fales with roll-up walls to let through any cooling breeze. The grandest building by far is the church. We saw several new ones under construction and wondered at the sense of it in a country with such low average income and high unemployment.

As the light fell, trails of smoke rose from village umus (Samoan ovens). Time for dinner.

Driving back we were puzzled by formally dressed elders who lined the road as if awaiting some dignitary. What we'd seen was the prayer police at work ensuring that the 6pm prayer curfew, sometimes signalled by the blowing of a conch shell, was observed.

My highlights included snorkelling at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve in Apia (the array of fish is fantastic so close to town, there's a small admission charge, you can hire snorkelling gear, it's safe swimming for kids but wear beach shoes because the coral is sharp), eating steamed or fried dumplings filled with salty pork (keke pua'a) at Apia market, swimming alone in the Piula Cave pool with its array of tropical fish, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum at Vailima, the grand homestead where the author of Treasure Island spent his final years.

Stevenson is buried at the top of Mt Vaea, part of the Vailima estate. I regret not making time to hike the trail to his grave and see engraved on his headstone the wonderful epitaph he wrote:

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

CHECKLIST

SAMOA

Getting There

Polynesian Blue flies four times Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays from Auckland to Apia. One-way prices start from $309 excluding taxes, fees and surcharges.

Where To Stay

Aggie Grey's Hotel, Beach Rd, Apia, and Aggie Grey's Lagoon and Beach Resort and Spa, a 10-minute drive from the airport on the western tip of the island of Upolu.

Activities

Explore Apia's markets, snorkel with tropical fish at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, picnic at Piula Cave Pool or visit the Robert Louis Stevenson homestead and museum.

Getting Around

Ferries leave regularly for Savai'i from Apia and near Aggie Grey's Lagoon and Beach Resort. There are about 20 rental car agencies, including Blue Pacific Car Hire, near Apia. You must be at least 21 to rent a car.

Further Information

See Samoa Tourism's website below.

* Phil Taylor visited Samoa courtesy of House of Travel, Polynesian Airlines and Aggie Grey's.

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