Sinalei Resort is better than ever after being rebuilt, says Chloe Johnson.
When a tsunami ripped through one of Samoa's top resorts three years ago it destroyed 14 years of hard work within minutes.
Sinalei Resort's co-owner, Sose Annandale, recalls the moment on September 29, 2009, when the ground let out a lion's roar and her luxurious five-star resort wobbled like jelly.
"We knew we had to get out of there," says Sose.
Most of their guests ran for higher ground but one couple stayed.
Security broke down their door and forced the couple to flee just minutes before the ocean swallowed their beachfront fale.
Today, the tsunami is not forgotten and the pain from the loss of life and destruction remains raw for many locals.
But their spirits are high as rebuilding continues, and Sinalei Resort is better than ever.
"Talofa, welcome," Sose says when we arrive after a 25km drive south from Apia.
We're given a fresh cracked coconut to rehydrate our tired bodies after the 6am flight from Auckland.
Sose recommends we start the day with lunch followed by a relaxing full body massage. Nobody argues.
Two staff lead me along a stone path through the tropical rainforest that helps ease the 30C heat.
The path leads directly to my beachfront fale built since the tsunami wiped out 80 per cent of the accommodation.
The modern fale remains true to Samoan culture with flax fans and thatched ceilings.
It stands at the edge of immaculate gardens, with the ocean on the doorstep.
The air-conditioning is pumping, the fridge is stocked with water and the queen-size bed and cloud-like pillows are calling my name.
But, nice as it is, I didn't come here to relax in a luxurious room all day, so I make my way to the resort's Ava I Toga restaurant.
The resort - nestled between two white, sandy beaches, and spread across 13ha - has two restaurants, a cocktail bar, relaxation area, swimming pool and beauty spa.
With only 29 rooms, it is a spacious place to shed daily stress.
The restaurant is built over the water and schools of ava-ava fish swim past. "You can feed them if you like," the waiter says. It's a nice idea but at this point I'm more interested in feeding myself.
The waiter recommends a traditional dish, oka, raw tuna marinated in lime, coconut cream, tomato and cucumber. Other options include beef skewers, fresh fish and home-made desserts such as waffles and banana splits.
Food and beverage manager Sharon Greene says all the food is fresh from her staff's family farms or other local growers.
She encourages her chefs and waiters, who are all from neighbouring villages, to change the way they think about food.
She wants them to go back to their childhoods where families came together for feasts of food produced on their own farms.
Sharon says her goal is to keep their menu fresh and authentic to provide guests with the best meal options while also supporting the local villages.
"There is no need to import food," she says. "There is no need for additives and preservatives."
She proudly points out that there is not one canned product in her kitchen.
Although once a bakery owner in Rarotonga, Sharon tries to avoid sugary food or heavy breads.
She says there are alternatives in Samoa such as breadfruit, a tree crop which has a similar texture and flavour to potato.
Feeling satisfied and healthy, I head to the Tui-i-lagi spa, where I'm treated to a one-hour full body massage. Masseuse Rika rubs coconut oil over my body and wipes it down with tea leaves to help replenish dehydrated skin.
I listen to the waves crash against the rocks just metres away. It's hard to imagine the peaceful ocean contributing to my state of relaxation is the same ocean that caused death and devastation on the island.
After dozing through the gentle touch of her hands for almost an hour I come to when she rubs cool tea leaves over my body.
"This heals the skin and will help keep you cool," Rika says.
I'm given a homemade lemon and passionfruit drink which helps replace electrolytes.
That evening the chefs put on a Samoan banquet which includes a pig on a spit, yellowfin tuna, beef curry, breadfruit salad and sasalapa, a creamy white sour fruit, for dessert.
The night ends with a fiery fiafia ceremony.
Young men dressed in grass skirts and leaf anklets and women wearing lavalava dresses begin by singing and dancing traditional songs. They end their performance with an 'ava ceremony, handing small bowls of the liquid to guests.
'Ava, commonly known on other Pacific islands as kava, is made from the roots of the Piper Methysticum plant.
Traditionally, when you're handed 'ava you should, before drinking, spill some on the floor as a sign of respect for God and the ground the 'ava came from. After my first day at Sinalei Resort it's clear the staff have a lot of respect for their country's natural beauty, including its plants, animals, and the ocean, no matter how destructive the sea has been in the past.
Getting there: Virgin Samoa flies daily from Auckland.
Where to stay: Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, fales from $379 a night.By Chloe Johnson @BackpackJourno Email Chloe