Samoa back in business

By Alanah Eriksen, Alanah May Eriksen

Walk on the white sands of Samoa's countless beautiful beaches. Photo / Supplied
Walk on the white sands of Samoa's countless beautiful beaches. Photo / Supplied

The tiny wooden motorboat taking me to the small island of Manono - one of 10 that make up Samoa - is called Lady Tsunami.

Ah, I'm not superstitious, but is there anything else we can take? The short answer: no.

This is the only vessel that takes tourists from Cape Lefatu, on Samoa's main island Upolu, to my destination.

I'm told the unfortunate boat name was chosen before the fatal 15m tsunami which destroyed the southeast coast of Upolu earlier and refers to the fact that "the waves are bigger over here". Not helping.

But I should really be thankful. In the 1980s the boat had no motor and was paddled across to Manono.

And anyway, as the nonchalance over the name indicates, Samoans are doing their best to put the horror of the tsunami behind them.

Their tourist industry is definitely open for business, since little of the tourist infrastructure was on the coast which took the brunt of the giant wave.

Certainly when we get to Manono the picturesque surroundings make the 20 minutes of uneasiness during the voyage all worth it. It's much quieter than the tiny nation's biggest islands, Upolu and Savaii, with only a handful of beach fale accommodation.

Manono is home to less than 1000 people. There are no roads on the 3.2sq km island but the dirt paths around the coast take less than an hour to navigate.

Electricity was only installed in 1995 and there are just a few small village stores which are closed most of the time. Dogs, horses and bicycles are banned.

After we arrive my friendly guides with Samoa Scenic Tours take me for a short walk through the villages - there are four - showing off the local landmarks and spilling their legends.

One of the island's most visited attractions is the Grave of 99 Stones at Lepuia'i village.

The history of the grave differs depending on who you talk to.

So the story goes - according to one of my guides - over a number of years a chief married 99 virgins, killing them off once he'd had his way with them and placing a stone in a pile representing their life. The villagers eventually captured and killed the chief as he tried to escape with his 100th wife. A hole remains in the pile where the 100th stone was to be placed.

As I soon find out, every Samoan has a story, every village a legend and every activity an elaborate history.

"Samoa was the first country in the world to have coconuts," my guide Sio Bernard tells me as we walk to the next village. "The other islands only have them because the fruit fell off our trees and floated there."

A few hundred metres away from the grave, by one of the several churches on Manono, is a monument for Rev Peter Turner, the first European Methodist missionary to Samoa, who landed in 1835. The Scenic Tours adventure on the island includes an ava drinking session with a host family in their fale. Ava is the same as the Fijian kava plant which can be ground to produce a beverage which is drunk to relax.

My hosts then give a brief lecture on Samoan etiquette and demonstrate what a usual day for them consists of - the women weaving and the men preparing the food.

After a dip and snorkelling in the clear sea - which did seem choppier than the main beaches - I tuck into a plate of locally sourced fruit for lunch.

Then the guides announce it is time for a nap. It's only 2pm but Lady Tsunami is my only way back, and I'd rather my guides are refreshed when driving her back, so I don't object. The 30C-plus heat is enough to put me out for at least an hour anyway.

Back in Upolu, one of the most popular visitor attractions is the Papase'ea Sliding Rocks, located at Seesee, about 5km out of the capital, Apia, in the midst of a Samoan rainforest.

For an entry fee of $2 paid to the women sitting in a fale - if they're paying attention - you get access to three natural waterslides after walking down a set of steep stairs.

The mossy rocks make a relatively smooth slide.

The first slide is about 6m high and you land in a deep, freshwater pool; the next dip is shorter but lands you in a deeper, horseshoe-shaped pool; the last slide is a little higher and bumpier and lands you in a bigger pool.

I didn't get a chance to slide down myself as we were running late for the next activity but the shrieks of delight coming from the dozens of people - young and old, tourists and locals - spoke volumes.

Luckily we went during the rainy season so there was plenty of running water but I'm told during the drier months sliding isn't possible so check on the conditions before heading out there.

Another tourist hot spot is the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, or Villa Vailima, the former home of the Scottish author who arrived in 1889 seeking a warmer climate in an effort to cure his sickness, probably tuberculosis, and died here five years later.

Stevenson wrote 13 books while in Samoa and became involved in local politics. The locals often came to him for advice and he took on the Samoan name Tusitala which means "Teller of Tales".

When he died he left his wife Fanny along with her two children, his step-daughter's husband and their child, his mother, and their maid who also came with them.

Stevenson's body is buried at the top of Mt Vaea and when Fanny died a few years later in England her ashes were brought back to Samoa to be buried next to her husband.

Their massive former home - preserved by American millionaire Rex Maughan - sees thousands of tourists take part in the $15 guided tours each year.

It includes several of the family's original pieces of furniture, clothing and artefacts and Stevenson's office boasts the first fireplace in Samoa which - understandably - has never been used.

Shopping on Upolu is more for souvenir-type goods than anything else. The Savalalo flea market in Apia had a raft of weaved items, sarongs and jewellery. And if you linger around a particular stall for long enough the shopkeepers start lowering their prices.

The food stalls at Savalalo are for the more daring. My guide told me I needed a "Samoan belly" if I wanted to eat the fried fish heads or kekepuua (pork and noodles surrounded by dough).

The nearby Fugalei food market is more appealing with mountains of fresh fruit at cheap prices.

An hour-long ferry from the Mulifanua Wharf, on the northwest coast of Upolu, is all it takes to get to Savaii, Samoa's bigger island which arguably has nicer beaches and accommodation.

The trip across is in itself an experience. You have to manoeuvre around the hundreds of Samoans packed on the top deck of Lady Samoa, several sprawled on the ground snoozing, and make sure you nab a spot in the sheltered area of the boat, otherwise it's outside in the un-air-conditioned torture.

However you won't have to put up with screaming children on the water as they are sure to be engrossed by the entertainment on board. Samoa's biggest broadcaster, TV1, was playing Flipper on the way over for us.

The only noise you'll hear is when a hip-hop artist appears on the box. I swear, the entire top deck of the boat started singing along to Wild Out by Samoan rapper Savage, who lives in New Zealand, which appeared on a TV1 advertisement.

One of the coolest - and possibly cheapest - attractions on Savaii is Lover's Leap in the village of Falelima, along the southwestern coast.

The legend goes that a woman and her granddaughter jumped off the 100m-high cliff on the coast to escape the local villagers because they had done something bad. The woman turned into a turtle and the girl into a baby shark.

The legend says that every time a person looks over the cliff a turtle and a shark can be seen. The legend didn't fail my visit. The two sea creatures swam below me until someone pointed down at them which, according to another legend, scares them away.

There are several secluded white sand beaches on Savaii of which, as far as I'm concerned, the finest is the beautiful Falealupo on the north coast.

The Samoans claim it was the last place to see the sunset before the millennium and the spot was inundated with tourists in 1999.

Falealupo is mentioned in several Samoan legends. It is said to be the gateway to the underworld, Pulotu, where aitu, the spirits of deceased persons, reside.

King Kapisi, a hip hop artist in New Zealand, is from Falealupo and filmed his music video Reverse Resistance there in 1999.

Despite the horror of the tsunami tourists are starting to return and several head to the devastated southeast coast to help with the rebuilding or to bring over clothing, food and water to the victims.

Such charity is not pushed - or even suggested - by guides or accommodation providers but those curiously driving through the wreckage may feel compelled to chip in.

There are several charities and other organisations already on the coast that encourage tourists to join them even just for a few hours.

The villagers are welcoming of any help, especially those living in the bush with barely anything, but too scared to venture out to the coast where many of their family members perished.

But if you don't fancy a working holiday you'll be welcome if you just go to Samoa to sit in the sun.

The Samoa Tourism Authority is begging foreigners to still take their holidays as that's what the country needs - tourists injecting money back into the country to get the industry flourishing again.

Alanah May Eriksen flew to Samoa with Air New Zealand and was accommodated by Aggie Grey's Hotel and Aggie Grey's resort on Upolu and Suifaga Beach Resort and Le Lagoto Resort in Savaii.

Checklist - Samoa

* Getting there

Air New Zealand operates up to seven direct flights, per week, between Auckland and Samoa with great connections from all 26 domestic points around New Zealand. Fares start from $270 inclusive per person, one way from Auckland. See www.airnz.co.nz

* Getting around

Samoa Scenic Tours are on the web at www.samoascenictours.ws

* Where to stay

See www.aggiegreys.com, www.siufaga.com and www.lelagoto.ws

* Further information

Check out the Samoa Tourism Authorty at www.samoa.travel

- NZ Herald

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