Palm-fringed beaches and tropical rainforests merge in Savai'i, writes Adrienne Kohler
"Explore Tafua Crater for five tala", the sign says in faded red-and-blue writing. The volcanic cone on offer looms over us swathed in tropical rainforest and, as it seems a little daunting, we ask our guide Latu if we can do it Jandals.
"Sure. No problem, it is only a five-minute climb," he says.
I'm not altogether convinced.
"Is that a Samoan five minutes or a Palangi five minutes?" I ask.
Latu laughs at this and assures me it is really only a short walk.
We pile into our rented van and head off until we reach a slightly flatter piece of rainforest he imaginatively describes as a carpark. A faint trail leads out of it and we follow behind Latu.
Sure enough, five minutes later we reach the crater rim and it is a "whoa" moment. The interior of the mountain is hollow. Vertical sides enclose a spectacular rainforest. A giant banyan tree stretches from the floor and bats take startled flight out of the trees around us. It is a scene straight out of Avatar or Jurassic Park.
As we walk along the rim, the eastern side of the island comes into view. Palm-fringed beaches, tropical rainforests, traditional villages with grand churches, misty mountains and dark lava fields. That is the essence of Savai'i, a stunningly beautiful island that, with some exploration, reveals many hidden treasures.
Granted, it takes some effort to get there, either an early-morning departure or arrival, a four-hour flight from Auckland, then a one to two-hour ferry crossing.
But the dank New Zealand winter fades with the first sip of a cold Vailima - the local Samoan beer - as ahead lies a week of tropical warmth and doing nothing much at all.
Nonetheless, the island has much to offer if you muster the energy. The Tafua Peninsula rainforest reserve is scattered with picturesque villages and ends in a beautiful white sandy beach largely unused except for a few stray tourists and locals. Our guide Latu plans to build fales on his family land and has begun guided tours of the beach and crater.
The island's tourism infrastructure is less developed than places such as the Cook Islands and local villagers often act as guides, usually for a payment of a few tala. The service is slower and without the crowds or commercialisation of other destinations. Climbing a coconut tree is not a demonstration for tourists; it is how you get lunch.
The island is a shield volcano, similar to Rangitoto but on a larger scale. It takes four to five hours to drive the tar-sealed ring road.
The highlands consist of volcanic craters covered in dense rainforest. The highest peak, Mt Silisili, rises up to 1838m and can be reached by a two-day guided round-trip.
The last eruption was in 1900 and lasted six years, creating ropey, twisted lava fields and a rugged coastline. The porous rock is honeycombed and tunnels form spectacular blowholes as the ocean surges against the shore.
The Alofaaga blowholes on the southwestern side are the best example and for a few talas the locals throw in coconuts which are blasted out with loud "whoof" of spray and foam. On the northern coast, you can explore the Saleaula lava fields, the result of outflows from Mt Matavanu.
The beautiful sandy beaches that abound are ideal for swimming, surfing and lazing. Most offer accommodation that ranges from open beach fales to luxury resorts.
The northern Falealupo Rainforest Preserve offers a canopy walk, archaeological sites and stunning bays that are the perfect spot to swim and enjoy a cold beer in the late afternoon sun.
Nearby, Cape Mulinuu is considered the last place on Earth to see the sunset and, according to local legend, is where the dead depart for the otherworld. It is also the site of an ancient star-shaped mound. Another, the Tia Seu Ancient Mound, at 12m, is one of the largest in the Pacific.
Along the coast are traditional villages with numerous churches that range from simple buildings to soaring gothic masterpieces.
The island has natural beauty and tourist attractions in abundance but the true magic of the island is Fa'a Samoa - the Samoan Way - and the kind-hearted people who are always happy to help or chat about their relatives in New Zealand.
After a few days, time seems to slow as the cares of our consumer-culture slip away and are replaced by the ebb and flow of a simpler way of life.
Getting there: Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue fly daily to Samoa. However, if you arrive early morning you have to spend the night in Apia before heading to Savai'i. I stayed at Le Vasa Resort, which offers a day room and use of facilities for $20 tala.
When you're there: Car ferries run several times a day between the two islands. The ferry terminal at Mulifanua Wharf is a 10-minute taxi ride from the airport. Two large ferries take about an hour to reach Savai'i.
Getting around: Car hire is available on Savai'i or can be taken from Upolu. It costs about $200 tala and booking a berth at least three days beforehand is vital.
* Salelololga is the main village and has a small selection of shops, supermarkets and banks plus an internet cafe. The food market in Salelologa has a variety of local fruit and vegetables.
* Sunday is church and family day so some attractions are closed, and swimming not allowed at some beaches.
* Lusia's Lagoon Chalets are nestled in a small rainforest and are an ideal base. On the northeast coast at Fagamalo, the Savai'i Lagoon Resort is on a white sand beach and offers a range of beachfront bungalows.
* Service tends to be slow throughout the island so it pays to relax.
samoa.travel has details of attractions in Savai'i.
For ferry bookings click here.