Amelia Wade finds Samoan magic starts at her fale's door.

The kid from Te Puke who had barely touched his dinner was dared by his mate to eat a piece of seaweed on his plate.

He took a deep breath and screwed up his face as he dropped the bulbous piece in his mouth. He swallowed it with a big gulp of water, without even chewing.

"Ugh, it tastes like snot," he said.

"Not chewing, it is cheating," one of the adults told him. But there was no way he was going to give it another try.


Aged about 11 and on a field trip with a bunch of other classmates and teachers, the only dish the boy seemed to like was the battered fish.

Foolishly, he turned up his nose at the breadfruit, scrambled egg, and chicken drumstick in gravy and palusami - a traditional dish of taro leaves and coconut milk that tasted like rich, creamy spinach.

Once the plates were cleared at the open-air restaurant at Tanu's Beach Fales on Savai'i, the whole village put on a show to welcome the schoolchildren. Other guests at the beachfront fales got to enjoy it, too.

The girls who served us dinner at this family business had been practising all week and were nervous. They needn't have been anxious - the show was excellent and one of the best, most authentic experiences I had on the "big island" of Samoa.

Each of the girls had a solo dance on the sand stage beneath the fairy lights, and the boys took their turn at fire dancing and other traditional performances. Nothing could stop them: even when one young boy's lava-lava fell off, he kept doing cartwheels while tween Kiwi girls giggled in the audience.

The night ended with a Samoan-style disco, the local boys dancing with blushing and sunburned girl tourists to local hits such as Who Let the Frogs Out?

Woken at the crack of dawn the next day as the light crept into our fale, another traditional deep-fried meal was on the menu. With a day of exploring planned, we ate all but half of the koko rice to fuel up.

By 10am, the heat was already about 35C and without a cloud in the sky there was little relief. I'd never been so grateful for air-conditioning, though it was hard not to feel spoiled driving past locals who were carrying heavy loads of coconuts, fish or fruit in the glaring sun.

About 80 per cent of the land in Samoa is owned by families or villages, so to see any of the natural wonders, or even to park at a beach to go for a swim, you're likely to have to pay a small toll to one of the locals lying nearby in the shade.

At the famous Alofaaga Blowholes on the southwest of the island, it's about NZ$5 per person - and that includes a couple of coconuts to toss into the powerful jets. The woman who gave us the show wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: "I brought the awesome, what did you bring?" - and she really did bring it.

Timing it perfectly with the swell, she tossed the coconut into the blowhole just as the wave hit the edge of the rocks. With a massive roar, frothing white water shot about 10m into the air while the woman went running for safety. The game never got old.

Utterly in love with everything on Savai'i, I was itching to go snorkelling and discover what was beneath its crystalline waters. The diving shop across the road from Le Lagato Resort hires masks and snorkels for about NZ$15 for 24 hours.

Once you're kitted up, you don't have to go far to see the wonders of the reef. The fish, speckled in neon blues, yellows and oranges, seem used to humans swimming over their homes, leaving murky streaks of sunblock in the water.

Up the road, I found three local girls had beaten us to the pond and were playing with turtles.

The treasured sea creatures seemed not to mind and were even happier when they started getting fed fresh pawpaw. Someone in the know had told me that fruit was the perfect way to entice turtles to the water's edge.

It was incredible to touch and swim with creatures likely to outlive me - something I know I'll never forget.

Getting there: Air New Zealand usually flies between Auckland and Apia six times a week, depending on the season.

Accommodation: Try Aggie Grey's.

Amelia Wade was a guest of the Samoan Tourism Authority.