Saying you have explored Samoa without visiting Savai'i's northern coast is just plain wrong. It is like saying you have eaten pavlova when you have never had it with fresh berries and lashings of cream.
It is not hard to add Savai'i to your itinerary. Rental vehicles are readily available and the ferry terminal for the 22km crossing to Upolu's larger northern neighbour is only five minutes' drive from Faleolo International Airport. When you roll off the ferry at Savai'i's main town, Salelologa, bear right, turn right again at the island's only traffic lights, follow your nose for about 50 minutes and you will arrive in paradise.
Accommodation in the villages of north eastern Savai'i cater to all budgets. I stayed in Manase, at Jane's Beach Fales; a homely facility with rustic beachfront fales two steps from the white sand and blue waters of a lagoon teeming with tropical fish and the occasional green sea turtle. My daily routine included pre-breakfast and post-excursion dips; floating face down in the warm waters, mask and snorkel in place, watching the brightly coloured inhabitants of this underwater kingdom going about their business.
To really get among it, however, diving is the way to go. Two minutes away, in the village of Fagamalo, is a scuba dive school. The relative cheapness of lessons in Samoa, combined with the excellent diving opportunities, draws a steady stream of students from around the globe.
Volcanoes have played a prominent role in Savai'i's history, even in recent times.
And nowhere is this more evident than at Sale'aula, which lies on the lava field of the island's north-east coast. Just over a century ago, a river of molten rock flowed wide and deep across this plain, obliterating almost everything in its path. Scrubby bush has re-established itself, a couple of villages have been rebuilt atop the rock, but the landscape retains a lunar feel.
I paid the entrance fee and went for a quick look around. It was fascinating to see the remains of the LMS missionaries' church, through which the molten river had flowed and then solidified. The visit was curtailed by my travelling companion's urgent need for a bathroom, so I missed out on the Virgin's Grave; apparently the burial site of a girl the lava went around rather than over.
To explore the source of this destruction, I climbed Mt Matavanu.
The volcano erupted in 1905 and continued to make a sizeable nuisance of itself for six years.
The track up the mountain is accessed from the western end of Safotu village, about 7 minutes' drive from Manase. From the turnoff, drive inland, pass through the village of Paia (home to the Dwarf Caves), keep going until the track becomes too rough for your vehicle, park and continue the steady ascent on foot. It is 10km from the coast to the lip of the crater. My Rav4 made it all the way to the hut of the extinct volcano's distinctive, self-styled guardian Da Craterman. I parked and walked the remaining 2km. The crater is a precipitous, 500m wide, 200m deep, bush-filled hole with no safety barriers. It affords impressive views to the coast.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate at Jane's. The meals are best described as filling, Samoan home-cooking with a tourist twist. The most appealing aspect is that all the guests are served together in a large, open-sided fale, encouraging socialising and the swapping of stories and travel tips.
No trip to Savai'i is complete without an exploration of the Falealupo Peninsula, on the north west extremity of the island. If volcanoes define the north east, then storms are this corner's motif. Some of the beaches on this headland are drop-dead gorgeous. But the scars of Cyclones Ofa and Val, which tore through here a quarter of a century ago, are still evident.
Where once stood the village that gives this peninsula its name, are the ruins of a seaside church devoid of roof and seaward walls. The village was destroyed by the cyclones and has since been rebuilt further inland. The church is derelict, but a statue of Madonna and child still stands resolutely in a shell-shaped shrine surrounded by surf and sky.
Driving back, I stopped to get the obligatory photo of a still-functioning church. Every village has one, and some, such as the enormous Catholic Church, in Safotu, seem out of all proportion with the size of the local population. It was impressive but looked rather imposing and lifeless without its congregation in their Sunday best filling the air with heavenly harmonies. Then, a gaggle of boys heading home from school wandered into frame and asked if they could be included, laughing and striking poses as though they did this all the time. Savai'i, you are perfect.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Samoa from Auckland. One-way fares start from $277.