Michael Burgess didn't think he was a resort type of guy ... then he visited Sinalei
It was a most unexpected quandary. In Samoa, at a picturesque luxury resort, and my partner and I are arguing over the alarm clock. On the second day. She, quite rightly, struggled to see the need to be woken by an incessant smartphone tone on our holiday but I couldn't stand the thought of sleeping in when there was so much to do.
It might be down to Mars, Venus and all that, or maybe it was the "Sinalei" effect?
I'd never seen myself as a resort type of guy. I always pictured sitting by a pool, being served drinks by a uniformed waiter and duelling with other tourists at the buffet.
Wouldn't I just get bored?
On the evidence of my first resort experience, at Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa on the south coast of Samoa's main island Upolu, I couldn't have been more wrong. There was so much to do, it was difficult to pack it all in.
Swim before breakfast, or play golf on their nine-hole course, one of only three in Samoa?
Go kayaking or paddle boarding, or snooze by the pool? Snorkel in the crystal clear, insanely warm water, or sit on the wharf with a cocktail? Have a massage at their in-house spa (in spectacular over-water villas), or go cycling through a neighbouring village? Soak up the rich harmonies at a local church service, or grab some rays on the secluded beach? Join in the evening touch rugby or volleyball games on the sand, or contemplate the local ocean spring while watching the sunset?
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Sinalei was founded in 1996, built on land owned by Ta'isi O.F. Nelson, who is recognised as the forefather of Samoa's battle for independence, which was eventually gained in 1962. It remains a family affair. Nelson's grandson Paul Annandale owns the resort, his sister Sose is the general manager and her son Nelson looks after the marketing.
Not surprisingly, Sinalei has forged strong community links down the decades. Much of the produce is sourced locally, including fish, vegetables, fruit and meat, and the resort sponsors a programme that sends 150 locals to New Zealand each year for the fruit-picking season, as well as numerous ventures within the nearby villages. The resort and its community seem to have a symbiotic relationship, and it struck home how different Sinalei was on the third day.
While snorkelling near the wharf, we spotted a lone surfer in the distance, duelling with the waves on a stand-up paddle board. I recognised Nimo, who the day before had been handing out kayaks, snorkelling gear and advice as the water sports co-ordinator at Sinalei.
He was back, on his day off, to catch a few waves and catch up.
"You want to try," he asked, laughing, when he came in for a break, as I weighed up the promising waves against my novice skills and the coral reef.
It was also evident the following afternoon, as some other staff relaxed by the beach during their break, before helping to set up that night's spectacular buffet under the stars.
It's different. The staff don't just work there; they are part of the place. Almost all of the 100 or so workers are drawn from the neighbouring villages, which fosters a sense of genuine pride, and allows staff to be themselves.
Many travellers savour a genuine cultural experience — it's faces that are remembered long after places fade — and that is the beauty of Sinalei. Interactions with waiters, bar staff, drivers or band members aren't forced but real, giving an insight into Samoan culture and life.
"I've been to plenty of other resorts around the world and there is not always much interaction with the locals," said Sose Annandale.
"Here it is part of the experience. We like to think it is our one of our points of difference, in a market where there are a lot of options. Sometimes we have even had some staff take guests home to meet their families ... and they loved that."
Sonny, who was the resort mechanic and generously drove us into Apia on his day off, talked of his pride in the Southern Tornadoes, the local rugby team currently topping the table.
Masina greeted us with a warm smile every morning at breakfast, or whenever we ran into her on the sprawling property and our shuttle driver Fauao, who cheerfully taught us how to split coconuts with one quick (and accurate) strike is also a tour guide and part-time receptionist. Vasa seemed to have myriad jobs, from waiter to part of the resort's string band and bar manager Lofi had a keen sense of humour.
Sinalei also lived up to its luxury billing. It's a popular destination for couples and honeymooners, with a wide ranging demographic during our stay. There are 29 villas, spread across 8ha of tropical gardens, with spectacular vistas from every angle.
The brightly coloured gardens are impossibly lush — "everything grows here, you just throw it in the ground," said Sose, laughing. The beach offers both tranquil snorkelling and waves out the back for the more adventurous, in deliciously warm water. Sinalei also has access to the area's only corridor through the reef, used for their fishing charters and early next year they will offer para-sailing and windsurfing.
We also enjoyed the resort's east coast tour, with spectacular waterfalls, a dip in a sparkling cave pool and the remarkable To Sua ocean trench, an enchanted water hole 20m below ground level. On a rainy afternoon, a visit to Robert Louis Stevenson's estate in Apia was fascinating, the capital's markets were worth a look and the choir at the local Methodist church was truly memorable.
Sinalei offers the chance to do as little, or as much, as you want. That's the way it should be, and we eventually found the right balance, though there was a small personal victory at 6.30am on the final day, as the alarm returned from exile to facilitate a round of golf before the tropical heat descended.
IF YOU GO
Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa is currently offering a winter special, with 30 per cent off for bookings of seven nights or more and a 25 per cent discount on stays of five or six nights.
The offer is available for any of the villa categories at the resort and includes full daily buffet breakfast, a 15-minute head and shoulder massage (one per person), daily afternoon tea and complimentary snorkelling gear and kayaks.
Plus guests can choose one of the following add-ons: A guided village bike tour, a 30-minute reflexology treatment per person or a guided kayak expedition.
The offer is valid until October 31 and is available for travel up to March 31.