Lindy Laird finds herself floating with happiness - or maybe that's the 'ava.

Sometimes you find yourself in a place that simply takes your breath away. And not because of the steamy, 32C heat.

Samoa is beautiful, so magical a non-believer can almost imagine a higher divinity - with a design flair - painting colour, music, nourishment, lushness and laughter on to every surface.

Of course, for the deeply religious Samoans who are extremely proud that their constitution describes the island nation as a Christian country, there is no doubt the hand of that greater power created their paradise.

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Houses of worship of every denomination imaginable, even Bahai, sit every few hundred metres along the road in Apia and the small villages you pass on the main route, a ribbon set between the flat shelf of coast and the lush land rising steeply to the jungle and often mist shrouded mountains of the interior.

Although I can hardly wait to get to the bigger, more remote, sparsely populated island of Savai'i, I drink in the friendly atmosphere of Apia. It's an ordinary Pacific island kind of town, not lovely but with its own charm.

I've certainly arrived at the right time.

"Beautiful Samoa" is the apt slogan of the Teuila Festival (named for Samoa's national
flower), a week long party of concerts, pageants, games and cultural events. Also in Apia during this year's festival is the Pacific Island Leaders' Forum, with hundreds of (mainly) men in colourful, matching shirts filling hotel foyers, watching festival events, huddled in serious talks at restaurants, or being driven away in flash cars with police motorcades. Apia is overflowing, and handling it with great grace.

The Teuila Festival was first staged in 1991 and is the much-loved child of the Samoan Tourism Authority, the little nation's biggest cheerleader, which has in more recent years made the prestigious, ambassador-focused Miss Samoa contest a key element of the event.

At Sunday night's concert, the first of nightly shows held on the main stage in front of the large lawn outside the Samoan Government centre, I hear the heavenly sounds of a dozen different church choirs performing one after the other.

Some comprised 200 people, none less than 60. My favourite is the Apia Central State Choir's rendition of the battle song-come-hymn, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Quite astonishing!

On other nights, I see traditional Siva Samoa and contemporary dance demonstrations, Ailao Afi or Fire Knife dancing, a string band contest which throws together a wonderful mix of traditional Samoan and golden oldie guitar pop classics, a hip-hop-reggae-roots concert that has the happy, peaceable crowd raging, and the parade of beauties in the McDonald's Miss Samoa Pageant.

Each day there are games, parades, school events and street markets, quite apart from the regular daily Apia flea, food and fish markets.

There's not a day during my week in Samoa I don't receive and return a hundred greetings and smiles. Nor a day I don't feel I'm floating in an alluring space between the serene and the spectacular, gentle and wild, between Heaven and Earth.

In reality, most days I do literally float - in crystal clear water in turquoise lagoons, rock pools, below waterfalls, caves and pools fed by underground springs or fed through lava tubes linked to the sea. Piula Cave Pool is a 30-minute drive out of Apia. The cool, soft, clear water comes from an underground spring only metres from the coast. Half the pool is in a deep cave under a bluff. You look out through overhanging plants to the "outdoor" half of the pool and the sea, just across a tidy lawn.

As at most scenic spots, because they're all on private land, visitors pay a small fee to get in. The Piula Cave Pool is owned by a historic Methodist Chapel and Theological College.

Across rainforest-clad mountains lies the more touristy, picturesque south. You hit this coast near palms-white-sand-turquoise-water Lalomanu Beach, which Lonely Planet calls one of the world's 10 most beautiful.

A little further west is To Sua, a deeply sunken bowl of crystal clear salt water in park-like grounds. Climb many metres down a wooden ladder to get into the big pool.

It feels surreal, descending - slowly, because managing that descent is tricky - into sea water, swimming through a high-roofed tube where the water underneath you is at times more than two metres deep, emerging in another basin at a slightly higher level - a subterranean, Jurassic garden of flowers, ferns and climbers, with the blue, blue sky far above.

I stay this night at the luxurious, gorgeous Saletoga Sands Resort, where I'll meet new friends, drink kava (I do think it relaxed my aching legs after tackling that ladder, but then the wine might have helped, and, um the anti-inflammatory, too), take a lazy walk along a little beach lit by a bright moon, and pinch myself at having spent another night in Beautiful Samoa.

Tomorrow my guide John Lemoa, a Samoa Tourism marketing manager, will drive us to the ferry for the hour long crossing to Savai'i. But today, and every day, we're on "island time".

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Samoa Airways starts flying between Auckland and Apia in November. One-way Economy Class fares start from $234.

Details
For information on a holiday in Samoa,
go to samoa.travel.