Sea, sun and the welcoming locals make you want to keep going back to Samoa, writes Jim Kayes
It wasn't the best of starts. Rain smashed into the roof of the hangar used as a temporary arrivals hall at Samoa's Faleolo Airport, the humidity adding to the sweltering heat.
"Dad, this wasn't in the brochure," the younger daughter said, poking fun at the in-flight spiel I'd delivered about escaping Auckland's endless rain for sunshine.
It was the girls' first visit to Samoa and to say they were excited is something of an understatement.
We told the younger of the two only one week ahead. She packed her bag that day.
I was excited, too, because it took up a week of the school holidays — time invented by teachers to punish parents for sending them our little darlings on a daily basis.
It was my third trip, having first visited in 2015 to cover the All Blacks rugby test in Apia for TV3. My wife came along. While I worked she sat beside the pool.
That seemed to be a template for this trip, too, as she sipped cocktails on a lounger while I served as an aquatic jungle-Jim for the girls to dive off and swim under.
It takes just over an hour to drive from the airport to Saletoga Sands Resort and Spa.
Owned by former Hamilton couple Gavin and Lou Brightwell, it opened in March 2014 with 27 fales but has since more than doubled in size and has a hotel and bungalows set up on the other side of the property.
As it was our third stay we were treated like long-lost friends, to the girls' bemusement, but by the week's end they realised it wasn't we who were special, it was the Samoans.
"The people are so friendly," the girls proclaimed several times each day. They are right.
This is a special place. A less costly and more sedate Fiji.
Saletoga was a perfectly positioned base to alternate a day at the resort with a day exploring. Upolu is an easy island to explore, with one major road that circles the island and three more that cut across it. But you must have your wits about you and don't speed, especially at night when, in the absence of streetlights, the people, dogs and pigs you share the road with are harder to spot.
On our bucket list was To Sua Trench and the nearby rock pools and caves where the resort's guide, Sili, showed he was part man, part fish. He took me through the trench three years ago. It's not far to swim but knowing you can't come up until you reach the end is daunting and it took three goes to get my courage up. I needn't have worried and the thrill of reaching the mid-point cavern was huge — matched only by the beauty that surrounded me.
A less daunting feat was leaping into the rock pools and swimming into a cave where the light made the water a wonderful colour.
Early that day we'd zipped out to Namua Island where turtles buzzed the dinghy on the short ride across and back, and the snorkelling — straight off the beach — revealed a rainbow of fish within the coral.
The girls seemed to revel, too, in the walk up the hill on Namua to check out the view and the bats. It was a steep climb in bare feet that left their parents huffing, puffing, drenched in sweat and well behind the children as they danced over roots and rocks in the way only kids can.
It was the same when we walked up Mt Vaea, where Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson is buried. By the time I joined the girls at the summit, I could easily have joined him for a bit of a lie down.
"Are you okay," the elder asked with what I mistook to be concern in her voice.
"Because there's no defibrillator up here if you're not."
Saletoga Resort's fiafia night — an evening of song, dance and fire twirling — was superbly done and it's not surprising it was voted the best in Samoa. It's worth the 65 tala (about $40), especially as it includes dinner.
It can get tedious always eating at the resort and there are few nearby options so a change in the culinary scene requires a 40-minute trip to Apia, where are there are some decent places to go, including Scalinis and Paddles.
A shopping trip to Samoa's city is also a "must do" and for me there were two strong reasons to go. Milani Cafe offers the best coffee in Samoa (and good coffee is hard to find) and at 10 tala (about $5.50) the jandals in the street stalls are without question the best you will buy anywhere.
I'm on to my third pair and have two more in reserve.
Equally, my wife needed another fan. She now has five, but they, too, are just 10 tala each.
The markets are worth a look (though the stalls are largely repetitive) and the shops in the small CBD are good for a browse or to just enjoy the air conditioning.
If it's hot — and it will be — from Apia you can drive about 30 minutes along the East Coast Road to Piula Cave Pool — an outdoor, natural rock pool that's wonderfully refreshing.
A trip to the Islands isn't complete without the ubiquitous hair braids that, at five tala a braid, seemed okay to me until the girls returned, smiling, with a full head of them.
Still, they looked snazzy and it did take two hours to do them, which meant I could snooze in the shade beside the pool, undisturbed.
It's a price I was happy to pay.
We stayed a week but should have stayed 10 days to get the most out of the trip. The girls were in love with the country and her people and my youngest asked, as we took one final dip at the beach that nudges the resort, if we could move to Samoa.
"No," I said, "but we will come back."
starts flying between Auckland and Apia in November.
Details: For information on a holiday in Samoa, go to samoa.travel.
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