A resort in Samoa woos visitors to come back, writes Shandelle Battersby.

Gary Cooper spends a good chunk of his time in the classic film Return to Paradise planning his departure from the fictional island paradise of Matareva; I spent most of my stay at the beach where the 1953 classic was filmed wondering how I could stay there forever.

These days home to a lovely, expansive resort - named in honour of the famous film of course - it's hard to imagine how different the village of Matautu, a half-hour drive from Apia's international airport, would have been when Hollywood rolled into town in the early 50s.

This was an era when going to the movies was a great social occasion only the rich and upper-class of Samoan society could afford, though outdoor showings made it to some of the villages thanks to the efforts of local companies at the time.

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In an interview with news site Pacific Guardians in 2014, Moira MacDonald, one of the stars of the film, who was discovered at a Samoan bank and played Cooper's daughter Turia, spoke of how the cast and crew were treated by the local people. "The whole island was abuzz with great excitement," she recalled.

We had some insight into the film shoot, extended from three months to five, during a Village Walk with Lafua, a local who works at the Return to Paradise resort as a waiter.

As we walked in the glorious sunshine along the resort's dedicated road, we paused to see where the "plane crash" happened in the turquoise lagoon and where Cooper played cricket (or kilikiti) with the villagers. The church whose windows he shot out when the pugilistic pastor stopped him from building his fale on a Sunday was taken down after the film shoot, and a new one was built in its place.

Lafua also pointed out native plants and their uses, and took us to the 348-pupil all-Samoan primary school, where Jandals - lined up outside the door - and lavalavas are part of the school uniform. We peeked in through open windows as the children did their lessons, and listened in as they prepared for upcoming exams. Dogs and the odd chicken roamed around in the huge dirt yard out front and a huge pig and her piglets grunted and squealed as we left the gate and made our way back to the resort for lunch and a swim.

Life moves slowly at the 100 per cent Samoan-owned Return to Paradise resort. Decisions are tough: should I swim in the crystal-clear lagoon or one of the four pools? Should I snooze on a sun-lounger on the sparkling white sand or should I return to the comfy bed in my Beachfront Room, leave the doors wide open and listen to the waves crash? Should I dine at the Paradise Kitchen restaurant tonight, or enjoy a few sundowners and the menu at the Rockpool Bar? Maybe indulge in a luxuriously relaxing one-hour massage at the on-site spa (SPAradise), which start from just WST70 ($40). It's a hard life.

The Beachfront Rooms are cool and comfortable, with marble floors, a fridge, tea and coffee facilities, air-conditioning and ceiling fans, and huge bathrooms with walk-in showers and twin vanities. Out front is a shaded deck area with outdoor furniture and views of palm trees and the pretty lagoon.

Resort life is punctuated by activities heralded via a daily newsletter from the "eccentric" Aunty Pisupo. Movie nights (featuring, of course, Cooper and co), crab races, volleyball games and cultural nights are all on offer, and children are well-looked after by the friendly staff, who are always up for a chat and a laugh.

An onsite tour desk can sort out kayaking or snorkelling excursions, or you can try spear fishing or swimming with turtles. We hired a car, which was delivered to the resort for us, and drove around most of the island, through villages with cheerful bunting, opulent churches and tiny, colourful shops. This is a great way to connect with the "real" Samoa.

Most homes have no walls or windows, many have elaborate gravesites in the front yard.

Local buses with creative names (Rapunzel) and paint jobs roared past us on the narrow roads and one day we had to brake suddenly for a sun-bathing dog. Two men carrying huge logs on their shoulders turned and waved, Justin Bieber played in between laid-back reggae on the radio, and even now and again the heavens would open and it rained like it had never rained before.

We went to the big smoke for a delicious lunch of breadfruit tacos and oka (raw fish marinated in coconut milk) at the excellent Nourish Cafe followed by a drink at famous Aggie Grey's (now Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey's Hotel & Bungalows). An hour or two was worth spending at Robert Louis Stevenson's Vailima plantation homestead, now a well-preserved museum honouring the great writer who was in Samoa for only a few years but left a lasting impression. If you have the time and energy (and plenty of water) his gravesite can be visited atop Mt Vaea.

One hour east (and signposted by the tiniest of signs) is the oft-photographed To Sua Ocean Trench, a spectacular 30m-deep seawater swimming hole reached by an almost vertical wooden ladder. Its descent is not for the faint-hearted but worth every step. Keep driving a little further and you'll reach Lalomanu, one of the island's most famous and picturesque beaches, whose village was pounded during the devastating 2009 tsunami, and which has made a slow but sure recovery.

Or, you could kick back and enjoy the generous hospitality back at the resort, where nothing is too much trouble and time seems to stand still.

Not still enough for me, I thought, as staff harmoniously sang us their version of the Samoan farewell song, Tofa Mai Feleni. "Oh, I never will forget you. Come back one day soon."

I'd say a Return to Paradise is definitely on the cards. Which is, spoiler alert, of course what Gary Cooper concluded too.

Tips for Upolu

● The speed limit is only 55km/h on the open road and 35km/hr in the villages, and people drive at varying speeds. With all manner of objects appearing at random in the middle of the road - from massive palm fronds and coconuts to chickens, pigs, dogs and people - be cautious and alert.
● While we're talking about driving, there are a couple of other unusual quirks. Road signs are non-existent. Like, zilch. As you get closer to Apia, the odd street sign appears, but you have no other way to know if you're even going in the right direction or how far away it is. There are no main highway signs at all. There aren't many roads however, so it's hard to go too wrong.
● If you have a rental car don't park it under a coconut tree - falling coconuts can do massive damage for cars and your insurance may not cover it.
● Save Upolu as an Offline Map on Google Maps.
That way you won't have to
use roaming for data. You have to pay for Wi-Fi everywhere and it's expensive, not to mention patchy
(I paid WST25 for two hours - about $14). We found one internet cafe in Apia
(WST3 for 15 minutes) but it was straight out of 1992.
● Carry cash. Eftpos machines suffer from patchy coverage too, and your credit card may not work. There are also small cash-only entry fees charged by the villages to some of the main attractions - we were asked for WST10 each to swim at Lalomanu Beach and to visit the To Sua Trench will cost you WST20 each (no eftpos). There are ATMs in the main villages.
● Pack some food. We packed Vogel's, noodles, packets of tuna, potato chips and cashew nuts.
● Don't drink the water.
Other places we didn't get to but came highly recommended by those in the know include:
● Apia's markets, the cave pool at Piula, and the Lalotalie River Walk.
● A day trip to the other main island, Savai'i. Take the 8am ferry from Mulifanua Wharf in the north-west, which arrives at Savai'i at 9am, then take an organised taxi to Afu Aau Waterfall, Nu'u Black Sand Beach and the Alofa'aga Blowholes. Or check out the First Missionary Arrival Monument, the beaches of Lano and the Saleaula Lava Fields. If you have time, you can swim with turtles, or squeeze in a cocktail at Stevensons at Manase. There should be a 4pm return ferry.

FACT BOX

Getting there

Air New Zealand and Samoa Airways both fly to Apia, Samoa.

Staying there
Return to Paradise is at the village of Matautu, a half-hour drive from Faleolo International Airport. The resort can arrange transport for a WST30 per person. The Village Walk is WST15 per person.

Details
samoa.travel