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Key Points:

Samoa has long justified its reputation as one of the cheapest South Pacific destinations. Look out for a bargain and you can snaffle a return flight for as little as $350 and, from $30 a night, travellers can experience "fa'a Samoa" (the islanders' way of life) in traditional accommodation in a beach fale.

There are eight beautiful islands in the independent state. Many visitors split their time between the two main islands of 'Upolu and Savai'i. Most people live on 'Upolu and many say Savai'i offers visitors "the real Samoa", but to neglect one at the expense of the other is a crime.

'Upolu is home to the capital of Apia, a charming and bustling collection of villages, and there's plenty to do in town.

The main market, the maketi fou - which is also the main bus station - is a grand mix of colour, custom and activity.

It's a pot-pourri of fresh produce and local treasures, including coconut-wood ornaments, clothes and delightful wooden bowls, starting at about 30 Samoan tala ($17.60). When the stallholder tells you the bowls are made by herself or her husband, they probably are. It's worth shopping around for the best prices, so check out the flea market a short walk away. Haggling is frowned upon. If you don't like the price, pull a face or start to walk away. The price will fall, or it won't, and that's that.

Both markets have food stalls where women prepare delicious, inexpensive dishes. Ask for your food to be cooked fresh in front of you and avoid dishes that may have been sitting around.

For a great feed, check out the fish market, where sensational fish and chips (think yellowfin tuna and marlin) are a snip at T7.50.

The place hums on Saturdays as locals gather to stock up for their Sunday meals.

Another essential stop is the small and free Museum of Samoa offering a fascinating insight into the island way of life - and a most welcome blast of air-conditioning.

It's open Monday to Friday, from noon to 3.30pm and is rarely busy, in contrast to the huge queues at the New Zealand High Commission next door.

Another Apia must-do is the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum - T20 with an obligatory tour - where the British author spent his last years before dying of a brain haemorrhage.

Each room offers glimpses into a colonial past, and the house has first editions of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The tour lasts half an hour, but set aside up to three hours if you want to complete the whole Stevenson pilgrimage, which requires you to walk up Mt Vaea where Stevenson and his wife are buried, and to explore the botanic gardens and rainforest.

The museum is a few kilometres out of Apia, so take a taxi from the centre of town for about T10 and a colourful, musical, open-sided and suspension-lacking bus back for T1.50.

'Upolu has accommodation of all sorts, from the high-end Aggie Grey's original Apia hotel and luxury resort close to the airport ($177 a night) to beach fales at $30 to $50 a night. There's lots to experience in 'Upolu, from snorkelling, diving or surfing the pristine beaches - Lalomanu is highly recommended - to marine and recreation reserves. And there are hundreds of churches, which give Samoa the God's Country moniker.

In Savai'i, time drifts by more slowly in a very traditional lifestyle.

A bus from Apia to the ferry wharf at Mulifanua costs T3 but can take more than an hour. A taxi will cost T40. The crossing takes about an hour and costs T18 return.

Manase is a good base on Savai'i with its broad choice of accommodation.

Basic wooden beach fales have a delightful rustic charm with their open-sided design with side panels that can be lowered for privacy.

Inside is a main sleeping area with floor mattress and mossie-net. Most have a front deck with table and chairs, but toilets and showers are shared.

Stevenson's offers beach fales for T80 a person for a night, with sumptuous breakfast and dinner included. Basic chalet-style rooms are the same price, and villas cost T150.

Nearby, Tanu Beach Fales offers a fia'fia (colourful, musical floorshow) several nights a week, if there are sufficient visitors to the village.

Raci's Club offers dive trips, kayak and snorkel hire - and internet access. Savai'i has many superb beaches close at hand, so jump in a taxi or bus and check out the abundant coral and fish.

Car hire is a bit pricey at T120 a day for a 4WD with a non-negotiable T2500 excess, so a guided tour is an appealing alternative.

Chris Solomona, based at Safua Hotel, offers day trips with lunch and all entry fees for T180 a head.

The history and geography graduate gave up a job in the United States to come home and help his village. He's a mine of information and takes great pride in traditions and culture.

He will tailor trips to clients' wishes. Highlights include watching men enduring the traditional tattooing (pe'a), which takes three months to complete, and is etched normally from the waist; and village elders creating delicate tapa, or siapo, artworks from the bark of the paper mulberry tree.

There's natural beauty aplenty to admire, including a moonscape lava field formed when Mt Matavanu erupted for six years from 1905.

Be sure to see the ruined village at Sale'aula, where a 2m flow entered through the front door of the London Missionary Society church.

Also well worth the visit are the Satoalepai wetlands (home to a turtle conservation project), Olemoe falls, Pulemelei step pyramid (Polynesia's largest ancient structure) and Alofa'aga blowholes (making those just north of Greymouth look like part of a toy town).

Samoa is one of those destinations that surpasses preconceptions and exceeds expectations. The people are warm, friendly, and don't try to rip you off, the culture is vibrant, traditional and accessible, and a visit can be moulded to all tastes and budgets.

You will be sure to come home with a burning desire to return to these Treasure islands.

* The currency in Samoa is the tala and the exchange rate to the Kiwi dollar is about $1.70. Buy and sell tala at your local bank for a better rate. The $ sign is used for tala on prices and currency.

* Samoa is a safe place to visit but don't let your guard down, especially when staying in a beach fale. They are open and thieves can easily hit. Leave your valuables in the resort's safety deposit box.

* Wave and smile to the islanders - they will do the same back.

* Learn a few words, such as talofa (hello), tofa (goodbye), fa'amolemole (please) and fa'afetai (thanks). They will go down a treat.

* Samoa is a religious country, so expect pretty much everything to be closed on Sundays.

* Try out the local buses. Have change ready but don't rely on departure times. They are owner-operated and trundle about on island time.

* If time permits, spend a day or two on Manono, a tiny island between 'Upolu and Savai'i. It's a truly magical place where tourism is community based.

* Darren Risby travelled to Samoa courtesy of Air New Zealand Holidays.

- Detours, HoS