After a rocky start, the best of Samoa is easy to find, on a food-filled, warm-hearted, relaxing "friend-moon", writes Kelly Dennett.
As Laura and I eagerly neared the front of the Customs queue at Samoa's Faleolo International Airport, a grandmotherly-looking woman, who had tugged a green- faced child past us, cut to the front.
A twinge of irritation pulled as I thought about the four-hour flight, the 6am wake-up call and the 30-day test of patience it had taken to get us from our office jobs in central Auckland to the front of this hundred-people deep line leading toward Samoan beach bliss.
The annoyance with the line jumper only lasted as long as it took for the poor kid to vomit at the feet of a Customs officer and up the backs of my legs. "Oh my God," I shouted.
Laura was more polite: "Just don't look at it."
Thus began our five-night stay in Samoa, a trip we affectionately dubbed our friend-moon.
We had booked just a month earlier, on our return to work following a short Christmas break when back-to-work blues are strongest.
Laura had just transitioned from being in a long-term, committed relationship to an "it's complicated" status. The conditions were ripe for a week of alcohol and sun-saturated bliss.
Friends since meeting at high school when we were 13, we had enjoyed some weekend getaways in New Zealand together but had never taken our friendship overseas or spent an extended period in close quarters. Our friendship would be sorely tested, we joked, as we downed pre-flight mimosas. But there would be no chance of divorce.
The crudeness of our Samoan welcome was quickly replaced with a mercilessly fast immigration and Customs process and confirmation that a driver from Taumeasina Island Resort was waiting with leis, water, and an air-conditioned van. This would be the beginning of our affair with Taumeasina, a resort staffed with such jovial people that we actually looked forward to seeing them every day.
Although the resort was just 30km from the airport, we didn't travel more than 50km/h as we became trapped behind slow drivers, had vehicles cut in front of us, and passed gently through villages where children congregated on the road.
It was a Sunday, the island's day off for church, and as we passed Fasito'outa, Faleatiu — David Tua's hometown — Afea, and many more villages, some inhabitants were asleep, star-fished on the floors of the wall-less, brightly-coloured fales; people stood or sat on lawns; kids played in their yards, and families swam in tiny bays. It was 30C. I thought about Auckland Airport security, which had taken ownership of my aerosol deodorant hours beforehand.
We were greeted warmly at Taumeasina, a man-made peninsula whose resort opened in 2016. Our luggage was dealt with and Laura and I began committing to our plans for the week ahead. There were two pools and we would need to try both.
We had packed cheese, bubbles, wine, chips and dips but when that ran out — potentially in a matter of hours — we would need to look further afield for restaurants.
And, we needed at least one activity in Samoa, perhaps an all-encompassing day trip, to claim we had seen the best of Samoa.
It wasn't long before we found exactly this. The tip came from the Samoa Observer, a newspaper I had taken to reading daily because of its riveting mix of politics, business, human interest and crime stories.
On page two, a handsome man wearing a tropical shirt, a pounamu, and a sleeve of tribal tattoos beamed at us. He was Chef John, a man with a humble kitchen, who worked within the nature of Samoa's beauty, the article said. He was 24 and ran a tour where guests ate a specially prepared menu while relaxing at beautiful swimming spots.
We booked straight away, and almost too late, as the tours were pretty much full. We were to share a van with a couple and their baby.
Two days later, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for when 25 minutes after we arrived at Apia Fish Market, Chef John and the aforementioned couple with their child were nowhere to be seen.
Eventually, we made contact with Chef John. There was confusion over the meeting place.
He came and picked us up, appearing nonplussed. He'd been to the fish market well before we were there and picked up the catch of the day. We were supposed to have been at the Fugalei fruit and vegetable market. But not to worry, he'd take us there now. So off we went, with Chef John, Steve, Steve's wife, and baby Juliet.
We hustled through the fruit and vegetable market, an eye-popping display of pink, prickly lychees, avocados the size of my head, and mangoes costing three talas a bag.
Laura and I love cooking and the market represented something unattainable in central Auckland — fresh, quality produce for exceedingly low prices.
When we pulled up at Piula Cave Pool, east of Apia, the huge avocados weren't a disappointing mash of brown inside. Chef John carved into one, which fed five of us. No need for salt and pepper.
The cave pool is a freshwater swimming hole practically hidden underneath the Methodist Chapel, where priests train to be priests.
While Chef John set up a small table with a gas cooker — after changing from a collared pink shirt into a chef's uniform — Laura and I ploughed into the water. Crystal clear, cold, and teeming with fish.
Lunch was served with fresh coconuts, on a picnic table. Chef John doesn't like to use plastic so we drank the coconut water sans straw, and our fresh fish was dished on to woven flax plates.
It was red snapper cooked in a ginger, soy and turmeric sauce with a slice of lime. Layered underneath was breadfruit and bok choy.
And if that wasn't enough, a platter of melon, pineapple, banana and more avocado lay centre stage for grabbing. The flavours were simple but they packed a punch. The snapper's flesh melted in my mouth. This was what we had come for.
Chef John seemed shy, almost reluctant to tell us about the food combination. He smiled earnestly though, insisting we keep eating more fruit or it would go to waste.
Occasionally he put his hand on our shoulders and asked, "Are you okay?"
That afternoon we circumnavigated Upolu, travelling further south to Lalomanu, a strip of white sand boasting colourful fales. The water was warm, blue, and choppy.
On we travelled, the narrow roads giving glimpses of shacks built from tin, flax, and tree trunks.
We had to forego a scheduled stop at Togitogiga Waterfall that afternoon, after torrential rain the day before made it unsafe.
Our last stop was Sua Trench, a test of nerves.
The 30-metre deep swimming pool was a brilliant green-blue and required a daring climb down a long ladder, or one big jump. Having just warmed up from two swims at Piula and Lalomanu, we weren't up to dipping into water again. Cyclone Gita was not far away and the wind was whipping.
Instead, we paused to watch locals bomb into the blue. An Australian woman told us she'd been at the top of the ladder for 30 minutes, plucking up the nerve to climb down.
The drive showed us the beauty of Samoa, lush, green land, covered in tropical flowers, but also showed us deprivation. Newspaper articles with locals begging for fresh water, building materials, and a job, were at the forefront of my mind.
That night, exhausted, Laura and I lounged in our robes, reading our books and watching CNN. Dinner was room service — a cheese and tomato toastie for her, a prawn salad for me. Friend-moon romance at its peak.
Our energy for food and activity returned. Over the ensuing nights, we dined at Apia's top-rated restaurants, gorging on fries and Samoan oka (ceviche) with taro crisps, washing it down with margaritas and pina coladas at The Edge on the marina; and chowing down on seafood Italian pastas and risotto at Paddles restaurant.
By our final night, the cyclone was brewing and a fiafia night at a local resort we'd so looked forward to was cancelled.
Instead, we headed to Giordanos wood-fired pizza and garden cafe where we pigged out on a swordfish carpaccio pizza and puttanesca pasta.
Spoiled with food, we were equally charmed by Samoa's people. Everybody was congenial.
The manager of one restaurant remarked on how long it had taken us to get out of the taxi and wondered whether we were having a problem with the driver. We reassured him we were searching for change. All of the waitstaff wanted to know where we had come from, and what we had been up to. Laura and I were chuffed with the shoeless waiters with big smiles.
On a wet Friday morning we bid Samoa goodbye. In addition to touring the island with Chef John, we'd also read book after book by the pool, cheered on the Eagles at a bar showing the Superbowl, been treated to a poolside haka by Taumeasina staff on Waitangi Day, sipped cocktail after cocktail and downed five-tala Viliamas. In the morning, we took turns brewing coffee for each other, and began a tradition of exclaiming at the wonders of the buffet breakfast. We noted Michael Jones wandering the resort and joked about taking a selfie. We exchanged fist bumps with the gardener.
Boarding the Air New Zealand flight back to Auckland, just hours before Cyclone Gita wreaked havoc on the island, I felt a burst of sadness at saying goodbye.
And Laura and I congratulated ourselves on a successful friend-moon.
flies daily from Auckland to Samoa, with one-way Seat fares from $303.