The tiny South Pacific island nation of Western Samoa really is something else. I have seen a number of island nations in that region, from New Caledonia to Fiji and Vanuatu, but Samoa really stole my heart. The pace here seems to be different, and people and nature both seem to be in constant competition in terms of beauty and elegance.
We arrive in the capital of Apia one early morning after a 5-hour red-eye flight from Sydney with Virgin Samoa. The kids are understandably tired and moody, but our friendly driver greets us with a cooled coconut for a refreshing drink and wet towelettes. We settle in our seats of the mini van and leave the tiny airport parking lot behind that is still covered in darkness. The sun is yet to rise.
The driver is chatty and keen to explain to us and the kids the in’s and out’s of Samoa. He teaches the kids their first Samoan words, tells them the legend of the eel that turns into a coconut tree, and sings a traditional song. The kids are tired and their little bodies upset by the rude awakening but they listen attentively and enjoy the ride.
While we are driving to our resort, Saletoga Sands (disclaimer: this is an affiliate link with Booking.com – if you book using this link you will send a small commission my way which will benefit this blog) on the south coast of Upolu island, we are taking the route across the island through an endless line-up of tiny villages, coconut plantations, and natural forest. The road is winding and sometimes bumpy, the surface rough and not particularly easy on the tyres. By the time we arrive at the south coast and drive along the coastal route, the sun has risen and we can see the villages more clearly. They now come in closer succession, as most Samoans live along the coast. The villages are all extremely beautiful. Poor, but clean, with beautiful lush gardens and an orderliness that appeals to my German inner self.
I notice that each dwelling typically consists of a number of buildings – the traditional fale, an open house without walls, just a roof supported by pillars and beams, that is often used for greeting visitors, for assemblies, schooling or other social activities, sometimes even for sleeping. In cases where the family is a bit more prosperous, they can afford a proper house with walls and openings for the windows right next door to the fale. Samoa is a hot country, there is no need for window glass. Behind the house, out of sight, are the open kitchen and the outhouse, but they are neatly tucked away and cannot be seen from the road as we drive past. What we can see, however, is the family burial site, prominently positioned in the front yard, usually a step pyramid type of tomb, sometimes single graves topped with stone.
It is early morning as we are driving, and people around us are getting ready for the day’s work. Most men wear the traditional lava-lava, a skirt that ends right below the knees, and the kids are in their school uniforms tracking along the road to their schools. There are plenty of schools along the way, just as many as churches, it seems. Instead of stores however all you can see are little kiosks selling the necessities. There are chickens, cows and dogs wandering the streets, we need to drive carefully.
Natural disasters, the Samoans say, are a blessing, as a strong hurricane or a tsunami will wipe away existing structures and the instant influx of foreign money will help replace the faulty existing roads, bridges, electric lines with new ones.
Saletoga Sands is a brand-new resort that opened its doors only in April 2014. Located at the site of an old coconut plantation is occupies one of the rare waterfront free-title plots in Samoa. Most Samoan land is in the hands of communities or private people, you cannot even visit a beach without paying. For us, Saletoga Sands is the ideal choice – remote enough to ensure peace and quiet but at the same time with a number of activities on offer, for adults as well as kids, and with the convenience of family rooms that offer two bedrooms in a free-standing villa. There are not many properties in Samoa to choose from, it is still a fairly undeveloped country with very little tourism. But Saletoga caters very well for us as a family.
When we arrive we can instantly move into our villa and start our stay. A great opportunity to discover the resort which is beautifully laid out and set in tropical gardens that are enriched with tiny details like driftwood, carved stones, coral and shells. Our kids even discover the eel that is planted in the ground right next to our villa, they are amazed that this story really seems to be true!
While our villa is not set right on the beach like the smaller ones that sleep only two, we can reach the beach in less than a minute. In fact, you can hear the thunder of the surf breaking at the outer reef from our wide porch. I take the kids and we explore the grounds.
The beach is white and steep. There are bigger rocks and corals in the water, so if you fancy a swim or want to snorkel then reef shoes are advisable. Unfortunately, the 2009 tsunami did some damage to the reef and you will find better snorkelling on the north side of the island. But you still find some fish and coral here at Saletoga Sands, so renting the free snorkelling gear does make sense.
Dominating the beach is a long jetty that extends far into the water. At the end, a little gazebo, today dressed to play an important role in a tropical beach wedding. The staff of the resort have exceeded themselves in decorating the gazebo and and jetty with fresh palm leaves and tropical flowers. It simply looks stunning!
Of course, the resort also boasts a pool which is a big hit with the kids, there is free non-motorised water sports, a restaurant with kids menu and a bar with happy hour, a spa, a gym, a chapel. It is a safe haven for our little family, we don’t need to fear that the kids might wander off or mess with strangers. Granted, you cannot get anywhere by foot from here, but you can rent a car or take part in the daily excursions which we do and which I will write about soon.
Samoa is an incredibly beautiful place. It is not just the tropical flowers, the fresh air and the crazily handsome people, it is the music, the dance, the sweet scents. It is less industrialised than Fiji and has a rigid social system where the elected elders define the rules for each village, and offences are punished severely. At first there will be a warning, then a beating and lastly exile. Alcohol consumption is not tolerated in many villages, crime is virtually unknown.
The concept of ownership and personal property is still new, and many people that do hold jobs are not personally benefitting from the income – they send it home to their families where expenses are shared communally. A great part of the money also goes to the local church.
It really is an exciting alternative to more developed and touristic places like Fiji, a bit more exotic but still safe. If hanging around the pool is not your thing then consider renting a car (you can usually get the international licence on the spot through the rental company) and go about touring the island instead. Waterfalls, lagoons, diving and surfing spots, all make the trip worthwhile.
There are many resorts out there with less luxury but in unbeatable locations, where you will sleep in open fales with the waves lapping around the stilts. The temperatures are balmy at night and hot during the day.
And while you are there do make sure you pay a visit to the stunning To Sua Ocean Trench, but this is for another post which will be on the blog soon, so stay tuned.