I visit this island group – halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand – searching for the world’s last sundowner cocktail, just 20 miles east of the International Dateline. I want to jump off waterfalls, spy flying foxes in giant banyan trees and salute the mountaintop tomb of Treasure Island Author Robert Louis Stevenson (my father’s hero). And I plan to raise a rum-filled coconut and toast tomorrow, visible on a clear day.
Even in December – one of Samoa’s stormiest months – my chances look bright: the periodic daytime squalls just cool the 80°F heat and 79% humidity. Turquoise water and sugar-white beaches frame the jungle here. Underneath simmers a massive shield volcano. As the Pacific tectonic plate drifts towards China – 3 inches a year – the anchored hot spot occasionally spigots lava. This piles into a row of islands, orderly as churchgoers in a pew. Thus Samoa predates its sibling American Samoa (a U.S. territory) by about a million years. And it even scores big-kid privileges as a sovereign nation.
Slightly smaller than Rhode Island, the English-speaking country has two main landmasses – angelfish-shaped Savai’i and grouper-shaped ‘Upolu – that bookend tiny, traditional Manono and other islets. It attracts adventurers, eco-tourists, training athletes and body-art aficionados, especially for the annual tattoo festival. An 800-seat convention center opens this year and should draw businesspeople eager to shuck their suits to surf, navigate sinkhole passages and immerse in Fa’a Samoa.
Welcome to the Pacific’s front porch, where people believe that “greeting a guest should be like the joy of the birds greeting dawn.” No wonder that tourism’s up 13% since this time last year.
It’s not as saucy as it sounds.
Missionary-settled Samoa lives more modestly than its voluptuous, French-colonized cousin Tahiti, immortalized by Gauguin. Skinned down to bike shorts, Kilisi Solomona dons a lavalava, a men’s kilt-length sarong. Then he offers field notes on the art darkening his coconut-husk-hued skin.
Solomona underwent the Pe’a Tatau, aka “the full body tattoo:” a dense, intricate design from waist to knees, created with soot ink and combs of bone, bamboo and boar tusk. “The last session is the bellybutton,” he explains. “The key of life. It’s where you breathed in your mother.”
Around 20–25% of Samoan men still endure this initiation, once common to all boys before the missionaries’ 1830 arrival. Once begun, the 12 rituals must conclude or the youth shames his family. That’s no easy feat, as the Samoans approach this traditionally: no anesthesia or painkillers allowed. “I almost drowned in my tears,” Solomona says.
Basically, it’s the world’s toughest Boy Scout badge. “You are marked as a public servant. Everyone expects 150% from you. A policeman overseas can take off his uniform. I always carry this with me,” Solomona gestures at the black geometric patterns. The symbols denote the foundations of the culture – people, gods, nature and tools like canoes – “everything we need to survive. The Samoan design speaks to the country. It’s not about the individual.”
Typically Polynesian, Fa’a Samoa prizes respect and family. A proverb instructs: the path to power is through service. So too the idea of love (alofa) binds tightly with giving.
Anthropologists suspect these values migrated from Southeast Asia, as seafarers crossed open water in outrigger canoes. These mariners relied on scents, currents, constellations, and wave patterns rebounding from shore, piloting as surely as any GPS. Impressed, the first European sailors dubbed Samoa “the Navigators’ Islands”.
“We like to say that 1,000 years before Columbus, we discovered North America,” Solomona jokes. “We went, didn’t like it and turned around.”
Today our ambitions are more modest: a daytrip to car- and canine-free Manono. From ‘Upolu, we take a scarlet and canary dinghy across the cyan lagoon: colors straight from a Roy Lichtenstein painting.
We unload and circumnavigate the island: smiles slow the 90-minute walk. Kids stop playing on the front-yard family tombs and dog our steps, laughing. Eager for new faces, locals rush from their fales. They often charm tourists into a cricket game or Sunday lunch cooked in a Polynesian hot-rock oven (umu): dishes like octopus, breadfruit, and taro leaves with coconut cream. We’re invited to sip ceremonial ‘ava – a peppery-tasting, mild sedative drink – from a round wooden bowl that sprouts legs like a centipede. I help girls hang bananas to ripen and watch a boy catch a fat black fish and devour it raw. The half-day visit takes in nothing, really … but at the same time, everything.
More serious Samoan revelry goes by the catchy name of “fiafia.” Drummers lay down beats for singers and dancers, all dressed in eye-scalding colors and sometimes grass skirts. The capital’s grande dame hotel Aggie Grey’s hosts a surprisingly heartfelt show each Wednesday night. It culminates with fire dancers setting the pool ablaze.
No wonder Stevenson (1850–1894) retired nearby on ‘Upolu. As America, Germany and England wrangled for colonial clout, Stevenson called for independence. Samoans adored the writer in return. They nicknamed him “Tusitala” (Teller of Tales) and hand-dug the “Road of the Loving Heart” to his estate. After his untimely death at age 44, they buried him atop Vaea Mountain with royal honors. “Robert Louis Stevenson treated Samoans as family,” explains Margaret Silva, great-granddaughter of the Scotsman’s servant Tasi Sau. She’s also a senior tour guide at the writer’s mansion Vailima, now a museum.
His tomb – scrimshawed by shadows of roots and delicate vines – overlooks the estate. Inscribed is his self-authored epitaph, including the lines:
Under the wide and starry sky
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
The hour-long, mud-slicked climb to the author’s grave warms up travelers for Samoa’s more extreme adventures. And the country has plenty, all mostly unscathed by the 2009 tsunami. ‘‘Upolu’s scenic south coast is recovering and even making some silverlined steps. Sinalei Reef Resort leapt to four-stars, thanks to renovations, while the hard-hit Taufua Beach Fales bounced back and to #7 on Lonely Planet’s Ten Incredible Tropical Paradises for 2010.
I get in the swim at the Papase’ea waterfall – aka “the sliding rocks”. Sitting mid-stream, I point my toes and launch off the algae-slicked natural slide. After 15ft, I submerge: hooting, hollering and hoping for a move to Samoa, where lawsuit-looking spots display only friendly signs reminding swimmers not to break glass where others stride barefoot.
I turn to dive outfitter AquaSamoa for an even bigger splash. Barracuda and eagle rays dart in the 84°F water, also home to green turtles, reef sharks, pilot whales and 900 fish species. My boatmates are surveying for REEF, a marine-conservation group. So we go macro, dipping close to coral castles to spy on bullethead parrotfish – peacock blue split by an orange wedge – and the Op-Art-spotted reticulated butterflyfish who mate for life.
From the dive onward, Samoa unfolds adventure after adventure, unspooling smoothly as a siapo: decorated bark cloth. On Savai’i – not just the country’s largest island, but also Polynesia’s grandest, aside from Hawaii and New Zealand – I paddle an ocean-going kayak in a balmy rainstorm. I prowl church ruins lassoed by black lava, which legend claims skirted the tomb of an especially virtuous virgin. And like all visitors must, I shriek in the spray of the Alofaaga Blowholes. The sea slams water through a Swiss-cheesed cliff, forcing plumes upward. A grandfatherly looking man collects a few tala to chuck coconuts into the geysers. Timed right, they cannon upward.
I learn to lace palm-frond plates, as part of Siufaga Beach Resort’s Sunday Feast. Fa’a Samoa welcomes even guests’ badly woven contributions. Here, love is giving, after all.
Unexpected friendships bloom like hibiscus. Yet Samoa withholds my dream: the clear Savai’i sunset so I could toast tomorrow. Clouds slink in like naughty village dogs and obscure the International Dateline’s horizon.
But on Manono, a rugby match picks up, which mainly involves running, tickling and laughing until the pre-teen players collapse. I pull out my long camera lens – despite the fat raindrops – and shoot them like the world-class sports stars that train nearby. The kids pause their orbits and alight, giggling over the digital display. One thanks me with a smudgy, crushed flower, which I tuck into my hair. Never mind that allergies are trying to eject my scratchy eyes like shooter marbles. I’ve been greeted with a joy worthy of birds welcoming sunrise.
Smiling back with an open heart is the only Fa’a Samoa response.
At private attractions like the Alofaaga Blowholes and Papase’ea waterfall, someone will emerge from a fale and collect a small fee, usually 2-10 tala ($1-5).
Amanda Castleman writes from Seattle.
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