Above: A beach fale and turquoise lagoon.
With its quintessential high-island scenery and a culture that remains firmly connected to its past, Samoa offers a satisfying slice of Polynesia
By Joe Yogerst
Photographs by R. Ian Lloyd
The book I took with me to Samoa was The Happy Isles of Oceania—which, being by Paul Theroux, promised an anything-but-happy account of the author’s rambles around the Pacific in 1990. Theroux is a famously acerbic observer, so I knew that his journey was most likely filled with cheerless adventures and unpleasant encounters—just the sort of stuff that makes him such fun to read in the first place.
True to form, Theroux slashes and burns his way from island to island, sparing no one his trenchant barbs. I avidly ate it all up, until I got to the Samoa chapter. Now, I’m not saying that the unpleasantness Theroux endured in Samoa didn’t actually happen—maybe he’s just the kind of guy who attracts bad karma. But I did find myself thinking: Is he making this stuff up? Because the Samoa I came to know during a week in the little Pacific nation was the polar opposite of the backwater that so vexed Theroux.
Of course, I was bunking at a friendly resort on Upolu rather than camping out along some secluded beach on Savai’i, and eating in the best restaurants rather than trying to cook freeze-dried muck over a can of Sterno; maybe that had something to do with our vastly different takes on Samoa. But the biggest disparity was our view of the locals. Theroux felt bullied and victimized by the Samoans—“gloatingly rude and light-fingered, quoting the Bible as they picked your pocket,” is how he described them—whereas I found them among the most welcoming and agreeable people I have come across anywhere in Polynesia, and this despite the still-raw memories of last September’s tsunami. The Samoans I met were eager to talk about themselves and their country, give me directions, or even go out of their way to personally take me to the spot I was seeking out. Then again, maybe I’m just the kind of guy who attracts good karma.
Not that I would blame Samoans for being wary of outsiders; like many Pacific landfalls, the islands had an eclectic and somewhat convoluted colonial experience. Home to one of ancient Polynesia’s earliest cultures, the Samoan islands entered the orbit of European expansionism with the arrival of British missionaries and traders in the 1830s. Germans and Americans soon showed up on the scene, vying to set up coal-refueling stations and establish copra and cocoa plantations. This, in turn, led to an eight-year civil war in which each of the foreign powers backed and armed a different native faction. In 1899, the archipelago was officially annexed and divided, with Western Samoa (comprising the two large western islands of Upolu and Savai’i and a handful of islets) falling under German control, and American Samoa (the five easternmost islands in the chain) becoming a territory of the United States, a status that it maintains today.
Following World War I, Western Samoa was governed by New Zealand as a League of Nations trusteeship—ineptly, as it turned out. It was early in this period that a steamship from Auckland brought an influenza epidemic to the islands, wiping out almost a quarter of the population. In 1929, police opened fire on a peaceful pro-independence rally, killing 11 in an incident that is remembered as Black Saturday. When Western Samoa finally gained its independence from Auckland in 1962, it was the first colony in the South Pacific to do so.
The Kiwis were around long enough to bestow on the place its national sport (rugby), parliamentary democracy, Harry Potteresque school uniforms, and an absurdly early pub-closing hour (midnight)—but not long enough to dilute a culture that remains refreshingly Polynesian. Much as they have for more than a thousand years, hereditary chiefs still govern affairs in Samoa’s myriad villages, and the vast majority of the people continue to live in thatch-roofed, open-sided fale houses. Samoan remains a lively and dynamic language, and the extended family (aiga) is the abiding bedrock of island life. Even in a day and age when satellite television and cell phones have penetrated the most remote villages, it’s custom to have the virgin daughter of the local chief prepare the kava for important ceremonies. And while imported Spam and absurdly fatty canned corned beef have helped fuel Samoans’ massive physiques for more than half a century, much of the cooking here is still done in uma earth ovens stoked with hot stones. Islanders toss in just about anything —fish, yams, chicken, bananas, and yes, even Spam.
After my Air New Zealand flight touched down on the main island of Upolu, I hopped a shuttle to my digs on the south shore and settled in for a couple days of surveying the scene. This area bore the brunt of the September 29 tsunami, which was generated by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake some 200 kilometers offshore. Thankfully, the island’s more populous north coast (where the capital, Apia, is located) was virtually untouched, as was Savai’i. But along Upolu’s southeastern fringe, massive waves flattened villages and inundated several resorts, including the laid-back Coconuts Beach Club. All told, more than 180 people lost their lives in Samoa, along with dozens more in neighboring American Samoa and Tonga.
Four months after the tsunami, there was still wreckage to be seen along the beach; much of the cleaning up was being done by hand. But the rebuilding process was well under way, and by the time you read this, I imagine most traces of the disaster will have been erased. Coconuts Beach Club reopened in early February, and the nearby Sinalei Reef Resort, the country’s chicest retreat, was not far behind. And if I had worried that I’d feel like an intruder here, some sort of voyeur, I needn’t have. The people I met seemed genuinely happy to see travelers returning to the area, and equally determined to get things back to normal. Not to forget the past, mind you, but to honor the dead by picking themselves up and starting over. I could only admire their perseverance.
In need of a distraction one morning, I paddled a kayak down to the mangrove forest at Mulivai. It was low tide, so I had to pull my boat across a sandbar that blocked the entrance from the lagoon. But inside the wetlands, which are fed by a freshwater spring, the water was deep, cool, and aquamarine. Mullet and smaller silver fish swam in schools below the surface, while blue-gray herons perched in the branches of above. I spent about an hour and a half probing the outer edges of the swamp, searching for the “old missionary grave site” indicated on my hand-drawn map from the resort. I never found it—perhaps it had been washed away?—but even so, paddling alone through the mangroves was an eerie enough experience.
Above, from left: Mementos on display at Villa Vailima, the onetime residence of Robert Louis Stevenson that now serves as a museum dedicated to the Scottish writer; local flora; a traditional look in Apia; curried lobster at Upolu’s Coconuts Beach Club.
Sunday came and I strolled down to the nearest Congregational Church. Like so many South Pacific peoples, Samoans are great churchgoers, whether Congregationalists, Catholics, Methodists, or any of the other Christian denominations that took root here in the 19th century. Every village seems to have a little whitewashed chapel, which springs to life on the Sabbath with rousing song and passionate sermon. I sat in the back with four other palagi (Caucasians) as the service got underway. The congregation, dressed in crisp white shirts or dresses, was strictly divided: young girls on the left side, young boys on the right, and adults in the middle, comprising the heart of the choir. The electric keyboard did no justice to their voices; I wondered why they didn’t just sing the whole thing a cappella, and let their hymns float out the open windows to mix with the birdsong.
Another day, I hired a driver to take me around Upolu’s countryside. His name was Albert Bell, a burly guy with broad shoulders and a couple of gold teeth front and center in a mouth that rarely stopped smiling. Albert was a font of information on all things Samoan—like the fact that Samoa’s national flower (the ginger lily) isn’t even native to the islands. Nor is the ubiquitous coconut palm, brought to Samoa by German plantation owners in the 1890s. But other than those items, Albert figured his homeland was pretty genuine.
“I believe,” he declared as we drove into the hills, “that we are the only Pacific island nation that has retained most of our own culture. We still speak our own language to each other, we live in villages, we eat traditional foods, and the family is very, very, very important. Samoa is still quite unspoiled.”
To prove his point, Albert pointed out the fales in each village that we passed, and the whitewashed gravestones that poked out of nearly every yard. “We like to stay close to our relatives,” he said solemnly. “Even after they’re dead.”
Apia, the bustling capital, is home to about 40,000 people, roughly one-fifth of Samoa’s entire population. I hitched a ride there one morning with one of the resort staff, who let me off at the old European cemetery, where many of the gravestones bore German names. Theroux described Apia as a “squalid harbor town” that was “mournfully rundown.” Perhaps it was 20 years ago, but wandering around in flip-flops and board shorts, I fancied it the quintessential South Pacific seaport.
Apia’s main drag is Beach Road, lined with a mixed bag of old colonial facades, ramshackle wooden buildings, and newer structures like the John Williams Building, named after the English missionary who helped introduce Christianity to Samoa in the 1830s—before being killed and eaten by cannibals he was attempting to convert in the New Hebrides. I found myself wondering what Williams would make of modern Apia, with its rowdy waterfront bars, shopping arcades, and the sprawling Old Apia Market, where, among the junk dealers and handicraft merchants, kava stalls ladle out the mildly narcotic beverage all day long.
Farther east is the old courthouse, a handsome, verandaed Queen Anne–style manse that houses the tiny but charming Museum of Samoa. In among its natural-history displays and abstract saipo (bark cloth) paintings are stone axe handles dating from around 1000 b.c.—some of the oldest artifacts ever found in Polynesia, and evidence that Samoa was settled long before many of the other South Pacific isles. As the cradle of Polynesian civilization, Samoa was the jumping-off point for the great migrations that populated Rarotonga, Bora Bora, and even far-off Hawaii a thousand years later. This legacy—and the urge to safeguard it—is perhaps one of the reasons why Samoans are so keen to preserve their traditions.
It’s also, I suppose, what has historically inspired so many visiting writers: a glimpse of Polynesia at its purest. Tahiti may have had its fair share of starry-eyed Western painters, but it was Samoa that always seemed to be the darling of European and American authors.
Jack London put into port in 1908 during his marathon voyage around the world aboard the ketch Snark, and later produced a classic short story called “The Inevitable White Man,” set in a dive bar along the Apia waterfront. The young British poet Rupert Brooke sojourned in the archipelago just a year before his untimely death in 1915 (“an earth and sky and sea of immortal loveliness,” he wrote of Samoa). James A. Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific was informed by his time here during World War II. But the most esteemed of all was the Scottish bard Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent the last four years of his life on Upolu.
It’s a well-worn story by now, the tale of how Stevenson—stricken since childhood with tuberculosis—sought relief among the tropical breezes and sunshine of the South Seas. Charting a yacht in San Francisco in the late 1880s, he sailed his family across the Pacific and fell in love with Samoa. Returning several years later, he purchased more than 100 hectares of land on the slopes of Mount Vaea and set up house.
I hopped a cab up to Villa Vailima, the sprawling clapboard mansion that Stevenson built for himself. Here, overlooking Apia, he lived like a Scottish laird, surrounding himself with furnishings shipped in from Scotland, stocking his cellar with casks of Bordeaux, hosting dances and soirees, and dressing his household staff in tartan lava-lavas. Along the way, he became one of the most revered figures in Samoan history, or at least the most celebrated Westerner. Not because of his writing per se, but rather because of his keenness for Samoan culture and his stance against colonialism in the South Pacific. Stevenson taught himself Samoan, and translated the first work of fiction ever rendered in that language (The Bottle Imp). His neighbors replied in kind, treating him like a respected elder and calling him Tusitala, or “Teller of Tales.” Stevenson’s prose is still part of the curriculum at Samoan schools.
After his death in 1894, at the age of 44, Villa Vailima served variously as the residence of rich merchants, colonial governors, and Samoan heads of state. Hurricanes in the early 1990s severely damaged the building, but it has since been painstakingly restored as the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum and returned to a semblance of what it looked like in Stevenson’s time, complete with mementos from his travels in the Pacific and pieces of his family’s furniture.
My guide was Charlene, an enthusiastic young Samoan recently returned from studies in America. As we toured the rambling house, she tossed out all sorts of facts about the author and his family, some of them mundane, others quite charming. Like the fact that Stevenson commissioned the construction of two faux fireplaces (neither one with a chimney) in order to remind him of dear old Scotland. In a similar vein, the mansion’s redwood ceilings were a gift for his beloved wife Fanny, born and bred in California.
Vailima’s grandest space is the ballroom where Stevenson threw parties for his Samoan friends. “That’s another reason he’s still revered in Samoa,” Charlene explained. “He was one of the few palagi who treated us as equals rather than savages who had to be civilized.” She added, “After he died, hundreds of Samoans helped make a trail to the top of Mount Vaea. They called it the Road of Loving Hearts, and they passed his coffin from shoulder to shoulder all the way up the mountainside to where he was buried.”
A steep path through dark forest, the trail to Stevenson’s grave was muddy after an all-night rain, the air still thick with humidity. The only other person I met along the way was a local teenager hauling bamboo down the mountain. Stevenson is buried on a grassy knoll with a sweeping view over Vailima, Apia, and the vast Pacific.On his tomb is a bronze plate inscribed with lines from his famous Requiem:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
The next day I was awake long before sunrise, making my way by taxi to Mulifanua on the northwest tip of Upolu, where I caught the 6 a.m. ferry to Savai’i. The passage took about an hour, and with the last boat back scheduled for four o’clock that afternoon, I had roughly nine hours to explore the fifth-largest island in all of Polynesia. I’d already booked a car from a rental office near the Savai’i wharf, but before she handed over the keys, the woman behind the desk warned me that that if by any chance I were to hit a pig (she didn’t mention anything about hitting people), I should immediately make tracks to the nearest police station.
With that point duly noted, I took off on a solo circumnavigation of Savai’i. Larger, higher, and much less populated than Upolu, this island retains much of its wild grandeur. I didn’t have time to trek to the top of Mount Matavanu, but I did scramble across jet-black lava fields created when the volcano last erupted in 1911.
I also spent a pleasant hour or so trying to spot rare Samoan tooth-billed pigeons in the Tafua Peninsula Rainforest Reserve. And I visited the Alofaaga Blowholes, volcanic fissures along the island’s rugged southwest coast where crashing swells rush through the hollows to produce waterspouts that shoot 30 meters into the air. Like everyone else who has ever visited this spot, I chucked a coconut into one of the blowholes and watched it rocket skyward like a mortar round. “My God this is stupid,” grumbled Theroux of his own coconut tossing here 20 years ago—but I reckoned it among the most spectacular natural phenomena in the Pacific.
Making like Indiana Jones, I also picked my way through dark, dense jungle to the Pulemelei Mound, a 12-meter-high pyramid of stone overgrown with vines and bushes. This is the largest such structure in Polynesia, proof that Samoans were once accomplished stonemasons.
“A great civilization lived here,” a local guide told me.
“Do you know what happened to them?” I asked.
“War, typhoons, tsunamis,” he replied. “Who’s to say?”
Nor did he—or anyone else for that matter—know what the great prehistoric mound was used for. Was it a tomb? A temple? A fortress? Pulemelei remains an intriguing mystery, one that even seems to have left an impression on Theroux.
But I didn’t need this ancient enigma to sell me on Samoa. That transaction had long been settled, and I was the richer for it.
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) operates a daily service between Auckland and Upolu’s Faleolo International Airport. From Sydney, Pacific Blue (flypacificblue.com) flies there six times a week.
When to Go
The best time to visit is between May and October, during the islands’ dry season. This is also when most of Samoa’s biggest festivals are held.
Where to Stay
Backed by a palm grove and overlooking an azure lagoon, the Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa (Si’umu; 685/25191; sinalei.ws; doubles from US$245) offers the best digs in Samoa. This chic little retreat on Upolu’s south shore was damaged by last year’s tsunami, but will be fully operational as of April.
Those who crave a Samoan “urban” experience can check in to the storied Aggie Grey’s Hotel (Beach Rd.; 685/22880; aggiegreys.com; doubles from US$134) on Apia’s waterfront. It began as a hamburger joint for American GIs during WWII, and its founder, the late, legendary hotelier Aggie Grey, is said to have inspired the character Bloody Mary in James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
What to Do
First and foremost, make the pilgrimage to Villa Vailima (rlsmuseum.com) in the mountains above Apia, where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last four years. Samoa offers plenty of scope for water sports, including diving, sailing, and deep-sea fishing. Ecotourism is also hitting its stride, with jungle treks to isolated crater lakes, rugged lava-field hikes (particularly at Saleaula on Savai’i), mangrove kayaking, and bird watching—Upolu’s O le Pupu-Pue National Park boasts 42 different avian species alone. –JY
Originally appeared in the April/May 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Samoan Sojourn”)