“It’s time for Zumba, are you coming?”
The book delicately balanced on my face to block out the afternoon sun slides off to the side as I stretch out lazily on the beach. “Zumba?” I ask, yawning. “Here? Really!?”
Tau laughs. He’s one of the employees at this small resort and throughout the day he’s only seen me move once, to refill my bottle of cold water and pick bananas directly from the tree. Aside from that, I’ve been like a lizard baking in the sun all day.
“Yes, it’s on the deck,” he replies. “Come on!”
I sit up in the sand and look around. The ocean is a perfect blue, calm and so clear that I can see small fish swimming below the surface. The sun is warm and the coconut palms are gently swaying in the breeze. I feel like I’ve woken up on a movie set of a tropical island paradise and it takes me a moment to realise that all of this real: this paradise is Savai’i, the largest island of Samoa.
Located in the heart of the South Pacific, Samoa is a postcard of natural beauty. Comprised of ten islands, the largest of which are Upolo and Savai’i, it is simply idyllic. With dense rainforest that covers most of the islands interior, eerie volcanic rock formations, colourful diving experiences, and rolling white sand beaches, the opportunity for both adventure and relaxation is available at every turn.
Samoa also offers a rich sense of culture and history. Home to a population of over 190,000 people, one of the larger groups within Polynesia, traditional society is governed by Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan Way. The chief, the family, and the church are central to this, and the welcoming, friendly nature of Samoans is as naturally beautiful as the environment that surrounds them.
It’s hard not to feel relaxed in this serenity. As I walk to my beach fale, a traditional Samoan house with no walls and only a series of poles that support a woven coconut palm roof, I am amazed at my own sense of ease.
It was only a day earlier that I had landed at the Faleolo International Airport on Upolo and was welcomed into the country by a lively traditional band playing in the baggage terminal, the air heavy with heat and humidity before the sun had even risen. I had caught a brightly painted wooden bus to the harbour, squashed between passengers sitting on each others laps and bags of fresh produce at our feet, where I then boarded the Lady Samoa ferry to bring me to Savai’i. After the ninety-minute boat trip, I spent another two hours travelling to the northern side of the island to arrive here at the beautiful Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge.
I put my book down in my fale and join the group gathering on the deck for Zumba. The class is unlike any other I’ve been part of before. It is as if the entire neighbouring village has come to participate and not a single person is wearing shoes, myself included. As I look around I realise that Zumba’s typical spandex exercise clothes have been replaced with brightly coloured lava-lavas (sarongs), and sweatbands have been replaced with fragrant frangipanis nestled behind everyone’s ear. There is no teacher per se and instead someone has hooked up a laptop to a set of speakers and is playing a badly downloaded video of a Brazilian woman teaching a class to hundreds of people. As the afternoon light reflects off the laptop screen, none of us can actually see what’s going on and instead we are following the random moves of the person next to us, adding in a body roll here and there just because we think we should. We are all laughing hysterically, at each other and ourselves, and I take in the warm, smiling faces and the gorgeous view across the South Pacific Ocean. This just may be the best class I’ve ever been to.
Later that evening I watch the sunset on the pier, the fisherman on their canoes silhouetted against the crimson sky. I sit with a New Zealand couple also staying at the lodge who agree that Va-i-moana is a special find; it’s a bit off the beaten track and not one of the main tourist destinations that can easily get overcrowded. With only a small number of rooms, a choice between air-conditioned, en-suite facilities or the open-air beach fales, the lodge is authentic, secluded, and exactly the kind of getaway I’m looking for.
After two days of lying in the sun, it’s time for a bit of adventure. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and traditional cocoa rice, I am introduced to a man named Onosai who is going to take me around the island. As I jump into Onosai’s car, he starts telling me about village life on the island. He is the son of a chief and is expected to assume this role one day, but for now he is a tour guide, sharing his beautiful island with travellers like me.
Our first stop is at the canopy walkway in the Falealupo Rainforest Preserve. We climb up a huge Banyan tree on a rickety and steep wooden staircase that wraps around its truck. Finally reaching the top, we walk across a 30 metre long, narrow bridge strung between two trees and feel almost suspended in the forest that surrounds us. The trees and the bridge creek as the wind blows and after climbing down, my shaking legs are glad to be firmly planted on the ground.
We continue driving on the only road that circumnavigates the island. We pass piles of coconuts being sold on the roadside and women selling red hibiscus flowers under the shade of woven structures. Men and young boys walk between their fales wearing lava-lavas and white button-down shirts and ties, an interesting mix of traditional and Western cultures. There is a church every kilometre and the presence of religion is indiscernible from secular life. We branch off at a road that takes us straight to the volcanic rock coastline so that, as Onosai explains, we can see the “power of the ocean” at the Alofaaga blowholes.
As I stand along the rocky coastline with the salty spray blowing into my face, I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen. Onosai buys a couple of coconuts and places one in what seems like a hole in the lava fields. After a few minutes there is a surge from the ocean and suddenly a powerful jet stream of water explodes out of the rock, launching the coconut more than 20 metres into the air. Onosai tells me that the island is full of blowholes and many of them are believed to be ancient pathways for the ancestors, a passageway to reach the spirit world.
Samoa is known for its incredible waterfalls and our next stop is the Afu Aau Falls in the south-eastern part of the island. Water pours out from the thick rainforest above and plunges into a deep rock pool. Jumping from the top of the cliff into the icy water is an exhilarating experience, and exploring the eerie cave behind the falls makes me feel like I am in an Indiana Jones film.
In just a few days, I have experienced what feels like a lifetime of adventures and I am reluctant to leave the beautiful island of Savai’i to return to Upolo. Over the next two weeks, I spend time in Apia, the capital city. I visit the beautiful Bahá’í House of Worship that overlooks the city, tour the home of author Robert Louis Stevenson, watch the boats in the harbour, and eat traditionally prepared coconut sago out of little paper cups.
The Teuila Festival is in on, Samoa’s annual cultural festival, and it is extraordinary. Each morning the Samoan Police Band kicks off the day’s events, which include traditional Siva Samoa and contemporary dance competitions, choral recitals, ailao afi, the traditional fire knife dancing, beautify pageants, tattoo and carving demonstrations and wildly entertaining shows from the fa’afafine, the ‘men raised to be girls’ and an integral part of Samoa’s culture.
When I step onto the plane in the early dawn light on my final day, I am flooded with a thousand memories and experiences. As the island becomes a dot in the view of my airplane window, the rising sun makes the island shimmer, like a beautiful gem radiating from the South Pacific.
Travel and tourist information:
- There are weekly flights from Brisbane, Australia to Apia, Samoa, and other regular flights from Auckland, New Zealand.
- Samoa has warm and humid weather most of the year so it’s always a good time to go.
- It’s fairly easy to travel around and both Upolo and Savai’i are accessible by local, affordable transport. There is a lot to see though, so it’s best to decide what kind of activities you want to do and plan your trip around those. Check out http://www.samoa.travel/ to get you started.