Secret Samoa

He’s a vision of Samoan virility, his dark, rose-scented skin glowing in the heat, a sarong wrapped around his slim hips.

The cultural journey begins when we meet Christian, our guide. Greeting us at a restaurant in Apia, his appearance stops conversations and diners’ jaws drop. Not because he’s a vision of Samoan virility with his dark, rose-scented skin glowing in the heat, a sarong wrapped around his slim hips and boar tusks resting on his muscled chest. It’s the sight of his pe’a, a full-body tattoo, the marking of a warrior. 

It’s our final day in Samoa, a stronghold of Polynesian culture. While 21st-century aircraft land nearby, we head with Christian to the tiny island that received electricity just 16 years ago. This devout, God-fearing country is rich in such dichotomies. It’s where sensual dancing at fiafia (party) nights exists alongside piety, where city boys in lava-lavas (sarongs) blast Eminem from their 4WDs, and where Christian answers his mobile phone while extolling traditional tattoos.

Some come to Samoa to indulge in the island hospitality and the clichéd postcard visions of azure waters and brilliant white sands. I’ve come to dive headfirst into the lesser-known attractions of this 10-island archipelago: scuba diving, swimming in grottoes, leaping into waterfalls, hiking to volcanic craters and dodging blowhole blasts. Instead, I find I’m unexpectedly seduced by the 3,000 years of culture and history that render Samoa unlike any other tropical destination.

As the boat sluices through the cerulean waters towards Manono, it’s only natural that we ask Christian about his tattoo. The pe’a covers the body from the shoulders to past the knees, and the beauty isn’t just in the design but also in the symbolism. While 1830s missionaries put an end to cannibalism, they couldn’t eradicate the traditional tattoo  10 to 15 per cent of island men bear the marks that indicate they’ve turned from boys into men.

Applying the tattoo is a painful month-long process. If unfinished, shame is brought upon the family. When the pain overwhelmed him, Christian says love for his mother, a village chief, helped him to push his limits of endurance. His markings now identify him as a soldier of Samoan culture, a man of bravery. “Courage is not enduring extreme pain but stepping up to life’s challenges,” he explains. 

It’s a small insight into the complexities of Samoan culture, a rigid hierarchical system involving chiefs and village loyalty, where ancient traditions and Christian teachings meet to create the unique Samoan way.

Our boat pulls up at Manono, and all is quiet. There are no roads or dogs, just dirt paths winding through a village flowering with pua (frangipani) and aute (hibiscus). It’s where kids play on palm trees instead of PlayStations.

There are few activities on Manono. That’s exactly why we’re here: to sleep in open-air beach fales (traditional huts with woven blinds for walls), eat fish cooked in coconut milk, wander the three-square-kilometre island and relax. And, at the end of this trip, we need it.

The main island of Upolu is a world of activities. Start with the 475-metre hike up Mount Vaea, 15 minutes from Apia. Many make the pilgrimage to pay homage to Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who is buried on the summit in his beloved adopted Samoa. 

From Stevenson’s tomb there are eternal views of the rugged, lush rainforest interior, studded with crater peaks, to the coastline, which is encircled by reefs that keep the powerful Pacific Ocean at bay. 

The discovery of Samoa’s beauty may begin in the interior, but the sapphire coast is like a magnet, drawing travellers like treasure hunters to gems. 

Many watery delights are within an hour of Apia. Explore the grotto in the fresh spring water at Piula Cave Pool, drift in To Sua Trench, a yawning hole with indigo depths reached by descending a rickety 35-rung ladder, and stay in a fale at Lalomanu Beach, which is on Lonely Planet’s list of top beaches in the world.

Lalomanu is picture-perfect, its bright blue waters blending into a cloudless sky. Walking five metres from my fale for the best shower of all (a natural, salty one at 28 degrees), the tranquillity is so encompassing that it’s difficult to believe this area was hardest hit by the 2009 tsunami. It has risen again, even more beautiful and inviting than before. 

To turn up the adventure a notch, I catch the hour-long ferry to Savai’i, the largest of Samoa’s islands, which has only a quarter of Samoa’s population of 180,000. At dusk the island’s sole ring road is a vignette of daily life. Chickens dart across the asphalt, brightly coloured buses raise comet tails of dust in the golden light, and industrious home owners groom already immaculate lawns. It’s a tropical version of Tidy Town, and the best bit is it’s yesterday.

Savai’i  indeed, all of Samoa  nudges the dateline. The western point of Savai’i is the last place in the world to see the sun set in an extravaganza of reds and oranges. The country’s slogan is “We’re so relaxed, it’s yesterday.” Seduced by the tropical scenery and humid air, it’s difficult to resist being on island time. 

But I try. There are turtles to swim with at Satoalepai village (these gentle prehistoric creatures fly slowly underwater with flippers instead of wings) and lava fields near Saleaula village to hike to before making the trip to the source of the 1905–1911 flows, the crater of Mount Matavanu. It’s a three-hour hike from Paia village. Keep an eye out for ‘Crater Man’, the hospitable crater custodian who toils daily with his whipper snipper to keep the trail clear and smooth for visitors.

Initially, I was unexcited to see the Taga Blowholes, in the south of Savai’i, where volcanic lava has hollowed out tubes through which water rushes in massive plumes. However, the blowholes will – literally – blow your mind if you stand too close. The sound of the water is intense, akin to the roar of a fleet of 747s taking off simultaneously. The excitement increases with the unpredictable trajectory of falling coconuts dropped into the blowholes. Remember the law of gravity  what goes up must come down  so watch your head!

The highlights in Samoa aren’t necessarily the stunning beaches and tiny villages, but the intangible things, the richness of the culture and the passion with which Samoans embrace their traditions.

At 6am, near Safotu village, I’m watching as the Sunday to’onai (feast) is prepared. This weekly family ritual is a labour of love for the menfolk. A stone umu (oven) is built and food is prepared using local produce. Fish is gathered in woven baskets and coconuts are grated and squeezed for milk. The bounty from the ocean and the land ranges from fish and octopus to breadfruit and starchy, satisfying taro. Preparing a meal when the family returns from the weekly church service is an age-old tradition. The men start cooking after they arrive home in their 4WDs.

Again, the study in contrasts is revealed. Samoa is where tradition meets modernity in perfect harmony, where the family-focused culture welcomes outsiders with open arms, and where a mere holiday becomes a portal to another enchanting way of life.   

Words by Flip Byrnes - Published in Voyeur May 2011
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 190,000
Area 2,831 km2
Time Zone GMT + 13
Languages Samoan, English
Currency Tala (WST)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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