Escape to Samoa

by Dave Moran

The South Pacific has a way about her. She slowly seduces your body by caressing your skin with her warmth, and unclutters your mind with sparkling images of golden sand and shady palms. Her seduction starts the moment you board Polynesian Airlines’ Boeing 737 outward bound for one of her treasures floating on a turquoise sea.

My trip to Auckland Airport was straight out of one of those disaster movies where everybody is trying to leave town on the only main road out. Every man and his dog was making their way from all the directions of the compass to the All Blacks vs England rugby game. My normal half-hour trip to the airport turned into an hour and a half. Man, I really needed a Valium or a stiff drink by the time I checked through customs. However, my blood pressure immediately improved as I staggered down the aisle looking for my seat. A sea of smiling brown faces greeted me as if I was a long-lost cousin. I guess they were really smiling because now the plane could finally take off!

At 37,000 feet I was already in Samoa, being surrounded by that warm, open friendliness that is so much part of the South Pacific culture. The smiling hostesses provided a welcome glass of wine. I eased down another cog or two; a bloke could take plenty of this! The commercial centre of Samoa is half an hour’s drive from the airport. My last visit was in the early 1980s, and it was pleasing to see that over-commercialistion had not suffocated the Samoan way of life. Apart from some noticeable changes – a sprinkling of traffic lights in the centre of town, the new high rise Government building, and a massive Mormon temple – the town of Apia seemed to be resting in a peaceful time zone, a fact that is appreciated by locals and visitors alike.

Much has been written about Aggie Grey and her struggle to establish her famous hotel on the shores of Apia Harbour. Established in 1933, Aggie’s was a resting place for battle-weary American soldiers during World War II, and celebrities such as Gary Cooper, William Holden, and Marlon Brando, to mention just a few. Aggie became a legend in her own lifetime. In 1971 she was portrayed on a Samoan postage stamp, a book entitled Aggie Grey of Samoa was published in 1979, and she was awarded the Queen’s Service Order in 1983. In late June 1988, Aggie said her last ‘Tofa’. In the late ‘80s, Aggie’s hotel had a $4 million upgrade, with the entrance building extensively rebuilt. The designers can be congratulated. The look and feel of those Somerset Maugham days in an airy, tropical bungalow has been maintained, even down to the louvre windows at the roadside entrance, and the bench style chairs allowing you to relax and watch the colourful Samoan traffic pass by. A new addition to Aggie’s is the luxury game fishing and diving vessel Reel Passion, which offers day trips and extended overnight charters.

The waters around the two main islands of Samoa are relatively unexplored by divers. Five years ago Roger and Gayle Christman swapped the hectic world of the computer business for the sensation of sand between their toes on the shores of deserted golden beaches. They established Pacific Quest Divers to cater for the visiting diver who wished to experience these unexplored offshore reefs. Their Apia Dive Shack, which is located next to Funway Car Rentals opposite the main port terminal facilities, is just a short stroll past Aggie Grey’s.

The joy of tropical diving is that you can leave all that restrictive rubber suit stuff at home, and slip into something more comfortable, like a Lycra suit, shorty 3mm wetsuit, or just a plain t-shirt. In the ‘bathtub’ water of 28°C, all you really need is your birthday suit! The purpose built ten metre twin hull dive boat, with twin 55hp, is set up for diver comfort. Your fully rigged dive tanks are safely held in the port and starboard tank racks. There is heaps of room to gear up on the 3.5m-beam deck.

The fragile coral reefs around the island were torn apart by the unrelenting fury of Cyclone Val in 1991. Large areas of reef were unceremoniously scooped up and tumbled into large mounds of smashed coral around Apia’s harbour edge, leaving the underwater inhabitants wondering where their accommodation had gone. One of the things about Mother Nature is that she loves to rebuild what she has, in a moment of fury, destroyed. The reefs of Samoa are truly virginal. Huge areas remain to be explored and the coral formations are young and vibrant after recovering from Cyclone Val.

The plate coral formations are stunning, stacked like terraced apartment houses, their outstretching circular balconies accommodating the miracle and diversity of the reef. Butterfly fish families seem to be the main tenants; threadfin, Meyer’s Pacific double saddle, and long fin bannerfish make up a small part of the cosmopolitan array of life.The very recognisable Moorish idol from the surgeonfish family seem to be the roving landlords, always with their noses in the air, too busy to stay for a cup of coffee or to have their portraits taken with the family. The oriental sweetlips in their military stripes seem to be patrolling and maintaining the peace. Down on the sandy playfields around 20 metres, the eagle rays and turtles often cruise by, as if not wanting to get involved in the domestics of the terrace dwellers.

Directly north from Apia is Five Mile Reef, which lies 18 metres under the surface. This is a ‘must dive’ site during your visit to Samoa. Barracuda, dolphins, turtles and members of the jack family may intrude on your dive. The water is crystal clear. The 30 to 40 minute drive from Apia to the sparsely populated south coast is spectacular, especially if you allow time to stop on the way. Papapapai-Tai waterfall is magnificent. The best time for a photo opportunity is before noon. This is also true for the Sopoaga and Togitogiga Falls, both found off the South Coast Road. Also from the apex of Cross Island Road is the Malololelei lookout, with its magnificent views across the dense forest to Apia township far below.

On reaching the south coast you realise how the legendary storyteller, Robert Louis Stevenson, fell in love with his Treasure Island. When Roger and Gayle first arrived in Samoa, this is the area that stole their hearts. They started their fledgling diving operation in 1993 at the Coconut Beach Club Resort, which had been built by two fellow Americans, Barry and Jennifer Rose. They had also done the unthinkable ten years earlier, by selling up their Beverly Hills lawyer lifestyle to create their own slice of heaven on earth. Their story is magical: catch up with them at the Saturday night Fiafia at Coconut Beach to hear the whole story. Coconuts’ Fiafia is performed by young men and women from the surrounding villages. Their fire knife dancing has to be on any visitor’s itinerary. Roger and Gayle also provide their diving and kayaking services to the new luxury resort of Sinalei, which is located just down the beach from Coconuts. Pacific Quest Divers have two craft operating between these two resorts, an 8.5 metre twin hull aluminium craft which has a coral reef viewing window for non-divers. Roger and his dive guide son Tim use this to explore the inner coral valleys and mounds of the inner reef. A 5.5 metre Boston Whaler-styled boat is used to venture outside the reef edge, to experience the excitement of large fish encounters.

When diving the south coast, ask Roger to take you for a dive at one of his favourite spots, aptly named The Aquarium. This is a shallow water dive where you can just relax and take in the view. It could be called Clownfish City. This vibrant reef close to shore is a kaleidoscope of colour, mixing large sea anemones harbouring inquisitive clownfish with delicate latticed coral, reminding you that lunch is not far away. Turtles, trevally and snapper often cruise by. With your 1:3 macro rig, you can spend all day having a ball in this aquarium under the sea.

Samoa is my kind of escape from the chilly, drizzly, damp, cloud-covered months of winter. Part of any holiday is to experience a new culture, as well as stimulating diving and on-land adventures that if you wish can challenge your fitness. It’s also a place where, when the day is done, you can relax in five star luxury to be seduced by the culinary masterpieces of the chef, while you sip your favourite wine. Or you may prefer your own private fale or one of the many waterfront restaurants with their own balconies overlooking cruising yachts. You may choose to be by the pool at the hotel that celebrates the life of Robert Louis Stevenson, Hotel Kitano Tusitala. Tusitala is Samoan for ‘teller of tales.’

If you prefer a more local culture experience, you can stay at one of the many backpacker-style accommodations, at beach fales dotted mainly around the beautiful eastern beaches of the island. Dine with your Samoan family caretakers. The range of accommodation in Samoa is truly amazing. It has been said that Samoa is the South Pacific’s best kept secret, but its history shows that many a traveler has known of its existence. Since its discovery in 1722 by Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, the Samoans have watched it all go by and wondered why the Palagi is in such a hurry.

World War I saw the German regime, which was established in 1889, replaced by New Zealand in 1918 until independence in 1962. Many a whaler, trader and traveller have wandered these shores in the early days of the seafaring trade. To catch some of the history, visit the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima, which has been beautifully restored to reflect the glory and grandeur of a past era. For adventurers and the energetic there is a short climb to the top of Mt Vaea, overlooking Apia Harbour, where the author’s grave lies. You can read the immortal requiem he wrote for himself.

Remember those peaceful weekends we all used to enjoy a few years back, when New Zealand closed down at 12 noon on Saturday, and did not open for business again until Monday morning? Wasn’t it great? Time for the family, diving, fishing, reading a book or just good old doing nothing. You can do it in Samoa. Come noon on a Saturday, she shuts down, and it’s great. The South Pacific continues her seduction, and the stresses of life become distant memories. I will return.

Samoa in Brief

Location Samoa is situated approximately 2890 km north east of Auckland. Geography Samoa comprises of two relatively large islands, Upolu and Savaii, and several smaller islands. The capital Apia and Faleolo International Airport are located on the island of Upolu. The islands are volcanic and dominated by rugged mountain ranges with a 4-5km skirt of gently sloping fertile land to which is attached a fringe of coral reefs and lagoons which surround the islands. The climate is pleasantly warm with an average maximum temperature of 29°C, and an average water temperature of 28 °C. Samoa’s national airline, Polynesian Airlines operates services to Samoa from New Zealand (Auckland and Wellington), and Australia (Sydney and Melbourne).Other international airlines that fly to Samoa include Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, Samoa Air and Royal Tongan. No entry permit is required for visitors staying up to 30 days; however, an onward or return ticket and valid passport are required. A written declaration is required for every visitor. Departure tax is S$20. Samoan is the national language, but English is used in commerce and government business and most Samoans are competent in English. Light summer clothing is appropriate all year round. Visitors are requested not to wear bathing suits in Apia or in the villages. There are over 31 district hospitals and sub centres. These islands are Malaria free. There is an extensive bus service on both Upolu and Savaii, providing inexpensive transportation for local people and an experience to remember for visitors. Taxis are always available in Apia and at the International Airport. Rental car companies are located in Apia, the International Airport and Salelologa on Savaii.

Samoa Visitors Bureau:

Head Office
P O Box 2272, Apia, Samoa
Ph: +685 63500 Fax: +685 20886

New Zealand
Level 1, Samoa House, 283 Karangahape Road, Auckland
P O Box 68423, Newton, Auckland
Ph: 09-379 6183 Fax: 09-379 8154

PO Box 361, Minto Mall, Minto, NSW 2566
Ph: 02-9824 5050
Fax: 02-9824 5678

United Kingdom
38 Hoop Lane, Golders Green, London NW11 8BU
Ph: +181 748 4455 Fax: +181 748 2274

1800 112th Avenue NE, Suite 220E, Bellevue, Washington, 98004-2939
Ph: +425 688 8513 Fax: +425 688 8514

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