There is still debate about where the Polynesians who first colonised Samoa actually came from. Some suggest the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula or the Philippines. Samoans themselves believe they are the cradle of Polynesian culture, with carbon testing dating human presence here back to around 1000BC. The Samoan legend of the beginning of the world is very similar to that told in the Bible. That belief assisted the transition to Christianity and Samoa remains one of the most devout Christian nations in the world, with more churches than in all of Rome.
Samoa is wonderfully laidback. Its proximity to the international date line means it is the last place on earth to see the sun set. It has no big hotels or over-developed tourism, just enough infrastructure to make for a comfortable stay. Samoan life is primarily concerned with family, tradition and culture.
Upolu is the second largest Samoan island, with a land area of 1115 square kilometres, and is home to Apia, the capital of Samoa. Its interior is lush, tropical and rugged. The highest point is Mt Fito (1158 metres) and there are many waterfalls and rivers flowing to the ocean.
Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was plagued by illness all his life, including tuberculosis, not helped by the Scottish climate. He loved adventure and spent two years with his American wife Fanny on board a variety of ships sailing between Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Tonga, the Gilberts, New Caledonia, the Tokelaus and Australia. When they saw the verdant islands of Samoa in 1889, they decided to settle there. They loved the small port town of Apia, which has a few western amenities and a handful of amiable expatriates.
The Stevensons paid the grand sum of $5000 for 130 hectares of jungle-clad land with waterfall and stream. With the help of Samoans, they hacked away the jungle and built a modest, two-storey timber house with a red roof. Its two verandahs allowed them to make the most of sea breezes and it became a meeting place for locals and expatriate Germans, English and Americans and other international visitors who arrived from time to time. There were lively dinner parties, dances and picnics, but Stevenson always kept to his disciplined writing routine.
The last four years of Stevenson's life were spent on the island of Upolu. He and his wife are buried on the summit of Mount Vaea, which overlooks the town of Apia and its harbour. Their home, Vailima, was beautifully restored in 1994 and is now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. It is furnished with replicas from the period of their residence. The only original piece is a chair which belonged to his mother. The library has over 400 first and subsequent editions of the author's works, as well as a display of rare first editions.
Apia has a shabby and romantic charm. Its old colonial buildings, huge pulu trees and easy pace reflect the writings of James A Michener and Somerset Maugham, European missionaries, trading companies and visiting rogues.
It is the only place in Samoa that could be called a city, but really is an agglomeration of urbanised villages. The neat colonies spread west along the coast and climb the gentle slopes to the hills and valleys. It is the only place you will find shops, markets, communications offices and tourist information. It is where most of the island's hotels and restaurants are located.
Maketi Fou is the main market. It is the centre of activity, with the biggest, best and cheapest fresh produce in the South Pacific. It hums 24 hours a day. To have a stall there is considered very prestigious, so much so that family members take turns to sleep here to protect their spot. It is quite the meeting place, particularly on Saturdays, as Sundays are reserved for church and family gatherings. Everything else is closed.
The flea market is in the old central market building on Beach Road. It has stalls of cheap clothing, craft and food. It's a pleasant place to stop for lunch.
Samoa has been blessed with some of the most exquisite beaches in the South Pacific. Very few have any facilities. Except for those close to a village, they are totally secluded. As all land in Samoa is family owned, you may be asked to pay a small amount for the use of the beach.
Scuba diving and snorkelling is good for beginners and holiday divers, but enthusiasts will find the reefs limited and the challenges rather tame.
Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa is one of Samoa's best. It is in 13.5 hectares of beautifully coloured and landscaped gardens on the south coast of Upolu, a striking mix of traditional and contemporary architecture. Apart from senior management, Sinalei's staff are from local villages, particularly Siumu village, the closest to the resort. So important is the resort to the village that co-owner Joe Annandale has been made an honorary chief. He is already chief of his own family village, Falealili, just east of Siumu. The responsibility of chief is taken very seriously by those upon whom it is bestowed. He is responsible for his entire extended family which, in Samoa, usually extends to hundreds. They play a large part in births, weddings and deaths and are particularly diligent about finding work for disabled people. With the title of chief comes lots of land, which has to be divided fairly amongst the family and programs set in place which will generate income.
Sinalei has 27 fales, including the new Presidential Suite and Honeymoon Villa. There are seven categories named after their location such as garden, ocean, beachside. All include ensuite bathrooms with outdoor shower in a tropical atrium, private deck and air conditioning.
The restaurant sits on a jetty and is the best place to sip a cocktail and enjoy the blazing sunset.
The resort has a nine-hole golf course, two tennis courts, spa and pool, watersports, deep-sea fishing and boat cruises to nearby islands. There is nightly entertainment. On Friday nights everyone is invited to the Barbecue Fiafia and on Sunday nights, a roast dinner.
Traditional thatched huts, called fales, are scattered along Upolu. They are usually on village land, owned and operated by a Samoan family. Hidden from the road is Vava'u Beach, one of the most beautiful. It is divided by a large rocky outcrop and has a sheltered bay for swimming and snorkelling. The fales are self-contained, have a verandah, complimentary kayaks and a good restaurant.