Isles of smiles

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 3
Lalomanu Beach is rated amongst the world’s top 10 beaches.
Whether you’re into diving, fishing, surfing or just relaxing, it is hard to imagine a more rewarding destination than the friendly islands of Samoa.

The last time I had anything to do with Samoa the experience left a lasting impression. I was participating in a schoolboy rugby selection series in my native New Zealand and had my budding rugby career explode in my face, along with a couple of ribs, assorted bits of cartilage and some shrapnel comprising fragments of teeth and bone, when a large Samoan forward decided to make a run for the try line. I sincerely hope that, in my lifetime at least, there will never again be a more fitting example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was between the runner and the line and it was left to me to impede his progress. I did – for a nanosecond – but was left a crumpled wreck of a human in his wake. Several weeks of rehab helped reinforce the conclusion that as a rugby player, I would make a great waterboy.

Since that bone-splintering encounter I have always had a grudging respect for Samoans and have taken an interest in the fortunes of Samoa’s national rugby side in recent times as it rises impressively in the world rankings. So when the opportunity came to visit the Pacific island nation, I embraced it with the same open arms that had attempted to so feebly hinder that opposition try so many years ago. Happily, though, I can report a much more pleasant outcome.

The invitation came via Melbourne-based Fishing Getaways (see Mahi mayhem and big blue bruisers, P77), in association with the Samoa Tourism Authority. Run by Gordon Howlett, Fishing Getaways, not surprisingly, is in the business of putting clients in touch with fish in remote and exotic locations. It does this in various spots around Australasia as well as selected Pacific island locations. Gordon is fundamentally a fishing tragic and is very good at finding excuses to accompany his clients, so he very considerately offered to spend the eight days with me as we circumnavigated the Pacific nation, every now and then slinging a line in the water.

One thing I am not good at is arriving anywhere by plane prior to sunrise, especially if it involves an overnight flight of more than a couple of hours. While the Sydney-Apia flight is barely five hours long, it commences at 9pm at the Virgin international gate at Sydney airport and arrives in Apia at 5am the next day.

As inconvenient as the arrival time might be though, it pales into insignificance compared to what the tiny island nation has itself undergone in recent years.

CALENDAR CONFUSION

On December 30, 2011, it lost a whole day when its prime minister declared that the international dateline would be relocated to the right of the tiny island nation. This had the effect of putting it on the same date/day as most of its closest Pacific partners, including Australia and NZ. Prior to this, visitors gained a day when they landed in Apia. Now they just gain a minor case of jetlag as they stagger off the plane hours before the rest of the population wakes.

Islanders were further unsettled when told they must change which side of the road they drove on in 2009. Again, by prime ministerial decree they woke up to find that the road system had been transformed, motorists now driving on the left side of the road. This measure was brought in for the convenience and safety of visitors from other left-hand driving nations, such as Australia and NZ. Thoughtfully, locals were at least granted a two-day public holiday to get used to the new arrangement. The PM also judiciously decreed a three-day ban on alcohol sales to lessen the likelihood of chaos and confusion.

Nature has also had an unsettling impact on Samoa in recent times. Cyclone Evan devastated the country in December last year, while there is still evidence of the killer tsunami that pounded the south coast of the main island of Upolu in September, 2009, destroying villages and resorts and killing close to 150 people.

Yet despite the many upheavals that the population has had to endure in recent times, they remain a largely stoic and cheerful people from what I observed during our visit.

Made up of nine volcanic islands, including the two large islands of Upolu and Savai’i, Samoa is located about halfway between Hawaii and NZ in the Polynesian region of the South Pacific. While Upolu is the centre of commerce and government, and also where the capital and largest town of Apia is located, Savai’i is the larger island. As I was to find out, both islands differ in other more subtle ways.

Apart from rugby and their own unique form of cricket, Samoans’ main national sports appear to be relaxation and laughing, both of which they seem to have an enormous talent for. The sound of giggling and laughter seemed to provide the national backing track to Samoan life – an approach to living summed up by the term “Fa’a Samoa”, meaning “Samoan Way”. Fa’a Samoa is a mix of strong community values that bind the people together. For more than 3000 years, it has provided the framework for a social structure based on three elements – the matai (the village chieftain system), aiga (the extended family), and more recently, from a historical perspective, Christianity.

Fa’a Samoa’s influence is seen and felt everywhere, with every village run by councils of matai and brightly decorated Christian churches of various denominations dotted around the islands. Christianity, introduced by missionaries in the 1800s, is the most pervasive evidence of outside influence on the Samoan culture. There is almost universal adherence to the Sabbath in terms of church attendance, and every evening there is a half-hour prayer curfew in which the roads and public places become deserted as families gather for religious observance.

Located on Upolu’s northern coast, Apia is the commercial hub, exhibiting a combination of colonial influences and the hustle-bustle of a normal port town, all infused with the laidback, good-humoured Samoan approach to life. No one ever seems in too much of a hurry to do anything here. Rush hour in Apia is a concept as alien as a warm beer in Darwin. Locals in colourful sarongs stroll the foreshore, children chase each other through the market, and implausibly decorated buses vie for the most outrageous colour schemes and names, many of which seem to depict western cultural themes, but with a uniquely Samoan interpretation. There was the Jon Bon Jovi Express (with matching mural), the promisingly named Fantastic Voyage, the Trust in Jesus, and the boxing-themed Sweet Smile (yes, I wondered too), all festooned with colourful images, some of which actually bore a flimsy relevance to their names.

VILLAGE LIFE

But beyond Apia, Samoa very quickly reverts to its roots. Village culture and life supplant the comforts of Apia as soon as the town fades from view. On Upolu there are so many villages along the coastline that they virtually merge into one. Drivers have to negotiate roads that may also be used by domestic pigs, wandering horses or flocks of fluttering chickens. Houses of all sizes, shapes and colours line the roads, many with sometimes extravagantly decorated tombs in their front yards. Samoans bury their dead where they lived, sometimes several generations of one family sharing the plot.

Much of every day seems to be spent relaxing in large, open communal fales (pronounced fah-lehs), while on the foreshore of many villages there are smaller fales with thatched roofs, where locals and tourists are free to enjoy the sea breeze and view over typically tranquil lagoons. Many backpacker-style resorts also offer basic beach fale accommodation, the idea being that luxury rooms are not needed if you are spending every day and most nights out exploring the culture and countryside.

As a guest of the STA, and in the company of several Australian travel agents, I spent much of my time on Upolu visiting hotels and resorts, along with local attractions. It was somewhat of a whistle-stop tour, but provided an opportunity to sample a lot of the island in a relatively short time. Personal highlights included classic novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s mansion Vailima on the hills overlooking Apia. It was fascinating to peer into the world of a formal British family, transplanted into one of the world’s least formal cultures. Faded pictures of the author and his family dressed in heavy coats, trousers and dresses covering everything from the neck to the ankle made me grateful for our universal modern tourist uniform of shorts, shirt and thongs.

Natural features abound on Upolu, with the Piula Cave Pools, the soaring Papapapaita Falls and the cavernous Sua Ocean Trench my favourites. The south side of the island is where most of the better beaches and resorts are located. Here we visited the boutique luxury Seabreeze resort, run by ex-pats Chris and Wendy Booth. Cocooned in a small bay, with a horizon pool and restaurant located on a rocky outcrop, Chris and Wendy told us of their lucky escape when the resort was totally destroyed by the 2009 tsunami. Their story of survival and recovery was only marginally more remarkable than the sumptuous dinner we were served that evening overlooking a balmy Pacific beach.

Further along the coast, the Sinalei Resort and Spa also had its own story of destruction and rebirth and we enjoyed a great night of hospitality and fine dining here in a setting of coconut palms and tropical tranquility.

While on the south coast, I also had an enchanting encounter with a local while swimming at Lalomanu Beach, which is listed amongst the world’s top 10 beaches. While snorkelling over the reef – which, incidentally, bore the scars of the tsunami with acres of flattened and crushed corals – a dark shape suddenly materialised over my shoulder. Initially startled, I realised my new diving companion was a metre-long turtle, completely unfazed by my presence. It proceeded to take me on a slow and graceful tour of its domain, barely noticing as I tagged along at a respectful distance in its wake.

THE BIG ISLAND

An hour and a half ferry ride from the northwest tip of Upolu saw us transported to Savai’i, Samoa’s largest island. It is also much less populated than Upolu, and with a more relaxed, rural feel. Distances between villages are greater and the vast majority of the land is undeveloped and clad in lush tropical rainforest. A fringing reef surrounds much of Savai’i, with lagoons rich in coral and fish life to delight divers and snorkellers.

Savai’i is volcanic in origin and there is abundant evidence of its most recent eruption, which occurred in 1905 when Mt Matavanu blew its top spectacularly. It continued to spew ash and lava for six years, with vast black lava fields spilling across the land, emptying into the sea on its northern coast. Today vegetation tends to disguise much of the devastation, but there are remnants of the destruction, such as at a small stone church at Saleaula, where the flows burst through the doors and carpeted the floor with oozing lava, still visible today.

In company with Gordon Howlett and the STA’s Michael Riddington, I spent the better part of the next two days at the Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge at Asau on Savai’i’s north coast. Here we were entertained and accommodated by effervescent host and lodge owner, Salei ‘Sally’ Vaai.

Va-i-moana can accommodate up to 45 people in a variety of different accommodation styles, from more traditional no-frills beach fales to overwater bungalows on the shores of the lagoon. Prices are extremely reasonable, ranging from 170 Tala (approx AUS$72) to 300T (approx AUS$127) per night, which includes breakfast and dinner. Its restaurant and bar also enjoys a reputation as one of Savai’i’s finest and we found no reason to doubt its standing.

The lodge overlooks a beautiful turquoise lagoon offering great snorkelling but we were here primarily to fish, and you can read of our exploits in Mahi mayhem and big blue bruisers, P77.

Salei also offers guests the opportunity to explore the north-western coastline of Savai’i. During our stay we enjoyed a visit to the impressive Falealupo Rainforest Preserve, where we negotiated a swinging bridge to a viewing canopy high over the surrounding forest. And we also experienced the western-most point of Savai’i at the secluded Cape Mulinuu, where, since the international dateline switch, it has gone from being the last place on earth to view the sunset, to being one of the first.

Other Va-i-moana highlights included dinner on the beach, with a band to serenade us and a fire to warm us, and a chance to snorkel and kayak in some of the pristine local waters, rich in marine life and coral formations.

All too soon we were transported back to Upolu, although the comfort and luxury of the Aggie Grey’s Lagoon Beach Resort and Spa, near the airport on the northwest coast, helped soften the blow somewhat. For visitors wanting more conventional resort accommodation, Aggie Grey’s offers just about anything you’d need, especially if you have little ones to entertain.

While my earlier Samoan encounter on the rugby field may have left me with lasting physical scars and a few less teeth, my recent sojourn has left me with indelible images of a captivating land rich in natural beauty, with an intriguing history, spectacular geography, seductive beaches and fantastic fishing. But overwhelmingly I will remember the smiling, friendly people, the laughter that pervaded our travels and the pride the people have in their culture and traditions. Travellers longing for an authentic Polynesian experience, undiluted by the more commercial influences of western culture, will find Samoa a refreshing and uplifting alternative.

Club Marine visited Samoa courtesy of the Samoa Tourism Authority (samoa.travel) and Fishing Getaways (fishinggetaways.com.au).

Mahi mayhem and big blue bruisers

“Grab that rod!” yelled our skipper, Salei. Just as I reached for it, Gordon lunged past me to grab the one next to it, which had also just begun to scream. Simultaneously line began to rip from a third reel. It was one of those chaotic fishing moments that make for great stories around the bar at the end of the day.

It was late in the afternoon and only an hour or so earlier we had been greeted by Salei Vaai, manager of the Va-i-moana Lodge, and invited out for a spot of fishing before dinner. We were aboard his 6m aluminium Mako cuddy cabin and had only just left the beach, with lures barely in the water, when the reels began to unload in unison. Before we had even left the lagoon, three fairsized giant trevally (GTs) had ambushed us. After a hectic few minutes we had all three fish in the boat and were laughing and high-fiving in celebration.

Apart from enjoying Salei’s generous hospitality for the remainder of our stay, we managed an even busier morning session on our last day, which rewarded us with a feisty barracuda, a couple of very energetic mahi mahi and a punishing last-minute session with a 160kg blue marlin before lunch. The marlin kept me occupied for nearly 40 minutes before Salei and deckie Gary finally managed to wrestle it into our relatively tiny cockpit. It was a tight fit, and thankfully nearly all the fight had left the marlin by the time it flopped onto the deck. I can’t remember a fish that has worked me harder, especially since we were on a tight schedule and had barely enough time to make the ferry back to Upolu when the marlin finally gave up the fight.

While we were understandably elated at our catch, the people of the local community also welcomed our arrival back on the beach, with the promise of enough fresh fish to go around for the next few days.

Gordon Howlett has been running fishing charters since 1994, branching out into Southeast Asia and the Pacific as he now provides a onestop-shop for anyone wishing to land a magnificent marlin or titanic tuna in the world’s game fishing hotspots.

More recently Fishing Getaways has been targeting Samoa, offering a range of packages including charters on a dedicated 35ft Bertram flybridge game fisher, Pure Indulgence, based in Apia. We spent half a day on Pure Indulgence cruising the northern coast of Upolu prior to our Savai’i visit. While our day was uneventful in terms of fish caught, it was a pleasure to spend time with skipper Ian and more than capable deckie Sally and Gordon assures us that a day out with the crew normally involves some hard work at the gunwales and not much spare room in the fish tank. Pure Indulgence will also relocate to Savai’i to fish out of the Va-i-moana Lodge for parties of four that wish to spend a few days on a larger vessel.

“As Salei’s Mako can only accommodate two anglers, for bigger groups we organise Pure Indulgence to come up from Apia and we also give the clients the option to fish to Savai’i and back rather than travel across on the ferry,” explained Howlett. “This is a great option for bigger groups, but it does mean a higher cost.”

Howlett says he chose Va-i-moana as a base for a number of reasons.

“Salei and his staff always make visitors feel more than welcome and our clients also get to experience the true Samoan culture when they stay there,” he says. “Plus, Salei is always looking to improve the experience he offers, and he just loves fishing. And because he’s been fishing in the area all his life, you’re highly unlikely to leave empty-handed.”

Salei says that fishing off Savai’i is a year-round proposition, with target species including all the most popular sportsfish, including all three marlin species plus sailfish, mahi mahi, dogtooth tuna, rainbow runner, GT, Spanish mackerel, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, barracuda and wahoo. He says that multiple hook-ups are not uncommon in local waters and says they provide plenty of amusement for crew and clients.

“It can get pretty funny at times, but that’s what real fishing is all about: memorable experiences in great places – and a cold beer to wash it all down at the end of the day.”

Fishing Getaways caters for individuals, groups, families, social clubs, angling clubs and corporate functions and has access to a large number of boats throughout Australia, the Pacific Islands and parts of Asia. For more information, call: (03) 9894 0006, or 0438 088 885.


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