Surf’s up in Samoa

Sim­plic­ity is the key to a fun fam­ily hol­i­day on the is­land of Upolu

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - CHRIS MAHER

WE ar­rive at Apia air­port and cut across the main is­land of Upolu, trav­el­ling for about 40 min­utes along nar­row, jun­gle-lined roads to the Sa’Moana Re­sort on the south coast. It’s a smoky Sun­day morn­ing. All along the road­side, small boys tend fizzing black logs, man­u­fac­tur­ing coke for the umu, the post-church feast that oc­cu­pies most of the day.

They take the Sab­bath se­ri­ously here, and there are strict rules: no wan­der­ing through vil­lages, no work­ing, no surf­ing. It slows down the al­ready am­bling pace of Samoan life to a snooze.

But we don’t mind; the re­laxed pace is what has drawn us here for what could be our last over­seas fam­ily hol­i­day — al­ready our el­der teenage boy, Jack, has be­come swamped by his busy ter­tiary life­style, and his younger brother David isn’t far be­hind.

We want a hol­i­day free of tele­vi­sion, videos and Face­book. We want surf­ing, div­ing, kayak­ing and laz­ing un­der co­conut trees. And, as it turns out, church.

The Sa’Moana Re­sort fea­tures airy and un­pre­ten­tious fales, and we sleep eas­ily to the com­fort­ing churn of the sea. The re­sort, coowned and run by Aussie surfer Paul Robert­son, is right on the beach, near the small vil­lage of Sala­mumu. The two are in­trin­si­cally linked — the re­sort land is leased from one of the vil­lage fam­i­lies, and all the friendly lo­cal work­ers are Sala­mu­muans.

On Sun­days, guests are in­vited to the vil­lage’s Methodist ser­vice and, de­spite it be­ing en­tirely in the Samoan lan­guage, it is an en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

The singing is mes­meris­ing and so too is the ap­pear­ance of the con­gre­ga­tion. Men wear debonair cream three-piece suits; women are dressed in im­pos­si­bly in­tri­cate gowns and hats em­broi­dered with white flow­ers.

We are spot­ted by an im­pec­ca­bly dressed older lady who’s ob­vi­ously an im­por­tant per­son in the church. With a flick of her head she gives an in­struc­tion and a prayer­book is whisked away from a young wo­man and brought to us. We are guided through the hymns, all in tongue-twist­ing Samoan. Our singing would find a spot on the Aus­tralian Idol exit reel, but we are roundly con­grat­u­lated for try­ing.

Dur­ing our week’s hol­i­day we visit the former home of Robert Louis Steven­son, who spent the last chap­ter of his life in Samoa; slip and bump down the Slid­ing Rocks into sparkling nat­u­ral pools; en­joy the danc­ing and feast­ing of a fi­afia cel­e­bra­tion; and watch kids play­ing kirik­iti, the colour­ful Samoan ver­sion of cricket. We even en­joy the thrills of a rugby match be­tween two vil­lages, com­plete with sapling posts, a bare­foot full­back and a lines­man us­ing a tree branch as a flag.

But the reef is the main source of en­ter­tain­ment. For the kids, it’s surf­ing. There is a sweet right­hand break ex­actly out the front, an­other left­hander at the vil­lage about 1km away, and sev­eral other big­ger breaks a short drive away, in­clud­ing Boul­ders and the omi­nously named Skin Grafts.

All the breaks have one thing in com­mon — they are straight on to coral in rel­a­tively shal­low water. It’s great surf­ing, as long as you don’t fall off. Un­for­tu­nately, that’s my only trick, so I stick to snorkelling with my wife, Lynda, while the boys pad­dle out each dawn with the re­sort-supplied in­struc­tor, Trent from Syd­ney.

The un­pa­trolled surf spots aren’t the soft-sand beach breaks we are used to in Syd­ney, so we’re grate­ful to have Trent on hand. As the week draws on, more surfers turn up, in­clud­ing Corey from New Zealand, Dan from Cal­i­for­nia and Occy from Brazil. Our boys form a bond with this in­ter­na­tional co­terie and start a pan­Pa­cific com­pe­ti­tion around the pool ta­ble, oc­ca­sion­ally in­clud­ing the off-duty Sala­mu­muans.

While the boys en­joy their time above the waves, we ex­pe­ri­ence some of the best snorkelling on the is­land. Again, it’s right out front — as easy as strap­ping on some fins and splash­ing into the sea. The coral is good but the sea life is bet­ter. The reef is filled with mas­sive schools of bright fish — from the ubiq­ui­tous par­rot fish to the tiny, elec­tric blue damsel fish — as well as enor­mous sea slugs, starfish and anemones.

Ten min­utes’ walk from the beach is an­other small la­goon that is out of bounds, as the pop­u­lar Sur­vivor tele­vi­sion show is be­ing filmed; the jun­gle paths have been strewn with barbed wire, no doubt to en­sure no one smug­gles choco­late to the con­tes­tants.

But as much as Samoa is trop­i­cal par­adise, the is­land na­tion has had more than its share of hard­ship and suf­fer­ing. In 2009, a pow­er­ful tsunami washed away al­most 200 peo­ple and de­stroyed vil­lages and re­sorts. Sa’Moana was left rel­a­tively un­scathed, but other nearby re­sorts suf­fered loss of life and the east­ern tip of the is­land was dev­as­tated. Robert­son says Sa’Moana lost a pool pump, some fur­ni­ture and a boat.

‘‘I feel hum­bled and em­bar­rassed that we got off so lightly, com­pared to some of my friends who lost every­thing, in­clud­ing fam­ily mem­bers,’’ he says.

Fol­low­ing the tsunami, Robert­son went to Aus­tralia to help spruik the Samoan tourism in­dus­try. Book­ings across Upolu had dropped off be­cause peo­ple were wor­ried about more tsunamis and con­cerned the in­fra­struc­ture had been wiped out. In fact, the north of the is­land was rel­a­tively un­af­fected and many re­sorts in the south were rapidly re­built.

For a day trip, we ven­ture east to Lalo­manu, on the east­ern tip of Upolu, about an hour along the pic­turesque south­ern coast from Sa’Moana; it’s one of the most beau­ti­ful parts of the is­land, but also one that bore the brunt of the tsunami. There we meet Mepa Apelu and other mem­bers of her fam­ily at the Tau­fua Beach Fales, which was washed away in 2009, with ter­ri­ble loss of life. Un­der­stand­ably, she doesn’t want to talk about that day, but she is proud of the de­ter­mi­na­tion her fam­ily showed to get the re­sort back up and run­ning. ‘‘The tsunami hit us in Septem­ber,’’ she says.

‘‘We man­aged to fin­ish the restau­rant by Novem­ber. Then we started build­ing one fale af­ter an­other. By De­cem­ber we had 16 fales here, and then we built an­other six just down the beach for our cousins.’’

The re­sort is pop­u­lar with back­pack­ers from Aus­trala­sia, Europe and South Amer­ica, as well as more main­stream tourists look­ing for a sim­ple, tra­di­tional Samoan ex­pe­ri­ence. The land­scape is breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful, although there are oc­ca­sional re­minders of the dis­as­ter, such as the empty shells of build­ings be­ing re­claimed by the jun­gle.

Lo­cals say the govern­ment didn’t help as much or as quickly as many peo­ple hoped it would, and there is a po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy in Samoa about where all the re­lief funds went. But Apelu is philo­soph­i­cal. ‘‘I don’t have any an­i­mos­ity to­wards the govern­ment. Peo­ple in Samoa are taught that you sur­vive on your own; you don’t rely on oth­ers. If the tsunami taught me one thing, it’s that life is short, so ap­pre­ci­ate each other, work to­gether. Live it sim­ple and live it up.’’ samoanare­sort.com samoabeach­fales.com samoa.travel

GETTY IM­AGES/JAMES STRACHAN

A boy climbs a co­conut palm at pic­turesque Lalo­manu beach on the east­ern tip of Upolu Is­land

CHRIS MAHER

Mepa Apelu’s fam­ily re­built its re­sort af­ter the 2009 tsunami

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