Samoa: History and Tips

At the very center of Polynesia, Upolu and Savaii are the twin islands that truly fulfill the South Seas vision of palm- lined, white-sand beaches and blue ocean beyond the reef. And in the capital of Apia, which has at least some of the trappings of a modern city, you'll also find a slightly timeworn, sultry townscape out of the old South Pacific.

Until 1997, the country was known as Western Samoa - long famous throughout the South Pacific for Fa'a Samoa, a way of life in which traditional customs (dance, a love of kava, and the art of tattooing among them) and strong community ties shape daily living in ways unmatched anywhere else in Polynesia. It's the kind of place where modest lodgings remain the norm, rugby is a passion, and while you can charter a fishing boat, it's more fun to watch (and learn how) the locals cast a small net off the beach - then join an outrigger canoe for a practice run across Apia Harbour.

Snorkelers will revel in the calm, coral-filled chasm at Palolo Deep National Marine Reserve, a short walk from Apia), and a handful of kayak outfitters now offer trips along the coastline and small offshore islands. Hiking, both in the rugged interior mountains (you'll want a guide) and along the coast (palm-lined beaches abound on the south and northeast coasts) is virtually untapped. Sheer fun? It's hard to beat Papaseea sliding rock, a 15-foot ride down a waterfall into a jungle pool straight out of a South Pacific movie...

Surfing Samoa can't match Fiji wave for wave, but the number of surf camps that have sprung up on both Upolu and Savaii are an indication that the offshore reefs here hold more than just promise. Just as in Hawaii, you can surf year-round, with the north shores of the island best from December through February (summer down here), and the more consistent south shore breaks (including Salamumu, a left on Upolu) peaking from May through August. And just hope that the biggest swell of the year doesn't roll through on Sunday - when some villages on this religious island prohibit surfing.

Sightseeing Treasure Island may have been set in the West Indies, but Robert Louis Stevenson chose to live out his days in Samoa. Visit Valima, his plantation home, now beautifully restored as a museum that showcases Stevenson memorabilia. Then climb a steep hill at the rear of the home to see the author's grave, overlooking Apia and the sea beyond. Walk downtown to the Tuai Market for food and crafts, then pay tribute to the spirit of the old South Pacific by hoisting a few in the bar of the legendary Aggie Grey Hotel.

Culture You can translate fiafia as: Eat (think Hawaiian-like luau cooked in an above-ground oven called an umu), drink (mouth-numbing kava is the favored brew), and be merry as you watch some of the finest traditional dancing in Polynesia. Fire dances and knife dances by the men are standbys, but for the soul of these islands, watch the women perform the graceful siva, where the tempo begins slowly, builds rapidly, then ebbs like an outgoing tide...