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Postcard-perfect beaches? Tick. Vibrant culture? Tick. Cheap prices? Tick. It’s got to be Fiji right? Wrong. It’s time to welcome the new kid on the South Pacific’s backpacking block. Say hello to Samoa


Stepping foot in a strange, unwesternised land for the first time, having travelled through the night with no sleep, there’s certain things you learn to brace yourself for on arrival, with the excitement of discovering a new place tinged with the anxiety of getting through those first few hours. Concentration is the order of the day as you negotiate your way past grumpy customs officials and money-hungry touts pushing everything from taxis to tours.

Arriving in Samoa, however, things are not as we expect. We’re immediately met by a sign declaring, “welcome to paradise”. Fair enough, I think. After all, every airport in the world loves a bit of friendly national marketing. However, that’s just the start as, and maybe it’s the lack of sleep talking here, by the time we’ve made it into the glaring morning sun outside Faleolo International Airport, after swaying to the live quartet singing away next to the luggage carousel, and got past the beaming customs man who kept calling women with babies to the front of the queue, I’m starting to think that Samoa may well be some kind of paradise.


Time travel

It’s fair to say that, keen rugby fans aside, most people know almost nothing about the 10 islands that comprise Samoa. For years now, Fiji, with its desert island beaches and cheap prices, has been the go-to destination for travellers looking for an idyllic, budget-friendly South Pacific getaway. But times they are a-changing, and the Samoans are going all out to attract backpackers to their fair shores.

Historically more aligned with the US, the powers-that-be have decided it’s time to make a seismic shift and buddy up with their culturally and geographically closer neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. It started a few years back when drivers woke up one day to suddenly discover they had to drive on the left, rather than right, hand side of the road. The next major step happened on New Year’s Eve, sadly after our visit, when Samoa redrew the international date line, placing themselves on the Aussie, rather than American, side.

The impact of this for people wanting a short break is huge, as Samoa is no longer a massively disorientating 21 hours behind Sydney, but now a much simpler three hours ahead.


Family trees

And so, travelling pre-date line change (meaning we have no idea what day it is), we start our Samoan adventure on the main island of Upolu, which is home to the capital Apia, more an amalgamation of sprawling villages than a bustling metropolis, before jumping on the ferry to its bigger, but quieter neighbour Savai’i. With our trusty guide Anthony at the wheel, we set out across the rainforest-clad isle as beaches sparkle on one side and volcanic peaks rise in the distance on the other.

Regularly passing through villages every few minutes, where locals lounge in the shade of the traditional totally open buildings, or fales, we seemingly meet every car we pass with a friendly hoot.

“It’s a small place,” Anthony explainswith a shrug. “Family is everywhere,” he adds, citing an old Samoan saying that people have more roots than a tree, meaning that everyone knows everyone. It’s great because you always feel welcome, but less so if you’ve got your eye on a girl, he quips with a cheeky twinkle in his eye.

Over the next few days we spend our time exploring the island, which is the fourth largest in Polynesia, after New Zealand and Hawaii. On one trip we stop off at the Alofaaga Blowholes where, on a good day, the water powers through the lava tubes, bursting more than 10 metres into the air. And like everything in Samoa, they come with a good story, with the blowholes symbolising an old Tongan princess who died in Samoa, when the country was a Tongan colony. Now, whenever the blowholes blow, it is said to be a sign of her king sending his love.




Talkback


Beach holiday: Samoa is explosive and idyllic all at once
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