Get Led Off Into A Life Of Sublime On Samoa's Balmy Coral Coast
“Four days, only four days?” the staff at Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa say when we arrive on their polished doorstep, clutching our mobile phones.
Eyeing two fugitives from the New Zealand winter, it seems even they doubt the restorative powers of their many weapons — most powerful among them Samoan smiles, palm trees, lapping waves, seaside spa treatments, and white sand.
We’ll have to work on these two, seemed the unspoken subtext as we checked in at Sinalei, on the coral-locked south coast of Samoa’s main island Upolu, less than an hour from the capital Apia.
We smile. We are not in search of “relax”. We want “warm”. Our cunning plan is to use laptops and mobile phones to carry on normal life, basking in a sultry 30 degrees rather than shivering through 10 degrees. To us, that is “relax”.
Poor fools, us. It would take Sinalei just one day to seduce us, leading us astray into a life of sublime. On day one we rose at 6am, just like home. The french doors open to reveal white sand, distant waves breaking on the coral, and rustling coconut palms.
Action time! A run, a walk, then out with the phone and laptop. Oh no, urgent emails to tend to. Sigh. A quick dip followed, and it was up to breakfast at 8.30am.
On day two, we dropped the run and the walk. A day later in our balmy palmy paradise, phones and the laptop sat untended, their lights flicking with sad hope.
By our final morning, we were down to doze, dip, and dine, shambling in for an omelette just before the 10.30am breakfast deadline.
Fabled for its power to restore energy since the days Samoan warriors gathered there to prepare for battle against Tongan invaders, Sinalei is still doing much the same thing in a hectic modern world, recharging guests for the foray back into their first world battles.
And so we morphed from fretting over “urgent” emails and checking the news, to lying on the deck pondering a swim, the room service menu, and why some palms had coconuts, while others did not. (Answer: coconuts are removed from trees above the beachside sunbeds so an unwary guest doesn’t get an unwelcome head-clonking).
And while we had expected warmth of the celsius variety, Sinalei gave us human warmth – smiles, helpfulness, and a robust sense of humour which will remain in the holiday highlights longer than the tropical scenery.
That is what makes Samoa different, Sose Annandale says. In a competitive market, her staff and an authentic Pacific experience are reason to choose Sinalei, to choose Samoa.
“I think people are coming here for experiences, something that touches the heart, something that is meaningful for them,” she says, a hibiscus flower tucked behind the ear.
“There are so many other choices out there, places people can go to but our point of difference is that there are no rehearsals on anything, we have culture that is alive and well, and is functioning, when people come here they like to immerse themselves in the culture, and to make connections with the locals.”
It’s not hard to connect with the locals; most have several jobs at the resort – our shuttle driver Fauao is also tour guide, culture day storyteller, and part-time receptionist. He picks apples in Hawke’s Bay, when he’s not at Sinalei.
Vasa serves you at breakfast in the morning, a weaving instructor, and waiter by night. He is also MC at the traditional ava ceremony, giving each sipping guest a nickname – the Canadian was “Celine Dion”.
Then there’s Michael and Miller, youngsters who bounded up from the beach like two lovable puppy dogs when we arrived. They are in charge of snorkels, goggles, kayaks, paddle boards, and raking the beach, but are also happy to offer guests (a likely thrashing at) volleyball or rugby.
In the evening they play in the restaurant band, offering a good line in Bruno Mars, the Righteous Brothers and the Eagles, as guests dine on a pier above the lapping tropical sea.
Miller, who has carved up many a guest with his speed and swerve, plays wing and is from the same village as the Savea family, yet his hero is neither All Blacks winger Julian, nor open side loosie Ardie.
“I love Richie McCaw,” he says. But McCaw is retired, surely one of the Saveas has to be his idol? “I love Richie McCaw,” he says with more emphasis, in case I’d missed it the first time.
Sinalei has cultivated ties to the local villages, employing staff such as Michael and Miller to train them for a hospitality industry career, as well as buying produce from farmers and fishermen. With that comes the charm for tourists of feeling they’re sampling “real” Samoa, even while lounging in the resort.
“Our property here is in a village setting, so people can not only connect with our staff who are our main ambassadors, but they can wander out into the village and just see how our people live, from that angle it is a different experience,” Sose Annandale says.
Outside The Resort
If all the relaxing gets a bit much, guests can get out on tours to Apia, along the south coast to see waterfalls and the Sua Trench, or go on a fishing expedition.
Apia has markets, which are just what you’d expect, and the Robert Louis Stevenson museum, which is full of the unexpected.
One of the first westerners to travel to Samoa for its warmth and his health, the former home of the Scottish author ofTreasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde now hosts the must-visit museum.
The visit brought back boyhood memories of evil pirates, blind villains, pieces of eight, parrots, and tattered maps of distant islands upon which x marks the spot where hidden treasure lies buried.
As a lad, I dreamed of stumbling on to a pirate’s sea chest full of gold. At Sinalei, we landlubbers might just have struck gold, with no blood thirsty pirates to worry about. Blow me down.
Fia Fia Night
On Fia Fia night, our stay comes to a flaming cultural crescendo, with the food and entertainment a celebration of all things Samoan. Taro, banana leaves, coconut milk, melt-in-your-mouth fish from the buffet mingle with fire dancers, lava lavas, dances, songs, and flowing ava (sorry for the scant dancing details, I was hiding for fear of being selected to join in).
And there were many of the staff, farewelling guests with a Manu Samoa war dance, a ka mate haka for the Kiwis, and a made up “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi” haka for our cobbers from across the ditch.
It’s enthusiasm born out of adversity. Since 2009, Sinalei and nearby villages have needed all the strength they could muster, after a tsunami bulldozed through, killing about 147 people along the south coast.
Resort owner Joe Annandale (Sose’s brother) survived, black and blue, when the vehicle he was trying to escape in was washed across a river, and 300m more inland. His wife Tui was killed as their SUV was tossed around like a Tonka toy, her death a personal tragedy for Joe, who also had to cope with damage to his resort and village.
Seven years on, there are few signs of destruction put at $5 million, though down the road at Poutasi many villagers have retreated from the coast to rebuild their lives in the hills.
At Sinalei, the Tui-I-Lagi Spa commemorates Tui in its name. Spa rooms are right on the coast, open to the sea, with hibiscus flowers placed to instil a peaceful ambience, so unlike 2009.
Joe has defiantly rebuilt his own home on the coast, and the resort Tui had been so much a part of developing.
“I have to be honest, there were thoughts of giving up in the weaker moments,” he says.
“Now, if someone offered me millions [for the resort], I wouldn’t take it. It’s a love story.”