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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | On an Island Gem Unspoiled by
Tourism, a Relaxed Lifestyle and Lush Foliage Combine
for a True Escape

Still Soothing. Still Samoa

March 18, 2001|AMANDA JONES

Imagine this. It's pitch dark and you have just arrived on a remote South Pacific island. You haven't a clue what to expect because, truth is, Americans don't know much about the tiny, remote country of Samoa.

So here's a quick sketch: Robert Louis Stevenson died here, Margaret Mead created a scandal here, the local television station began operating in 1993 and the first traffic light was installed in the capital in 1996. An estimated 75% of the islanders are clinically obese, making Samoa one of the few nations to trounce the United States on the portly paradigm. These Rubenesque peoples are elaborately tattooed, welcoming and jovially indolent. The bulk of them are subsistence farmers. The country has competition-class surfing, it is the last place on earth to see the sun slip away, and it has the sort of scenic extravagance that summons the muse in poets. Its location smack in the middle of the Pacific means the hordes have not yet descended. Just my kind of place.

We were there for the waves. My husband, Greg, is one of those improbable baby boomers who plays at CEO all week and then metamorphoses into a determined beach bum on weekends. Our vacations, therefore, typically involve three sacred words: World Class Surf. Because I do not fancy spending every vacation pacing the high-tide mark of Pipeline in Hawaii, I scour the world for places where the waves are "pumping," the nature spectacular and the culture as untouched as is likely in the second millennium. What little literature I could find on Samoa indicated it had all of the above.

The flight from Los Angeles direct to Samoa took about 10 1/2 hours. We reached the island about 2:30 a.m., then faced a 45-minute minivan drive to our hotel on the southern side of the island. Weary, I breathed deeply and was greeted by an unidentifiable but tantalizing fragrance - salty and faintly syrupy. The smell of fecundity. The smell of relaxation. The luggage was loaded on the roof of the vehicle, desperately teetering, tied with rope that once must have been beach flotsam. Driving through the night, I tried not to imagine my suitcase careening off, though this seemed like the sort of place where you could replace your entire wardrobe with a single piece of cloth, as this appeared to be all the locals wore. Even in the darkness, I could see roads free of the litter that plagues most developing countries. I saw tended gardens, mowed lawns, whitewashed rocks neatly lining the streets, pathways of bleached shells, towering palm trees and numerous ornate, candy-colored churches. Gradually we began to pass small houses set among luxuriant foliage, some illuminated with a fluorescent bulb, others glowing by the light of the television. There were mats on the floor humped with sleeping bodies, the occasional chair, the odd dresser. It took me a moment to realize we were looking right through the homes; there were absolutely no walls. These peoples' lives and possessions were on display under a roof of corrugated tin or palm thatching held up by carved wooden posts and bound together with coconut fiber. These open structures are known as fales. We could see where families cook, eat, sleep, socialize. I wondered briefly where they change, where they bathe. I also wondered about the crime rate. Obviously, there wasn't much of one. I smiled. So far, so good.

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