A dateline in the sand on Stevenson’s treasured island

While living in Samoa, the 19th-century Scottish novelist experienced a 'double day' when the nation hopped over the date line. Tomorrow, it moves back again. Kathy Marks explores
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Perhaps the most striking feature of Robert Louis Stevenson's house, situated on a hillside above Apia, the Samoan capital, is a brick fireplace. It was never used – not surprisingly, given the perennially steamy temperatures outside – but it reminded Stevenson of home. "His body was here, but his heart was always in Scotland," says Margaret Silva, who shows visitors around the plantation-style villa, now a museum.

The 19th-century novelist, poet and travel writer had spent three years wandering the Pacific before he and his family settled in Samoa in 1889. The warm climate agreed with Stevenson's health – he had been plagued by lung problems since childhood – and the culture provided rich fodder for his work. He and his American wife, Fanny, bought 300 jungle-smothered acres and built a two-storey timber home. They lived there with her two children, son-in-law and grandson, his mother and a maid. And they entertained Samoan high society with the help of servants clad in Royal Stewart tartan.

The family also had the uncanny experience of gaining a day while staying in one place. Until 4 July 1892, Samoa located itself on the western side of the International Date Line – even though its position suggested it should be on the east. This was because its strongest relations were with Australia. But gradually, San Francisco became more important, and pragmatically the authorities decided to side with the US.

The only way this could be accomplished was to have a double-day – and, with a nod to American sensibilities, Independence Day was chosen. Stevenson's mother, Margaret Isabella Stevenson, noted: "We are ordered to keep two Mondays in this week, which will get us straight."

Tomorrow, Samoa hops back in time to the side of the Date Line it originally occupied. From midnight tomorrow, Thursday 29 December, the clock will jump to 12.01am on Saturday, 31 December – leaving Samoans bereft of the final Friday of 2011 , but aligned with their most significant Pacific neighbour, New Zealand.

Just two years after that first date change, on 3 December (or was it 4 December?) 1894, the author of Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was dead. Stevenson was aged 44. He had suffered a stroke while opening a bottle of wine. The Samoans, who called him "Tusitala" ("storyteller"), were grief-stricken. "Our beloved Tusitala, the stones and the earth weep," lamented one paramount chief, Tuimaleali'ifana. Weeks earlier, he and other chiefs had arranged for a road to be dug between Stevenson's Vailima estate and the public highway; it became known as the Road of the Loving Heart.

What so endeared Tusitala to the locals was not only his profound interest in their culture, but his energetic championing of Samoa's independence struggle; at the time, the United States, Britain and Germany were jostling for control. The Polynesian nation still ended up colonised and divided – the US got the eastern half, Germany the western portion, which was subsequently administered by New Zealand – but Stevenson's efforts have never been forgotten. "He's one of our heroes back in the olden days, and he's still 100 per cent admired," Iulai Lesa, a guide with the Samoa Tourism Authority, tells me.

Restored in 1994 by Rex Maughan, an American millionaire, Villa Vailima – together with Stevenson's tomb, at the top of the adjacent Mount Vaea – has become a major tourist attraction. While most of the furniture was sold after the writer's death, the interiors have been carefully recreated. The few original pieces – a trunk, an armchair, a hammock he slung up on the front deck – help to conjure up Stevenson's final years in this South Pacific haven.

The spacious, high-ceilinged house is surrounded by lush grounds. Of its eight airy rooms, the most interesting is Stevenson's library, where he wrote an astonishing 13 books in four years, mostly while reclining on a day bed. The shelves contain first editions of his works, as well as remnants of his own collection, including Dickens, Milton, Wordsworth and Robert Burns.

The hike up to the tomb, following a steep, thickly forested trail, is worth the effort, not least for the views of Apia, the ocean and – on a clear day – neighbouring Savai'i island. (The main island is Upolu.) Fanny's ashes were brought back here after she died in her native California. A shorter track leads to a waterfall and cool, clear pool where Stevenson used to bathe; after you've climbed Mount Vaea, it's a wonderfully refreshing spot for a dip.

Although often sick, the Scot would periodically saddle up his favourite horse, Jack, and gallop down to town, where he would meet friends or stroll by the harbour. Nowadays, most of Apia's sights are along the waterfront. They include colonial buildings such as the old courthouse, a flea market, and Aggie Grey's Hotel. The founder is believed to have inspired James A Michener's character Bloody Mary in Tales of the South Pacific. Aggie Grey's has been a South Seas institution since the Second World War, when Aggie began serving coffee and hamburgers to American servicemen. Her father, a Lincolnshire pharmacist named William Swann, was a close friend of Stevenson's and a frequent visitor to Vailima.

A hotel where Stevenson's family lived for a year has been turned into a pool hall and nightclub, Crabbers. A little to the north, on a narrow promontory, is the independence memorial; the country – known as Western Samoa until a decade or so ago – has run its own affairs since 1962.

On occasions, the writer rode as far as a village 10 miles east of Apia. No one recalls its original name, but according to Margaret Silva it was re-christened Solosolo, after Stevenson dropped his handkerchief there. ("Solosolo" means "handkerchief" in Samoan.)

The customs and traditions he loved still flourish in such villages, with their networks of matai (tribal chiefs) and open-sided thatched huts, called fale. Visitors can participate in ceremonial 'ava drinking– elsewhere in the Pacific, the mildly intoxicating drink is known as kava – or watch food being cooked in a traditional oven, or umu, consisting of red-hot lava rocks.

Continuing east from Solosolo along the winding coast road you eventually reach some of Upolu's best beaches, including Lalomanu. This area was ravaged by a tsunami in late 2009, but the low-key resorts have been mostly rebuilt. To complete your half-island tour, return to Apia via the south coast and Cross Island Highway, which passes the Vailima estate as well as the picturesque Papapapaiuta waterfall.

Stevenson fans can stay at Le Manumea, a boutique-style hotel close to Vailima, or the Tanoa Tusitala Hotel in town. Despite its name, the latter has no connection with the Scot, but it has been beautifully renovated and – like most drinking establishments – it serves the locally brewed Vailima lager. A glass of cold Vailima seems the perfect way to toast Samoa's favourite expatriate. Whichever day it is.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The main approach is via Auckland with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk). An alternative is to travel via Sydney, to which fares tend to be lower, with onward flights on Virgin Samoa, bookable through Virgin Australia (0843 104 7777; virginaustralia.com).

Getting around

The best way to get around the main island, Upolu, is to hire a car – but watch out for children, piglets and stray dogs. A medium-size car costs S$1,104 (£290) for a week with Blue Pacific Car Hire (00 685 22 668; bluepacific.ws). Regular ferries between Upolu and other islands are operated by the Samoa Shipping Corporation (00 685 20 935; samoashipping.com).

More information

Samoa Tourism Authority: 020 8877 4512; samoa.travel