Travel: A Pacific paradise (apart from the corned beef)

The cuisine may leave a bit to be desired, but the beaches of Western Samoa are a dream. And there's barely a hotel in sight. Toby Follett explains why

POUTOA and her husband Ao rent out traditional fale, or huts, on their fantasy beach of Tanumatiu for a fiver a night. And that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Coconuts aren't extra. In fact, local kids delight in climbing to the very top of the nearest coconut palm trees and bringing the melon-yellow nuts crashing down.

Meanwhile, at Willie and Tauvela's beach fale on the mini island of Manono (it takes under an hour to walk right round it) you'll wake to the lowing of a giant conch shell - clocking-on time for dawn fishermen. After a breakfast of tropical fruits you could spend the morning watching a game of Samoan cricket played by bronze youths decked in necklaces and earrings of flowers and ferns. Watch the pandanuscovered ball fly out to sea off the three-sided bat and see the exhausted "youngest boy available" recover it from the blue crashing sea at least four times an over.

So why does Western Samoa attract so few tourists? Am I going to zoom out from this picture of perfection to reveal a Geiger counter crackling away at unheard levels? Or discover that Poutoa and Ao charge $2,000 a night for the five-star section plus an extra fiver to get back to nature?

The answer is simple, say the tourist conglomerates. Western Samoa attracts few tourists because it has no big international hotels. What the place needs is a Holiday Inn or a Hilton. And before whinging about the effect on local culture and the environment, do you think two-bit beach hut holidays are bringing in enough tourist dollars to offset the balance of payment deficit?

International chains are offering the Poutoas, Aos, Willies and Tauvelas of Western Samoa millions of dollars for their beaches. But they just won't sell. In Samoa, land is not something any individual can actually own and trade - it can't be divorced from the people who live on and from it. Everyone owns the land, or at least everyone in the neighbourhood of the land in question - all part of the traditional Samoan matai system of communal ownership. So - are these plucky natives unwilling to be made slaves of the ruthless capitalist momentum which swallows traditional cultures whole? The reality is far more interesting. This commercial stalemate originates with old family squabbles. These closeknit communities are so keen to get their hands on the foreign lucre that everyone living anywhere near the land under offer is pitching in with a claim. And we all know that family disputes, like civil wars, are the most bitterly fought.

Samoan history is the preserve of chieftains charged with learning it all off by heart - which family lived where, when; who married who - so, as nothing has been written down, these disputes just get more convoluted as time passes. The stalemate just gets staler and more fossilised - to the delight of the beach bums who make it to Western Samoa.

There are, however, one or two up- market beachside hotels (owned by local families with foreign connections) where you really can get away from it all. "It" being no running water, no room service and a ghastly menu of corned beef and cassava. The Sinalei Beach Resort, for example, has much more than just the first two and, miraculously, a sumptuous menu.

Herein lies the ultimate Samoan paradox - the cuisine. Like most tropical islands, Samoa is pregnant with gardening and fishing possibilities. Throw a watermelon pip into the undergrowth and next year you'll have a serious water melon situation on your hands. Throw a string with anything vaguely edible on it into the sea and a monstrous silver fish with rainbow fins and dinner plate eyes will rear up out of the water. It will then fillet and slice itself in midair, and hurl its bits into the nearest frying pan. A coconut will then fall off a tree onto the rocks nearby, crack open and marinade the dish with its sweet milk. Well, almost. So why is most Samoan cuisine so gruesome? Don't believe me? Ever tasted a toasted tinned spaghetti and corned beef sandwich. You can get them at the airport; that's all you can get to eat at the airport.

Samoans took to Christianity with universal enthusiasm. But before the Christians get big headed they should remember that Samoans took to the invention of corned beef with equivalent zeal. Its position in the Samoan culinary hierarchy is supreme, as it drops from its rusty tin onto a perfectly edible block of cassava. The downside of any stay in a mildly upmarket joint in the Pacific is the Authentic Polynesian Show -and the Sinalei Resort goes in for this in a big way. Apart from the footling "kava drinking session" when tourists are offered welcoming cups of the local mild narcotic root, the fire dancing and singing is, in fact, authentic. You realise this when you wander into the nearby village and see the same performers entertaining their relatives with the same show ad nauseam.

In Western Samoa things never turn out how you expect them: I asked Tauvela on Manono whether I could use the phone (the very presence of a phone was surreal, here on a table, on a beach, overlooking the lagoon). She said the phone wasn't working as it had been raining, but that it should be OK in half an hour as she was about to put it out in the sun to dry.

Being alone is seen by Samoans as a sorry state of affairs - people will come and sit with you if, for example, you are dining alone. At one restaurant two waitresses sat nonchalantly down at the table. "Where you from?" one of them asked. "London" I replied - "London. In England". "Aha," she said. "I don't know that place." A conversation can peter out as easily as it begins.

Samoans are famously friendly, unless they get angry, and New Zealanders say that in New Zealand, where there is a growing immigrant Samoan population, they are angry much of the time. They are probably missing their corned beef. Of course, stereotyping people is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. I wish I knew how to say that in Samoan after my conversation with a local shopkeeper. In common with all others, his shop stocked shelfloads of corned beef. I asked him what the beef was, so to say. Why doesn't he sell vegetables? "It's simple. Samoans are too lazy to plant vegetables", he says. I yearn for a more politically correct solution. But this is Western Samoa and if you don't want your understanding of the world challenged - don't come here.

And this in a place where Christianity, in a plethora of fundamentalist forms, rules with an iron rod. The Samoan censor is so nervous about foul language that during the episode of Fawlty Towers I saw on Samoan TV every time Cleese starts to lose his temper the sound went mute, just on the offchance.

It also pays to find out what the rules are; they are impossible for a foreign tourist to predict. If you have already found accommodation, don't accept an invitation from another family in the village where you are staying (your current hosts will be offended.) Don't eat while walking through a village. Don't wander onto the beach further down without finding out who are its guardians and how much they expect you to pay. Don't sit with your legs out. Never carry children on your shoulders, nor packs on your back.

I'd flown in to Western Samoa with a planeload of poisonously jovial US Mormons who looked like they were auditioning for a crowd scene as hillbillies in that Burt Reynolds film Deliverance. They had T-shirts on saying "Western Samoa or Bust". Unfortunately they'd made it. I flew out in an Air New Zealand wide-bodied jet glancing up at the onscreen computer map. It had all the info: distance from destination, temperature outside. It all suddenly switched into Samoan. Lots of vowels: noopolukapalofa po'olufanopatoofa typething. Then it was time for the tourist film. "Pacific Islanders are blessed with a natural sense of rhythm and harmony", I heard the commentary begin.

The world makes just as much sense from a Samoan perspective, I decided as I bust open the salted almonds.

western samoa fact file

Getting there

Toby Follett travelled with Anderson's Pacific Way which specialises in travel to the Pacific Region (01932 222079) and Air New Zealand (0181 741 2299) Fares start from around pounds 737.

Beach Fales

There are beach hut "resorts" all over the islands. Two excellent ones are Vaotu'ua Beach Fales on the island of Manono, run by Willie and Tauvela (tel 685 46077 or 685 22144 and ask for Steve Brown) and Tanumatiu Beach Fales, Falealupo, on the island of Savaii run by Ao and Poutoa. Very basic accommodation, and excellent value.

Upmarket

Aggie Grey's Hotel, PO Box 67, Beach Road on Apia Harbour (tel. 685 22880, email: aggiegrey@talofa.net). The only place to stay in Apia, if you can afford it.

Sinalei Reef Resort PO Box 1515, Apia Upolu Island (tel. 685 25191/22794).

Restaurants

Sail's Restaurant and Bar Beach Road, Apia (tel. 20628).

Nightclubs

Worth checking out are: Margrey-Ta's Beer Garden, Apia; Mount Vaea Nite Club, Evening Shades

Surfing

Only for experts. There are no really safe places for beginners.

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