Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This weeks postcard comes from Paul van der Werff, a 33 year old New Zealander who currently works as a freelance journalist and producer in television news. Paul gets his creative fix through writing poetry and photography, and had even managed to self-publish his own book combining the two. His poems, photos and general musings can be found on his blog, Paul van der Werff. After spending two years working as a fulltime volunteer on the Okanagan Indian Reserve in Canada through Frontiers Foundation, Paul’s been back in Auckland for the past year, though he says “at the moment I have very itchy feet and am once again looking into various possibilities in different corners of the world”.
Welcome Paul! So, have you managed to escape Aukland recently?
I managed to give myself five days off in a row so rather than mucking about at home I decided to book myself a nice little tropical island holiday on Samoa’s main island of Upolu.
I had only ever transited through Fiji and never made it out of the airport. So with the weather cooling down as Autumn wears on and New Zealand having just been lashed by a pretty bad cyclone it was time for some sun and seaside cocktails at one of our Pacific neighbours.
Samoa is a beautiful lush country that is covered in vividly coloured plants, the water is warm and clear and everyone is friendly.
Sounds incredible! I’ll bet the weather was amazing…
The weather was fantastic. It was mid 30’s every day and sunny the whole time. You tend to get a brief downpour in the evenings but it blows through pretty quickly and the building black skies give you some advance notice of its arrival.
But a word of warning… the sun is deceptively powerful so don’t forget to put on your sunscreen before you get too comfy or you will get burnt.
Did you find a good place to stay?
After having a look around on line I decided to stay at Le Uaina Seaside Resort in the north eastern town of Faleapuna.
The resort is right on the beach and has numerous coconut and palm trees all around. The reef provides some great snorkelling in the warm, clear water – keep an eye out for the bright blue starfish! Just don’t do what I did and decide that dead low tide would be a great time for a snorkel. You end up having to push yourself off the sand to try and get over the coral because as I discovered, everything in the reef ends up being covered in about knee deep water. Plus your back gets nice and burnt…
The staff are all lovely and friendly and all know your name and enjoy having a conversation and a good laugh. The meals from the restaurant are all good sizes, good prices and tasted nice, although sometimes the fish could use a few minutes less in the oven. The Oka (raw fish marinated in lemon juice and coconut cream) was delicious. If you order off the breakfast menu (instead of getting the free tropical breakfast) be prepared for it to sometimes be slightly different than what is advertised, eg, you might find 1 sausage arriving instead of the two listed, that sort of thing, but it tastes good nonetheless.
Le Uaina is also a popular wedding venue and while I was there I became the unofficial official photographer for Tennelle and Michael’s big day. The bonus was that I got dinner and drinks for free as I got to hang out with all the guests after the service.
The only downside to the resort is that if you arrive on a late evening flight like I did, it is then about a one and three quarter hour drive to get there from Apia airport. I didn’t realise this at the time of booking and next time I would stay at somewhere like Aggie Grey’s for the first night which is only about a five minute drive away from the airport.
However, because I had informed them of my flight arrival time, I still had a welcoming party of five people waiting to help me to my room when I turned up, even when it was just before midnight as I pulled into the gates.
And if you arrive by day then you also get the bonus of being able to enjoy the scenic drive as you wind your way along the coastline through numerous towns. It also makes it much easier to spot all the people and animals who are always walking along the road no matter what time of day it is!
What did you get up to?
I’m not one for lying around at the beach all day so I booked myself a rental car. For me this was a great way to have the best of both worlds. If I felt like doing nothing then I could just hang out at the resort but if I wanted to go exploring then I could just pick a point on the map and start driving.
In my few days I managed to drive around and explore most of Upolu. I stopped off at a number of tourist spots such as Falefa Falls, To Sua (a giant water hole caused by the collapse of a lava cave, where you can jump from the top into the sea water below), the house and grave of author Robert Louis Stevenson and downtown Apia to name a few.
I was also very interested to see how the rebuilding effort was going in the area around Lalomanu, which was heavily destroyed in the deadly 2009 earthquake and tsunami. Waves from the tsunami measured 14 metres (41ft) at their highest point here. Driving around now you struggle to see any physical signs of the destruction that occurred on that day of September 29th, but in talking to the locals the mental scars are still very raw.
What was your highlight?
Apart from being able to sleep in for a week and enjoying the sunshine and hospitality that Samoa offers, as a writer, the highlight for me was being able to see where Robert Louis Stevenson sat and wrote so many of his books and the landscape that inspired him.
His house has been turned into a museum and the staff give you a very insightful (but brief) tour around. Most of the artefacts (and half of the house) have been recreated after a large cyclone destroyed a big part of the building. Some original items remain and they help to give the feel of what the house was like for Tusitala (Stevenson’s Samoan name meaning “teller of tales”) as he went about daily life.
I decided I was going to take the path up Mt Vaea to Stevenson’s burial place. The staff recommended I take a bottle of water and a hat. Luckily I had both in my car.
At this point I can make two recommendations. Don’t do the climb in the midday sun. I was soaked in sweat by the time I made it up to the summit but that was more in part because of recommendation number two. If you are planning on walking up to the tomb bring a pair of shoes!!! I made my attempt wearing just sandals (flip flops) and by the time the fifth Samoan had passed me on the trail in shoes, I knew I had made a big mistake. With my feet covered in a slippery combination of sweat and mud for pretty much the second part of the walk up, every step risked either my feet flying out completely or my jandals (flip flops) breaking into pieces. After many a scramble and ending up with a decent amount of mud all over my shorts and t shirt, I finally made it to the location of the tomb about an hour or so after I began.
The view out over Apia Harbour and the town of Vailima is well worth the effort though. There is also a great deck built just to the side of the tomb so that you can take a moment to enjoy the view and also work on your own pieces of literary brilliance. Try the short track on the way up and the long track on the way back.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a similar trip?
If you want to do more than just lie by the pool drinking cocktails the entire time, then I would advise hiring a car. If you look around online you can get one for a pretty decent daily rate and it allows you the chance to go exploring around all corners of the island.
And if you feel like taking home a unique handmade reminder of your trip, go and see Susanna and Sia and their friendly team at their clothing shop opposite the Western Union, a few hundred metres from McDonalds on Saleufi St in town. They hand paint and sew all their shirts and dresses and you can pick and choose which colours and designs you would like. Tell them that Paul from Michael’s wedding recommended them and hopefully they might also give you a great discount.
And finally, what’s the most useful word you learnt…
Fa’afetai (thank you).
NB – all images belong to Paul van der Werff.