Paradise in last place on Earth
"PARADISE in heaven." Those three words swirl around my head in the darkness.
I'd seen them a day earlier in big letters on the side of a bus.
We'd been told to look out for the wildly painted village buses and, almost on cue, as our van drove up the vehicular ferry ramp on to the island, one pulled away from the kerb.
But the message it left in its dust - "Paradise in heaven" - didn't make any sense. Surely this is either paradise or heaven.
Make up your mind!
But now I understand as I lie awake on a surprisingly comfortable mattress on the floor of the humble Samoan fale hut.
High tide in the lagoon creates a soothing lullaby of gentle waves lapping the white sand below.
A mosquito net flies overhead in the cool breeze like a ghostly presence.
I'm too exhausted to get up and tuck the net in, and dropping the banana-frond woven blinds is not an option as I stare into the cloudless, midnight blue sky at the Southern Cross and a zillion other brilliant stars.
Paradise in heaven.
I contemplate the snorkelling after breakfast around the dark patches of purple-tipped staghorn coral barely 20m from shore in the turquoise lagoon that is the front "yard" of the Lauiula Fales.
And I replay in my mind the glorious day we have spent here on Savaii ("Big Island") which is the largest of 10 islands of Samoa.
Apolima Strait separates Savaii from the main island of Upolu, 18km to the south-east.
But Savaii remains largely uninhabited and untouched.
It has only two-fifths the population of the Upolu, where the capital Apia lies, despite being one-and-a-half times the size.
Surfers and backpackers uncovered Savaii's charms long ago but more accommodation options in recent times have encouraged other travellers to discover a part of the South Pacific that remains true to itself.
Savaii moves to the beat of its own drum. Villagers live life at an easy pace, as they have for 3000 years.
The island - known as "the soul of Samoa" - is so laidback that other Samoans come here to chill out, lobbing on the fale doorstep of relatives and friends.
Savaiians are naturally hospitable and extremely proud of their cultural and natural heritage. But while they are keen to share that with the outside world, the tourist dollar hasn't changed them.
From the Siufaga Beach Resort bungalows in the south-east where we spend our first night, we become a little better acquainted with the island on a walk before breakfast in the sunshine along Savaii's one main road which hugs the coastline.
This pleasant introduction to Savaii is the warm-up to a day of sightseeing.Circumnavigating the island takes a leisurely six hours in a car, covering 336km and many scenic spots.
We head out in a clockwise direction and our first stop is the two-storey Savaii Markets.
Souvenirs from polished kava bowls and colourful lavalavas to Samoan rugby T-shirts and hand-made jewellery, traditional fans and coconut knick-knacks are available at good prices.
And if you're feeling peckish, Samoan-style pineapple turnovers, baked chicken bread rolls and an array of tropical fruits are sure to please. Armed with our lunch staples, our next stop makes a real splash with the group.
Dramatic Afu Aau waterfall plunges from the rainforest into a cool natural waterhole - a green oasis sheltered by tree ferns, moss, and jungle vegetation.
Some brave souls dive from the surrounding cliff into the depths.
The clear turquoise waters near the shallow rim glow in the sunlight streaming through the foliage, and the cascading showers are powerful despite so little rain of late.
Paradise in heaven.
Alofaaga blowhole is our next destination but we stop the van short of the entrance as a picture-perfect stand of tall, thin coconut palms against a majestic blue sky scream out to be photographed.
The area boasts about eight holes in the rock where seawater can spurt up to 60m in the air.
The villagers' favourite party trick is to place coconuts over the blowholes and see them "fly".
The picnic lunch staples come out here under the sprawling trees, with Mother Nature providing the free entertainment.
A little further on, the road is flanked by coconut groves offering glimpses of deserted white sand beaches popular for picnics and romantic sojourns.
This is the most western point of the archipelago - a spiritual area for Samoans.
As the last place on Earth the sun sets each day, Savaiians once launched their dead in canoes here to float off into the great beyond, where their spirits were consumed by the sacred whirlpool called Fafa O Saualii.
But we rush past, and just as well: the next stop will rate as the group's favourite of the road trip.
At the Falealupo Beach Fales, a friendly game of kirikiti or cricket, Samoan-style, is taking place this sleepy afternoon in the heat.
While curious to understand the differences between kirikiti and the traditional game, our jaws drop when we see the vibrant colours of the main attraction.
The stark white sand is undeniable but is the lagoon a gorgeous azure, teal, turquoise or aqua?
And is the sea beyond the necklace of white crashing waves a glorious cobalt, steel blue or cerulean?
No matter. We peel off the layers to our swimsuits and wade into the cool waters to loll in the shallows or snorkel the lagoon's coral wonders. We are the only ones on the beach.
Paradise in heaven.
Too soon, we are off again on our magical mystery tour - this time to test our nerve at the Falealupo Canopy Walk.
We climb up the steel staircase to the top of the tower for a stunning perspective on the rainforest storeys and canopy.
Then we each take a leap of faith, literally walking the planks laid end to end across the suspension bridge to the "cubby house" in a massive banyan tree.
Next stop is the Saleaula lava fields - once a black moonscape but now green with new tree growth. When the Mt Matavanu volcano erupted from 1905 to 1911, molten lava destroyed everything in its path over 100 sq km on the central north coast.
Ribbon lava flowed right through the front door of a church, which now lays in ruins a short walk from the carpark. But the nearby burial place of a nun was spared as the lava mysteriously flowed around what has become known as "the Virgin's grave".
Now we are on a tight schedule as turtles await.
The Satoalepai Wetlands is where visitors can swim with green turtles in a part-freshwater, part-saltwater pool.
The majestic creatures - some weighing up to 185kg - were hunted for many years and became endangered. Villagers have provided the turtles with a sanctuary before being released into the ocean to prepare for parenthood.
The inquisitive turtles prove a little too friendly when one mistakes my orange underwater camera for a piece of papaya and nips my leg instead.
But all is soon forgiven as we head for our final stop: Le Lagoto Resort in Fagamalo village for sunset drinks.
Samoa has always been "a day behind" Australia and Fiji, on the other side of the International Dateline. But that changes on December 29 this year when the dateline is redrawn and Samoa falls into line with its closest business and trade partners.
Then Samoa's sunsets will be the first in the world each day.
This afternoon, we are serenaded by Samoan singer-guitarists while we sip frozen margaritas, and become drunk on the colours of the sky as day morphs into night. The cameras come out of the handbags one last time as the sun drops ever lower on its march towards the horizon.
The red and orange glow slowly disappears, leaving behind a spectacular palette of pinks, blues and purples on the clouds in the fading light.
Paradise in heaven. Indeed.
The writer was a guest of Samoa Tourism Authority.
Three airlines fly to Samoa weekly out of Brisbane and Sydney: Air Pacific, Air New Zealand and Polynesian Blue. See your travel agent for details.