The scenic 31km (19-mile) drive from Faleolo Airport into the historic capital of Apia provides a fitting introduction to Samoa. Here in this cultural storehouse, which was once known as Western Samoa, the Polynesian lifestyle known as fa'a Samoa -- The Samoan Way -- remains alive and well. On one side of the road lies an aquamarine lagoon; on the other, coconut plantations climb gentle slopes to the volcanic ridge along the middle of Upolu, the main island.
Along the shore of Upolu, Samoa's main island, sit hundreds of Samoan fales (houses), their big turtle-shaped roofs resting on poles, their sides open to the breeze and to passersby. Their grass trimmed and their borders marked with boulders painted white, expansive lawns make the route seem like an unending park. Samoans wrapped in lava-lavas shower under outdoor faucets and sit together in their fales. Only the dim glow of television screens coming from beneath tin roofs rather than thatch remind us that a century has passed since Robert Louis Stevenson lived, wrote, and died here in Samoa.
Even the town of Apia harkens back to those bygone South Seas days. Although landfills have extended the shoreline, high-rises now stand on the waterfront, and traffic lights blink at several corners, many old white clapboard buildings still sleep along Beach Road, just as they did when Stevenson stepped ashore here in 1889. Compared with the hustle and bustle of Papeete, or with the congestion and canneries of Pago Pago in American Samoa, life in Apia is slow and easy.
The old ways are even more preserved over on Savai'i, Samoa's "Big Island." The eastern and northern side of this huge shield volcano slope down to impressive beaches, which are attracting more and more visitors in search of a beautiful, little-changed escape from civilization.
If you go with an eye to exploring the culture as well as visiting some of the South Pacific's most beautiful and undeveloped beaches, Samoa will enchant you just as it did Stevenson, Maugham, and Margaret Mead, all of whom found plenty to write home about.