Return to Paradise, Samoa: The beach a Hollywood crew scoured the South Pacific to find

Travel News from Stuff - 02-01-2023

Scouring the to find the perfect setting for his film Return to Paradise, Hollywood director Mark Robson finally settled on the tiny Samoan village of Mata’utu.

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With a palm-shaded beach lapped by water so clear and warm it feels like an invisible liquid hug, it’s a South Pacific stereotype brought to life.

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When the crew, who included actors Gary Cooper and Roberta Haynes, arrived in the village in the early 1950s, it changed its inhabitants’ lives forever. Transforming many of them into stars of the big screen at a time when speaking parts in Hollywood movies rarely went to people of colour , the film also thrust their beach into the global spotlight.

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Soon, hotels and property developers from around the world were wanting a piece of it, but village chiefs fended them off for more than 40 years, determined to keep what is now known as the Return to Paradise Beach under village ownership.

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In 2005, Ramona Su’a Pale, a daughter of one of the first Samoan migrants to New Zealand, returned to the village from Auckland to build a house for her mother and, a couple of years later, local chiefs asked her if she would be interested in leasing the beach to build a resort.

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She agreed, but the global financial crisis struck soon afterwards, scaring away two sets of investors. When a third set arrived to sign an agreement in 2009, a tsunami struck, killing 165 people and destroying much of the village.

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When those investors pulled out, Ramona and her family turned their attention to helping their fellow villagers rebuild their homes and lives. The villagers wouldn’t give up on their resort dream though and, in 2011, a group of Samoan business owners pooled their money to help Ramona make it happen, and cleared the jungle that backed the beach.

In what looked like another cruel twist of fate, the banks which had backed the project pulled their funding halfway through construction, forcing it to come to a halt. Some 150 construction workers were laid off, but returned to the site the following week regardless, saying they would work without pay until new financial backers could be found. Two months later Ramona succeeded in securing another loan, enabling building to resume and workers to receive back pay.

Finally completed in 2014, Return to Paradise is now the only resort in Samoa that is fully Samoan owned and operated. With high unemployment in the area, Ramona and her family are pleased to be able to offer meaningful work to their neighbours, and ensure their celebrity beach remains as unspoilt as it was the day Gary Cooper and co first set foot on its coral-studded sands.

In many ways, Return to Paradise feels more like an oversized village guest house than a resort. There is a spa, pool and beachside restaurant and bar, but it is more laid-back than luxurious.

A letter from an “Aunty Pisupo” handed over at check-in on my April visits called upon guests to be patient with staff. Recently reawakened from its pandemic-induced two-and-a-half-year hibernation, the resort was woefully understaffed, she wrote. Many former employees had moved to New Zealand and Australia in search of work, and new recruits were as green as could be.

“Remember that for many, not only is this their first ever job, but many have never had the money to have even eaten in a restaurant, let alone had any experience in working in one.”

In time-honoured Samoan tradition though, she said they would “move heaven and Earth” to make guests feel at home. “Because that is what our family is like.”

I worried I was in for a Fawlty Towers-like experience when our party of five was led to rooms which surprised both us and staff with their unmade beds. But feasting on super-sweet pineapple and papaya in the open-air breakfast pavilion any irritation evaporated into the frangipani-scented air.

Heavily reliant on tourism, Samoa suffered immensely while its borders were closed, and the smiling staff were so eager to please their first guests since that only the hard-hearted could bear any ill will toward them.

Stepping onto the beach, where I cooled my feet in some of the clearest water I had ever seen as I took in the blazing white marble chapel on the headland where Haynes’ ashes are interred, I saw for myself why Robson chose to film his movie there. For those of us partial to snoozing on sun loungers in tropical surrounds, it’s about as close as we’re ever going to get on an earthly paradise.

After a few days of exploring the islands of Upolu and Savai’i, we shamelessly shifted into flop and drop mode. I floated in the bath-warm water beneath a cloudless blue sky and had my keyboard warrior’s shoulders unknotted by a firm-fingered masseuse before sitting down to a late lunch of oka (raw fish with lemony coconut milk, tomato and cucumber) and palusami (spinach cooked in coconut cream) overlooking the beach. If I could pause any one moment in the last year and extend it indefinitely, that might just be it.

At dinner, we tucked into a degustation menu showcasing local ingredients as what looked like half the village treated us to traditional song and dance performances.

Soulful renditions of what sounded like songs of love and longing gave way to dancing so frenzied we felt the performers’ flecks of sweat on our skin. Eventually, the show erupted into a full-on party, with performers leading us up to the stage area one by one. I hadn't danced the Macarena since my nightclub days many moons ago, so made sure I had a forkful of food as performers and guests alike performed its requisite hand movements and hip swirls.

When a smiling woman offered me her hand, however, it felt rude to refuse it, so I got over myself and boogied my heart out with the rest of them. I’d forgotten most of the moves but, to my surprise, it didn’t bother me. I felt like I was at a big drunken family bash at which unco dance movements aren’t just acceptable but expected. And yet all I’d had to drink was fresh coconut water. The languid beauty of the place is intoxicating enough. I’d begin plotting my own one-woman Return to Paradise sequel before I’d even checked out.

Air New Zealand flies direct to Apia, Samoa. See:

Return to Paradise Resort, from $300.

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