Samoa is in fact two separate and very different countries. Independent Samoa has the most tourist appeal. There are two main islands, both with stunning secluded beaches and coastal views, some lovely waterfalls and lots of traditional fishing villages. This is a great destination to learn about Polynesian culture and immerse yourself in the local way of life. The capital town of Apia also has its own charming appeal.

Neighbouring American Samoa, just 100km to the south east, shares an identical culture and language but was taken over by America in 1899 and remains a US territory. Although its traditional culture and lifestyle has been eroded on the outside, the people are still very much Polynesians at heart. The main island of Tutuila has a stunning coastline and fantastic and very assessible rainforest from the coast to the high mountain peaks. The island, along with the smaller islands of the Manu'a Group further east, also boasts some of the finest archaelogical sites in Polynesia.

Apia, on the island of ‘Upolu, is the capital of Samoa and the only place in Samoa that you could call a city and really mean it. For all of its modern details, such as banks and burger outlets, it still retains the picturesque charm of its history. All the traders, beachcombers, pirates, whalers, and fallen missionaries who have washed up on the shores of Apia still seem to be present in Apia’s slightly rundown air and the old pula trees shading the streets. From the centre of town, Apia’s neat villages spread west along the level coastal area and climb up the gentle slopes towards the hills and into the valleys.

Just 4km (2.5mi) from Beach Road in Apia is Vailima, the beautifully restored home of Robert Louis Stevenson now operating as a museum. There is enough memorabilia here to entertain for an entire morning but of even greater interest is RL Stevenson’s tombstone at the back of Vailima and up a steep incline. His gravesite looks out over the township, the white fringe of reef and the distant horizon. After he died the people of Upolu worked 24 hours non-stop to hack a path to the top of the hill so that the body of their beloved tusitala (’storyteller’) could be buried the next day with full ceremonial privileges.

The south coast of ‘Upolu is a string of sparkling palm-fringed beaches where you can lie back and enjoy an idyllic beachcomber’s lifestyle. First up is the aptly named Return to Paradise Beach, made famous by Gary Cooper in the film of the same name. It’s not an ideal swimming beach, but then again it’s not an ideal film. The pounding surf and shallow reefs make swimming a hazard, but it’s a wonderfully scenic spot for a picnic.

The next beach is Matareva, a series of safe coves and shallow rock pools that make for great snorkelling. Further east are Salamuma Beach and Aganoa Black Sand Beach and this is where you’ll find the best swimming areas, while at the end of the bay are more snorkelling reefs. If you keep going around the coast you’ll eventually get to the easternmost tip of ‘Upolu and here you’ll find the reefs of the Aleipata district. This is one of the most breathtaking areas of Samoa with reefs of a brilliant turquoise blue and some of the loveliest swimming beaches around. As with all swimming in Samoa, be sure to ask locals first before diving in, and don’t be surprised if you’re asked to pay a ‘custom’ (a small fee for the use of a village’s resources).

The Papasee’a Sliding Rock is a 5m (16ft) slide down a waterfall straight into a jungle pool. It’s like Disneyland’s Jungle Boy and Water World combined. The slide, over real rock rather than faux rock, sometimes has even the most hardened adventurer a little faint hearted but there are a number of smaller slides to choose from if the big one looks too daunting.

Savai’i is one of the largest islands in Polynesia but one of its least populated. It’s an untouched and pristine island showing few western influences and the people of Savai’i have maintained a way of life even more traditional than ‘Upolu. There are any number of first-class beaches on Savai’i and the places that aren’t good for swimming are perfect for snorkelling. If you get sick of the beaches, the reefs, and the laid-back life of a beachcomber, the interior of Savai’i is just as interesting.

The Tafua PeninsulaRainforest Preserve is one of the most beautiful and accessible stands of rainforest with, rugged stretches of lava coast studded with caves and lava blowholes. The Matavanu lava fields, formed when the volcano spewed and belched molten lava for nearly six years back in the early 1900s, is now an impressive moonscape, and a walk around the crater of the volcano is a must for archeological buffs. The other rainforest on Savai’i is the Falealupo Preserve, which has a canopy walkway to the top of a stately banyan tree. For a few extra tala you can eat and sleep up there too.

In southern Savai’i, don’t even think about missing the Alofaaga Blowholes at Taga. Not just another set of blowholes, there’s little to equal them anywhere else in the world. Olemoe Falls, also in the south, is a lovely jungle waterfall that plunges into the crystalline waters of a deep blue pool, which is marvellous for swimming and diving.

You can get to Savai’i by plane, with flights from Fagali’i Airport in Apia, landing at Ma’ota Airport on the southeast of the island, or by a boat that runs between Mulifanua Wharf on ‘Upolu and Salelologa on Savai’i.