The Samoa Islands, which include the independent nation of Samoa and the territory of American Samoa, stretch for some 480km (298 miles) across the central South Pacific, about 2,000km (1,243 miles) west of Tahiti and 4,000km (2,485 miles) southwest of Hawaii. The nine western islands are in Samoa; the others are in American Samoa.

Geography -- Independent Samoa, which many people still call Western Samoa, has a land area of 2,800 sq. km. (1,081 sq. miles), two-thirds of which are on Savai'i, the largest Polynesian island outside Hawaii and New Zealand. A series of volcanoes on a line running east to west formed Upolu, about 63km (39 miles) long and 21km (13 miles) wide. It's considerably smaller than Savai'i, 21km (13 miles) to the west, but some 75% of Samoa's population lives on Upolu. Although geologically younger than Upolu, Savai'i in many ways is the most "old Polynesia" of any island I include in this book. It has no towns, and its villagers live very much by fa'a Samoa.

The tops of two small volcanoes, Apolima and Manono islands sit in the Apolima Strait between the two main islands. Locals like to claim that James A. Michener was inspired by them to create the romantic island of Bali Ha'i in his Tales of the South Pacific. (Michener said in an interview, however, that he got the idea from a cloud-draped island off Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, where he spent much of World War II.)

Government -- An independent nation since 1962, Samoa is ruled by a 47-member Parliament, of whom 45 are matais, or chiefs. Part-Samoan and non-Samoan citizens elect two nonmatai members. There are two parties: the Human Rights Protection party and the Christian Democratic party.

Parliament selects the head of state from among Samoa's four paramount chiefs. The first head of state, Malietoa Tanumafili II, served for life; that is, from independence until his death in 2007. His successors will serve 5-year terms.

Economy -- Samoa's only exports of any magnitude are fresh fish, copra (dried coconut meat), coconut cream, kava, noni juice, and beer (try a German-style Vailima brew). Tourism is of increasing importance, with the country seeing a record number of arrivals in 2007. There is some light manufacturing, including cigarettes and garments. Although there has been significant economic growth and development in recent years, mainly in and around Apia, foreign aid and remittances sent home by Samoans living elsewhere keep the country out of bankruptcy. Several thousand Samoans live and work in American Samoa, where they earn much higher wages.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.