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The pace of life in Samoa is so laid-back it's only a heartbeat away from being comatose. Its palm-fringed beaches, booming white surf, and lush rainforests wreathed in misty clouds make it the kind of place that Hollywood location scouts go gaga over.

If Robert Louis Stevenson had clapped eyes on Samoa a little earlier he wouldn't have dickered around in the clammy highlands for so long. The islands are so idyllic they're almost a cartoon version of a writer's hideaway. Then there's the beachcomber lifestyle where time is the haziest of concepts.

But the history of Samoa has not always been so relaxed. Over the years it's been visited by trading ships bringing disease, massacres and exploitation; it's been a bolt hole for the homeless riffraff of the seas - ex-whalers, escaped convicts, bawdy traders, dipsomaniac sailors, and pirates retiring from the business; it's been carved up by arrogant European powers seeking a political toehold in the Pacific arena; and it's suffered God's glory boys bringing Bibles and everlastin' perdition. That the sunny and easy-going nature of the Samoans should survive all this is a triumph of optimism over experience.

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