The Story of Return to Paradise
How a dream became the Resort that love built
This is the story of how a resort was built on the beach that even Samoans call special. Return to Paradise is proudly 100% Samoan owned and operated – every dollar you spend at the resort is creating meaningful jobs and income for Samoa.
Return to Paradise Beach in Lefaga Samoa gets its name from the movie made here starring Gary Cooper and Roberta Haynes back in 1953. This was a spectacularly beautiful beach and Hollywood decided it was the perfect setting for the movie.
It was also a human rights first for Hollywood in that apart from the four major parts, all the other speaking parts went to local Samoans, all of whom had no movie acting experience. This was a huge risk for the studio (United Artists) in the mid 1950s and many theatres in the Southern US refused to show it. The part of the chief Tonga was played by Mamea Matatamua who later became a framer of the Samoan constitution. His oldest grand-daughter Hinauri Petana is now board chairman of the Resort and Samoan Consul General to Australia.
The beach became famous and was renamed Return to Paradise Beach. It became an icon of Samoa and was deemed to be so valuable, that the traditional landowning families divided the beach amongst the families to ensure that each family had customary ownership and hence guardianship over a piece of the beach so it could be preserved forever.
For over forty years, people came and approached the chiefs responsible for the beach to request a lease to use the beach for various resorts. These approaches came from business people and hotel chains everywhere. The chiefs turned them all down, despite some offering significant financial incentives. The chiefs saw their responsibility to ensure the beach would be protected and used only in ways that supported their values.
In the 1950s, when the first Samoans started migrating for a better life, one of the chief families, Su’a Paletoga was amongst the first to go to New Zealand. Su’a Pale had a vision to establish his family in New Zealand and then to sponsor young Samoans to New Zealand for their higher education. Over the next twenty years, dozens of young people were sponsored by Su’a, many going on to achieve accolades and careers they could not have achieved back in Samoa at that time such as doctors, statesmen, and academics. Others built families in New Zealand and became contributors to the New Zealand economy.
Su’a Paletoga’s dream had always been to return to Samoa and help Lefaga. However, he died prematurely at the age of 53 in 1974, and his dream seemed to die with him.
In 1961, Samoa finally gained independence from New Zealand and became the first Pacific Island independent state. Two of the key figures in the independence movement were Mata’afa and his wife Fetauimalemau (Fetaui as she was known) who was also from the district of Lefaga and related to Su’a Pale. Fetaui was the daughter of Mamea Matatamua, the chief in the movie. Mata’afa became the first Prime Minister of Samoa, but died after a short time in office.
Fetaui went on to serve her country in a number of roles including United Nations Ambassador and later, Consul in Auckland. At this time, she approached Ramona, the daughter of Su’a Pale with a dream for her to take her family and return to Samoa to build her father’s dream for Lefaga.
In 2007, Ramona returned to Samoa to build a house for her mother. After a couple of years of contributing to village life, the chiefs from the village approached her and asked if she would be interested in leasing the beach and creating a special place for visitors to enjoy. One of the key chiefs in this approach was Lemalu Taufa’i, who was paralysed from the neck down due to childhood polio. He said to Ramona: “for years, people have come and gone and asked for our beach. I have never felt right about it. But when you came, God told me that you and your family have good hearts and you are the ones we can trust.”
Ramona’s family agreed and attracted investors from New Zealand. However, the global financial crisis saw those investors pull out. A second group of investors came on board and then they too had to pull out as the financial crisis worsened. A third group came on board and flew into Samoa to sign the agreement the very day of the 2009 tsunami. This spooked the investors and they left the island never to return.
Following the devastation of the tsunami, the dream of the resort was put on hold for many months. This was a heartbreaking time as 34 friends and family were among the 165 people who lost their lives. Ramona and her family turned their attention away from the resort dream and got deeply involved in rebuilding the homes and lives of so many shattered families.
But then a group of Samoan business owners got behind Ramona and put their money together to build this dream. And so in 2011, the jungle which came right down to the beach was cleared by hand for what has now become the Return to Paradise Resort.
But there was another major setback. Half way through the construction, the banks pulled their offers to lend. Funds ran out, and the project was halted. There were 150 construction workers at the time, and they all had to be laid off one Friday, pending finding an alternative source of funding to carry on. But on the Monday, they all showed up for work. They were so committed to seeing Return to Paradise Resort built in their village, they insisted on working for no pay until more funding could be found. These amazing men and women worked for two months before alternative loans were found to continue building and to back pay their wages.
So this is truly the resort that love built. Lefaga has an unemployment rate of over 75%, yet these are the people who came together to build this special place. It does not have manicured perfection but it has been created by Samoans with architecture, carvings and gardens all designed to make guests feel special, that you are a part of us and we want you to know you are very very welcome.
Sadly, Fetaui passed away before the resort was completed. However, her daughter Fiame, now Deputy Prime Minister, graciously gave her blessing for the Resort conference facility to be called the Fetaui Centre in her memory.
The first event held in the Fetaui Centre was a welcome back from the village to actress Roberta Haynes, original love interest of Gary Cooper in the Return to Paradise Movie. Roberta came back from Hollywood for a celebration weekend where she was embraced by all of Samoa. Red Carpet of Flowers welcome for a re-showing of the movie, and a Gala Ball at which she was guest of honour. At the ball, she announced that Samoa had embraced her so lovingly, that she was telling her family than when she passes away, she wants her ashes brought back to Return to Paradise beach where she feels she truly belongs.
Just 9 months after opening, the Resort was awarded the Certificate of Excellence by Trip Advisor as a result of many very positive guest reviews, and continues to be one of the top rating resorts in Samoa, holdings its own well against internationally owned resorts. It’s popularity sees new rooms and facilities continuing to be built.
So in 2018, CHAPEL BY THE SEA comes into being. This chapel is the vision of Ramona’s family to provide a sanctuary for celebrating milestones such as weddings, baby dedications, and other family occasions.
Ramona does not see herself as a resort owner. She is the guardian of a heritage. A resort in Paradise that is 100% owned by Samoans and staffed by the extended family. So everything you spend here goes back in to the local community creating meaningful jobs for the families that are very grateful for your support.
So when you come to Return to Paradise Resort, you are not just visiting a resort. You are being hosted by the very families who have owned this land for over a thousand years.
Roberta Haynes died on 4th April 2019 at the age of 91. True to her wishes, her son Jonathan and his family brought her ashes back to Samoa for a large memorial service held in Chapel by the Sea on 23rd July 2019 where she was honoured by the surviving members of the cast. Her ashes are deposited forever in the Gazebo in front of the Chapel overlooking the beach she loved.
We trust you will experience the spirit of Return to Paradise Resort. Have a special time at the resort, and then go on your way. But one day soon, you too will want to Return to Paradise.
For bookings and inquires, contact
SAMOA: 685 35055 or 7675000 or 7675001