Villa Vailima: The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Samoa

30 October 2015
The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Samoa. Credit: Samoa.travel. The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Samoa. Credit: Samoa.travel.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson didn't just write about adventure and exploration, he lived it. The author, whose novels include Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, spent much of his tragically short life travelling. In 1890, after visits to Hawaii, Tahiti, Kiribati and New Zealand, Stevenson and his wife Fanny arrived in Samoa.

There they decided to stay, buying a 127 hectare tract of land on the slopes of Mount Vaea above Apia. They named it Vailima, Samoan for “Five Waters”, a reference to the five streams that crossed the property. Today the house at Vailima is the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, a fascinating glimpse into the Samoan life of the man locals called Tusitala, or “storyteller”.

When Robert and Fanny first took possession, Vailima was covered in thick bush. The couple spent months living in a shack while they cleared the property by hand. A visiting American recounted how he came upon them hard at work. The always painfully thin Robert looked like “a bundle of sticks in a bag” in his “very dirty striped pyjamas”. Fanny looked even worse for wear; most shockingly of all, she was in bare feet.

That all changed once Vila Vailima was built. The house had five bedrooms, a library, a smoking room and a ballroom for 100 dancers. It was furnished with 72 tons of furniture shipped from England and transported the 5 kilometres from Apia on sleds pulled by bullocks. To protect them from the tropical climate, the covers of the books in the library were varnished and the grand piano  placed inside a glass case. The walls were clad in California redwood, tiger skins covered the floor and the art collection included a portrait of the Stevensons by John Singer Sargent and a nude by Rodin.

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887. Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887.

 

Stevenson spent the last four years of his life in Samoa. He died aged 44 and was buried at the summit of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea. In accordance with his wishes, his tombstone was inscribed with Requiem, his self-composed epitaph. Fanny died 20 years later in California and her ashes were returned to Samoa to be buried at the foot of Robert's grave

The grave site is a steep and strenuous 30 minute clamber up the hill behind the house, or a longer but easier walk. If you do climb the hill – and you should, if only for the superb views across Apia to the sea – don't wear jandals, especially if it's been raining recently. There's no charge to visit the grave, but it's worth ponying up to see inside the house as well (ST $20). The house doesn't have much in the way of signage, but the guides are both charming and knowledgeable. You'll get an insight into the Stevenson household, which included Fanny's extended family and frequent international guests, and Robert's deep interest in Samoan culture and politics. If you're lucky, your guide will end the tour by singing the Samoan version of Stevenson's Requiem, which was translated and set to music after his death:

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 

Catherine McGregor

Catherine McGregor is the deputy editor of The Spinoff and a travel writer with a too-long travel wish list including Jordan, Mexico, Croatia and Taiwan.