Born in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was stricken at a young age with chronic respiratory illness that, along with his vagabonding inclination, led him in his adult life to begin a series of travels in search of a warmer, more hospitable climate. After trying the French Riviera, the south coast of England, the Napa Valley, and the Adirondacks, the writer finally found his place on the other side of the world, in Samoa.
Stevenson — by this point in his life a bona fide literary celebrity — and his family set sail from San Francisco in 1888 aboard the chartered yacht Casco and toured the Pacific for three years, spending time in Hawaii, Tahiti, the Gilbert Islands, New Zealand, Sydney, and Samoa.
It was in the latter that Stevenson finally settled, purchasing a 127-hectare (314-acre) piece of land in 1890 and setting to work to make it a home.
The first settlement consisted of a small shack on 3.2 cleared hectares. This simple life would last for only a year, however. The first part of what would be their grand mansion was completed in 1891, called Villa Vailima, after the nearby village of Vailima.
The house would eventually include five bedrooms, a library, a ballroom, and the only fireplace in Samoa, with decorations including a piano, a tablecloth from Queen Victoria, and a Rodin nude given as a gift by the artist himself.
Despite this rather grand home, Stevenson had close relations with the local population, being an active advocate for indigenous Samoan political interests (including the publication of a sharp criticism of colonial rule that led to the recall of two European officials) and earning the familiar nickname “Tusitala” from the locals, meaning “Teller of Tales.”
Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, died in 1894 at the tragically young age of 44 and, per his wishes, was buried atop the nearby Mount Vaea. His wife, Fanny, lived another 20 years; after her death in 1914, her ashes were brought from California and interred beside her husband’s remains.
In the years after their deaths, their home served as the residence of the Governor of German Samoa, the administrator of the New Zealand Mandatory Authority, and finally as the Samoan Head of State after independence was achieved. Severely damaged by hurricanes in 1990 and 1991, the mansion was fully renovated and reopened as the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in December of 1994, one hundred years after the writer’s death.
Today, Stevenson’s family home is the most popular tourist attraction on the island of Samoa, although it may only see a few outside visitors each day. The staff run a guided tour of the home, which is kept as it looked at the time of Stevenson’s death. On fine days, visitors can also take a hike to the top of the hill and pay their respects at the author’s burial site.
Know Before You Go
From the waterfront, flag a taxi down and head for the Cross Island Road. Directions can be found on the official website.