Depending on your geographic intelligence you may have never heard of the country of Samoa, yet alone, have the faintest clue as to its whereabouts. If you’ve never heard of the country the word Samoa my simply bring to mind the chocolate & caramel tasty treat of a Girl-Scout cookie…unless you are one of those odd people that knew them as Caramel Delights, but I’ll save that for another argument.
Samoa is a tropical paradise set in Polynesia, South Pacific. If you are a surfer you’ve probably heard and dreamt of the waves you’ve seen in videos and magazines over the years. The country consists of approx. 194,000 people, with Upolo and Savai’i being the two largest and most populated islands. Getting here from the U.S., would have been an utter nightmare even if one had the money to plunk down $2,000+ for the airfare. Since I had been living in New Zealand I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to hop on over since the flight was cheap and a mere 4-hours.
Unlink most of the places I’ve been around the world researching and planning a trip to Samoa had been a bit of a struggle for me. There did not appear to be a wealth of information on the internet other then the Samoa Tourism Authority website and a few select outlandishly over priced resorts (both surf and non-surf related) with below average websites. Due to this, Samoa was to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type trip, which for anyone who knows me, well, it’s my favorite and preferred way of travel. Because I was to meet my friend Phil from Australia there late at night the first day, we arranged the a hotel in advance The Samoan Outrigger in Apia, Upolo.
Arriving in Apia was classic. As you step out of the airplane door you’re immediately confronted in the face by the warm sticky South Pacific humidity and a traditional band playing. A welcomed sensation after having two winters back-to-back with a third looming on the horizon. The terminal is small as expected and mostly open-air. There are only a handful of flights in/out of the airport so as you pass through immigrations you are greeted by hoards of taxi and shuttle drivers biding for your business. If you’re heading into Apia or the surrounding area expect to pay around 20-25 Tala for a shared ride. This is a similar scenario to anyone would encounter at most destinations around the world, except in Samoa, the vibe was friendly and tranquil vs. the chaotic touts of SE Asia and Central America.
**Getting around: **
Phil and I had gone back and forth about how to get around Samoa given we only had about a week. Typically, I would have refused a car rental and taken the bus. It’s typically cheaper and I love the local interaction. The buses in Samoa are an odd vehicle. They have the front end of a lorry (i.e. semi truck) with gutted windows and a welded on round roof. Each bus has their own unique flair, paint scheme, and name. Similar to India the driver gets to “pimp their ride”.
Outside of Apia, the ferry port, and one or two other destinations there is no set bus stops. Buses make a loop around the island on one of the few main roads. Catching the bus is as simple as flagging it down. To our knowledge there wasn’t really a set bus time table either only a few select departure times in the morning as well as the evening for the work and school crowd.
To us this meant a relatively unreliable mode of transportation and we were glad we rented a car in the long run. The majority of the backpackers we met opted for the bus route. They sadly missed a large majority of the sites we stopped along, spending hours upon hours standing in the tropical heat, or sitting patiently on the side of the road either waiting for a bus or to hitch a ride. We did our good deed though and picked up people as we encountered them.
Driving was simple and easy. The highest speed limit in the country is 50 KPH. The cars for the most part are right hand drive though certain older models are still found in left hand drive since the change is rather recent. Pricing ranges depending who you rent a vehicle from, for how long, and its pick-up location. You can expect to pay between 120 and 150 Tala. Since we rented for 5 days we were able to talk ours down to 110. The cars are of good quality and mostly Japanese imports. Ours hilariously had a fancy exhaust and was lowered, which made for a slightly sketchy drive on the unpaved 4wd roads.
Sleeping & eating:
This is another area we struggled with preplanning. I guess we could have booked online in advance and many people did. The bookings were simple and done via email communication. We just didn’t want to commit. If you go to the Samoa Tourism Authority in Apia they were fantastic and provided a map of both islands and circled and provide clues as to where Fales would be located. It was kind of like a treasure map.
Fales are the typical housing of the Samoan people. They are open air huts often with either no walls or only three-sided. Accommodations are simple with mattresses sprawled on the floor and usually were around 60 Tala per night with meals. Each hut is accompanied with a mozzy-net which was a life saver if the breeze was stagnant or you had extra succulent blood. The Fales within each village were on prime real estate, beach side, with incredible views. Power was hit or miss depending on the Fale, and internet was virtually nonexistent. I’ve never slept so well and peaceful. Every night drifting off into sleep to the sound of waves crashing and palm trees gently swaying.
One of my favorite aspects of traveling is eating and trying new types of food, which is surprising to those who know me since I’ve been told I “eat like a bird” normally. I had read about some of the traditional eats of the island beforehand and was most excited to eat Oka. Oka is a tropical version of ceviche in my eyes. Raw seafood food with diced onions, herbs & spices, cured with citrus juices, and marinated in a bowl of creamy coconut milk. Basically heaven and it melts in your mouth. With the anticipation built up, I was surprised to find that this wasn’t commonly eaten all-day-every-day. This was my general opinion of seafood throughout both islands. Being an island nation, I’d assume seafood would be a staple, but I found more or less chicken to dominate most meals. I’d attribute this to the numerous feral chickens and pigs running around all over the place, especially on Savai’i. When we were lucky enough to find street food, it was always BBQ’d chicken, taro, and roasted bananas, which was delicious and a massive portion for around 5 Tala.
The other big surprise, regarding food, was the lack of restaurants. Pretty much outside of Apia or the large port town’s restaurants seemed nonexistent, which is a stark contract to SE Asia, where road side eateries were abundant. One could drive a 3rd of the island and not pass anything. Due to this, pretty much each Fale will include two (2) meals with your stay. Dinner the night of check-in and breakfast the following morning, with unlimited picking of bananas off of the trees on the property if you’re lucky. The meals were always delicious and plentiful. Families would begin cooking hours before in preparation and meals were served family style to all guests at once. Breakfast usually included fresh fruit, bread, and pancakes, while dinner ranged from fish and/or chicken to spaghetti and toast accompanied with a heaping helping of taro, rice, taro leaves (delish!), and local veggies. My one tip within this area would be to stop in Apia and pick up some rations of snacks to get you through the day. While we bought bottled water when the opportunity arose, we also drank tap water and was just fine. Overall the quality of sanitation appeared suitable and no tapeworm has yet to grow in my stomach in the month since my return.
Things to do:
Surprisingly, the Samoa Tourism Authority did a phenomenal job of putting together great lists of sights and activities to do while in the country. It is readily available online and you can pick up pamphlets, which were outdated, in Apia. With that said, I will go through our favorites and recommendations, but not everywhere we stopped. One thing to keep in mind is that most of the sights are on private land and the locals will collect a surcharge anywhere from 5 – 20 Tala. For the most part, I was ok with this and didn’t mind paying as the landscape and hiking trails were well maintained. We only encounter one negative incident at the Falefa Waterfall, which was less than spectacular and not really worth stopping. As you pulled off the road, the troll of a lady, was waiting and collecting her toll to view the falls which can be seen from the roadside. The overall situation just felt shady and taken advantage of.
Piula Cave Pools – These fresh water pools, while rather busy, were a refreshing way to cool off. As one swam further back into the cave there was a little glimmer of light from the depths. Diving down about 3-5 feet revealed a hole to the cave on the other side. One deep breath and a quick swim and you had absolutely solitude and a cave to yourself. It was tranquil and peaceful.
Fuipisia & Sapoaga Waterfalls – As mentioned above, I’d skip the Falefa Waterfall and head straight to these. They were short hikes and spectacular. Sapoaga falls even had Fales to stay at for the evening if you wished. The jungle surrounding the falls was so dense it felt like Jurassic Park and I expected a pterodactyl to come flying out at any moment.
To Sua Trench – Arguably Samoa’s largest tourist attraction and claim to fame besides all of the behemoth rugby players. The trench with its steep wooden ladder plunging into turquoise water is littered all over social media and travel blogs. What no one tells you though is how spectacular the surrounding area and gardens are. The trench had the highest fee (we paid 20 Tala) but there was open Fales to rest and picnic overlooking the South Pacific. There were walkways down to tidal pools and blowholes, as well as beautiful manicured tropical plants and flowers. Basically, I could of lived here till my dying day and been happy. Once you psych yourself up to descend the ladder the first thing you will notice (if the surf is rough) is how much surge there is in the trench since it does connect to the ocean. The day we were there you would drift back-and-forth a good 15 to 20 feet. Swimming back into the cave is a magical experience as you rest in the shade swaying with the surge gazing upwards at jungle lined walls. The whole experience really amped me up to explore the Cenotes of the Yucatan in Mexico.
Giant Clams at La Valasai Beach – This was one of the most under-rated and unmentioned sights of our trip and our favorite activity we did the entire time in Samoa. It was a royal pain to find though! We tried on our way to the ferry and failed. On our last day ,we decided to give it one last go. We knew at some point we were to make a right hand turn, we just couldn’t find it and repeatedly kept ending up at villages that appeared on our map yet were too far down the coast. On the second go I proclaimed it was worth a try down a road that Phil was sure wasn’t it as it didn’t make sense geographically on the map, however, luck was on my side and we had found it! At the end of a pothole ridden road by La Valasai Beach Fales. After asking a few times how to see the clams, a teenage boy showed up in cutoff jean pants toting a mask and fins and said follow me. Off we went. We spent the next 45 minutes snorkeling in the clearest water we’d seen. The clams ranged in size from little babies the size of your palm to 3-4 foot in length boasting a range of colors (orange, blue, and greens). As you waved your hand past them they quickly closed. We were pumped we found it and a great end to our trip.
Alofaaga Blowholes – I’ve seen blowholes before in Hawaii so had mixed feelings on making the trek out here. The drive alone was worth it! The dirt road meandered through dense palm tree forests. When you arrived at the blowholes one really felt the raw power of Mother Nature as you felt the ground shake as water spewed 100+ feet into the air through a series of blowholes. There is an old man who hangs out here and will throw coconuts into the hole for a small fee so you can watch it erupt. He may or may not try to hitch a ride back to town with you afterwards.
Afu Aau Waterfall – Hands down our favorite waterfall and swimming spot during our visit. Slightly easy to miss as it is poorly marked and in only one direction. Like most things in Samoa, it would have been pain staking to try and get here via bus. The swimming pool and waterfalls are fresh water and down a short dirt road. There is one massive falls and a few smaller ones scattering the walls which make for great back massages. Cliffs are abundant and exhilarating to jump off. A group of Samoan guys arrived within minutes of us armed with a delicious meal of BBQ’d chicken and Coca-Cola. They offered to share, but we declined. Another example of how incredibly hospitable the Samoan culture is, some of the best of anywhere I’ve been. They were a bit more daring than us and climbed to the top cliffs, which I hadn’t even thought were feasible. I am pretty sure they scared the shit out of themselves as they were “rolling down windows” the whole free fall.
Did I get to surf the incredible waves I’ve dreamt of? No (as no rental boards were to be found) but Samoa surpassed my expectations greatly. There was something incredible about the vibe and culture. Everyone was constantly smiling, welcoming, and tranquil. People took pride in their country, homes, and land. For a country not high in the wealth ranking, their quality of life and happiness seemed unsurpassed. No one ever seemed out to get you or trying to take advantage of tourism. Heck, I even got a marriage proposal. It left me longing for more and I hope to return to the South Pacific again.