We arrived in Samoa having skipped Friday. We left Hawaii on the six hour flight at 1:30am Friday morning and arrived in Samoa at 7:30am Saturday morning. No doubt a result of crossing the date line again.
After touching down, we and several others destined for Samoa (the flight continued on to Fiji) made our way to the tiny terminal, immediately consumed by the warm and humid air. There was a live band playing cheery Samoan music, singing enthusiastically while swaying with the Polynesian rhythms; an experience not befitting of 7:30 in the morning, yet lovely nonetheless.
We had some 30 minutes to get our bags and make it to the ferry terminal for the 8am ferry to Savaii, our destination for the next four days. We jumped in a cab after picking up our bags, and he whisked us away to the ferry terminal with 5 minutes to spare. We jumped on board and made our way across the strait to the island of Savaii.
The water was a beautiful color, but this time of year is the wet season, and it looked the part. Fairly torrential downpours were soaking everything under the thick, gray cloud cover. We made it to the other side with little idea of how to proceed, other than that our destination was the village of Asau on the northwesternmost portion of Savaii. As luck had it, a brightly colored bus with a head sign reading “Asau” sat right in front of us when we got off the ferry. Not sure what to make of the crowd loitering around the bus, we jostled through and made our way on. The bus was packed, and a rider gave up his seat on the wooden benches for us. We shoved our bags awkwardly into the aisle, but nobody seemed to mind. As the bus fired up is its engine, Samoan pop music bellowed from the speakers at top volume. Samoan pop music is a genre of its own; a paradoxical blend of upbeat island instrumentals with auto-tuned refrains of heartbreak and hopelessness crooned over the top. The buses seemed to be fitted with subwoofers in the suburban American fashion, however, and you can hear their echoing bass from blocks away.
The bus cruised through the humid jungle for two and a half hours, speeding by packs of wild pigs, chickens, and baskets of taro lining the roadsides. The conductor informed us of our stop as the exhaustion began to set in; our minimal sleep on the plane was beginning to wear on us.
We arrived to a drenched Vaimoana Beachside Lodge, and checked in with the friendly reception. The rain continued to come down in sheets well into the afternoon, something we were not familiar with from our wet season experience in the Maldives. We were beginning to wonder if we had made a terrible mistake, doomed to spend several weeks in a miserable and rainy Samoa.
Fortunately, beautiful blue skies showed themselves the following day, and for most of the rest of our stay (with interspersed rainy days here and there).
We spent our days swimming in the azure waters or basking on the sun baked sand. The beach that the hotel is situated on is actually a huge lagoon, stretching several kilometers across, and mostly protected from the ocean by a series of reefs and sandbars, with a small island in the middle. To the east of the small island is a destroyed runway, spanning from the small island to Savaii proper, purportedly built during the German occupation of Samoa, but taken out by a typhoon some decades ago. Such a location makes the beach quite nice for swimming, as the big ocean waves are broken on the reef.
The hotel has a number of kayaks available for use also, so we took it upon ourselves to kayak out to the small island and explore a bit a few times. One such time, Oona decided to swim all the way out to the island and back, a round trip of some 3km, plus another kilometer or so of snorkeling near the island. Ian, being the not-so-great swimmer that he is, rowed the kayak alongside to make sure everything went OK. The lagoon gets quite deep in the middle, and Oona, swimming alone in the enveloping dark blue waters was a dazzling sight.
The hotel also organizes activities from day to day, but the schedule of which were pretty laid back considering the few guests during the wet season. Apparently the place gets packed during the high season, but it was mostly us with a few other small groups coming and going. One day, Nu’u, one of the hotel employees, showed us how the Samoans make the most of the coconut, which is a lifeline of the pacific islands.
First, he wove a basket out of a palm branch. He showed Oona how to make this type of basket as well, and she made a remarkably good one for her first time around. We have already used it as a beach bag a few times. Next, Nu’u showed us how to husk, split, and gather the cream from a coconut with maximum efficiency. He husked them with the greatest of ease on a pointed stake dug into the ground, split them with the swift strike of a machete, and raked out the innards with a specialized tool. The grated coconut meat was gathered in a bowl and the liquid was wrung out through a mesh of the fibers from a banana tree, yielding a rich cream. We took turns drinking the cream, and concluded that it was something we would not mind doing more often. This cream is also the basis for most Samoan meals, and it’s used as a cooking oil by itself. The coconut oil we get in the west is the further distilled product of this, which separates from the cream after a full day’s exposure to sunlight (although there are surely some other industrial processes used for mass production of coconut oil).
Samoa is also a burgeoning center of cacao production. The operation is still fairly small, but the demand is apparently growing. Some local cacao orchards (if that’s the correct term) line the hills behind Vaimoana, and the owner of the hotel also dabbles in the industry. The pods are harvested, brought down from the hills, and processed in a warehouse across the road until they’re ultimately shipped off to Whittaker’s in New Zealand. We were taken over on a particularly hot day to have a look at the whole process, and watched the team of locals pick through the beans, hand-selecting the best ones for the subsequent drying.
Our last night in town was Valentine’s Day, and the hotel staff was nice enough to upgrade us to a nicer, beach-facing hut with air conditioning and a private bathroom– quite a step up from our previous digs! The dinner (breakfast and dinner are typically included in the price around here, which makes it easy to not leave the property all day if you don’t want to) that night was a surf and turf affair, with a massive half lobster and what we think was local pork chop, but the latter was too tough to easily cut through.
We had a reservation at a similar beach bungalow-style hotel (they seem to be all there is here) on the opposite side of Samoa the following day. We woke up, had breakfast, said goodbye to the lovely hotel staff, the likes of which we had made friends with over our stay, and hopped on the bus back to Salelologa to catch the ferry back to the main island of Upolu. It poured down rain for most of the bus ride back, but mercifully let up as we arrived at the ferry terminal. Apparently the (somewhat?) “usually scheduled” ferry for noon was not running, so we had several hours to kill until the 2pm one. We got lunch and picked up a couple required items (like sun screen, which is seriously necessary here) and got on the ferry.
The crossing was an uneventful hour or so, and we got off to a convoy of similarly multicolored and music-blasting buses awaiting our arrival. We were all ushered onto the various buses and off towards Apia, Samoa’s capital. The buses took turns passing each other as this one or that one dropped off passengers along the way, but we all arrived at the flea market at around the same time.
Our next destination was the tiny town of Saleapaga on the southeast coast of Upolu. The email confirmation we received from our accommodation there (Faofao Beach Fales) said the last bus left Apia at 4pm, nearly exactly the time we arrived, so we hurriedly jumped off our bus and asked around. Finally, after a lot of unhelpful staring, the riders of one bus admitted that we could get to Saleapaga by their bus. They were all sitting around quite relaxedly though, and the driver was nowhere to be found. It turns out it left at 5pm, so we had some time to kill.
After stopping at a grocery store to allow the riders to pick up some last minute supplies before heading out into the countryside, we arrived in Saleapaga. Just in time for dinner, the host of the quaint little collection of fales (traditional Samoan beach huts) welcomed us in. The guest house, as it were, had a dozen or so fales across the small county road, and a main, Samoan-style open air building where guests could eat. Accommodation in Samoa is not cheap, but we determined that we were handily overpaying for this place. It was only slightly cheaper than our digs on Savaii, but with far fewer luxuries. Nonetheless, a comfy hut right on the beach in a lovely little Samoan village? We’ll take it, and we’re happy that our money is going to a nice family at least.
The next few days were spent hanging out on the beach, as if we hadn’t done enough of that. Oh, and we also got engaged. We had talked so much about our wedding and our future that it was practically a given, but the formality was taken care of, as Ian bent to one knee and asked for Oona’s hand in marriage, at night, on a remote and empty beach in Samoa. Ian’s hands were full, not with a ring, but with the beer bottles we had recently finished. Nevertheless, a makeshift ring of palm leaves was fashioned and donned, and we concluded that its official counterpart would be found later, and thusly the deal was sealed.
The following evening some locals invited us to play volleyball with them in a vacant roadside lot. We proceeded to make fools of ourselves by hitting the ball in all the wrong directions with no detectable grace. The locals play volleyball quite literally every day, so our presence on their otherwise all-star teams was a clear detriment. Just as we were starting to make some positive contributions, Ian leapt to make an otherwordly block. The opponent soared skyward and slammed the ball with a multi-megaton spike. Instead of blocking with his hands, however, Ian took the full force of this terrestrial supernova directly to his face, his hands clanging together after the impact. Whether this career-ending move actually saved the play is unknown, as both teams ran to survey the destruction. Ian’s nose was gushing blood, yet thankfully unbroken, and his left eye was slightly bruised and (hopefully temporarily) not entirely functional. We sat on the sidelines with a beer for the rest of the game, which was definitely a better choice.
During one of the particularly sweltering days, we hiked to the lookout at the top of the ridge beyond the road. We climbed up and up through the jungle, and eventually broke free of the vines and came to a clearing some 200m above the sea below. The hike was not even 1km in length, but due to the elevation gain, the heat, and the infernal mosquitoes plaguing the jungle, it was quite exhausting. We stood at the top –drenched in sweat– for 15 minutes or so, and took in the amazing views. The features of the seafloor were clearly visible all along the coast through the crystal blue waters.
Several lazy days later and we were heading down the beach to Lalomanu, some 6km away from Saleapaga. There is no bus service between these two towns, as their only service begins in Apia, following different routes to each, so we could hitchhike or book a taxi for $10. We tried our hand at hitchhiking, but it was Sunday, and the Samoans are very pious people, so the small southern coastal road between the two towns was even more devoid of traffic than usual. We ended up walking a little more than halfway before a mostly empty Chinese tour bus picked us up. This was a weird sight, considering that Samoa isn’t a huge tourist destination to begin with, and we were on a random stretch of an irrelevant highway in the countryside. At any rate, they took us to our destination (Taufua Beach Fales), which happened to be the same as theirs. They hung around for a few hours being a general nuisance to everyone, including demanding that the owners move some existing guests to accommodate them in a fale with a toilet for two hours, and also grabbing a chair that Oona had propped her iPad on, causing it to fall off the deck, offering no apology whatsoever for the gaffe.
From the get-go it was clear that Taufua had a very different vibe from Faofao. The dozen or so other guests were all westerners (we hadn’t seen any others since leaving the ferry terminal), until a convoy of trucks showed up a few hours later and unloaded a crew of rowdy locals, playing music, barbecuing, and wrestling on the beach. Like most Samoans at beach fales, however, they eventually piled back into their trucks and went back to where they live, presumably, occupying the space for just the day. Nevertheless, the lively vibe of Taufua wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, and it was a far cry from the solitude of Faofao only a few kilometers down the road, and we found ourselves missing the simple comfort of our previous fale. At any rate, our new fale provided a welcome change of scenery from our five days in Saleapaga.
As if trying to sully our experience even more, however, it rained for the two days that we were in Lalomanu. So, without a ton of enjoyment or swimming or basking in the sun we left to Apia on the afternoon bus.
We arrived in Apia without a clear idea on where exactly our hotel was. We had reservations at the Samoan Outrigger Hotel, which we had read great reviews of online. We wandered our way around town in the sweltering heat and finally found it after asking for directions several times. For some archaic, twentieth century reason, they needed to see a paper voucher, evidently to be supplied by the booking agency, that would somehow prove that we paid online (thereby certainly defeating the purpose of online booking). We booked it entirely online, and there was no mention of needing to pick up some proof of purchase before checking in, so after much explaining what the Internet is and how online booking typically works, the clerk conceded and showed us to our fale. It was in their garden, with little detectable wind, so the two nights we spent there were suffocatingly hot. The advertised swimming pool was murky and full of leaves as well, other than that it was a decent, if overpriced, place.
We met two travelers, a Korean and a German, staying at the same hotel, and decided to tag along on their plans for the day. Our first stop was the Samoan cultural show, at the tourist center in Apia. We couldn’t figure out which days this show happens on, but apparently it’s not all of them. We went on Wednesday, and it starts at 10:30am. We had seen much of the things already from our previous experiences on the island, including much of the coconut and cooking demonstrations, but the standout was the traditional tattooing. We sat in on a session for the traditional Samoan men’s tattoo, spanning from the stomach down to the knees, covering nearly every bit of flesh in between. The traditional method also involves hammering a small set of needles into the skin with a wooden mallet, and can only be done by tattoo artists in a long bloodline, and the art is passed down from generation to generation. Oona booked an appointment with the same guy (one of two such artists in Samoa) for later that day. The artist didn’t speak much English, but Oona managed to convey roughly what she wanted.
Not long later, Oona was laying on some mats inside a fale in laughably unsanitary conditions. The artist would masterfully tap the needles into her skin, while two apprentices stretched the surounding area to prevent the needles from sticking. All the while, an errant rugby ball would fly startling close, kicked or thrown from the team practicing in the field right next to us. The artist, with a cigarette hanging in his mouth, seemed not to mind.
Unfortunately photos of the cermony are strictly forbidden, as details about the traditional technique could be leaked outside of the bloodline.
The end result was a leg band around Oona’s left thigh, taking just over two hours to complete. There are various layers to it, representing various facets of life important to Samoa, including family, the sea, and birds. According to Oona, the piece was quite painful, but perhaps not as bad as she expected, and in different ways from the tattoos gotten in the west.
During a small gap in the day’s activities we managed to get up to the Robert Louis Stevenson museum. The museum is in the eponymous author’s old home. Mr Stevenson spent his final years in this huge, European-style house near Apia, but only recently was the structure repurposed into a museum in his honor. The structure and surrounding yard are beautiful, and the jungle surrounding it is home to several nice waterfalls, one of which we hiked out to see.
We parted ways with our new friends and made our way down to Salamumu, on the south coast. We had found quite a good deal on a room at Samoana resort, and had no interest in spending more time in Apia for our remaining five or so days in Samoa. We took the bus out of town, and hopped off on the main road, where the country road down to Samoana begins. The hotel was another 6km, so we called a cab to bring us the rest of the way for the paltry sum of 10 tala.
Samoana is quite far out, for still being on Upolu, but it’s surprisingly nice for its price. The rooms themselves are comfortable and well-furnished, but without a car, one is limited to the hotel grounds, and so a bit more money is spent on food at the restaurant. The vibe was a little eery, however, as we seemed to be the only ones there (other than the staff) for the most part. We ran into other guests from time to time, but we couldn’t figure out where they were spending all their time. So it was basically just us and the staff, with them seemingly just as weirded out about it as we were.
Some of the best snorkeling on Upolu is found right in front of Samoana, although there is little space for simply swimming. Between the reef, where the waves crash, and the shore, there are tons of shallow reefs to be explored, teeming with colorful fish and coral.
After a few more relaxing days at Samoana we finally called it quits with Samoan beaches and headed back to Apia for our last night in Samoa. We caught a cab back to Apia for 80 tala since the buses don’t run on Sundays. We took a visit to Palolo Deep Marine Reserve for some more snorkeling. The reef, some 200 meters off shore, was pretty stunning, but the current was quite strong, so we didn’t spend too much time out there.
We made our way to the airport the following morning and said goodbye to Samoa, passing dozens of nameless, uninhabited paradise islands from the air on our way to Fiji.