Need a break? How does the prospect of sipping from a freshly cracked coconut and lounging around on the beach of a quiet, pristine lagoon in the middle of the South Pacific sound to you? Ladies and gentlemen … tamaʻitaʻi and alii … I give you: Samoa!
I’ve just gotten back from a visit to this tropical island paradise. The laid-back lifestyle, dramatic coastline, endless opportunities to get wet in scenic locations, warm weather, and equally warm welcome of the Samoans all completely blew me away. I don’t think I was quite ready for just how wonderful my time there turned out to be. I certainly wasn’t ready to come back home (and to the onset of winter!).
Does Samoa sound like an ideal getaway to you? Here’s some general info about this tiny island nation alongside a few highlights from my trip to help you start planning your own vacation in Samoa – the Pearl of the Pacific.
First off, it’s important to distinguish that the Samoan Islands are divided between the sovereign nation of Samoa (known as Western Samoa until the late 90s) and American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States. I visited Samoa Samoa (the independent country not the US territory). Samoa has a population of around 200,000 people (with more than twice that number of Samoans living abroad) and is comprised of ten islands, of which four are inhabited. I got to three of them: the “main island” of Upolu, home to capital city of Apia; the forested “big island” of Savaii; and the teeny car-free and carefree isle of Manono.
A Few Useful Terms
Everyone you meet in Samoa will speak perfect English. Still, it’s a good idea to learn a few Samoan words before you go. Talofa means “hello” as does malo. To say thank you to someone, tell them fa’afetai to which the correct response would be e la afaina. Manuia is a useful term to keep in mind if you’re having a drink or have been invited to participate in an ‘ava ceremony. It means “cheers” or “good health.” Known more widely as kava-kava, ‘ava is a mildly narcotic and peppery root made into a drink. Participating in an ‘ava ceremony is to experience one of Samoan society’s most important rituals.
The Future is Now in Samoa
Samoa is located to the immediate west of the International Date Line, which puts it a day ahead of the United States. This wasn’t always the case though. Samoa “moved” to this side of the line in 2011 as a sign to further strengthen its ties with New Zealand and Australia – its biggest trading partners and providers of foreign aid and the countries where most of its tourists come from. Hardly more than 100 miles to the east, American Samoa sits on the other side of the line and is thus a day behind on the calendar.
Getting S’Pacific about Culture
Samoans are rightly proud of their Polynesian heritage and are keen to share their culture with visitors. A great place to learn about traditional life is at the Samoa Cultural Village in Apia. Tours are free and include a delicious lunch (prepared in a hot stone BBQ known as an umu) and demonstrations of carving, weaving, tapa making, and tattooing.
One thing you’ve got to see when in Samoa is a fiafia. This is essentially a “dinner and a show” get together. Most resorts do these – and on alternating nights of the week to avoid conflict. I caught one on a Friday night at the top ranked Seabreeze Resort on the southeast coast of Upolu. Members of the resort staff performed it. Their talent and enthusiasm were impressive. I had a great time. I also had to give a speech, which apparently is a significant aspect of the ending of any fiafia. It was easy enough though. All I had to do was talk about how much fun I was having on my tour of Samoa.
Samoans are deeply religious and passionate about their Christian faith. Church life is at the heart of society. There are a lot of churches and religious schools and church-funded organizations throughout the islands. Whatever your beliefs, if you’re in Samoa on a Sunday I recommend paying a visit to a church while you’re there. You’re guaranteed to hear some beautiful music and a chance to immerse yourself in the lovely language of Samoan. The Immaculate Conception of Mary Cathedral in Apia (just across the street from the Samoa Cultural Village) is an especially beautiful setting for experiencing how Samoans worship.
Must-See Sea Arches
Much of the shoreline of Upolu and Savai’i is craggy and wild with sheer cliffs and surreal sea arches. The best spots I found for admiring the most panoramic views were on the flat and easy to access Coastal Walk at O Le Pupu Pu’e National Park in southeastern Upolu.
Take the Plunge
Numerous waterfalls and cascades with idyllic pools, tide pools, coral reefs, lagoons, big surf, white sand beaches, black sand beaches – if you like playing at or in the water, you will fall in love with Samoa. An absolute mandatory stop on any sightseeing tour is the To Sua Ocean Trench. This unique land formation is a giant swimming hole reached by a climb down a rather long ladder. It’s utterly gorgeous and as relaxing and scenic a place for a swim as anywhere I’ve ever been.
The word is that divers are richly rewarded for choosing Samoa for their scuba time. But even snorkeling near the shore – or simply dipping your toes in the ocean – can result in plenty of glimpses of colorful fish and sea life. Heck, even just eating breakfast while staring out to sea might come with the surprise of watching a humpback whale breaching (over and over again). It did for me one magical morning.
And it can for you, too — I mean, c’mon, aren’t you itching to get to Samoa?
Thinking of adding Samoa to your must-visit list? Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Fa’afetai!