A Sense of Samoa

Uncovering Samoa — the South Pacific’s lush and lesser-visited island nation By: Sara LeVere
Upolu, Samoa, is home to small villages, waterfalls and rock pools. // © 2010 John Harrold
Upolu, Samoa, is home to small villages, waterfalls and rock pools. // © 2010 John Harrold

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Editor-in-Chief Ken Shapiro shares the Tahiti travel info for insiders learned during the TravelAge West Tahiti Connection

The Details

Samoa Tourism Authority
www.samoa.travel

Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa
www.sinalei.com
Samoa (Saaah-moa as the locals say) is probably not on most traveler’s must-see lists, which is exactly why I chose to go. I figured that the less-traveled and less-Westernized the destination, the better. What was it like?

Imagine Hawaii half a century ago, with lush and hilly rainforests, taro, papaya, coconut, cacao and banana plantations galore and a breezy climate with temperatures hovering between 77 and 81 degrees year-round.

In the country’s capital of Apia, a 40-minute drive along the northwestern coastline from the airport, just about everyone seems to speak English fluently. Children are taught English from kindergarten, although they are usually shy to use it. I found that the most useful Samoan words/phrases to learn were faafetai lava (“thank you very much”), talofa or more casually malo (“hello”) and manuia (“cheers”). Don’t be surprised if you hear most Samoans speaking with a Kiwi or Australian accent as many have lived for a time in Australasia or have family residing there. New Zealand and Australia are also the largest drivers of tourism and aide for Samoa, followed by Canada, the U.S. and Japan.

Such Westernization is juxtaposed by the colorful and simple tin-roofed, open-house structures dotting the tropical landscape. On a drive to Apia, visitors might be stopped by a couple of meandering pigs, chickens or, perhaps, even a horse or two crossing the road.

In Apia, clients can get supplies for the rest of their trip with ATMs, a money exchange, mobile phone cards and bottled water. Ladies will do well to buy a few lava lavas (sarongs) straightaway and avoid the urge to wear short-shorts as they may get harassed. In addition, make sure to tell your clients to bring snorkeling gear from home as it is harder to come by on the islands.

Once the errands are taken care of, visitors should spend a relaxing lunch or dinner on the Apia Marina’s “floating restaurant,” a double-decker boat. Fish entrees are exceptionally fresh and delicious here. Visitors must try the oka, masi masi and poke before picking up a rental car from one of the several agencies in Apia and vowing not to return to Apia until the last day of the trip — there are too many places far more stunning to see.

On my way out of Apia, I took a 10-minute drive to Papaseea Sliding Rocks — one of six waterfalls and rock pools on Upolu. Upolu is small enough that I drove around the entire island in an afternoon at a relaxed 30 mph pace, passing by dozens of small villages.

Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa is arguably the best place to stay on Upolu. Perched on a pristine ocean cove in the southerly village of Maninoa, Sinalei is a gem of luxury, beauty and service. Each fale (room) and the resort’s common areas are well-appointed. The kitchen is immaculate, and the menu is wide-ranging, with beautifully presented dishes. Make sure clients are booked on a Saturday evening for the fia fia, a high-energy traditional performance with live music and a mesmerizing fire dance.

I also recommend indulging in a massage overlooking the ocean; enjoying the sunset with a cocktail or a traditional koko Samoa hot drink; borrowing a book from the Internet/library fale; and renting a kayak to view the reef fish swimming in the aquamarine water.

After a few days in Upolu, I headed to Savaii, the larger and less populated of the two main islands. Savaii is a 1½-hour ferry ride from the eastern-most point of Upolu at Mulifanua Wharf. Here, waterfalls, caves and rainforest abound. Must-see stops include the Alofaaga Blowholes, lava fields and archaeological sites, such as the Pulumelei pyramid.

A few words of caution, however: Samoa is still being rebuilt after the tsunami that struck in September 2009, and most workers get paid less than a dollar per hour. For these reasons and perhaps more, clients should err on the side of caution and keep valuables locked in their rooms at all times. Clients should only carry a small amount of money on them. And, all female travelers should be forewarned that they should not travel alone, especially in the evening. Local men find palangi (Caucasian) women exotic and tend to think that even a simple hello is an invitation to spend the evening together.

Other than that, however, I found that the Samoan people were very kind and most genuinely appreciated the development that tourism brings. And, most importantly, they helped me uncover the faa Samoa — the Samoan way of life — which is precisely what I set out to find in the first place.
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