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Trip Report SAMOA - Friendly and quirky destination

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My husband and I have just returned from a 7 day sojourn in Western Samoa (now just referred to as Samoa). We landed in Apia (the capital city of Samoa situated on the main island of Upolu) at the ungodly hour of 5.00 am and collected our hire car. We were glad to have collected a basic map from the small tourist information office at the airport as the first thing we noticed was the complete lack of road signs. There wasn't even a road sign from the airport directing tourists into Apia. We found out that many road signs had been destroyed in a cyclone that hit the island 2 years before. However, none of the missing signs had been repaired or replaced and we could not see any bi-lingual signs. This rather lackadaisical approach in Samoa is rather prevalent and leads most tourists to the conclusion that this sleepy, laid back island, unlike Fiji, is totally NOT geared to tourism. We had our accommodation booked at the Tanoa Tusitala because the famous Aggie Grey's Hotel (in downtown Apia) was closed due to repairs at the time. Unfortunately, there is not much reason to recommend the Tanoa Tusitala - the reception staff were extremely rude and the food was mediocre; although the cleaning staff were very friendly. The location of the Hotel is excellent though - in the heart of Apia and close to some pretty good restaurants (you need a car as the local, iconic buses seem to shut down after 8.00 pm).

We spent the next seven days driving along every road in Upolu through the luxuriant, verdant rainforests. It doesn't matter when you visit Samoa, it is like a sauna - there are two seasons: the Wet Season and the Very Wet Season .. it is always very hot so make sure you take plenty of water when you go hiking. There are lovely beaches and watering holes to visit to cool off, eg the unique Papaseea Sliding Rocks (a small 5 WS Tala entry fee) and the incredible To Sua Ocean Trench (which is a 30 meter deep swimming hole accessed by a rickety timber stair case). Once inside the trench, one gets the eerie feeling of total isolation - we were fortunate to be there on our own at the time! The tides within the trench can get dangerous at high tide when the currents threaten to carry you out through the caves accessing the wild ocean on the other side. Not to be missed is the fabulous homestead of Robert Louis Stephenson which is set high in the hinterland (behind Apia). It is a beautiful place completely restored via the funds generously donated by an American benefactor. The homestead still retains a lot of personal belongings of the Stephenson family and Robert Louis Stephenson (who spent the last four years of his life here) is buried (with the remains of his wife) on the hillside behind the home - a short 30 minute hike.

Samoa is a volcanic island and has some amazing blow hole sites - especially on the largest island of Savaii. You can reach Savaii by means of the vehicular ferry but my advice is to leave the car on Upolu as most hire car companies won't let you take the hire car from Upolu to Savaii anyway. You can then arrange to hire a cab for the day to take you around to see all the sights of Savaii once you reach that island - make sure you mutually agree on a price BEFORE you leave though because cabs in Samoa do not operate on meters and can be enormously expensive. The beaches along the east coast of Savaii are spectacular but, like most sights and beaches on the islands of Samoa, are privately owned and you will be charged a small fee - be careful not to pay more than around 5 Tala (which seems to be the standard rate). Of course, if you want the day use of one of the many Fales, it will cost you more. The volcanic lava flows on the island of Savaii are not to be missed. Samoa is renowned as having some of the best diving sites in the world and there are some great snorkelling sites in and around the coral reefs surrounding the islands here - although we found that much of the coral had, sadly, been destroyed in a terrible tsunami that had taken place there a few years before.

The small island of Monono (opposite the western coast of Upolu on the Apolima Straight) can be accessed by ferry but as the ferry did not seem to be running when we arrived at the terminal, we organised a rather expensive return trip by private boat. Once on Monono, we hiked right around the island which has a population of only 800 or so inhabitants and is very unspoilt and charming. Only problem however, was we picked the WRONG time of day at 2.00 pm when it was, quite frankly, just too damn hot. My advice is to go very early in the morning. Fortunately, in typical Samoan fashion, the rain (as regular as clockwork) poured down for about ten minutes which offered us some relief. As we stood there with our hands outstretched, enjoying the deluge and getting soaking wet, we provided much amusement to the locals! Of course, once the downpour ceases, the humidity is akin to putting your head in an oven set to 220 degrees Celsius!

Samoa really is a very pleasant place to visit .. and very quirky. The locals have a very interesting family-oriented culture. Most Samoans are extremely conservative and are deeply religious. It is widely known that they frown upon open affection between couples and there are strict dress codes if one wants to visit the many incredible and spectacular churches on the islands. Having said that, it is well worth visiting one of the churches on a Sunday to enjoy the absolutely magnificent voices of the local church choirs. The thick pall of smoke hangs over the islands every Sunday morning as Samoans stoke up their fires to heat the stones that are used to cook huge slabs of pork in their "ümus". After the services, the Samoans often have huge banquets where everyone is invited - this will provide visitors with the perfect opportunity to meet the locals. The islanders are mostly Christians, eg Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists and Catholics but there is also a growing following of the Bahai faith which, surprisingly, was introduced to the islands by a young Australian woman. I can thoroughly recommend visiting the very peaceful and secluded grounds of the unique Bahai Temple (outside Apia). We sat inside the Temple for awhile - it offered a relaxing and cool respite from the heat.

Samoans are very friendly and will often stop you in the street to ask where you are from and where you are going .... however, be aware of some touters offering to shake your hand which will almost certainly lead to them seeking money from you in some form. One word of warning, do NOT - repeat NOT - take on the services of a random tourist guide(s) from a company called PIONEER TRAVEL - we heard many people were ripped off by this "company" which are run by amateurs and who do not fulfil the itineraries they promise. Representatives from this company often randomly approach people on the streets of Apia offering tours to Savaii and around Upolu but are not to be trusted.

If you are hiring a car, be very careful on the roads as Samoa has recently switched across to the Australian-style of left-hand road driving but many are STILL using American style left-hand drive cars. This means that many drivers in Samoa drive in the MIDDLE of the road which, quite frankly, is very scary. There does not seem to be many rules about using mobile phones whilst driving and you often see drivers chattering away on mobile phones whilst dodging the countless array of feral dogs, pigs, chickens and ambling pedestrians. Feral dogs (especially on Upolu) are a real issue in Samoa - many of them roam around in packs and are very aggressive. My strong advice is to carry a big stick with you as some of these dogs have been known to attack without provocation. Hopefully the Samoan government will address this worrying issue as soon as possible.

The Polynesian Aiga culture is very strong in Samoa whereby huge extended families live together in separate villages. It is not uncommon to find Samoan families who have up to 9 or more children. Many Samoan families raise their children until they are about 4 years of age then hand their children across to cousins or grandparents to raise for a few years. It seems strange to us but gives real credence to the adage: "A village should raise a family". In addition, working members of the family have a strict duty to financially support all those other members of their family that cannot (or will not) work. This cultural element of their heritage has pros and cons. The negative aspect is that the overwhelming responsibilities of the Aiga culture tend to inhibit any type of ambition, motivation or creativity but on the positive side, it does provide Samoans with a huge sense of belonging and a strong community bond. You do not see beggars in the streets as Samoan families definitely do take care of their own. However, there is evidence that such customs are changing as a growing number of the younger X-Y generation of Samoans leave Samoa to attend universities and become open to different cultures and lifestyles. The Aiga system of Samoan culture is at risk as more and more young Samoans leave Samoa to attain work overseas, in particular New Zealand and Australia.

One amusing little idiosyncrasy I noticed whilst in Samoa was that once you ordered a drink or meal at some of the venues, if the proprietor of the bar or restaurant did not have one or more of the ingredients, it is highly likely that you will receive something completely different to what you ordered without apology. I remember ordering a Banana Daiquiri from a bar on one of the beautiful beaches of northern Upolu and I received a Strawberry Daiquiri instead with the cheerful explanation: "Ran out of bananas but, hey, you will really LOVE this!" I just smiled - it seemed totally pointless in resisting such a pleasant offer and I soon learned that this "custom" is widely accepted in Samoa. It provided us with a bit of amusement.

There are not a lot of restaurants in Samoa because most of the locals do not eat out but, rather, cook up their meals in the open-air cooking fales to be enjoyed with their large extended families. Restaurants outside of Apia are almost impossible to find so you will need to pack a picnic lunch if you intend to travel further afield. However, I have two excellent recommendations for restaurants in Apia that should not be missed: PADDLES which offers outstanding Italian cuisine and well serviced by one of the friendliest families on the island (the Italian Rossi family); BISTRO TATAU is within walking distance to the Hotel where we were staying - it is very expensive (by Samoan standards - about AUS $60 per head) but the food was world class and the service was outstanding. SAILS restaurant is in a nice location right on the beach but the menu is a bit limited.

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