I first heard of Samoa back in middle school geography class and it used to be called Western Samoa until 1997 and the other one was American Samoa. I had no idea why there were two Samoas, but after visiting Samoa, now I know why.
Samoa is the independent country and American Samoa is a US territory. The Americans decided to take over the eastern part of the Samoan island chain for strategic military purposes. Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa is considered to be one of the best natural inlet in the world, which is why the Americans have a navy base there. Not surprisingly, American Samoa is noted for having the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory.
Most American Samoans are bilingual and can speak English and Samoan fluently, while Samoan is the official language of Samoa. The two Samoas share language and ethnicity, their cultures have recently followed different paths, with American Samoans often emigrating to Hawaii or the mainland, while Samoans tend to emigrate to New Zealand instead.
Enough on history, let me get to my blog.
Arrival at the airport
I had visited Fiji for almost 10 days, spending time around the islands off of Nadi with my buddy Ali and his girlfriend Maria. This was more like a vacation within traveling, spending time with my friend and hanging out on the islands. It was actually our 6th year in a row that I had traveled with Ali. I hope this continues for the next 10 years. I bid farewell to them and headed for Samoa from Nadi Airport.
I arrived in Apia Airport, which was actually around 35km away from the city center. Once I arrived, I got a SIM card to get access to data, since there was very little wifi on the island. Around $10 USD got me 1Gb of data, which was more than enough for a week.
From the airport, the option in getting into town was via taxi or by local bus. The taxi guy was charging around 50 Tala ($20 USD) while the local bus was only 3 Tala ($1.25 USD). Hence, I decided to take the local bus, which was not bad at all. It seemed like a party bus with the driver pumping loud hip hop like music. The seats were very tight, especially sitting next to a Samoan. The gentleman that sat next to me took up more than half the seat so my buttox was literally on the ledge of the wood. FYI, the seats were not cushioned and it was literally a wooden seat. The ride was only around 45 minutes and we got into the central bus station area. It was a bit of a chaos there with people waiting for vans and buses. I booked the Samoan Outrigger Hotel, which was about a 20-minute walk from the bus station. I did not mind the walk so went for a hike with my backpack and got there in no time. There was a bus that went passed the hotel for 1 Tala, but I was not sure which one it was.
I booked a dormitory bed online via TripAdvisor, but to my surprise, there were no dormitory beds like the rest of the world and I was shown around to a fale. Fales are huts which are open with no walls, using blinds made of coconut palm fronds during the night or during bad weather. The only things in the fale were a ceiling fan and a bed on the ground. Without windows, I was worried about getting mosquito bites, despite a mosquito net being there. I had the worst sleep of my whole trip, getting mosquito bites and the humidity killed me. The fan worked but there was not enough ventilation and I was sweating the entire two-night stay. I checked out of there and moved to the Malifa Lodge which was the same price at 75 Tala per night with air conditioning, big bed, fan, private bathroom and even a kitchen. I was so blessed to find this deal and place.
While at the Samoan Outrigger, I met Chris from Munich, who was traveling for about 2 months. We ended up hanging out together for the entire trip, going to various tourist destination and eating at Roko’s restaurant nearby. Actually, I ate there at least once a day.
Samoan Cultural Village
We went to the Samoan Cultural Village right behind the tourist information center in central Apia one morning. This village was set up mainly for foreigners to have a better understanding of the Samoan culture and way of life. Despite European influence, Samoa maintains its historical customs, social and political systems. They first started of by showing us how to make baskets and a head crown using banana leafs. This was a fun exercise and I was able to make a basket on my own.
Next, they showed us how to cook typical Samoan food. They made a pit on the ground and laid banana leafs, with food wrapped inside them. The food was mainly starches and a bit of fish, which took around three hours to cook, just in time for lunch when we were hungry. The food was pretty good and I had to go for an extra helping. The food was provided in the baskets that we created, which was amazing.
While the food was being cooked, we had a chance to see a local getting tattooed using the Samoan method. He was getting a full body tattoo from his waistline until his knees. It seemed like he was in pain, but he did not make a single sound. How courageous was that? I would be squealing like a pig, but that won’t happen since I will never get one. So I learned that there are only one or two families that actually tattoo people. This means that the tattoo art is passed down from one generation to another and only that family does the tattoo. The cost of a full body runs around $2000 USD and is not a requirement for everyone (not all Samoans have tattoos!). Only the ones that want to get the tattoo will get it. This is a serious ordeal, since there is no going back after the tattoo process starts. It takes anywhere from two to four weeks to complete the tattoo and if one stops at any point before the tattooing is completed, it is a disgrace to the family. Hence, the person needs to be prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally.
The last two stops on the tour was making art using the bark of some tree. The lady peeled the bark and flattened it into a square like the size of an A4 paper. Once the paper was ready, they put artwork on top of it. Such artwork was selling for roughly $10 to $30 USD. I did not buy one since I had no space in my backpack, but definitely a souvenir worth carrying home.
The final stop was watching a typical Samoan dance, drinking kava and then we ate our lunch that was made earlier. All in all, it was a fun activity and very educational. This was all free, so make sure to give them a tip for their service.
Chris and I decided to go on a trip to Lake Lanoto’o for the day. This lake is part of the Lake Lanoto’o National Park and known for its beautiful volcanic crater lake positioned in Upolu’s uplands.
It was scorching hot that afternoon but we found a taxi that took us to the end of the dirt road for around $10 USD from Apia. The taxi ride was only 20 minutes but we bargained hard. The taxi will not go further from the dirt road and it was a good one kilometer to the main sign. The sign was marked clearly but there was no road to the lake. Luckily, we found a local farmer who guided us to the start of the trail. We went through lots of mud and bushes to get there and that part of the journey was not marked at all. We were really lucky that we met the farmer and tipped him 10 Tala for his service. Once we got to the start of the trail, it was quite easy but the road was slippery and it seemed like no one had gone through the trail in months. Chris was courageous enough to be the guide, going through numerous spider webs and taking the hit. We found a few sticks on the way to prevent us from running into the webs. We walked for about 45 minutes and we finally made it to this green looking lake. There was a small deck which was probably the jump off point into the lake, but the lake looked filthy and there was no chance that I was going to walk into that thing. We were told about goldfishes in the lake and prepared a bag of bread. Believe it or not, we did see a bunch of goldfishes that came up to shore looking for food. It was a nice hike to get there, but definitely do not do it on your own since there was no communication whatsoever and we were the ONLY people on the hike.
Once we got back to the main street, there was no way we were able to call a taxi, but miraculously, there was a local bus that dropped off school children and we got a ride back to town.
I recommend taking a lot of water, dirty shoes, towel, backpack, raincoat, umbrella, and a stick.
Golfing in Apia
Since I was there for almost a week, Chris and I played golf twice during our stay. The golf course was a short taxi ride away from the lodge and we played 2 rounds of 18 holes on two occasions. I actually hit a birdie one time and hit 93, including a few mulligans. It was not the best course in the world, but for the tee, balls, golf clubs and a cart, it was only $25 USD for the two of us. Now, that was a bargain. After golf, we sang karaoke with the locals and had a few beers.
To Sua Ocean Trench
One place that is a must visit in Samoa is this trench in the southern part of the island. It is possible to get there via public transportation, but it may take a couple of hours including the wait time and changing buses. The best way to get there is to hire a taxi for half or full day and should cost you around 100 to 200 Tala. We rented a taxi for a day and went around the island.
Before getting to the trench, I met up with Vasiliy from Ukraine again. We first met on Savo Island in the Solomon and kept in touch to meet again in Samoa. Vasiliy was a skydiving instructor and has completed more than 25,000 jumps and have visited over 150 countries. A great guy to hang out and spend time with.
The three of us started off by gazing at the Papapapaitai Falls from the main highway, since there were no roads that led to the grounds of the falls. I heard it was a few hour hike, but we were in no mood to do that.
After checking out the falls, we proceeded to the To Sua Trench, a short 30-minute ride. Upon arrival, we were blessed with beautiful weather and hung out inside the trench for a while. The trip down to the trench was pretty scary, a near 40-meter drop and going down a ladder, but that was manageable. If you are scared of heights, don’t look down while going down. It was definitely worth visiting the trench.
Around the trench, there were place to hang out, cook food, and a view of the ocean.
After the trench, we proceeded around the east coast of the island and we went through small villages, beach towns, more Fales, and back to Apia.
There was not much to do in Apia other than the bar scene. There were two main night club-like places, which were packed with locals and we were one of the few tourists that made it out there.
In general, if you want a place that has less tourist and a cultural experience, Samoa is definitely the place to go. I enjoyed my visit there and would like to visit again and see the other island. The other island is supposedly more rural and traditional, but hey, Samoa itself seemed like it was 20 years behind.
- Currency: Samoan Tala (approximately $1 USD = 2.50 Tala on March 2017)
- Money Exchange: Most of the exchange places had the same rates. There was one and only one exchange at the airport. It was better off to withdraw money from the ATM.
- Internet: Had to pay to connect to Wifi at most places and was very expensive. There was no free internet at restaurants/bars. The better option is to buy a SIM card at the airport and use data on the phone.
- Language: Samoan is the official language but most people speak English.
Where to stay
There were several options in Apia and most of them were not even close to being full. It will be best to visit some of the hotels and guesthouses directly to negotiate. The prices were in the range of 125-200 Tala at most places and there was no wifi.
Most of the places were overpriced, but I’m going to let you know of a place which was amazing. The Malifa Lodge on Cross Island Road had the best price at 75 Tala with air conditioning. If you have problems finding the place, just ask for the Samoan Outrigger Hotel (all taxi drivers know this place). The lodge was located 20 meters from the hotel, next to a busy convenience store with a fitness gym on the 2nd floor.
If you are looking for something cheaper, there were some guesthouses that ranged from 45 Tala for a no fan room per person. Just check TripAdvisor or check the internet for some deals.
Where to eat
There were many places to eat in the downtown area, but it was mainly fried grub. I ate at Roko’s restaurant, which was located about a 5-minute walk from the Malifa Lodge. I ate there for dinner every single night except on a Sunday when everything shut down and the only places that were open were the Chinese restaurants and McDonalds. Roko’s was owned by a German fellow and everything on the menu was great. I really enjoyed the poke appetizer, tuna steak, and the lobster plate. Prices were reasonable and definitely recommend it.
- There is no need to rent a car in Samoa. The bus system was pretty efficient. The only time you may want to rent a car would be to go to the east part of the island for a day.
- Connectivity is scarce, so buy a SIM card.
- Bring lots of repellent and sunscreen.
- The sun is hot and very humid in Samoa. If possible, get an aircon room. It was hard to sleep with the fan.
- If you want to save money, eat at the local joints near the bus terminal, but most of the food was starchy and fried.
I visited in March 2017