South Pacific Organizer
Samoa travel with author David Stanley
|Destinations: travel to SAMOA|
The sultry, verdant isles of Samoa, two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, lie in the very heart of the South Pacific islands. Independent since 1962 and called Western Samoa until 1997, this is the larger portion of an archipelago split apart by colonialism in 1899. Although both Samoa and American Samoa sprang from the same roots, differing patterns of development are reflected in contrasting lifestyles --this highlights the impact of westernization on a Pacific people. Yet on both sides of the 100-km strait separating Upolu from Tutuila, Samoans have retained their ancient customs as nowhere else in Polynesia, and the fa'a Samoa, or Samoan way, continues to flourish.
Paradoxically, although your status as a foreigner will never be in doubt, you'll find the Samoans to be among the South Pacific's most approachable peoples. Alongside the human element, an outstanding variety of landscapes and attractions are packed into a small island area made all the more accessible because this is one of the least expensive countries in the region. Everything is vividly colorful and well-groomed, there's a good choice of resorts and hotels, and it's still undiscovered by mass tourism. Add it up and you'll recognize Samoa as one of the world's top travel destinations and an essential stop on any South Pacific trip.
Samoa is made up of four inhabited and five uninhabited islands totaling 2,842 square km, a bit bigger than the American state of Rhode Island. Unlike most Pacific countries, which are scattered across vast areas, all of these islands are in one main cluster, which makes getting around fairly easy. Upolu is the more developed and populous, containing the capital, Apia; Savaii is a much broader island. Together these two account for 96% of Samoa's land area and 99% of the population. Between them sit populated Apolima and Manono, while the five islets off southeast Upolu shelter only seabirds. The fringing reefs around the two big islands protect soft, radiantly calm coastlines.
Samoa's lush volcanic islands increase in age from west to east. Savaii, though dormant, spewed lava only a century ago; the now-extinct cones of western Upolu erupted much more recently than those farther east. Well-weathered Tutuila and Manua in American Samoa are older yet, while 10-million-year-old Rose Island is a classic atoll.
Savaii is a massive shield-type island formed by fast-flowing lava building up in layers over a long period. The low coast gradually slopes upward to a broad, 1,858-meter center of several parallel chains. Upolu's elongated 1,100-meter dorsal spine of extinct shield volcanoes slopes more steeply on the south than on the north. The eastern part of the island is rough and broken, while broad plains are found in the west. (View a map of Samoa.)
Your first impression of the Samoans may be how slowly they move, and climate has a lot to do with it. Samoa is closer to the equator than Fiji, Tonga, or Rarotonga, thus it's noticeably hotter and more humid year-round. May to October (winter) the days are cooled by the southeast trades; winds vary from west to north in the rainy season, November to April (summer). Practically speaking, the seasonal variations are not great, and long periods of sun are common even during the "rainy" months. The rainfall feeds Samoa's many spectacular waterfalls and supports the luxuriant vegetation.
December to March is hurricane time; ships at Apia should put to sea at the first warning as the harbor is unsafe when a storm blows out of the north. In recent years, Samoa has suffered an increasing number of devastating hurricanes as the surrounding seas warm up due to climate change. (Check the weather today in Apia.)
Rainforests thrive in the mountain areas, where heavy rainfall nurtures huge tree ferns and slow-growing, moss-laden hardwoods. The vegetation is sparse in the intermediate zones, where more recent lava flows fail to hold moisture or soil. The richer coastal strip is well planted in vegetable gardens and coconut plantations.
The rainforests of Samoa are threatened by exploitive logging operations for short-sighted economic gain and already 80% of the lowland tropical rainforests have been replaced by plantations or logged. On a relative square kilometer basis, deforestation is occurring much faster than in the Amazon. Replanting is usually done in teak and mahogany, which native birds cannot use.
About 16 of 34 land bird species are unique to Samoa. Due to overhunting and habitat destruction, all native species of pigeons and doves are approaching extinction. Parliament has banned all hunting of fruit bats (flying foxes) and Pacific pigeons, but this is not enforced and the populations have not recovered from the carnage of the 1980s. From 1981 to 1986 over 30,000 flying foxes were exported from Samoa to Guam for gastronomical purposes, a trade that ended only in 1989 when the bats were added to the endangered species list.
1000 B.C.—Polynesians arrive in Samoa
Your most long-lasting impression of Samoa may be of people living in harmony with nature, and there's no better way to experience it than by sleeping in a Samoan fale at any of the growing number of beach fale resorts around the country. The bus rides from Apia to Aleipata and Lepa are also superb introductions to this exotic environment.
Samoa's most unforgettable sights draw their beauty from their natural surroundings, from the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson on Mt. Vaea, to the Piula Cave Pool, the waterfall and pyramid at Savaii's Letolo Plantation, and the nearby Taga blowholes. O Le Pupu-Pue National Park on Upolu's south side is Samoa's largest.
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Samoa is a surfing paradise and the top waves are off the north-facing coasts in summer, off the south-facing coasts in winter. Thus optimum conditions are encountered at Laulii, Faleapuna, and Lano from December to March, and at Aufaga, Salani, Tafatafa, and Salailua from May to August.
If you bring your own bicycle on the flight, many wonderful opportunities to use it will present themselves here. Both main islands have excellent paved roads and there isn't much traffic except on northern Upolu. The only real hazard is sudden chases by dogs, but one must also be prepared for the heat. Allow a week or more to cycle around each island, staying at village fale resorts along the way. The 176-km road around Savaii is flat, except for the stretch between Asau and Sasina, which at 229 meters elevation is still lower than the passes on Upolu.
The big event of the year is the Independence Days celebrations during the first week of June with dancing, feasting, speeches by tulafale (talking chiefs), horse races, and other sporting events. A highlight is the fautasi race on the Saturday closest to Independence Days, with teams of dozens of men rowing great longboat canoes. Though Samoa actually attained independence on 1 January 1962, the celebrations are held in June to avoid total paralysis around Christmas (which usually occurs anyway, however).
No visa is required for a stay of up to 30 days although you must have a ticket to leave. Samoan immigration will stamp your passport to the date of your flight out, but you can get the 30 days without a struggle.
The Samoan tala is divided into 100 sene and you get around three tala for one U.S. dollar. The banks charge high commissions to cash traveler's checks and it's better to change at private exchange houses which deduct no commission. A few ATMs with long lines are outside the main banks. Samoa is one of the least expensive destinations in the South Pacific.
Polynesian Airlines, Samoa's government-owned flag carrier, connects Apia to New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Niue, and American Samoa. Their Polypass allows 45 days unlimited travel over Polynesian's South Pacific network (excluding Niue) for a flat amount which varies according to your starting point. Samoa can also be included in most Air New Zealand tickets between North America and New Zealand as an inexpensive stopover. Polynesian Airlines shuttles frequently between Pago Pago and Apia (watch your luggage as baggage irregularities happen all the time). A 40 tala departure tax is charged.
Polynesian Airlines operates daily flights between Upolu and Savaii. The Samoa Shipping Corporation operates a cheap car ferry between the wharfs at Mulifanua (Upolu) and Salelologa (Savaii) two or three times a day. Public buses meet all these ferries and most of Samoa is accessible by bus. The buses themselves are solid wooden constructions on truck chassis, meaning a bumpy ride in the back rows. Day tours from Apia are a much easier way to get around. Taxis are very numerous around town.
abridged from Moon Handbooks Tonga-Samoa
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