Deep in the South Pacific and several long flights from the UK, Samoa’s more famous neighbours like Fiji and French Polynesia often steal it’s limelight. However, the lure of a more rustic and authentic experience was what attracted me to Samoa’s islands and these island gems were worth the long travel time from the UK.
When most people think of Samoa, they imagine burly, tattooed rugby players and tropical islands and often nothing more. I wanted to find out how these islands differed from their South Pacific neighbours and to really identify what makes Samoa unique.
Samoans don't have a word for stress - which pretty much sums up the national psyche. This is a place that will appeal to you if you’re looking for a chilled getaway to paradise!
Arriving into the Samoan capital Apia on Upolu just before sunrise, I was filled with anticipation after my 35 hour journey (hence why you should visit Samoa when you’re already in the Pacific or as part of your round the world trip!).
Stepping off the plane you can feel the humidity rising from the runway and hear the faint sound of ukulele melodies drifting from the arrival hall. Despite my 6 am arrival, I was still greeted with warm smiles and a beautiful flower ‘lei’ before being whisked off to my first hotel on the island of Upolu, the more developed of the two main islands.
Samoa was formed from volcanic eruptions and includes the third largest volcanic island in the Pacific after New Zealand and Hawaii. Its two largest islands are Upolu and the less-explored Savai’i.
There are lush mountains in the interior, the kind of waterfalls that you usually only see in shampoo adverts cascading into jungle oases; black rock lava fields contrasting with turquoise lagoons, immense surf for the brave and the greatest number of butterflies and rainbows I have ever seen!
Samoa is quintessentially different from its neighbours; for starters, there are some controls on land ownership meaning only Samoans can own land. This has prevented a lot of big chain hotels popping up. Family-run businesses are the mainstay here, so you need to forget the international standards and get to know some real locals.
Family is important here and everything centres on this value. You don’t find Samoans looking out for individual career advancement; instead they have strong family bonds and familial duties to perform which means that wealth is shared and everyone has a role to keep the family ticking over. Traditional values are strong here and development is a slow process.
Beyond the main city, Apia, you'll be hard pushed to find a restaurant aside from those offered by your accommodation. Samoans are largely subsistence farmers and don't tend to eat out – they’d pick produce from their own gardens over paying someone else to cook; organic produce is king.
The whole extended family pitches-in, each with a different role. Children will serve food to the elders, there will be a designated masseuse, garden-keepers and cooks - all pulling together and living sustainably. There’s little desire for the familiar desires of the western world; most adults have never had what we’d call a 'proper' job. I met a number of Samoans in their 30’s who were starting their first ever job and being trained in the hospitality and tourism industry.
In Samoa, you’ll find 4 and 5 star luxury hotels, or you can opt for a rustic, traditional ‘fale’ (“far-lay”) on the beach. At its most basic, a fale is a raised wooden platform on the sand, with a thatched roof and no walls, but with rattan blinds you can partially or fully pull down. You get natural air conditioning under a billion stars rather than just 5!
Inside your fale there will usually be a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net but that's about it. It’s a real ‘camping under the stars’ experience that some will love – if it’s not for you, opt for a more standard, four walled en-suite bungalow.
Either way, you’ll likely have your own private beach and the opportunity to feel like one of the few visitors to these secret isles.
Here’s a sample of some of the best things I found to experience in Samoa’s islands:
Probably Samoa’s most well-known natural tourist attraction; To Sua ocean trench is a giant swimming hole, connected to the sea by underwater tunnels.
The swimming hole is tidal and you reach it by climbing down into it via a long ladder leading down to a small platform. There are actually two holes, one filled with 30m of turquoise water, the other empty and the tunnel joining them to the sea is an ancient lava tunnel. There are lush gardens surrounding the holes and spectacular cliff top views to be had.
The locals told me about the natural pulls and pushes of the tidal flows, and they will help you time the best moment to get through to the next sink hole and back again. Swimming here was the highlight of the trip! It was such an amazing natural gem that I would happily spend hours in this magical beauty spot, swimming and jumping off the platforms into the crystal clear water.
On the south-west side of the less-developed island of island of Savai’i, in the village of Taga you can find some impressive natural blowholes.
The pressure of the waves pounding the coastline forces impressive spurts of water up through a strong of blowholes along the coastal edge. Be prepared to get wet whilst watching this dance of the huge water jets! If there are any locals nearby, they might just throw a well-timed coconut into one of the holes so you can watch it getting flung out with the force of the water!
These islands are blessed with some of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. Those that I saw were all surrounded by lush, green jungle. There was barely a tourist in sight, so it’s easy to find you own private waterfall to swim in. Fuipisa, Sopoaga and Afu Aafu Fall were probably my favourites, with ridiculously long chutes of water cascading down to their plunge pools.
If you love waterfalls, one place you cannot miss is Lalotaile River Retreat. I was lucky enough to stay here with the owners, Olsen and Jane and their daughter Coco. Olley took me for one of their famous waterfall walks, alongside their 6 year old daughter and their ‘adopted’ son ‘Fly’ who was amazing at the acrobatic jumps from ridiculous slippery high perches.
Upstream from their eco resort, we encountered different waterfalls along the way and they showed me how to safely jump off bigger and bigger falls. This was an amazing experience and they also offer loads of other authentic, ecological, cultural and fun activities - you could easily spend a week without getting bored!
A great way to experience the slower pace of life and learn more about the local culture is to enjoy a village meal, which you can arrange this through your accommodation. Samoans are well known for their hospitality so you certainly won’t go hungry! You’ll be spoilt rotten by a local family who will serve you their home-grown and cooked local specialities.
Given its South Pacific location, Samoa has a natural abundance of underwater aquatic life – one of my passions! There are so many undiscovered dive sites that it's even possible to name a site if you are the first to dive it!
I dived off Apia Palolo Deep National Marine Reserve, accessed via Aggie Greys Sheraton Resort. I dived with a guide who helped me discover some amazing caves and tunnels. I thought they would be well-known to my guide, but at the end of the dive he told me he’d only discovered them the day before – so this really is a novel dive opportunity.
For surfers, Samoa boasts bigger waves than Hawaii, but without the localism or the crowds found in Hawaii or even Indonesia. Waves hit the southern coastlines of Upolu and Savai’i year-round, but the northern shores are best experienced during the northern hemisphere’s winter (November to February).
These coastlines are not ideal for surfing beginners because of the reef breaks and strong currents, but Samoa is increasingly on the radar of experienced surfers looking for an uncrowded paradise and strong surf.
Sheltered from the powerful waves by the reef system are some calm, turquoise lagoons that are perfect for swimming or kayaking.
On the south coast of Upolu, I rented a kayak from Sa’Moana surf resort. I paddled away from the shore and followed the black lava rock coastline to find beach after paradise beach - all completely deserted and giving me solace to explore, sunbathe on and scour for shells. Beware of the tide, as big rolling waves required lots of paddling energy after my 3 hour expedition with weary arms!
If you’re staying in a resort, you’ll almost certainly come across a local cultural show of some kind. Samoans are known for their fire dancing skills and they cook a mean ‘omo’ (baked feast full of coconut cream, fresh fish and taro-based food) which you must try!
Besides these activities, there is so much more to experience on these islands: fishing, snorkelling, sliding rocks, cycling tours of Savai'i, outrigger canoe experiences, jungle treks, local markets, Robert Louis Stephenson’s house and museum (author of Robinson Crusoe), plus golf and spas.
Samoa's weather is warm and tropical all year round, with two distinct seasons: the dry season running from May to October and the wet season from November to April. I visited in May but even though the dry season hadn't quite kicked; I still managed to see the sunshine, get caught in a few tropical downpours and see loads of spectacular rainbows!
There are direct flights to Samoa from Auckland, Brisbane, Sydney, Hawaii, Fiji or some smaller Pacific islands, so it’s best visited whilst you’re in the South Pacific or Australasia or as part of a round the world ticket that includes Samoa.
All in all, Samoa surprised me with its contrast to Fiji and even to the Cook Islands which seemed more developed for tourists. It’s a little harder to navigate because of its lack of infrastructure, but you’ll be rewarded by an experience of its unique culture, warm hospitality and ‘Fa’a Samoa’ (the Samoan Way) - where family duty and respect is all-important. You’re also guaranteed an experience packed with paradise beaches, lush jungles and warm turquoise waters and an insight into this fascinating, 3000 year old culture.