A volcanic dot in the South Pacific, not far from the equator, Samoa is about as remote as countries come. In many ways the islands that make up Samoa – the two main atolls of ’Upolu and Savai’i plus a scattering of others – are your typical tropical paradise: white sand, swaying palms, turquoise waters, reefs full of fish.
But Samoa is much more than just a pretty postcard. Delve inland and Samoa reveals a gnarled and verdant interior of craters, lava fields and tropical forest, while the strong indigenous culture – called fa’a Samoa – is alive and well: the locals still live in traditional fales (thatched, open-sided houses), farm their own land and abide by a village hierarchy system that dates back centuries.
On arrival buy a lava-lava, the local sarong. Practically all Samoans wear them, accessorised with jandals (flip-flops). Local women in Samoa dress fairly conservatively – away from the beach you should wear below-the-knee shorts/dresses.
Attend a church service and, if possible, a family to’ona’i (Sunday lunch) for a slice of real Samoan culture. Always remove your shoes before entering a fale (traditional Samoan house).
Close to the equator, Samoa’s temperature is fairly consistent year round, averaging a very pleasant 26°C on the coast. That said, Samoa’s dry (and therefore peak) season runs from May to October; the wet season is November-April, when it can very hot and humid.
Cyclones are most likely between November and March; they don’t often make landfall but can disrupt travel plans and cause high winds and torrential rain as they swing offshore.
September is party month in Samoa, when the Teuila Festival takes over Apia.
Faleolo International (APW) 35km from Apia
Travel between Samoa’s two main islands, ’Upolu and Savai’i, can be done by 15-minute flight or 75-minute ferry ride; views are good from the plane, but you won’t be able to take a hire car across. The ferry is much cheaper, too. You can also take boats to smaller islands; for example, boats leave ’Upolu for the short hops to car-less Manono and Apolima islands.
The easiest and most flexible way to get around is by hire car; the coastal roads around ’Upolu and Savai’i are good, head off that and standards dip considerably. The speed limit is quite low (55km/h tops; slower in towns).
Local buses are cheap – and quite an experience: multi-coloured, noisy, bouncy and packed.
The grand dame of Samoan accommodation is Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia, where the Wednesday night fiafia show shouldn’t be missed. Other high-end hotels exist, though boutique styling hasn’t yet caught on – with a few notable exceptions on the coast.
Most fun, and the cheapest option, is to stay in a traditional Samoan beach fale. These thatched-roofed, raised, open-sided shacks are basic (furnishings run to a mattress and a mosquito net; the bathroom will be elsewhere and shared) but are generally right by the sea and allow you to sleep wafted by a blissful Pacific breeze.
Samoans love their food – portions are huge. Root vegetables taro (often cooked in a underground umu, a hot-rock oven) and breadfruit are ubiquitous. Meat is found in most Samoan meals, so vegetarians will have to work a bit harder to find sustenance. For example, Samoa’s roadside barbecue shacks serve up cheap platters that typically include sausage, pork, ribs and steak.
Fish is also common in Samoa. Coconuts are delicious – try a drinking coconut for a thirst quencher, or palusami, a yummy concoction of taro leaves and coconut cream. Snacks for sale in small Samoan shops are generally fried and unhealthy.
Vailima is Samoa’s locally brewed lager. Other alcoholic drinks are imported and therefore more expensive. ’Ava, made from the dried roots of the kava plant, is drunk on ceremonial occasions; it looks like muddy water and has a mildly sedative effect.
There is no malaria on Samoa, but dengue fever is present – cover up and take DEET-based insect repellent to protect from day-biting mosquitoes. It can get very hot and humid in Samoa – take high-factor sunscreen and stay well hydrated.
Feral dogs can be a nuisance, but shout and they usually run away. Beware Samoa’s coconut palms – falling fruit can kill; look up, and pass under trees quickly, especially when it’s raining or windy.
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