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Published: January 29th 2008
This was my first trip to Samoa and I was determined to make the most of it. I was rapidly realising that even though I lived in the Pacific, visiting the many hundreds of islands in it within the next year was going to be tricky, so every opportunity had to be grabbed by the horns (so to speak). Samoa for me conjured up images of fierce warriors, tribal tattoos and, more recently, a pretty decent rugby team in the World Cup. I had this image of the ultimate Pacific experience, a quite undefined and vague concept and yet I was not disappointed; Samoa more than delivered on my vague day dreams.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, maybe a little background is worthwhile to set the scene. Samoa gained its independence from New Zealand in 1962 and is not to be confused with American Samoa, which is next door but still an American territory. As countries that I’ve visited in the Pacific go, it actually has quite a lot of land area at 2831 square kilometres (much better than Nauru’s mere 21!) Per capita income is 94th in the world and a lot of that is remittances from
View from the top of the hill
where Mr. Stevenson is buried
relatives living in New Zealand and Australia. I think someone told me there are far more Samoans living in Australia than there are living in Samoa!
Samoans are Polynesians, so they look quite different to Fijians, lighter coloured skin and more Asian looking features (at least that is how it looked to me). They are still pretty big people though and I certainly would not be picking a fight with anyone, man or woman.
Part of the beauty of Samoa is that it has just as many jungle-covered peaks, as it has beautiful beaches. I visited just the main island of Upolu, where I had a work meeting in the capital, Apia. The other big island is called Savai’i and I was told that this was even more beautiful than Upolu, which I found hard to believe!
The first weekend in Samoa I had to take it easy with the exploring as I was recovering from the sleepless overnight flight from Fiji and also had a little work to do to prepare for the workshop of the coming week. Incidentally, I was thrilled to discover that the flight from Fiji to Samoa was just 1 hour and 45
minutes. Compared to the usual one a half days it takes me to go to the North Pacific (Palau, Pohnpei, Marshall Islands) this was brilliant, a “normal” flight time. My enthusiasm was tempered slightly when I found out that all the Air Pacific flights were scheduled either ridiculously late at night or in the early hours of the morning, so despite the short flight time, I still arrived in Samoa pretty tired.
So, as I was saying, on that first weekend there were no excursions outside of Apia. Still, there was plenty of exploring to be done in the town. For starters, I paid a visit to the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson, he of Treasure Island fame (having thought long and hard the only other book I could remember him writing is Kidnapped and that one is not nearly as famous). I didn’t know he had been such a fan of Samoa, as to settle here in his final years, establish a beautiful house, fight for the rights of Samoan’s against Imperialist Britain, be regarded as a great storyteller by the Samoans themselves and finally be buried here, at the top of a hill with a beautiful view.
Although I didn’t have time to visit his stately home, which is now a museum, I did walk up the hill which was a very pleasant little hike (I recommend taking the fast route up and the slow route down, as the slow route is considerably longer). Getting to the top I got my first taste of a Samoan panorama as I could gaze over Apia and the harbour in the distance. Admittedly the view was obscured slightly by trees on the surrounding hill below and some of these had been cut down precisely for the purpose of allowing a view onto the city. I have to say that although I am not usually in favour of the chopping down of trees, in this case, they could have chopped down a couple more and cleared the view completely and it would have been worth it.
It was a gloriously sunny day, which meant that getting up to the top of hill on the fast, steep route was quite a hot affair. Now, I sat on the grass and basked in the sun for a good hour or so. I read the epitaph on Stevenson’s grave, which was also
incidentally the grave of his wife. I noted that what he had asked to be written of him was considerably longer that what he had written for his wife!
The way down was much less challenging and was quite a meandering walk through what seemed like an endless rainforest. It was very green and I felt very close to nature. There were also an innumerable number of small black lizards (or something like that, they were so fast I wasn’t quite able to ever get a good look) running, jumping and hiding around us. They were obviously scared by our approach and used the run and hide tactic, which was just fine by me.
In the afternoon it was time to take an initial look around Apia. The easiest place to start was the city centre and harbour. Walking along the sea wall was very pleasant and reminded me that this is what Suva did not have: a harbour in town, where you could go for a walk and have restaurants and cafes just across the road. Apia has a clean, well ordered and tidy city centre, with the sea right there to provide a fresh breeze and openness
to the ocean and blue views on the horizon.
The other thing the city centre has a lot of is churches. Indeed these are ubiquitous throughout the island, as I found out on my drive the following weekend. Samoan society is very religious, with Sundays being truly a day of rest. No work is meant to be undertaken at all and everybody heads for church. This makes for an eerie emptiness on the streets, the only exception the steady flow of people towards their places of worship. White is the colour of the day on Sundays, and the Samoan ladies, dressed all in white, complete with white hat, made me feel transported back to Victorian England. Quite a disconcerting feeling considering I was in the middle of the Pacific.
Over that first weekend, I had dinner at a couple of really nice restaurants in Apia, the first was Paddles, which although a little expensive, was absolutely excellent in every respect. Really excellent, friendly service, excellent food. Just tip top. The other place was the yacht club where there is a lovely view onto the ocean and as long as it is not raining you can sit outside on
South coast of the island
the deck and really enjoy it. The food was again pretty good and the price reasonable.
During my stay in Samoa, I ate out a lot (as you do when you are visiting somewhere, working a lot and living out of a suitcase) and I was not disappointed once. There was quite a variety of food available, although I have to say that the seafood dishes were, somewhat unsurprisingly, the best. Even an ordinary fish ‘n’ chips was delicious!
I even had an opportunity to discover the nightlife of Apia, as the workshop participants were all up for a bit of a party on Thursday night. So we headed out to one of the local night clubs (apparently one of the rowdiest according to our Samoan hosts) called Tropicana (what else?). We never would have found it if we did not have people with us who knew where it was. It was hidden away at the end of this dirty road, over a bridge and in what seemed like the middle of nowhere but nevermind, we got there and a great night was had.
Between the dodgy lighting, the strange mix of western and local songs, the
unbearable heat and a considerable amount of alcohol that fuelled endless dancing by just about everybody in our group, it was a really great way to loosen up after a week of hard work and definitely good for some intercultural bonding. In our group there were at least 17 different Pacific and European countries represented. Not bad.
After that, work on Friday was even harder than usual but of course we managed somehow. It was good to see that on this count also, there really is not much difference between the Pacific and the rest of the world. One works with a hangover when one has to! The more we think we are different, the more we are the same, etc, etc. If my endless travelling has any purpose at all, it is to prove the truth of this over and over again.
And finally, it was the weekend again and this time I had time and energy on my hands. I had also taken Monday off work, so I had three full days to explore Upolu properly. On Saturday morning, without further ado, I jumped into a car with some friends (Eva, her husband Felix and Iris)
and our first stop was the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve just outside Apia. The beach here was not great but that was not what we were here for. The main thing I wanted to see were the giant clams. They would have been even more beautiful if they had not been put in these big metal cages (why I am not exactly sure). Even so, the size and colours were impressive and there were also a fair amount of colourful fish swimming around.
Unfortunately it was not the sunniest of days and I got out of the water relatively quickly. We got back into the car and decided to head for the east coast of the island and the famous (well not that famous but they are mentioned in the guidebook) cave pools of Piula. These are basically two pools, one salt water and the other fresh water that are at the entrances to small caves near the sea. The two caves are connected by an underwater passage. Of course, it is pitch black down there, so none of us were prepared to take the plunge (plus the water was freezing cold!). Maybe if you had some decent lights
it would be doable, but apparently the underwater connecting passage is about 3 metres long, so it could get exciting!
Even without a swim, it was a beautiful, peaceful place and also gave us a chance to look around the grounds of the Theological College in which the cave pools are situated. The students were actually engaged in a game that looked much like good old cricket but with a few significant differences. First, the bat looked more like a baseball bat and was certainly swung more like one. Then there was the singing that accompanied the game and the clapping of the teams, not to mention the colourful uniforms. All in all a bit more lively than your average English cricket game if you ask me. I later found out that this is kirikiti, or Samoan cricket. Nice!
The rest of Saturday was spent driving round the east side of the island, where we stopped at a number of places to admire the view and also managed to find a very beautiful waterfall. In almost every Samoan village we passed we saw people playing volleyball and damn, they were good. No messing around here, these guys (and
girls) were playing seriously. We got back to Apia before dusk and in time for a very nice seafood dinner at Paddles restaurant.
On Sunday my fellow travellers had other plans, so I set off by myself for a little adventure, a solo circumnavigation of the island in my very own little hire car! Oh yes, I was off on a voyage of discovery!
I have not enjoyed myself so much for a while. I had no plan, I just set off with a map of the island, and knowing that basically, since the road went all the way round and the island wasn’t all that big, sooner or later I would get back to Apia. I just had to make sure I got back before my flight left on Monday night. Easy.
Since we had gone quite far along the east coast the day before, I set off in a westerly direction. As it was Sunday, everywhere was very quiet. I hardly saw anyone outside and surmised that most people were at church. It was a distinct contrast from Saturday but on the other hand, it lent the island a certain serenity. As the road was very
good, I had no difficulty driving, while also surveying my surroundings. For a while I was driving along the coast and the blueness of the water dazzled me. I passed innumerable coastal villages, all incredibly neatly laid out, tidy, quiet, serene. Many still had little flags and decorations left up from the South Pacific Games of August this year. That made them even more colourful and picturesque.
As I drove on, I left the coast and started into the hills. Now there was green all around me and the road was narrower and more winding, although still well kept. There were no villages for a while but then the road started to emerge onto the south coast of the island and the villages started to appear again. By this time I had been driving for a fair while and I needed a break.
It was not difficult to find somewhere to stop and I was soon swimming in the clear blue waters with the waves breaking in the distance and making that now so familiar sound. It was hard to drag myself away from this spot but I wanted to make it to the south east side of
These are raced on special occasions
the island before dark, so after soaking up a few more rays I reluctantly got back into (the very hot) car.
My next stop was maybe the greatest revelation of my Samoan trip. I spotted the sign to the To Sua Ocean Trench just as the sun was starting to set and I decided to stop and investigate. Nothing I write can describe the views from atop the cliffs in this place. This is the picture on a thousand travel brochures and postcards, of the endless beach set again the palms on one side and the infinite ocean on the other. Add to that the perfect sunset and waves crashing against the rocks below and it all took my breath away. I would like to have stood there and gazed at this view till the last rays of the sun had disappeared on the horizon but this place had something else special to offer which I still had to explore.
The ocean trench consists of a pair of huge sunken water holes, one of which has a ladder which descends almost 20 metres to the calm, mysterious water. Overcoming my fear of heights, I gingerly stepped down the
One of the very few people I bumped into on Sunday
ladder and then, there I was surrounded by tall walls of rock all around, silence apart from the water lapping against the stone. All alone. It was a surreal and slightly unnerving experience. I floated on my back and gazed up at the sky.
After I left the trench it was starting to get seriously dark and I needed to find somewhere to spend the night. No problem, I found the perfect place in the FaoFao Beach Fales. Nothing more than a single room wooden hut on the beach, with shower and toilet facilities nearby. Breakfast and dinner included all for 20 tala (the equivalent of about 5 British pounds!). It was so simple and so perfect. I was in heaven. Tired from the long drive, I ate dinner and fell asleep early in the darkness not switching on my light to avoid attracting those annoying mosquitoes.
I woke up with the sunrise and went for a walk on the beach. A beach I had all to myself at this early hour. The colours were pink and a light orange. Slowly the sea also changed colour and became lighter and lighter and as far as the eye could
see was blue and more blue. I really do love the ocean.
I had breakfast at 8 in the dinner hall which also had a view onto the beach and ocean and after a final gaze at the sea I had to get into the car and set off again. I was not sure how much longer I needed to get back to Apia but as it turns out I needn’t have worried. I was back in town by 11. Driving around the whole island had taken barely 24 hours! This gave me plenty of time to have lunch, pack, meet up with Iris, go out for a final walk around Apia and take photos of some of the churches and flowers and generally take my time about leaving.
I was sorry to go - I loved Samoa!
PS. Special mentions: The place I stayed in Apia was very reasonably priced and super friendly, so many thanks to Tatiana's Motel in Tanugamanono for making my stay in Apia so welcoming; the Sydney Side cafe, a place to relax and have a tasty snack or smoothy (or both!); the Flea Market was great for some souvenir shopping, with
lots of beautiful lavalavas (sulus/sarongs) to choose from; Giordano's Pizzeria and the Rainforest Cafe & Restaurant provided yummy nourishment.
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