Travel Story Laid-back Samoa spectacular by the sea

Photo of Annelies Gartner

Fans of Australian Survivor will know Samoa proved an island of tests, torments and triumphs for contestants. But for travellers, the Pacific islands are far more tranquil.

‘No, no snakes, it’s a family island,” a local exclaimed when quizzed about the reptilian dangers of Samoan island Upolu. 

Whether something was lost in translation or the remark was made in an attempt to placate tourist fears, there was some truth to his statement. Although two snakes of the boa family inhabit the land, family does hold a special place in the hearts of the islanders.

Extended families live on the same properties from generation to generation. Even in death, kin do not leave the homeland. 

It is not uncommon to observe burial plots in front yards, some marked by a simple stone, others by more elaborate tombs.

Almost every home boasts a fale, a large outdoor living area for communal gatherings. In many instances, these areas are as big, if not bigger, than the house and are perfect for the tropical climate. Like the graves, they vary greatly in construction. Log pillars with tin roofs are a common design but cement pylons with tiled roofs make more elaborate fales.

Beach fales are smaller huts with thatched roofs that can be rented from the family that owns the patch of sand they occupy. There are simple designs that can be rented for a day trip or constructions with window shutters and doors that are perfect for a cheap stay by the seaside. 

At Lalomanu Beach, an open fale with a stunning ocean view is 120 tala per night ($65); at Faofao Beach a simple fale is 30 tala per person or 70 tala including two meals.

Most of the land — about 81 per cent — is under customary ownership, which means it is owned by the indigenous communities. Unlike many tourist attractions around the world that are run by private enterprise, in Samoa spectacular natural attractions can be accessed by a stroll through someone’s backyard.

Tourists pay the family a small fee to access the land (about 10 tala) and then walk through a garden to view an almighty waterfall, such as Fuipisia Falls. Lush, green rainforests are nourished by the humid environment and the island has no shortage of water features.

Another popular spot is the Sua Ocean Trench. This beautiful tidal swimming hole is fed through a lava tube connecting it with the ocean. It can be accessed by a steep, slippery wooden ladder that leads down into the 30m-deep cavity. Surrounding this unique formation are gardens, fales perfect for picnics and, along the coastline, a blow hole and rock pools. 

Samoa is made up of two main islands. Upolu is the smaller and is situated to the south-east of the larger Savai’i. It was formed by a huge basaltic shield volcano but there have been no historically recorded eruptions. Only 75km in length, it doesn’t take long to travel around the island.

Touring is probably easiest if you hire a local driver. If you choose to rent a car, be aware the roads are rough in patches, have an incredible amount of speed bumps, and chickens, dogs and pigs roam free. To travel like a local, take one of the many colourful buses. There are bus ports but not stops, so you can hail a vehicle from the side of the road and disembark wherever you desire. The destination of the bus is on the front of the lovingly named and designed carrier. Seating comprises wooden benches and locals would rather sit on a fellow passenger’s lap than stand in the aisle — so don’t be offended if someone pats their knee when you embark; it’s not an attempt at speed dating.

The main source of income for Samoans is taro farming and fishing. Both feature heavily in the local diet, along with the pigs and chickens that wander the streets.

On the southern side of the island, Coconuts Beach Club and Resort and Seabreeze Resort are ideal locations to sample culinary delights and sip a cocktail while you gaze out to the azure ocean.

Samoa is a laidback location every day, especially once you get out of the capital Apia. Make sure you carry cash, because ATMs are few and far between. On Sundays, almost everything closes down. About 98 per cent of the population is Christian and the locals dress from head to toe in white to go to one of the many churches.

Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson called Samoa home and took the native name Tusitala (“Teller of Tales”) while he was living on his estate in the village of Vailima. He died at just 44 years of age and was buried on Mt Vaea, which overlooks his former home.

The Samoan economy was given a boost after three seasons of the US version of Survivor were filmed on the island. It is was also the location for Australian Survivor, which screened on Ten this year. Challenges, tribal councils and team camps all highlighted the pristine beaches and lush jungle of Upolu. But the arrival of the entertainment industry has not caused an onslaught of over-development, with the little island staying true to its family roots.

Picture at top: Sua Ocean Trench is a tidal swimming hole by Annelies Gartner

Disclaimer

Annelies Gartner travelled to Samoa as a guest of Network Ten.

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