September 2017: My girlfriend and I planned a trip to Samoa or Independent Samoa. Although it is only 500 miles away from American Samoa, a US Territory, Independent Samoa is its own country. It has a reputation for maintaining much of its traditional Samoan culture, architecture and resisting the development of mega-resorts on its islands. Our goal was to explore as much of the islands as we could with our rental car in four days and try and go off the beaten path.

Day 1: After a long flight from Los Angeles via Fiji Airlines with one stop-over in Nadi, Fiji, we finally arrived in Samoa at 10 in the morning on Sunday. Samoa mostly shuts down on Sundays, but luckily for us, unlike its neighbor Tonga, the airport and rental car agencies remained open on Sundays.

The immigration checks were brief as expected, and a Samoan rental car agency representative met us in the arrivals area and escorted us to our car. The price, including insurance, was about 70 USD per day for an economy car with automatic transmission. This price also included the 20 USD cost of obtaining a Samoan driver’s license.

Map of the two islands of Western Samoa. On this trip we drove across both islands

Sua Ocean Trench

Samoa was the only country on our trip that did not recognize the international or USA driver’s license. Instead, it requires that drivers from other countries obtain a Samoan driver’s license. To obtain the Samoan driver’s license, I had to pay 20 USD and provide a copy of my USA driver’s license. Since we were closer to Australia than the USA, driving in Samoa was on the left side of the road.

The airport is one hour from the capital, Apia, the largest town in Samoa, and to avoid any traffic and enjoy the idyllic back roads, we decided to set off on the other side of the island. Today, we had one goal: to visit the Sua Ocean Trench, a turquoise green natural swimming pool at the bottom of a sinkhole.

Our vehicle was given to us with half a tank of fuel. It was a good thing we fueled our car when we came across a gas station about thirty minutes into our drive, as this was the only gas station, we would see for the next two days.

Traffic was light; many Samoans were walking on the road dressed up for church dressed in formal attire. Aside from the people who attended church, there were not many other signs of life in the villages on a Sunday. The businesses closed shop early or remained closed for the day.

We arrived at the Sua Ocean Trench, one of those advertised tourist landmarks that everyone must put on their itinerary.

Most tourist sites in Samoa are located on the ancestral land of a family or village. In order to gain access, a small entrance fee is required. In this case, we paid about 15 USD each, which was the most expensive entrance fee of all of the places we visited in Samoa, but the cost was well worth it.

Sua Ocean Trench

Paula at Sua Ocean Trench

The ladder into the swimming hole probably does an excellent job of screening out many tourists who want to swim here. It is taller than it looks and can be slippery at times but seemingly safe if carefully negotiated. We spent half a day enjoying the place that was almost to ourselves, with only a few locals around.

Afterwards, we set off to find a hotel since we had nothing booked for the night. We had a tent with us that we could use if necessary. Although after a long flight and knowing that we would most likely stay in a hut the next night, we decided to try and find something nice.

I knew that we only had a few options on this side of the island to choose from. The first hotel we stopped at was fully booked, but luckily the second one was not.

We ended up staying in a beach bungalow at the Saletoga Sands Beach Resort, only a few miles away from the Sua Ocean Trench. It was a much better place to relax and spoil ourselves for the night. Our bungalow was right near the water and had air conditioning. The best part of our bungalow was the outdoor shower, which was equipped with tall, thatched walls to keep peeping toms away. The lodge also had a swim-up pool bar, which I had never experienced before and was greatly appreciated.


Staying with a Samoan Family in the Remote Northeast Coast

Day 2: After engorging ourselves at the breakfast buffet, which was also included in the price of our stay, we set off in our rental car to Fagaloa Bay on the other side of the island. Along the way, we stopped at a few waterfalls, Sopoaga and Fuipisia Falls. The most stunning one was Fuipisia Falls below.

Paula at Fuipisia Falls

Our goal for the day was to drive to one of the least visited areas of Upolu island, the main island of Samoa, and find a family to stay within one of the villages of Fagaloa Bay. Fagaloa Bay is known for its rain forested mountains and cascading waterfalls, as well as its traditional villages. The rainforest here is part of the largest remaining rainforest in Polynesia. The people here still practice the traditional Matai system, which entails having a chief that overlooks the protection of customary land. The villages tucked away at the base of a series of mountains can only be accessed via one entrance, by way of a narrow and potholed paved road that hugs the coast until it eventually reached a dead-end at one of the last villages. Because the road was only recently paved, with no resorts in the area, these villages do not receive many visitors compared to other parts of Samoa. The irony, in my opinion, is that this part of Samoa is the most beautiful, and combined with the charming people in the area, it is a travel highlight of Samoa.

Paula at Fagaloa Bay

More of the houses in these villages were built in the semblance of the traditional building structure, the Fale. A Fale is a thatched hut with open walls to allow better ventilation and cooler temperatures inside the house. Although most Fales are not built of thatch anymore, some of them still were in these villages.

Modern Fale House in Lone Village with jungle cascades in back

I also noticed that more people in Samoa had traditional tattoos compared to people of many other Pacific Islands that I have visited. Tatoos are a part of all Polynesian cultures, and the word is derived from the Polynesian language. Sadly, over the centuries, many missionaries have convinced Polynesians that tattoos are un-Christian like, and tattoos have become uncommon in many areas.

Samoan man with Tradtional Tatoos

In Lone Village we saw a few thatched Fales along the beach with nobody there. I found a few men in the village, and I asked them if it was possible to stay in these Fales. The men who spoke mostly Samoan but could understand only some English sent a young boy with Paula and I to find the owner of the Fales. We drove into the village trying not to run over the hordes of omni-present pigs, we eventually found the owner, Elei and her husband. They both seemed very thrilled when I asked them if we could spend the night in one of their Fales. The price was 20 USD each and I wasn’t really sure if meals were included at first because Elei and her husband didn’t really speak English but in the end, it turned out they were included and with unlimited coconuts.

Elei asked us if we were hungry and we were, so she and her husband went to the village and returned with a live chicken, which her husband butchered in front of us, and fresh fish. She also asked us if we were thirsty. I asked if they had coconut and they said yes and moments later, I hear her husband cutting down a coconut tree. For the rest of our stay Paula and I drank unlimited coconuts and I have never had to urinate more often in my life.

The area around the Fales was incredibly beautiful and we had ambitious plans to explore the villages, waterfalls and beaches but inclement weather kept us inside our Fale for most of the day. Every once in a while, the rain would relent and give us a quick chance to explore.

Fagaloa Bay

Main Road

On the way to Uafato Village we passed through some incredible scenery. This part of the island is very remote and there were long stretches of jungle in between each village.

Accompanied by our host, we drove to the end of the road to Uafato Village along a paved road riddled with potholes that winded up and down through the rain forested hills. At times the road was so steep that I wasn’t sure if our little 4-cylinder rental car had enough muscle to make it.

We arrived in Uafato close to dusk. Since the village was the last on the dirt road before giving way to the jungle, it had  a remote and mysterious end of the world feel to it. The jungles beyond according to folklore are full of evil spirits and giant marauding Tongans.  I wish we had had more time to explore it.

Uafato Village

Samoan Family Crossing River After a Storm

Later that we sat down near the beach with our host mother and some of her children. She had six children and some of them where in school at Apia. I opened a bottle of wine and invited her to a glass, but she was hesitant to drink any because she said, her husband wouldn’t be too happy with her. I asked her where he was, and she said he was drinking kava with the other men in the village and that he would be back soon. She said he loved wine, so I waited for him to return, and he and I shared the bottle together. Our hosts informed us that we were the first foreigners that have ever stayed with them and that they were very happy to have us in their home.

Somoan Family Stay on Beach

Our falet where we slept. Our host family slept in a separate falet adjacent to ours.

Savaii Island

Day 5: We left early in the morning to drive to the ferry docks a few hours away so that we could secure a place for our vehicle.

Ferry to Savaii

Passengers sleeping on the ferry

As the ferry approached the Island of Savaii I knew that I was going to like this island. The interior of the island rose up above the clouds as a giant volcano and verdant jungles lined the island’s shores.

We disembarked at the largest village on the island, Saleloga and after dropping off a Samoan man in town who had helped us buy our return tickets for the ferry, we started off on our journey around the island.

Our goal for the next two days was to circumnavigate the island and to see as much of it as possible.

Saleaula Lava Field

We drove counterclockwise around the island and our first stop was the Saleaula lava field. Volcano Matavanu, now dormant, erupted in 1905 and blanketed the northeast of the island in lava. Now the lava has hardened and has created an alien like landscape. One interesting area to visit is an old church that was nearly destroyed during the volcanoes eruption and was covered in lava.

Old Church that was decimated by a lava flow 

Paia Dwarfs Cave

After another hour of driving, we pulled off from the main road to a village where we picked up a guide to take us into a lava tube cave called the Paia Dwarfs cave. He legend of the cave says that a race of dwarfs live inside of the cave. The cave is so long and deep, it is also said that no one except for the dwarfs have ever explored the cave in its entirety.

The road to the cave was along sharp volcanic stone and I was worried we would puncture a tire. The entrance to the cave was a hole in the ground out in the middle of the jungle. The only light inside was from our flashlights that we brought with us.

Paia Dwarfs cave

We hiked through the lava tubes for an hour until we came to a waterfall that we descended into a pool of water that was deep enough to swim in.

Swimming in Paia Dwarfs cave

Our guide was willing to take us deeper into the cave, but we settled for swimming and returning to our entrance after the swim. After exploring the cave, we continued driving for a few hours. There were long stretches of road on Savaii Island with nothing but jungle and the villages that we did pass through were very rural and had many traditional Fale houses. In the village Fales we often saw groups of men or women sitting together and socializing. The roads were largely devoid of any vehicle traffic and those vehicles that were driving often drove incredibly slowly. Maybe it was because of the constant suicide attempts of pigs, chickens, dogs or children that darted into the road.

Local women meeting in a Fale

Rainforests of Falealupo Peninsula

In the northwest corner of the island, we visited the Falealupo Peninsula, which is mostly shrouded in rainforest and is known for a jungle canopy walk that was built by the local villagers. The canopy was amazing. It consisted of a rickety rope and wood bridge that was strewn between two giant rainforest trees hundreds of feet above the ground. Upon ascending the winding walkway up the tree to the canopy, a sign is posted alerting canopy visitors that they are entering at their own risk.

Village Rainforest Canopy Walk

Village Rainforest Canopy Walk

Falealupo Peninsula

We didn’t have a place to stay booked so we booked a room at the first hotel we saw in the Vaimoana Seaside beach bungalows. We had a beach bungalow with a deck that overlooked the ocean. The first thing I did was buy a beer and watch the sunset from our deck.

Vaimoana Seaside beach bungalows

Afu Aau Waterfalls

Day 6: The next morning we reluctantly left our bungalow and resumed our drive around the island. We hiked out to a Tafua Crater, a dormant volcano crater in the jungle that was completely overgrown by jungle and then cooled off we swam in the picturesque Swim Afu Aau waterfalls.

Afu Aau waterfalls

Village Girl

We caught the 4 pm car ferry back to Upolu Island and sadly left the paradise, which is Savaii Island behind us.

Since our flight to New Zealand was scheduled to depart at 1030pm we needed to kill a few hours in Upolu island and we decided we had driven enough it was time to relax.

So, we snuck into one of the oldest and nicest hotels in Samoa, the Aggie Grey’s Resort that was near the wharf, the airport and our car rental return location.

We found a hammock at a remote beach ordered some cocktails and watched the sunset. It was really hard to leave Samoa but now it was time for our next adventure-New Zealand.

Aggie Grey’s Resort

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