The balmy, palm-fringed islands of the Pacific have been luring travellers for centuries, but many of the more popular hotspots (Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii…) can be pretty pricey these days. There’s a modern tendency to cater for the luxury resort crowd, which can make it hard to find a relaxing, care-free destination where simplicity, tradition and old-fashioned hospitality still rule. But such a place still exists…and it’s right in the heart of Polynesia.
The Independent State of Samoa (called Western Samoa until 1997 and normally just referred to as, Samoa), is the perfect spot to chill out and find peace under the palm trees. It’s blessed with sapphire seas, starry nights and a wealth of natural wonders; it’s also unpretentious, easy to explore and surprisingly affordable. My return flight from Brisbane to Apia was only around $600 and I chose to stay in local fales (traditional beach huts with mosquito netting) which typically include breakfast and dinner in the price; they’re brilliant value at around $30 – $60 per night.
The two main islands, Savaii and Upolu, have plenty of fales to choose from, with superb snorkelling right at your doorstep and the possibility of sharing the beach with nesting turtles if you time your trip right.
To check out each island’s main attractions, it’s easy to hire a car for a day, join a round-island tour or just hop on the super-cheap and colourful local buses. In some areas you can hire a bicycle–I had a great time pedalling along the northern coast of Savaii one sunny morning. There is a regular ferry service between Savaii and Upolu, with Savaii being the larger and less developed of the two.
Both islands are laid-back and maintain a traditional approach to life that’s called Fa’a Samoa–The Samoan Way. Everyone smiles and no one rushes. The rhythms of island life are guaranteed to slow you right down. You’ll see lone fisherman in outrigger canoes handline-fishing along the reef edge at dusk, hear harmonious singing coming from every church on Sunday morning and feel a strong sense of community wherever you go.
Nature really puts on a show in Samoa. On Upolu, make sure you visit the one-of-a-kind To Sua Ocean Trench, a huge sunken hole in the rainforest that forms a giant saltwater pool. A steep wooden ladder (watch your step here–it’s slippery after rain) takes you down to water level, where you can swim in transparent waters among schools of bright blue fish. There are some superb freshwater swimming spots too, like Piula Cave Pool and Papaseea Sliding Rocks (on Upolu) and Afu Aau Waterfall (on Savaii).
If you don’t happen to see any turtles on your snorkelling trips, don’t worry–you can swim with green sea turtles at the Satoalepai village wetlands sanctuary on Savaii. The water is shallow and calm so it’s a great experience for kids too. Another special place on Savaii is the Alofaaga Blowholes, where the ocean’s power shoots a jet of water up to 30 meters in the air.
Samoa has more rainforest hikes, fascinating caves, plunging waterfalls and postcard-perfect beaches than you could ever experience on one trip, so it’s worth doing a little research before you go to make the most of your stay. Quick insider tip: even though it’s easy to snorkel straight off the beach in many areas, you should do at least one snorkel boat trip to see some of the more interesting, harder-to-reach coral reefs.
The local food scene is all about freshly caught fish, tropical fruits and plenty of coconut in all its forms. If you get the chance to sample a traditional Samoan umu (wrapped food baked in a ground oven, much like a New Zealand hangi), don’t miss it! That was certainly the culinary highlight of my stay, along with the delicious reef crayfish a local caught for me. And if the only coconut cream you’ve ever tried came from a tin, I strongly urge you to sample the freshly made version in Samoa–it’s 100% better.
Of all Samoa’s treasures, it’s the welcoming people who really make the place such a pleasure to visit. Their quiet dignity, genuine friendliness and pride in their beautiful country is ever-present. If you’ve always wanted to see the ‘real South Pacific’, this is where you’ll find it.
Main Image: ©iStock.com/zstockphotos
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