Area: 2.842 km2
Inhabited islands: 4
Languages: Samoan and English (official languages)
Around the island: 190 km (following the coast line of Savai’i island)
The Passport Party
Everything felt a bit oversized that morning. The Fiji Link propeller machine wasn’t huge, but still felt empty with only 18 passengers inside. Same goes for Faleolo International Airport, which lives up to its name and looks fit for a medium-sized European country – except for receiving just a fraction of flights. The grand terminal building was still not fully operative, so the immigration control took place in an improvised building next door. The check was fast and efficient – no wonder with only 18 persons queuing. The only particularity: The entry form demanded to name all countries visited during the last 30 days – on a space of 6 cm. After a month of island hopping in the Pacific, that was a bit of a challenge.
Faleolo International Airport
What makes Samoa unique
- Samoa has preserved its traditional architecture. In front of every family house, there is a fale – a pavilion-like, empty building without walls that serves as family reunion hall. The faleis usually bigger than the family house itself. And those Samoans living along the coast have additional beach fales.
- All Pacific nations are devout, if not fundamentalist Christians. Churches abound everywhere, but those of Samoa are simply impressive. Apparently, it serves the reputation of a village to have a bigger church than its neighbours. Hence, most churches look quite empty. Best are the Catholic churches, which look like in Europe or Latin America. The tropical climate provides them a patina, although they are rarely older than 50 or 60 years.
Your average Samoan village church
- Samoa’s busses are colourful and loud, a bit similar to Kenya’s matatus. Many feature a theme and a corresponding painting job, mostly airbrush. The sound systems are deafening and a few rides acquaint you with the current Samoan pop charts. Despite their badass appearance, the slogans painted on the busses are the likes of “Samoa is founded on god” or “Obey the law!” The impressive exterior of those busses serves to cover the lack of comfort: They are slow, the benches made of wood, and they are often so packed that people sit on each other’s lap.
- I found the Samoans the least hospitable people of Oceania. To be fair, I met a lot of friendly people, especially in Apia. But travelling on my own through Savai’i’s countryside was harsh. As a palangi (white foreigner), I felt like the local’s entertainment to make fun of. Many times, they would simply laugh and point at me. The children were particularly obnoxious, totally lacking respect and politeness. A hard landing after Fiji’s hospitality.
A feast for eyes and ears, but not for butts: Samoa’s busses.
My best experience
I am always fascinated with volcanic sites, be it in Iceland or in Sicily. Savai’i, the larger of Samoa’s main islands, is shaped by lava. The last big eruption produced a large lava field around the village of Saleaula in 1905-1911, flowing for seven years. It lives up to great expectations: A vast field of black debris, a church filled with the lava stream, and a spectacular coast. Best of it were the circumstances. When I visited, it was raining slightly, and I was totally alone on the site. It was amazing to wander the field, with no areas fenced off and that much to discover.
Saleaula’s Lava-filled church.
My worst experience
The moment I stepped out of the hotel, a heavy downpour began. It was rainy season, there was nothing else to expect. I waited under a tree, which quickly became wet enough to offer no more protection. I waited for the Pua’pua bus, but it did not arrive. By the moment me and my whole luggage was totally soaked, there was still no bus in sight. I was frustrated. The previous day, I had travelled around Savai’i, the larger of Samoa’s two islands, on a moto scooter. It mostly raining and everything got so wet that my camera and my phone stopped working properly. Back at the hotel, I had locked in the motorbike’s key in the trunk (which won’t open without said key). The rental agent was not happy to hear that, as the spare key was in Apia, on the other island. So I had to take the bus the next morning, a dreadfully slow affair, to reach the rental agency 20 km north of my hotel, where I was to recuperate my passport that I had left as a deposit. Not a passport party, this time, rather a passport hangover.
But the bus didn’t arrive. After half an hour of waiting, I began walking towards the bus station, two kilometres away. Arriving there, a bus – my bus! – left, and brutally ignored me. Next, a taxi driver came up to me and began touting. He would not stop until I gave him the bird [=Stinkefinger]. Not that I do that often on my trips, but at that point I had lost my nerves. It did not help – now he was offended and started shouting at me. It took me half an hour more to finally get on the bus. Miraculously, I still made it to the ferry to Upolu I had planned to reach!
Samoan passport stamps.
Coins and banknotes of Samoa.
The coat of arms of Samoa, in front of a government building.
Did you know that…
…Samoa used to be a German colony? There is a monument on the spot where the German flag was first hoisted in 1900.
…Samoans love BBQ? Many stalls along the roads sell cheap barbecued meat (chicken, turkey, sausages), making it the only Pacific nation with street food.
…Samoa is actually pronounced on the first syllable? “Samoan” sounds like the word “someone” in Mr. Trump’s accent.
…Half of New Zealand’s rugby national team is Samoan? Well, at least according to the Samoans.
Monument to the place where the German flag first was hoisted in 1900.
Transport: Samoa is linked by air to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, American Samoa and the USA (Los Angeles and Hawaii). Regular international ferries link Samoa with Tokelau (a NZ territory) and American Samoa. Traffic on both main islands is provided by cheap and colourful buses. Two ferries ply between Upolu (Mulifanua wharf) and Savai’i (Salelologa wharf), departing usually every two hours between 8 am and 4 pm.
Accommodation: Samoa’s signature accommodation are beach fales, traditional and usually open, wooden huts with no amenities. An amazing experience, but not recommended in rainy season. Most hotels on Upolu and Savai’i are resort-like, mostly with bungalows and fales. Apia is the only urban place with hotels in town. Well, it’s the only urban place in Samoa.
Food: Local food includes seafood (mostly raw tuna dishes such as ota or toka) and vegetables or meat baked in Tandoori-style ovens (umu), such as palusami, the leaves of the taro plant. Outside of Apia, you are unfortunately mostly at the mercy of your hotel kitchen. That food tends to be a bit overpriced and boring. In Apia, there are a couple of really good Samoan and international restaurants.
Money: There are plenty of exchange offices, even in small villages on Savai’i – I wonder why. They offer good rates, even those at Faleolo airports. ATMs (ANZ and SPB) are available in many places.
Communication: Digicel and Bluesky, the country’s two mobile operators, hand out free SIM cards upon arrival at Faleolo Airport. Data are available right there at fair rates. Free Wifi is very rare, so buying and topping up a SIM is a good idea. Most European mobile operators have roaming agreements, their SIM cards work here (at high costs, obviously).