The real Samoa
THE HALF-NAKED LOCALS grin hugely at me. Escaping the tropical sun under simple thatch shelters right on the beach, they seem genuinely happy to have me around. Suddenly I feel overdressed and over stressed.
Best sort this out right now. Off with the watch, phone into the deepest, darkest pocket of my backpack, forget the T-shirt, boardies on and straight into the crystal-clear waters that gently lap these stunning islands.
By the time I surface I have forgotten all the reasons I needed this trip to begin with and enter island time… a strange parallel universe where nothing really matters and no one really cares… perfect!
I am on the Pacific Ocean islands of Samoa, far east from Australia. Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author of the famous adventure novel Treasure Island, called this place home before his untimely death in 1894. In his novel, Stevenson described an island with tropical waters, white sandy beaches and a dramatic coastline that fringed vast mountains.
Well, this place is just like that, so it is no wonder that when he arrived he stayed. He had found his very own Treasure Islands.
I am not the kind of traveller to sit on the beach in front of my resort, sip on a drink with an umbrella in it and read a book while working on my tan. If you are, then I am probably your worst travel buddy.
Granted, I can do that for about 13 minutes before my eyes start darting all over the coastline, wondering what is happening beneath the waves, can I climb that tree, should I see how far I can dig into the sand, where can I hire a scooter so I can jump something, and perhaps that mountain behind us needs someone to stand on top of it?
Getting around Upolu and Savai’
I have six days to discover the real Samoa for myself and at this point I have no ideawhat that means. Imagine an idyllic Pacific island and this place will tick every box.
But what sets Samoa apart from other tropical island destinations and why should you choose it as a base for your next adventure? It is very simple. Samoa is one of those very few places that is yet to be discovered by the masses, so once you read this, quietly apply for that holiday leave, book a flight and don’t tell a soul.
Let me give you a few simple stats that should get you going. Beers are $2, absolute beachfront accommodation is $30 with an amazing breakfast and dinner, the locals are among the friendliest I have met in the Pacific and the adventure starts as soon as you jump off the plane, with 28 degrees of goodness to greet you all year round.
There are two main islands in Samoa: Upolu and Savai’i. Upolu is home to the capital city of Apia in the north and after I spend a few hours meandering through its markets it’s time to hit the road and explore the south coast.
You can rent a car or climb aboard a bus with the locals, which is what I recommend. “Buses” here are not the standard form of public transport back home, and thank goodness for that.
Nope, these buses are really just old trucks with cabins built on the back, have no windows, a whole lot of character, a thumping sound system and conductors who will keep you amused for hours. Enough said.
Once I reach the south coast, I make my way to a beach “fale”, which just means “small structure”. This is without a doubt my favourite part of island life – sleeping in a tiny little hut right on the beach, on a simple mattress, with a mossie net and a view that would cost thousands per night anywhere else.
After a night in a fale, listening to the water lap the shore as you drift off into a peaceful slumber, you will wonder why you can’t just buy one and eat coconuts for the rest of your life.
However, in Samoa, foreigners are not allowed to buy land, and that is what makes this place so great. Everything is run and owned by the villagers, and they are only too happy to share their land with wandering travellers.
Most days during my stay in Samoa start the same. I yawn and stretch the whole 10m to the water’s edge and slide into the warm turquoise ocean to plan my day’s activities. And there is plenty to do, depending only on your energy levels.
Local culture of Samoa
Over the next few days, I pick off hidden gems that the locals and guidebooks tell me about, but what really amazes me is often I have them all to myself.
Just about anything you can think of doing can be done here with a little planning: snorkelling or diving, surfing, fishing, cycling, hiking, kite surfing, sea kayaking, waterskiing and swimming. You can also visit clear ocean trenches, explore cool forest waterfalls and dodge salty spray at coastal blowholes.
But, for me, the real Samoa begins when I catch the ferry to Savai’i.
As soon as I get off the boat the overall vibe is completely different. It is slower and more relaxed, the people seem to be having more fun and are genuinely friendlier, even though I didn’t think any of this was possible after meeting the locals on Upolu. Yep, this is the Samoa I have been looking for and it is all mine for the next few days.
Savai’i is much more traditional, with villages scattered along the stunning coastline. You won’t find anything that resembles a city here and there are no major resorts, just a few small villages that cater for tourists on the northern side.
Once again I catch a local bus and take in scenes of village life, including pigs and chickens scouring the grasses for food, families working their crops, fishermen in dugout canoes and hundreds of kids playing in the afternoon sun.
After chatting to a few of local lads on the bus, I am invited to visit their village and experience some of the traditions, as well as take a tour of the island. Now I am really excited!
Once again I take up residence in a fale right on the beach and am served a meal fit for a village chief. Roast pork, rice, lots of veggies and taro root. After a few Samoan beers, which are very good, and some great conversations with locals and visitors alike, I’m off to let the sound of the waves send me to sleep.
Over the next few days I learn to climb coconut trees, weave baskets and create building materials out of palm fronds, kayak to nearby islands, ride in the back of utes, go fishing with villagers, climb gigantic strangler fig trees to look out across the rainforest, visit lava fields and peer into the crater of a volcano and – best of all – meet really good people and do lots and lots of laughing.
Samoa is a “choose your own adventure” destination and if you are more organised, which I will be next time, a much bigger expedition can be planned, such as kayaking the coastline, cycling the islands’ ring roads or trekking the vast mountain ridge lines, and all at a fraction of the price at similar destinations.
There is so much to be discovered here, and so few people doing the discovering, that Samoa will quickly become your treasure islands too.