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The Two Captains


2C Update #130 - Samoa – Upolu & Savai’i  (August 17-30, 2005)

(Photographs by the Two Captains)

When we left Pago Pago on an overnight sail to Western Samoa, our outbound tack was such delightful sailing – complete with full moon and perfectly on track for Tonga --  that we were hard put, when the time came, to gibe over to stick to our plotted route to Apia, Western Samoa.  Sticking to the plan put us in the way of several rain cells and in the wind shadow of Tutuila, and even though we managed to beat both those with a couple of hours of judicious motoring, we pulled into Apia (13°49'S; 171°45'W) in a somewhat cranky mood that matched the lowering clouds over the island. 

This was not helped when the approach opened up to reveal a small harbor packed tightly with sailboats and a shoreside that seemed more urbanized than Pago Pago.  Nor did it improve when, after rafting up with two other boats to a tugboat on the commercial wharf for entry procedures, a windless drizzle started that raised the humidity to steam-bath proportions, particularly uncomfortable for those of us in respectful, conservative attire.  If we could have turned tail and slunk out of the harbor at that point, I think we would have, but as it was friends had seen us and were calling on the VHF and the entry officials had already been notified.  It was a tough start for a place that had been ranked so much higher than its sister island, but we’re glad we didn’t slink away, because the very next day ushered in a week of crystal clear (albeit hot!) weather, and by the time we were ready to leave some twelve days later we’d had such a nice set of experiences that we are convinced that neither Samoa should be missed.

As I wrote in the last Update, Samoa and American Samoa share a culture, a language, and a people.  Actually they share two languages, Samoan and English, and somewhat like American Samoa, Samoans have a westernized-style of government (in their case based on the British Parliamentary system) that is overlaid on the centuries-old Fa’asamoa – the Samoan Way.   Here is the same system of extended families (aiga) and matai (chiefs) who control the business of each village, the same focus on community life, the same traditions of food and sports, and the same intense commitment to Christianity. In the outlying villages, the architecture of boxlike houses with oblong or rectangular fales (open pavillions) and crypts for the parents in the front yard continues.  The main difference is that Samoa has much more space than its American sibling -- 14 times the land area to less than three times the population – so that all the now familiar structures here seem less cramped, even in the “suburbs” of Apia. And everybody is still related.  Families in Upolu and Savai’i (the two main islands of Samoa) have relatives in American Samoa, and vice versa, and everybody visits back and forth, keeping the ferry system between all the islands busy. 

It was only in the late 19th century that public ways of the two Samoas parted significantly. A dispute between royal families resulted in the division, which was then politicized in a division of the island group into German and American territories.  Germany, however, lost control of their part at the beginning of WW1 when they were busy in Europe and New Zealand stepped in.  A movement for independence, that began soon after the Germans took control,  continued to gain momentum, fanned by New Zealand’s poor management of a flu epidemic that did in nearly a quarter of Samoa’s people.  After a two-decade period of preparation, Western Samoa finally gained its independence in 1962. 

Today, Samoa (they have recently dropped the “Western”) has its own currency -- the tala (worth today about $.38), their fuel comes in liters, temperatures are in Centigrade again, and electricity is 230v/50Hz.   Clinging more tightly to tradition, Samoans here do seem less influenced by “western” ways.  However, their per capita incomes is about one quarter of their neighbors’, and the practice of subsistence agriculture – coconuts, taro, breadfruit, bananas, and papaya -- is the cornerstone of most families’ survival!  Fortunately, Nature is bountiful and these foods grow everywhere.

To the cruiser’s eye the sequence of German and New Zealand influences has resulted in a prettier waterfront than the Americans have managed next door. A tiered and paved promenade with nice plantings tops the sea wall with wide steps down to the water in several places. Unlike the deep, twisted U-shape of Pago Pago, Apia’s harbor is a near perfect “C”, with the mountain ranges standing back from the coast a few miles. Beach Road follows the edge of the harbor from the commercial wharf area south past the famous Aggie Grey Hotel and several restaurants and discotheques on around into the heart of town.  There are two high rise buildings of five and six stories, the newest of which, looking like a Hilton Hotel, is the government building.  Just beyond the government building are a “flea market” full of crafts and a fish market, while the cavernous vegetable market is inland several blocks.  If catching a bite to eat in the market food court is a little too native for you, no worries, Apia does have its own McDonald’s, although that was the only fast food joint we saw.

The most noticeable difference to us between this Samoa and the American Samoa we’d recently left is that where Pago Pago, with its canneries and container port, is a working town, this Samoa is far more oriented to tourists, particularly New Zealanders up for a winter holiday. An easy walk from the dinghy dock and about a block from the Aggie Grey Hotel we found the Green Turtle Traveler’s Lounge.  What a great concept.  In one nice, air conditioned storefront (open seven days a week until late) is an internet café, complete with ice cream and light meals combined with a tour operator.  Determined that we would not make the same mistake of leaving our touring to last, we signed up for an organized tour of Upolu (the main island) within days of our arrival.  (www.GreenTurtleTours.com; www.EcotourSamoa.com (and others).

Upolu is a big island, about 43 miles long with a road all the way around and several more crossing its fat and mountainous interior.  Our tour started from town and went clockwise around the perimeter, except on the northeastern end where the rugged coast forces the road up into the mountains. 

Many of the stops were swim stops: the freshwater Piula cave pool right at the ocean’s edge, a popular beach at the southeast tip, and a waterfall where the young and reckless could jump from overhangs.


Others were stops at beautifully situated beach “resorts” (just in case, perhaps, we’d want to book ourselves in).

And still others were chances for a peek at local living: a village trying to revive coconut oil making – where we all ate too much coconut – and the highlight of the tour, lunch with a local family.

We were guests of matai Moe in the village of Saleilua.  Although he apparently spoke no English, this family chief welcomed the nine tourists into his house, seated us on pandanus mats on the floor, and gave us demonstrations of how Samoans make fire, weave baskets from palm fronds and grate and squeeze coconut pulp for the rich coconut cream in everything.




You might think we’d be seated in one of the open air fales, but in fact this all took place inside a normal-looking house with walls that inside had no interior rooms, just one big open space.  Between and above the windows, the walls were decorated with photographs of his 11 children, 45 grandchildren and 54 great grandchildren (many of whom live in New Zealand).  Meanwhile, the remaining family’s furniture and daily living was all out back in the wall-less fale







Our meal – fish, slices of roast taro and breadfruit with a dollop of luscious pulasami (minced taro leaves baked in coconut cream) to dip them into, along with a slice each of coconut and papaya – was eaten with fingers from freshly-woven palm frond “plates” while our “cocoa tea” was poured from a kettle into coconut husk cups.  Our guide Bo acted as interpreter for our questions as the children mounded up in the door to stare at us.  All this for about $5 each.


Of course just driving around the island was a significant part of the experience.  There were many gorgeous views and vistas, but the kaleidoscopic glimpses of town life as we passed through the many villages – a kirikiti (Samoan cricket) match in one, a Monday morning fono (assembly of chiefs seated cross-legged in a fale) in another, kids in uniforms walking home from school, a traditional fale roof under construction, women weaving pandanus mats in front of a TV, laundry in a river, boys carrying coconuts to feed the pigs, rugby practice, and, toward the end of the day, families gathered together on lawns for Sa – were the real rewards.

In square miles, Samoa’s second main island Savai’i is bigger than Upolu.  In fact it is the third largest island in Polynesia after New Zealand and Hawaii. The guidebooks and eco-tour marketers tout Savai’i as the more pristine, more traditional of the big Samoa islands, and indeed it is quieter and less-developed than Upolu.  The center of the island is dominated by a string of volcanic mountains and dense jungle that make it relatively impenetrable except by hardier tourists than we.  Since we were so pleased with the Upolu tour, we decided to sign up for Green Turtle’s Savai’i tour, instead of trying to see it by boat.  There are several good reasons to do this.  There only a few acceptable anchorages in Savai’i, and special permission to go there by boat must be applied for.  This is not all that hard to accomplish, apparently, as several cruisers we know did that.  However, it is a disadvantage to sail that far west, if your next destination is Tonga, since the resulting course line is likely to be hard on the wind

As packing the ferry ride to Savai’i and the tour into one day would make for a long one, we decided to book ourselves into one of the “beach resorts.”  A Samoan “beach resort” is a collection of one-room, open-air fales with a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net and a communal bathroom.  It is as close to the way Samoans actually live as these two captains were likely to get (Samoans don’t use mattresses; they sleep directly on the pandanus mats!)  Several of the Upolu  beach resorts we’d stopped by had appealed to us, so we requested being booked into whatever resorts on Savai’i most closely matched them.  This led us to plan an overnight at Vacation Beach Fales on Manase Beach in Matavai.

Unfortunately, we woke to overcast skies and rain in Apia.  Being troopers, we forged ahead with the plan and shared a fifty-tala taxi with our friends Dale and Heather of C’est La Vie to the ferry dock at the west end of Upolu.  The ferry ride was boisterous (I hardly noticed, deep into the 6th Harry Potter book that Heather had lent me), and we landed to have another fifty-tala taxi ride to Manase Beach.  Huddled together on a strip of beach seaward of the road, Vacation Beach Fales were not quite as appealing at first glance as the ones that had piqued our interest in Upolu, but, although Dale and Heather were right in the middle of the cluster, we did luck out and get a fale on the beach separated from the others by a creek.



Our fale was an oblong about 8’ x 20’, with a thatch and tin roof and palm-frond “Venetian blinds” all round that one could lower to keep out the rain.  We spent the cloudy afternoon relaxing and reading in our fale, and capped it with a beach walk and swim.  Dinner was surprisingly nice (clearly one of the features that gave the “resort” its “10” rating), and we retired to our mosquito net for the evening.  Before bed, Don raised all the palm “blinds” so that we would wake to a view of the ocean, but heavy nighttime rain squalls had him up lowering them in succession as the wind backed around the hut.  Still, we slept surprisingly well and woke pretty pleased with the adventure.

Unfortunately, the weather was not looking much better.  In fact it poured during breakfast.  As luck would have it a small store across the road was having a special on umbrellas, and we four stocked up.  Our driver Aitu, arrived about ten and –  we being the only passengers –  took off counter clockwise around the island.  One of the downsides, we discovered, about staying at Manase Beach, was that the part of  the “tour” covering the NE section of the island between the ferry dock and Manase was simply dropped.  As this included the swim with the turtles, Heather was quite disappointed.

However, we continued onward, driving through more villages of houses and fales, with stops to descend into a large lava tube, and to taste local fruits offered at a family homestead eeking out a plantation on a craggy lava field.


On a turn in the road we saw evidence of the ongoing logging operations that Lonely Planet calls Savai’i’s biggest on-going issue.  On the West End of the island we stopped to see some spectacular sea arches and “Lover’s Leap” precipices, jammed the brakes on for a cloud of bright blue Monarch-type butterflies just emerging from their cocoons, and ate an uninspiring lunch at another beach ‘resort” that raised our appreciation of Vacation Beach by several points.


Because of the nature of the village structure, most every stop on the tour called for a token fee to be paid.  Although most of the amounts were small and although it is very hard to begrudge these folks their tokens, it begins after awhile to eat away at the pleasure of a packaged tour!  For this reason, and because time until the return ferry seemed to be slipping away from us, we by-passed several featured stops, a Canopy walk (like a small version of the ones we did in Costa Rica) and a tapa cloth weaving demonstration (this probably because it was Saturday.)

However we did not miss the natural highlight of the tour: the Taga Blowholes.  We’ve seen blowholes before, but none as spectacular as these.  And the locals know how to make a show of it.

 Two young girls carrying a basket of coconuts led us across the craggy shore of black lava. A white line has been painted across the rocks to keep tour groups back, but we stepped right over it to within about ten feet.  Like the Bubbly Pool in the BVI, the blast obviously depends on the state of the swell, but our blustery weather had stirred up plenty enough for a good show.  And, yes, as you might guess, the purpose of the coconuts was to feed the hole with ammunition, which made a pretty good demonstration of the forces involved as they were launched as high as a hundred feet in the air.

Perhaps it was the weather – low clouds which obscured the mountains – but I’d have to honestly admit that, other than the blow holes, there was nothing that we felt was all so special about Savai’i.  We enjoyed our fale overnight, (between the ferry rides and the leisurely afternoon I finished off the whole Harry Potter book!), but I think we’d just as soon have stayed at one of the ones on the south shore of Upolu (Vavau Beach and Virgin Cove being our favorites based solely on their spectacular landscapes).  As Don wryly observed half-way around, “I think I’ve got a grip on Samoan Village life”  and honestly the touted friendliness of the Savai’i islanders was no more pronounced than on Upolu or Tutuila. On the other hand, our friends on Wandering Star who did take the boat to the anchorage just east of where we stayed had such a wonderful time they say they could actually live there.

Our final tourist endeavor was squeezed into our last afternoon after all the checking out and shopping had been done.  We grabbed a taxi and let it carry us up the mountains behind Apia to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.  Plagued by poor health his whole life, Stevenson and his wife Fanny made Samoa their home for his last four years before his death.  The house, high on a hillside estate with a fine view of the sea, is now beautifully restored by an American owner after having been the residence of a German minister, a New Zealand Minister, and a Samoan Minister during the years in between. Our charming young guide painted a vivid picture of the lives of the inhabitants (whom she referred to by their first names … “Robert liked to …..”, especially amusing as a book I looked at in the gift show said he went by “Louis”!)  Beautiful residences like this always evoke a nostalgia for the gracious living of times gone by, at least before you consider the very primitive health care that was available.

One of the most interesting features of the museum was a display of photographs from the turn of the century.  These included stunning black and white portraits of the Samoans of Stevenson’s time.  What a handsome people!  A small card made the critical observation that photographers back then insisted on focusing on the more sexual aspects of the society, but that is surely not how it came across to us….. Although it is true that women’s blouses only made their appearance toward the end of the period.  One can climb Mt. Vaea behind the house to see the burial site of Stevensen and his wife and enjoy a fine view, but I had forgotten the camera, our cab was waiting, and the last hours of our time in Samoa was ticking away, so we passed on the hike and hastened back to the boat to finished prepping for our pre-dawn departure.

In closing, I must add that leaving when we did was not easy.  Samoa’s big Teuila festival was only a matter of days away. Training for the 50-man canoe teams was heating up, the paddlers stroking through the anchorage mornings and evenings to the insistent beat of their onboard drummer.  Kirikiti matches were already underway all over town (the teams singing lustily as the team trucks drove by), and we were told there would be plenty of dance and music for the tourists, too.  Teuila (usually the first or second week in September) would be a great time to visit Apia. 





Without a festival, the only music and dancing we saw in Western Samoa was the Wednesday night fia fia at the famous Aggie Grey’s Hotel. This show is definitely more of a tourist pageant than the fia fia we saw Sadie Thompson’s in Pago Pago, but it costs money, the crowd is bigger and you have to get there an hour early to secure a good seat.  Aggie’s show does have live music and lusty male dancers -- a definite plus, but their women didn’t hold a candle to Sadie’s Girls in charm, sprit or beauty, and, speaking of candles, Aggie’s fire dancers seemed way tamer.

So what it comes down to is that we couldn’t choose, and we’re glad we didn’t have to.  We enjoyed both Samoas – Western and American, and we would strongly urge cruisers to consider visiting both.  The reality of the cruising lifestyle is we have more needs than just sightseeing.  We heard tales of cruisers who turned their up noses of at the idea of stopping in Pago Pago and then were so disappointed in the provisioning available in Apia that they actually took a plane back to shop! And although there aren’t services specifically for yachts in either port, you surely can’t beat American Samoa for scrounging needed parts (especially US stuff) either locally at the excellent hardware or auto stores or getting them shipped in.  Plus American Samoa is a very friendly island where you don’t feel like just another tourist.  On the other hand, Western Samoa, because it is more tourist-oriented, makes it far easier for the visitor to access the traditional experiences, and there’s definitely more attention devoted to the preservation and cultivation of those resources.  If you’re not traveling in by boat, but flying in for a holiday, Western Samoa is definitely the one to choose.

Next stop, Niuatoputapu, Tonga.



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All text and photos on this site Copyright Gwen Hamlin 2006


Published at Burlington, VT