Samoa. The word rolls off the tongue easily, like a gentle tropical breeze.
This tiny country halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii spans less than half the area of Prince Edward Island. It includes two major islands and eight small islets. In mid-June I travelled there with a group from Australia’s Taylor Made Tours and visited the islands of Upolu and Savai’i.
We stayed at the Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Resort, located near the airport on the island of Upolu. The suites have a beautiful ocean view and friendly and attentive staff, and a pool with a swim-up bar. The capital city, Apia (population 35,000), is about a 30-minute drive away.
One of the most appealing aspects of Samoa is the people. They are very kind and accommodating and their love of family is legendary. When our group travelled in our tour bus, people along the road would often wave and smile.
The weather is also pleasant. Samoa has two seasons: wet and dry. While the temperature is close to 28 degrees year round, November to April is the wet season, and May to October is the dry season. In June, most days were warm and dry, although there were a few showers.
The root vegetable taro used to be a major export in Samoa but the crop failed in 1972 and never really recovered. Tourism became one of the ways that Samoa shifted its economy. The tourism infrastructure is still developing, however, and facilities like clean washrooms are not always easy to find in the countryside. We were cautioned to drink only bottled water everywhere in Samoa.
Fales, a market, and coconut
Our days began with a breakfast buffet, served in a traditional outdoor structure called a fale, which has pillars, a rounded roof, and open sides. Dinners were also eaten outdoors, sometimes on the beach with a tropical sunset as an idyllic backdrop. One evening, our entertainment included traditional Samoan dancing and music, capped by fire dancing.
Our first daytime outing was to St. Joan of Arc Primary School in Apia. It was the last day of the school year and the adorable children sang songs in English and Samoan.
We also visited a market in Apia that sold produce as well as Samoan handicrafts, including textiles, wooden carvings, and jewelry. Coconuts, bananas, taro, and other fruits and vegetables were artistically displayed.
In Samoa, the coconut is queen and ingeniously, none is wasted. The delicious coconut meat and water are consumed, the oil is used for cooking and for skin creams and soaps, and the shells are fashioned into jewelry and other items.
Along the road to Apia we noticed large fales, where the village chiefs hold weekly meetings. Smaller fales are used for socializing, eating, and sleeping. Some fales have thatched roofs but many have tin roofs, which are more likely to survive storms and small tsunamis.
A mainly rural country
Samoa is a volcanic island with a rainforest environment, and tropical flowers and trees abound. Coral and black volcanic basalt are common on beaches. Scenic waterfalls dot the lush landscape and were well worth stopping to explore, although there were entrance fees.
We often saw chickens and pigs roaming freely in the villages. Churches are everywhere in Samoa and over 98 per cent of Samoans are Christian. Historically, family members were sometimes buried in the front yards in rural areas, although public cemeteries are now common. Tombstones are visible near homes in rural areas.
Samoa is mainly rural, and most people live on Upolu. We took the ferry to the island of Savai’i, which took just over an hour. The rainforest is more lush in Savai’i and the scenery is breathtaking.
We were thrilled to experience an exceptional natural wonder on Savai’i: the Alofaaga Blowholes. Volcanic rock on the beach allowed water to gush hundreds of feet in the air. It was an awesome spectacle to feel the power and energy of huge volumes of water being released every few minutes.
Back on Upolu other wonders awaited us. Some attractions worth visiting close to Apia are Lalomanu Beach, the historic Robert Louis Stevenson home, the Museum of Samoa, and the Mailelani soap factory.
An unexpected bonus for me on my last night in Samoa was the stunning night sky. I was greeted with the most vivid view of the Milky Way I have ever seen. I was amazed to see an upward-opening crescent moon, which looked like a circle sliced in half horizontally rather than vertically. This type of moon is a common sight near the equator but is seen far less frequently elsewhere.
This unusual lunar phenomenon was the perfect end to a visit to exotic and beautiful Samoa.
Joyce MacPhee is an Ottawa writer and editor.