Upolu Island, Samoa

Nov 20th - 24th, 2018

I arrived from Tonga on Talofa Airways, a Samoan airline, that only operates two small propeller planes. They do several daily flights between Samoa and American Samoa, and a couple of weekly flights to Tonga. My flight from Tonga took about 2.5 hours including a short stopover in American Samoa. The flight landed at the tiny Fagali’i Airport near Apia, which is not the main airport of Samoa and only has a short bumpy runway for small prop planes. I was picked up by a driver from the hotel for the 10 minute transfer to Taumeasina Island. I stayed at the beautiful and quite luxurious Taumeasina Island Resort, which is located on a small private island to the East of Apia. The island is only a couple of hundred meters from the shore and connected by a causeway.

I had two full days to explore Samoa, with a day trip to American Samoa in between. I hadn't booked any tours in advance for my first day here, so I decided to see the Robert Louis Stevenson museum and hike up to his tomb. Robert Louis Stevenson moved with his family to Samoa in 1890, 4 years before his early death at age 44.  (The two books he is probably most famous for are "Treasure Island" and "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde".) He bought 400 acres of land and built his estate here. The house looks quite majestic, located half way up the mountain, overlooking Apia and the Pacific Ocean and it is surrounded by beautifully maintained gardens.

The inside of the house is interesting as well. It has been restored to what it looked like in the late 19th century, a slightly strange mixture of Victorian country house filled with European furniture and South Pacific decorations.

There is a small mountain behind the house, where Robert Louis Stevenson was buried after his death in 1894. His tomb is located right on top of the hill with amazing views of the coast and the surrounding mountains.

There are two trails leading up to the tomb. I took the short steep trail up and the longer one back down. The whole hike took about an hour and a half, and took me mostly through thick forests. I heard many exotic sounding birds, but they were hard to see in the dense foliage. The only wildlife I saw were many of these black lizards. They were quite shy and it took my a while to get a good shot of one.

Back at the museum, I decided to walk all the way down to the centre of Apia, which took nearly an hour in the midday heat. There are a few interesting things to see in the city, foremost the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It was originally constructed in 1884, but after taking extensive damage in the 2009 earthquake, it was almost completely rebuilt and reopened in 2014. It is quite an extraordinary building both from the outside and the inside, with its blue colored roof and the beautiful wood paneled ceiling.

Other things to see in the city of Apia are the clock tower, built in 1920 by a local chief and businessman, to commemorate the death of his son in the Spanish influenza epidemic from 1918, which killed a fifth of the population at that time. (Interestingly, nearby American Samoa was quarantined by the then governor, and not a single person died there.) I walked a bit further out on the Mulinuu peninsula and saw the memorial of the German landing here. Samoa was a German Protectorate from 1900 to 1914, then known as German Samoa.

I also saw the Samoan parliament building and many of these beautiful bright red trees called flame trees.

I took a taxi back from here to the hotel. Taxis in Samoa are very plentiful, and there seems to be intense competition. Every taxi driver will give you his phone number asking that you call him the next time you need a ride. They also all offered to take me on sightseeing tours around the island.

Some background and history:
Samoa is an independent country located in the South Pacific about 1,100 km to the North-East of Fiji and 1,500 km South of the Equator. It was quite a bit hotter here than in Tonga. Samoa consists of  two main islands, called Upolu and Savai'i, with a few smaller islands surrounding them. It has a population of nearly 200,000, three quarters of which live on Upolu. The capital city Apia is located on the North shore of Upolu. Savai'i is a bit larger, but much more remote and less developed. I did not get a chance to visit Savai'i on this trip, since it’s a bit too far for a day trip, but I heard that it is stunningly beautiful and I definitely need to go back some time.

The islands were first settled by people from the Lapita culture around 3,500 years ago. First contact with the Western world started only in the 18th century. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to see Samoa in 1722. Britain, the US and Germany fought over control of the islands in the late 19th century. In 1889 all three powers sent large warships into Apia harbour, and a large scale conflict was only avoided because of a major cyclone that sank most of their ships. A peace deal in 1899 resolved the conflict by giving the two main islands to Germany and the Eastern islands to the US (which remains American Samoa to this day). After 1914 control of German Samoa passed to New Zealand.

Samoa became the first Pacific Island nation to gain full independence in 1962. It is a parliamentary democracy. The country was called Western Samoa until it changed its name officially to Samoa in 1997. There were two other interesting changes they made more recently: in 2009 they changed the side of the road they drive on from right to left, and in 2011 they decided to move to the Western side of the international dateline in order to be more aligned with Australia and New Zealand rather than the US. (As a result Dec 30th, 2011 is a day that simply does not exist in Samoan history.)

The economy is largely driven by foreign remittances, export of agricultural products (mainly coconut) and tourism (which has grown to 25% of the economy in recent years). The population is over 90% ethnically Polynesian, with the rest having at least part European ancestry. As in many other Pacific island nations, obesity and the resulting high rates of diabetes are a major health concern in Samoa.

On my second day here I had a tour booked to visit the best waterfalls and swimming holes around the Island of Upolu. I was picked up by Tim from Samoa Highland Adventures at 8:00 am. There were three other solo travelers on the trip. We first drove a bit inland to a lovely waterfall called Sauniatu Falls. We all jumped into the cool waters of the pool underneath for a very refreshing swim.

Our next stop was the Piula cave pool, a freshwater pool where you can swim probably 100 meters into a very dark cave:

From here we drove along the North coast towards the Eastern end of Upolu.  There are beautiful little islands and stunning white sand beaches along the way.

We had a nice lunch of tuna sandwiches, fresh pineapple and mango at one of these gorgeous beaches.

After a brief detour inland to see the beautiful view of Faga-loa bay,

we then reached the highlight of the day, the most iconic site in Samoa: the To Sua Ocean Trench. It is a giant sink hole that is connected to the ocean through an underground tunnel. It's an unbelievable sight:

We climbed the steep and fairly slippery ladder down to the platform to jump into the warm and perfectly clear turquoise waters. You can also swim through a large tunnel into another sink hole that's about 50 meters away.

Our final swimming stop took us into the O Le Pupu-Pue National Park, which was declared the first National Park in the South Pacific in 1978. Togitogiga Falls are a series of small cascading falls that end in a deep pool.

On the way back we stopped at the highest falls in Upolo, the stunning Papapapaitai Falls that plunge more than 100 meters into an ancient volcanic crater.

We arrived back in Apia at around 6:00 pm. It was a great day out, with lots of beautiful swimming spots and amazing views.

I left Samoa on Saturday afternoon on the 4 hour direct flight to Auckland on Air New Zealand. I feel two days, though great for a good first impression, was not nearly enough time to see the majority of the sites in Samoa. I definitely would like to come back here at some stage, first to do some of the great hikes further inland, and then to spend at least a couple of days in Savai'i.

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