Samoa lures travelers with its paradisiacal stretches of white sand beaches framed by lush rainforest, turquoise water, and azure skies. Though there is plenty of that, to be sure, and a beach is a good place to start your Samoan experience, there is much more to discover.
Begin your stay in a beach-side fale (hut), local lager in hand (try award winning Vasilima beer), and when ready to embark on a journey into the heart of Samoa you’ll encounter thriving Polynesian culture, tight-knit aigas (extended family units), quaint villages, wide grinning locals, enticing craft markets, super fresh seafood, tropical gardens, volcanic peaks, hidden pools, cascading waterfalls, and colorful creatures on both sea and land.
Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa) is an archipelago in the South Pacific between New Zealand and Hawaii. It is made up of ten islands, the two largest and most populated being Upolu and Savai’i. A separate territory, the nearby islands of American Samoa share some similarities in Polynesian culture and landscape with Samoa (traits which have long outlived modern political transitions), though the two territories are governed independently of one another.
Visitors to Samoa can attend a fiafia (traditional feast) and sample specialties such as fish or meaty pieces of taro baked over hot lava stones sealed under banana leaves in a traditional umu (oven). They can also witness the traditional dances of the islands, which represent thousands of years of intact local culture and are simply mesmerizing.
Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way), is evident everywhere in Samoa, where living traditions coincide just slightly with ever encroaching modern ways.
Currency is the tala (dollar) in Samoa, which is divided into sene (cents). Foreign currency can be exchanged at the airport upon arrival or at any major bank (it’s best to do it in the capital, Apia, where there are plenty of options, before heading out to the more remote areas). ATMs are available in most tourist areas (especially in Apia), on both of the main islands Upolu and Savai’i.
Travel in and around the islands of Samoa can be an adventure in itself. Taxis are widely available (establish a price beforehand if you are unsure as they don’t run on meters). Rental cars are also an option, as are public buses. A word on both – if you plan to rent a car, note that driving in Samoa is on the left hand side of the road (only since 2009), and if you attempt a bus ride, you must flag down a passing bus as there are really no set bus stops. Local buses are far from luxurious, and often crowded, but it’s the cheapest way to travel and a great way to meet the locals.
From the main airport (Faleolo International Airport), it’s 45 minute trip to reach the capital Apia by shuttle, taxi or bus. Travel between the two main islands (Upolu and Savai’i) is possible by air (Samoa Air), or by ferry (Samoa Shipping Corporation). The ferry from Upolu (Mulifanua Wharf, near the airport) to Savai’i (arriving in Salelologa) is about one hour. Private boats and ferries can take you between some of the other smaller islands in the archipelago.
The majority of Samoans are Polynesian. Though they share some historic and cultural ties to other Pacific Island groups – the Tongans and Fijians, Samoans have a strong independent cultural identity. Visitors will likely be warmly welcomed by these hospitable people, who are proud of their culture and eager to share their traditions.
Island time is slow – very slow compared to some Western countries, and outside of the capital travelers have no choice but to relax and take in what is known as “Fa’a Samoa” or the Samoan way. Respect, pride, and taking care of one another are deep rooted cultural values.
The pillars of Samoan society are community/village life, extended family, and church. Long standing traditional ways preside in the 350 plus “nu’u”, or villages, of Samoa, as well as more recently introduced Christian traditions brought to the islands by missionaries in the early 1800s.
Traditional dance (siva) is an integral part of the culture, and visitors should make every effort to witness this art form which embodies the wild, yet utterly graceful spirit of Samoa and its people. Women dance in beautiful costumes, with gentle, rhythmic movements and hand gestures, as if telling a story. In the Siva afi (fire knife dance), skilled men dance acrobatically with long machetes which they wrap in towels and light on fire. This impressive routine is done to the powerful beat of large wooden drums.
Samoans are also famous for their elaborate tattoos featuring ancient tribal designs, which sometimes cover the entire backs of the men.
Ian Wright discovers the art of the Samoan tattoo as well as stays in a traditional village, and feasts and dances with the locals in Globe Trekker Tahiti and Samoa.
Try a traditional meal prepared in an outdoor oven (umu). Food is placed on hot stones, sealed with large banana leaves and baked for several hours. Some typical Samoan dishes include palusami (taro baked with coconut cream), and oka – raw fish prepared with coconut cream, lemon juice and vegetables.
Fresh seafood is excellent and abundant, and is often simply prepared. Staples include tropical fruits, taro, and freshly prepared coconut cream.
Thirsty travelers will be happy to find that there are a few good local breweries on the islands.
The language is Samoan, with English also being widely spoken.
Some mosquito borne illnesses exist, such as Dengue fever. Travelers should cover their skin and use bug repellent to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos. Other dangers may exist in certain areas such as when hiking in the rainforest, so take precautions as needed. Medical care and some clinics are available in Apia.
A visa is not required for stays of less than 60 days, though all travelers must have proof of onward journey or a departure ticket. A valid passport is required and must be valid for at least 60 days upon arrival.
When to Go
The dry season in Samoa is May – Oct and the rainy season is Nov-April. Average temperature is warm (84 degrees F) throughout the year.
Women should wear a long skirt, pants, or a lavalava (sarong) when visiting the villages. Village culture can be somewhat conservative, so it’s best to dress modestly. Men should wear pants or shorts, and t-shirts or tank tops are fine for both men and women. Travelers should not wear bathing suits or scant clothing when venturing into the villages, as it is considered disrespectful.
The locals wear either colorful traditional clothing, or more modern Western attire. Visitors can purchase local clothing – such as lavalava, at the street market in Apia before departing for the villages. It is not required to dress like the locals, but a little effort will go a long way.
Light clothing is recommended for the daytime as it will likely be hot. Bring lightweight layers for the evening and for hiking in the rainforest. Definitely don’t leave home without a bathing suit, as you’ll be spending plenty of time swimming in hidden pools, washed over by waterfalls, and lounging in the sea.
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