Samoa is one of those places whose very name evokes an exotic, end-of-the-earth Eden. Not to be confused with American Samoa, which sits slightly east, the politically independent country of Samoa was a colony of New Zealand until 1962 and still draws its few intrepid visitors from that country and Australia (the South Pacific being to them what the Caribbean is to New Yorkers). Aside from having a largely untouched, distinctive Pacific Islander culture, it’s also known among surfers as having some exceptional, uncrowded waves. The surf set is also drawn to Samoa’s exoticism, as long-distance travel, adventure, a certain degree of roughing it and exploration have long been hallmarks of the sport—people come here as they went to Waikiki and Bali back in their early days. But now a broader swath of international visitors are getting wise to the country’s laid-back appeal, and new luxury resorts are making it more comfortable than ever.
Here are ten things to know while planning your trip there.
1. There’s more to nature here than the waves. Sure, the point breaks are exceptional, the water is gin-clear and bathwater-warm, and the beaches might as well be made of powdered sugar. But there’s a lot to explore on land, including the gorgeous Afu Afu waterfall, which cascades into a swimming pool that offers welcome respite from the tropical heat, and the fascinating Alofaaga Blow Holes, where waves propel water—and sometimes coconuts that visitors throw in—through gaps in the volcanic rock and hundreds of feet into the air.
2. Samoa has a singular culture within the South Pacific. Its citizens are uniquely yard-proud, so everything is tidy and beautiful. While the population is now predominately Christian, they still live a life tied to fa’a Samoa, the traditional Samoan way, performing ceremonies, deferring to village chiefs, often living communally, and celebrating rituals with unusual dances, including a lively male counterpart to the Hawaiian hula called the sasa and the slightly violent fa’ataupati, or “slap dance,” in which men slap their bodies in ways said to have been derived from the motions of killing insects.
3. Know the lay of the land. Samoa consists of two main islands and eight others. Upolu is the most populated, most touristed and home to the international airport as well as two new Sheraton hotels. Savai’i is more untouched, remote and hard to get to, home to just 42,000 people while also being one of the largest islands in Polynesia. Think of the difference between developed Tahiti and more serene Bora Bora. It’s worth the extra effort (a 45-minute ferry ride) to get to Savai’i.
4. Aganoa Lodge is a game changer. Until recently, Savai’i had just a handful of simple resorts and open-air beach bungalows called fales. The American owners of Aganoa bought one of those, invested in bringing it up to luxury-traveler standards and reopened it in 2015. The accommodations are still in eight beach fales with open sides and outdoor showers, but they’ve been given a new Robinson Crusoe chic look, with canopied wooden beds and good plumbing. There’s no air-conditioning, but breezes and fans cool them at night, and during the day, well, the water is just steps away. While the place’s claim to fame is two postcard-perfect surf breaks, it also stocks SUP boards, kayaks and snorkeling gear, and is a fine place to simply lie on the beach. www.pegasuslodges.com
Unless you’re fairly accomplished, you aren’t ready for the marquee breaks at Aganoa or elsewhere on the islands. Not only are they big, but there are rocks down below, so you must know how to fall correctly. While Aganoa has solid instructors and another spot that’s friendlier for surfing novices, the owners strongly suggest that you get a few lessons under your belt before you come. No matter what, you’ll want reef booties.
6. Ferries can be unpredictable. Another guest during my stay saw his return home delayed by three days after his ferry return to Upolu and the airport was inexplicably canceled. This isn’t unusual. Aganoa sends a guide to meet guests at the airport in Apia when they arrive (at the crack of dawn, generally) and escort them onto the morning ferry. But on the return, or with other resorts, you’re on your own. Don’t take the last ferry of the day or the one that’s closest to your flight. You’ll have extra time in Upolu and can pass the time with a meal or using the pool or internet at Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Resort, which is an easy taxi ride from both the ferry and the airport. (Aganoa guests have access; others can pay.)
7. It’s easy to get around, but not always free. The roads in Samoa are good, though you drive on the left, and the expats’ biggest complaint about Samoan drivers is their slow speed. Landmarks are well signposted, but locals collect admission fees at most of them. Bring small local currency so they can’t claim they don’t have change.
8. Everything is closed on Sundays, and for around 20 minutes each afternoon. Going to church in Samoa is a way to hear traditional singing and admire the villagers decked out in their all-white best. But after the service, Samoans take their day of rest seriously. Markets and natural attractions are all closed. Be careful about getting stuck on the roads around dusk. Every day there is an evening curfew, called sa, in which village chiefs call everyone in to pray, and foreigners aren’t allowed to start driving anywhere. If they’re en route, they have to slow down and turn off the radio. It lasts only 10-20 minutes, but each village does it at a slightly different time, so if you have bad luck, you can be stuck for a while.
9. It’s not as hard to reach as you might think. Fiji Airways operates daily flights from Honolulu, which take less than six hours. There are also flights from Sydney (about 5 hours) and Auckland (about 3.5 hours), should you happen to be in that part of the world.
10. Know when to go. Samoa has two seasons, dry and rainy. The dry season runs from May through October and is generally considered the best time to visit. I was told my weather experience in February was typical of Samoa's rainy season: mostly nice days with the occasional 15-minute downpour.
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