Welcome to the capital of Samoan islands, Apia! A small town of around 45 000 inhabitants, but actually the only “town” of any note in the archipelago. No beaches here, but a nice place to begin your trip where you can meet with locals and you could easily orientate yourself after one afternoon! Indeed, it is not a big town!
Samoa, what is it?
After five hours flying from Sydney, we land in the middle of South Pacific, at 4 in the morning! Complicated, and you have to add the 3 hours of time difference compared to Australia! The Apia airport is very small and the only international flights coming to the country are from New-Zealand (mainly, Auckland), Australia and Fiji.
This little country, independent since 1962, is made of two main islands, Upolu and Savai’i. They are separated from about 20 kms, and arounf hundreds of kilometres west of the brother country, American Samoan, who decided to stay part of the USA.
Samoa (said as “Western” until the 90s has a specific history during the XXth century, from the end of World War 1 when New-Zealand took over the previous German colony to establish its sovereignity, helped by the UK. A lot of strikes and rebel behaviours started in the 30s (notably a deadly epidemic that killed significant part of the local population that was not managed by the foreign administration). These independency behaviours were more and more important and became a political movement that developed significantly after World War II, leading to a complete independency in 1962. before Fiji (neighbours Tonga were never colonized).
Since then, the economic situation in the country is complicated, and the main resources are still the money sent back home by the Samoan working and living abroad (notably in New-Zealand and Australia), the international help (from Japan for example), and a still relatively new and small tourism. The country decided to do a step closer to its big neighbours from Oceania as it decided to jump over the international date line in 2002 to be closer to Australian and Kiwi time zone, now 3 hours ahead of Sydney. As as result, the time difference with American Samoa, despite the few kilometres separated the two islands, is now huge and almost 1 full day! Last but not least, Samoan authorities decided to make people drive on the left to be in line with New-Zealand standards as most vehicules are imported from this country. Then, Samoa is trying to establish closer than ever links with its Asia Pacific region as a way to develop economically, very important for such a small, poor and with no major natural resources country like Samoa. However it is worth underlining the political situation is very stable and democratic and the locals are well educated, speaking both English and Samoan, on top of being one of the friendliest people you will meet.
The national currency is the Tala. Basically 2 Talas = 1 Australian dollar.
Polynesian atmosphere in Apia
We only stayed around 4 days in Apia, at the beginning and at the end of our trip. The town is not very big (although several villages are now completely integrated to the capital) and we were sleeping at Samoan Outrigger Hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet, around 5 minutes driving from the city center. Generally speaking it is very easy to move around the city as you will become familiar with all areas in one afternoon as it is quite small. On top of that, taxis will drive you evewhere for 5 talas, easy! Very relaxing atmosphere.
What to do? First mandatory step at the great Samoan Cultural Village, which offers free information and shows about the Samoan culture from Tuesday to Friday, from 10am to 1pm. Free and really entertaining, proposed by the tourism office, you will learn about the recipe of Umu, the traditionnal national dish made from fish, taro, coco and manioc, discover the wooden objects made by specialists (notably a large bowl used for kava ceremony, the kava being the traditional dring all around Pacific, made from herbal roots), learn about the meaning of Polynesian tatoos but also watch a wonderful Fiafia show at the end of the visit. To sum, the visit to the Samoan Cultural Village is a must do!
You will walk around the magnificent Cathedral of immaculate Conception near the office tourism. The first of many churches you will see everywhere around the country, the real link uniting the Samoan people who put their faith and family at the center of their everyday lives. For local and friendly atmospheres, go near the harbour to the Maketi Fou (where everything is sold, food or other), or the Fish Market, particularly interesting on Sunday mornings, before…the church. These are located next to the central road station, from where you could catch typical buses to go around the island. However, we would not recommend these for travellers as there are no regular schedule (they go when they are – very – full), slow and will make you waste a lot of time. It can be fun to get on one of them once or twice, just for fun, as you will be among locals, speaking with them about their lifes or passion for rugby, and experience the loud raggae music making the trip become a buzzing and lively life experience. But you will quickly think that renting a car is actually the best way to discover the island quietly and go wherever you want.
So in less than three hours you can do the walk along the bay, from Palolo Deep Marine Reserve (good snorkelling spot, 10 talas to get in, however the reef is so close especially at low tide that you have to be careful not to damage it or injure yourself), to the harbour (quite a lot of good international restaurants near by) and the city center and the central bank of Samoa until the previous parliament house and the Marina where we went to have dinner on a Sunday night (one of the only place open on a Sunday). For information, Samoa people are very religious and Sunday everything is closed and slow in Samoa as everyone gathers to go to the church or meet with family. It can be a good idea to integrate with locals and go to the church as well. The cathedral in Apia, next to the tourism office, is particularly beautiful as said earlier.
Not far from Apia, catch a cab (which will cost you 5 or 10 talas to discover the Robert-Louis Stevenson museum,last house of the famous writer of the Treasure Island, who left his Scottish lands at the end of his life, looking for a warmer climate to face health issues and rheumatism. You can still visit the huge house as it was beginning of XXth century, which offers a good idea of how Samoa was during colonial periods. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit it but we climbed the top of the hill next to the museum where he has been buried. It is also a good way to benefit from a magnificient point of view over Apia. Among the other things worth a visit, the Papa’esa slidings rocks can also be funny, for young and adults as well. Generally speaking, there are few tourists in Samoa, mainly Australian and New-Zelanders, but also some Europeans as well. Lastly there are not any beaches at Apia as strange as it seems to be. But the ones at the South of Upolu coast and savai’i are so beautiful anyway so you won’t regret anything as you are not in Apia for beaches anyway.
Last but not least
Speaking about food, the restaurants in Samoa are not great and you don’t go there as a culinary destination. Not many choises except fish and chips and burgers (except if you are willing to pay much more). Samoa have one of the highest obesity rate in the world (originnally their rugbymen look is already quite impressive…) and many of them just don’t eat healty food. Saying that, there are still some nice places to have lunch and dinner such as the Marina. Traditional dishes cooked with local fish and vegetable are only for special occasions and for worshipping Sundays.
So after few days of rest in the only “town” of the archipelago, we head off to idyllic beaches south of Upolu island with our rental car. Distances are not important and we need approx 2 hours to reach Lalomanu Beach. Just keep in mind Apia is one of the only places where there are ATMs so take some cash there. The vast majority of the country is just countryside and villages and you have to have some talas with you. Also, you don’t need to go to supermarkets before your road trip as the resorts will have restaurants as well, and in many cases you will have dinners and breakfasts included. Lastly if you want to have some local news, visit the website of Samoa Observer!
Where did we sleep?
- We spent all our nights at Apia at Samoan Outrigger Hotel. Recommended by Lonely Planet and with interesting feesm the hotel looks good with a colonial architecture (however staff not super friendly according to us), but breakfast is quite big, pool is nice after a long day walking around in town and the possibility to rent a car for the next days around the island. To sum up, a small and clean good looking hotel with 6 or 7 available rooms (with or without bathrooms) as well as traditional fales (houses on stilts, everwhere in Samoa) in the garden (cheaper then).