History of American Samoa
Before I visited American Samoa the only thing I knew about the Polynesian island chain, was that it is owned by the USA. I learned Polynesians first arrived on the islands some 2,500 years ago.
The USA didn’t get involved with Samoa until 1872 when it signed a friendship treaty with the Samoan government in order to establish a coaling station for the US Navy fleet as the islands are located midway between Hawaii and New Zealand.
England and Germany also signed friendship treaties in the late 1800’s and soon thereafter, fighting erupted among the different factions. As a result the islands were split into Eastern and Western Samoa during the Tripartite Convention of 1899.
While USA received the eastern islands which included Aunu’u, Manu’a and Tutuila with its natural harbor, Pago Pago, and the US coaling station, the Germans took control of Western Samoa and England gave up Samoa for more control in the Solomons.
Under US ownership, the Samoans ceded to the USA on April 17, 1900 and the islands were named US Naval Station Tutuila. They were designated as American Samoa ten years later. In 1940 with the threat of the Pacific War, the USA expanded the coaling station into a Naval Station where it operated for the next eleven years.
Things To Do In Tutuila
American Samoa is made of five islands and two atolls, one of which is uninhabited. I’m told the prettiest of them all is Ofu, but with the Manu’a Islands’ remote location and limited flight schedule (only twice a week), my three days in American Samoa was not conducive to a visit. Next time.
The main highlights of Tutuila, many times just called Pago Pago (pronounced Punga Punga) after its main port, can be visited in two days, but for a more relaxing visit, three days is a better option.
Where to Stay
Having said that, American Samoa, despite being home to some of the friendliest people I have ever met, is not geared toward tourism. The choices of hotels are limited and not terribly inviting.
Sadie’s By The Sea
Though the Tradewinds Hotel in Tafuna near the airport likely has nicer rooms, I selected Sadies By the Sea for its manicured grounds and central location to both the east and west side of the island, all be it, the island is only 21 miles long.
The staff at Sadie’s is extremely friendly, and they are all bilingual in English and Samoan. Based on the staff’s friendliness, it’s location in a beautiful natural harbor, and the nice though small beach and pool area, I could recommend the hotel.
However, it’s not always best to judge a book by its cover. Describing the rooms as adequate might be generous. The good sized rooms with comfy beds, a bathroom and kitchenette have nice views, but they are in need of some TLC.
I arrived late at night. The staff was at the airport to greet me along with five other guests. Three of us climbed in the shuttle (someone’s SUV) and took the 20 minute ride to Sadies By The Sea (not Inn which is in town). The ride would have been shorter, but the speed limit along the single main road is only 20mph. Additionally, the poorly lit road with enormous, unmarked speed bumps in individual towns is deadly (at least to the vehicle).
The checkin at Sadie’s took about two minutes. With one signature, I had my room key and unlimited WiFi code in hand. Wow! Thereafter, my experience with the room was comical. Neither one of my bedside table lamps nor the room phone worked. No big deal except the only overhead light was in the hallway by the door. I couldn’t see a thing!
Eventually Loi got one of the lights working, and he claimed he’d get me another one, but that was the end of that. It turns out I was the lucky one. Another couple who also happened to be from Colorado only had a tiny desk reading light. Mary asked, “Don’t you have a flashlight on your phone?”
Well, yes I do, but I wasn’t planning on using it for the next four nights in my hotel room. I wasn’t camping, though with ants everywhere, it felt like it. They were literally coming out of the woodwork. My snacks were only safe inside the mini fridge. In addition, the mottled carpet felt like walking across dirt. Slippers needed!
After a day, my electronic key stopped working. Therefore, I asked the desk to rekey my card. Instead, without asking for a bit of identification, they just handed me a regular house key for the lock under the electronic keypad. Since they were handing the key to the right person, me, this actually worked to my benefit because I could leave my key card in the slot for the A/C and always came back to a cool room.
The third day, my television proved a challenge. Though not much of a TV watcher on vacation, I occasionally like background noise especially when it is drowning out “highway” sounds. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get the cable to work when I saw a note mentioning two remotes. I only had one. Returned to the 1970’s, I stood at the television and changed the stations by hand. It was then I realized how lazy technology has made me in certain instances!
Fortunately, with the Raid can conveniently located in my bathroom, there wasn’t anything too difficult to overcome. It just became a game to see what would happen next like water dripping from a pipe through the light fixture above the sink and the housekeeping oddly cleaning late in the evening and mistakenly walking into my room at 9pm. At least there weren’t any bed bugs!
Amazingly, I’d still recommend the place, as the other options are limited, and the grounds, where I spent most my time while at the hotel, were pleasant.
Historic Walk Around Pago Pago
As I mentioned previously, American Samoa does not cater to tourism. Pago Pago is a blue-collar fishing town with two tuna canneries, one being Starkist. Once a military base, however, history buffs will enjoy strolling through the village peppered with historic white buildings, once part of the base. In addition, there are many pill boxes around the island that were constructed during World War Il.
Strolling from Sadie’s to the opposite end of town is maybe a mile. A few quick stops along the way are the Jean P Haydon Museum and the Fagatogo Market, both of which are free.
Visit the Jean P Haydon Museum
The Museum has two rooms. One room features nice displays of canoes, war tools, fish hooks and the like. The docent described one hook with fur as a lure that looks like a mouse to attract octopus. I’m still trying to imagine an octopus attacking an underwater mouse.
The other room is filled with racks of artifacts like a scientist’s office. The museum usually displays moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission as well, but in celebration of the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon, the rock had been moved to the library for a more elaborate presentation about American Samoa’s participation in various moon landings (more on this later).
Stroll Through the Fagatogo Market
Not far from the museum is the market. Fruit vendors line the front of the market while clothes vendors take the inside. Locals hang out in the back and eat their pancakes also known as fried dough.
Ride the Bus
Next door to the market is the bus station. The colorful buses operate all over the whole island. While the schedule is limited to distant places, just about every fourth car in town is a bus. They only cost a dollar. It’s worth taking a short ride just for the experience. I rode the bus after picking up a limited supply of groceries. It pulled over to pick me up with a wave of my hand, palm side down, and I just had to knock on the window to stop at my hotel.
Learn About American Samoa’s Participation with Apollo Missions to the Moon
While I would have liked a better selection of groceries, the bigger stores are in Tafuna near the airport so I settled for local eggs and tomatoes in a ziplock bag among other items which I secured safely in my mini fridge away from the ants before walking over to the library, just a quarter mile away.
I asked the librarian, “Where is the moon rock?”
She pointed to the right of the entrance and said, “Over there.”
I turned around, pointed in the same direction, and with a confused tone asked, “Over there where I walked in?”
“Yes, do you see the display?” She responded.
Expecting a big rock, I burst out laughing when I saw four specks of rock molded in a tiny paper weight mounted on a plaque with the American Samoa flag.
“That’s it?” I exclaimed. “That’s like a few flakes of gold dust.”
50th Anniversary for Moon Landing
She laughed in agreement, but mentioned there is more to see in the 50th anniversary display. I don’t know what planet I have lived on, but I had no idea American Samoa was an integral part of four Apollo missions including the nearly doomed Apollo 13.
The space capsules landed within a few hundred miles of American Samoa. The astronauts were picked up by aircraft carrier and brought to American Samoa to be flown back to Houston. Each time the astronauts were greeted with song and dance. Coincidentally, the Apollo 13 astronauts upon surviving their harrowing experience, were transferred to American Samoa on their National Flag Day (April 17th).
I guess I had never given any thought to where the astronauts landed and how they were transported. And I certainly didn’t know they were quarantined for 17 days, at least in the beginning. In my defense, the first few moon landing took place before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to care, landing on the moon wasn’t front page news, but the space shuttle Challenger explosion was.
I loved reading all the American Samoa daily bulletins which would include an update on the mission and then talk about community meetings and such. I can’t believe I came to the beach to spend an hour in the library teaching myself about missions to the moon…seriously? I’m not sure if the library display is permanent, but anyone interested in the moon landings should stop by.
Tutuila By Car
Exploring Pago Pago by foot is great, but seeing the rest of Tutuila requires a bus ride or rental car. Both Irene at Sadie’s and the ranger at the National Parks Office both recommended that I rent a car, and in hindsight I’m glad I did. Waiting on buses with no set schedule wouldn’t suit me!
With three days to explore American Samoa, I ventured to the east side first. I passed by two popular beaches, Two Dollar Beach and Alega Beach on my way to Au’asi where small boat launches leave for the Island of Aunu’u. The town isn’t even listed on Google Maps, so based on the photo in my guide book, I selected some place nearby and then kept an eye out for a dock.
Take a Boat to the Island of Aunu’u
Fortunately a boat was there, so I found it, but otherwise I would have driven right past. The “harbor” includes a fale (hut), a large parking area and restrooms. I met the owner of the rickety boat who introduced me Tice, the young captain. With my backpack in tow, I climbed on board for the 15 minute putter across the calm bay to the island. Safely to the other side, without any safety briefing, I paid my $2 fare. Quite the opposite from my recent dive boat experience on Kona with a 15 minute safety briefing on a high tech speed boat.
I felt lucky to arrive when I did as now the only two boats between Tutuila and Aunu’u were in Aunu’u. Anyone arriving at the boat dock at Eastern Tutuila would have to wait until one of them felt like going back as there wasn’t a schedule!
Based on Google Maps, the road on Aunu’u traveled farther to the right. It also looked in good condition, so I wandered that way beneath the beating sun. Though it provided a nice view of the coast line, it seemed like it was leading me to no where, and especially not to any trails which I wanted to hike. Therefore I turned around.
According to my guide book the trails were manageable alone, but a guide could be arranged for $10 at the “ferry” dock. I actually wanted a guide, but the only folks I saw at the ferry dock were a few ladies with kids resting under a tree and a crew of six building a trash container, though usually no more than two guys were working at a time. Honestly, I don’t blame them…it was HOT!!
Hike to Pala Lake
Anyway, one of the workers, who offered me some of his pancakes, was super friendly. I asked him if anyone could guide me around. He shouted my question in Samoan to a few folks sitting in the shade, but then said they were all working. I figured it wasn’t the weekend, so no guides were around (but more on that later).
By virtue of his response, I asked how to get to Pala Lake, which I wanted to see due to its red quick sand. To my recollection, I’ve never seen quick sand, so I thought it would be cool.
He pointed to the left and said, “Just follow the road until it ends.”
As I looked to the left I asked, “What road?”
“Just go that way. You’ll see it.”
Off I went, passing through the village where I found a grassy road with the coast on the left hand side and a jungle on the right. I could see the lake on the map, but at the end of the road that must have broken off into the ocean during Cyclone Gita last year, I could not find a trail that lead to it. I weaved through the jungle a little, but at the waters edge it felt like any minute an alligator would lunge out of what appeared to be a swamp, not a lake!
I really wanted a better view. I didn’t take a boat ride to Aunu’u to be completely skunked, so I returned to the road, now the width of a footpath, and skirted the edge of the coast where I finally found a wide entrance to the lake, though I faced two problems. One, a wild pack of dogs greeted me with ferocious barks. Their bark was bigger than their bite, as they shied away, but six on one wasn’t inviting. Second, the entrance required wading through water to the lake. I wasn’t about to do that as I didn’t know where the quicksand began. Instead I settled for a crappy photo and moved on.
Swim in the Tide Pools
Based on a small camping spot by the lake, the slightly worn footpath, and a few pieces of trash I deduced that their might be more to see and continued along the coast. The path ended at some dazzling, aqua tide pools with waves crashing through a sea arch just a few hundred feet away. My photos could not do this place justice. While it’s not what I came to see, I certainly enjoyed the solitude and scenery. In addition, the tide pools were a perfect place to cool off after my sweltering hot walk.
My adventure didn’t stop there. I also wanted to see another lake full of eels which was up on the mountain. Back on the road, I found another footpath through the lush vegetation that headed that way, but it quickly split in many directions beneath a patch of coconut trees. Since the paths were indecipherable I chickened out. I really wished I had a guide.
Upon my return to the harbor, both the boats had left. Who knew how long I’d have to wait, so I entertained myself by watching the construction of the trash bin. They’d hammer a board in two places, use a chainsaw to cut off the excess, and then repeat. There wasn’t too much measuring or engineering happening.
Fortunately, the workers noticed the boat was on its way back. When it docked, I asked the ferryman to go to the mainland, and he said, “If you want to go now it is $10. Just wait until six people come.”
Six people?!? There were hardly six people on the island from what I could tell. He said it would be twenty minutes, and he joined the others under the trees! I didn’t have any place else to be, so I quietly ate my lunch and wondered how long it would really be. Believe it or not, it was around 20 minutes. Suddenly there were three of us, then six, then eight people making the trek, and the $2 fare prevailed.
Talk to the Locals
On my return trip is where I met Joe. He just chatted up a storm and had the whole boat laughing, I’m certain at my expense, though he claimed they were laughing at him because he always meets people. He told me the quicksand is in the middle of the lake and to swim around it in a circle. He could have shown me. Forget that I said. I was not swimming in the swamp. Then I asked him about the Red Lake with the eels.
Finally, he asked, “Why didn’t you get a guide?”
“I tried,” I replied. “They were all working. Where were you?”
“I was in my house. I saw you walk by.”
If only I had met him sooner. I could have seen the eel lake. At least l know how to do it next time…go around and ask a local until someone says yes!
Continuing our conversation, I asked Joe why he was going to Tutuila in the middle of the day.
He responded, “To go shopping. There is no fresh food on Anau’u. Only junk. I need some things like chicken.”
I thought to myself, he along with the woman who took half my seat on my six hour flight from Hawaii to Pago Pago, must eat a lot of chicken!
Upon landing in Tutuila, we said our goodbyes. As he and his buddies retrieved his truck that he leaves in the parking lot at Au’asi’s tiny harbor, I asked who owned the truck with the Broncos tailgate. He replied, “That’s my brother’s.”
Stroll a Beach
While Joe and friends raced off to the store, about an hour away, I took a slow drive back to town to enjoy the scenery. While I intended to stop at Two Dollar Beach which is $5 to visit or Alega Beach whose fee is waived upon purchasing a beverage at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, a different beach caught my attention.
The beach is located west of the aforementioned near Aumi. The narrow stretch of white sand abuts shallow, turquoise waters with two small, pyramid shaped islands. The landscape just spoke to me. I shared the seashore with only two local fisherman who were casting giant nets in the water. They were from the western side of the island and had never fished on the eastern side. Though no luck when I was there, they did have a few fish in the cooler for dinner.
Eat Ribs at Sook’s
Speaking of dinner, I tried Sook’s Sushi Restaurant. The uninviting entrance made me wonder what I was getting into, but the open kitchen cafe has been around for 20 years. The restaurant is known for its beef ribs, so I ordered that dish. It came with a cucumber salad first and then soup. The lady who served the meat asked if I would like rice, so I agreed. Upon receipt of my bill, I learned rice is extra. Haha.
Hike to Nuuuli Falls
The following day, I explored the west side of Tutuila. I started out by going to Nuuuli Falls. Following my guide book directions, I took a fork to the left and eventually ended in someone’s driveway. The gentleman kindly asked where I needed to go before I even had a chance to ask. Instead of forking left, I was to continue on the road I just left which would dead-end into somebody else’s yard. He said I could park there, but if someone was home to ask first. I guess so!
So I carried on a bit further and passed both a shed of junk and a pig farm until I ended up in someone else’s driveway. The friendly gentleman showed me where to park, pointed toward the trailhead and said, “There is a pipe and then you’ll see the trail. You cross the creek and follow the trail up to the falls. It’s about 30 minutes.”
I’m so glad he was there and told me all this. I still felt like I was trespassing as I passed through his yard between the coconut trees. I found the pipe and then ducked under a fallen tree at the trailhead where I began the hike.
Upon crossing the creek, I turned upstream and continued through the jungle until I got to a rocky area where the trail ended. Confused for a moment, I realized I had to cross the creek again and follow the over-grown path just a few more minutes until I reached the falls. It probably took 15 minutes or less to find the beautiful cascade that tumbled over the cliff into a pool of cool water.
Covered in sweat from just a short walk, I took a dip in the pool and let water batter my head and shoulders. What a beautiful place to have to myself! I can’t imagine having it in my backyard. And how lovely for the gentleman to let anyone walk through his yard to see it.
Check Out a Star Mound
After my stop at the falls in Nuuuli, my travels took me slightly further west to Tafuna where I briefly visited Tia Seu Lupe and the Cathedral of the Holy Family. Tia Seu Lupe is one of many Star Mounds in American Samoa. The big mounds of earth with arms extending from them were used for pigeon hunting. Village chiefs competed to catch the most birds by sweeping up pigeons attracted to a decoy in a hut built on top of the mounds.
The custom which also included feasting and partying during the season ended in the 1990s when the government banned pigeon catching after the devastating cyclones hit. While mostly used for the bird catching sport, the mounds are also believed to have some religious importance.
Tia Seu Lupe is located next to the Cathedral of the Holy Family. It’s viewing platform is destroyed, thus it is hard to see any shape to the mound from the ground, but given the mounds were an important part of the culture, it is worth a brief visit.
Visit a Church
Churches are another big part of the American Samoa culture. Every village features a massive church which are generally white with a colorful name and design on the entrance. It is clear that money goes to the church and not the houses. The Cathedral of the Holy Family is by far the nicest and fanciest of them all. It might even be the most imposing building on the island.
Explore the Cliffs at Turtle and Shark
Not far from Tafuna’s cathedral, located on the south coast, is the Turtle and Shark Site. Coming from the east side of American Samoa, do not follow Google Maps. I ended up trapped on a narrow, pot-holed road with aggressive dogs lunging at the vehicle! Turn on the road where a sign directs visitors to the site.
The Turtle and Shark site are sacred cliffs with blowholes that overlook considerable wave action. The cliffs, surrounded by graves, are considered sacred to due to a legend. While the versions change from a mom and daughter escaping fire, to a grandmother and granddaughter poorly treated in famine, and lovers escaping cannibalism, they all jumped off the cliff and were turned into a shark and turtle. Locals sing a song to summon the shark and turtle as they promised to always return.
I visited the cliffs while a few locals fished and three others sang the song, though none of us saw a shark or a turtle. Regardless, the waves crashing over the craggy shore and the spray shooting through blow holes was an enjoyable treat.
From the Turtle and Shark Site I continued west through Leone, a cute coastal village with beautiful views of a tiny island with a single coconut tree. A few shipwrecks from the most recent cyclone sit nearby.
Continuing further west the road intermittently turns from perfectly paved to heavily potholed to almost gravel and back to paved as it winds through the jungle with an occasional view of the ocean below.
Watch the Sunset at Cape Taputapu (the Last Place on Earth to See It Each Night)
I passed through all the little villages until I settled down at Cape Taputapu, the last place on earth to watch the sunset each night. The tiny beach features a large wooden swing for a little extra romance. I arrived early in order to find my way in daylight and just relaxed under the fale as I awaited darkness.
I walked the beach a few times, but the waves kick up large pieces of coral that are painful to ankles in the surf. I quickly learned to stay on the dry sand. Though it wasn’t the best night for a sunset, being the last person on earth (at least on land) to watch it that night was pretty cool.
Hike in the National Park of Samoa
For my final day on Tutuila, I hiked in the National Park of American Samoa. My guide book specifically mentioned hiking Mt Alava, so I was bound and determined to hike that seven mile trail. It is located on the west side of Pago Pago at what was described to me by the park ranger as “a construction parking lot.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a dirt lot with an orange construction sign nearby at Fagasa Pass. It certainly didn’t feature a grand entrance like many National Parks in the USA. I would have driven right by it had I not stopped in the parks office in Pago Pago during my stroll around town the first day.
The trail is actually a dirt and rock road overgrown with grass. The rock is super slick with dew, and the wet grass drenches hikers shoes. Aside from some coconut crabs, I had the trail to myself as I gradually climbed to a peak cluttered with the remains of a cable-car system that used to cross the bay, a TV antenna, a small building, and a pavilion in the back. Climbing up on a wood platform on the old cable car railings offers the best views which are less obstructed from the vegetation.
Flushed and dripping sweat, I’m not sure the seven mile hike was worth the view unless I could have sweated out fat rather than water! Having said that, Pago Pago’s Harbor is very pretty. With the threat of rain, I returned the way I came after a quick snack. I was not about to try to hike on that rock in the rain. I would have been sliding down the mountain!
Lower Sauma Trail
Finishing the hike in three hours, I still had plenty of time to explore for the rest of the day, so I drove to the eastern side of Pago Pago, to find some trails in that part of the park. The paved road passes through a beautifully manicured area. At the top of the hill, I came upon a pullout which included a fale and a few trash cans though much of the trash sadly made it to the ground rather than the nearby barrel.
Anyway from the pullout, the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail heads down at least 100 short steps over a quarter mile as it winds through the lush vegetation peppered with lizards. I wasn’t sure if it would lead to anything great until I reached a small loop at the end which goes around a star mound. On the left of the loop a trail leads down lava rocks to some spectacular tide pools of all shades of blue. They were fantastic and my photos do not do them justice. I could have stayed for hours.
Eat at Goat Island Cafe
But running low on snacks and water, I returned to the car, continued driving through the park to the road’s end in Vatia and turned around for a late lunch at Sadie’s restaurant, Goat Island Cafe. I ordered the Oka which is like tuna poke, but instead of sesame sauce it is marinated in coconut milk and lemon juice. Amazing!
In fact, all the food at Goat Island Cafe was excellent including their eggs for breakfast and the fish tacos for dinner. I don’t generally eat at the same places multiple times, but the options in Pago Pago are limited, and twice I tried to go to DDW (Don’t Drink the Water), but it closes at 3pm. Once I was too late, and once they were closed due to an event.
Have Breakfast at DDW
I finally made it there for breakfast before I flew out to Samoa. It is very popular among the locals, but I found the service and food to be better at Sadie’s. Regardless, it’s still a good option.
While I can’t say American Samoa caters to tourists, I can say the people on Aunu’u and Tutuila are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. I enjoyed my few days on the main island and look forward to the next stop on my island hopping adventure, (Western) Samoa. ETB