Around Apia

About Samoa

Samoa, once part of a larger island chain, was given to the Germans during the Tripartite Convention of 1899. At this time it became known as Western Samoa, though “Western” was dropped in 1997.

The archipelago is made up of ten islands though half are uninhabited. Savai’i is the largest island while Upolu is the most populated. The aforementioned are the most visited and four of the uninhabited islands are situated off the east coast of Upolu and comprise the Aleipata Islands which may be visited by boat.

The international airport is on the island of Upolu, where I began my trip, though I actually flew into the smaller airport, Fagali’i, as I came from American Samoa on Samoa Airways. What an experience!

Getting to Samoa

I checked in at the desk in the open-air airport with an over weight dive bag (only 44 pounds are allowed). I tried paying in advance online, however, the airline didn’t include information on over weight luggage between the islands, only to larger destinations like Australia and New Zealand.

The friendly American Samoan who checked me in asked, “Are you ready pay?”

“Yes,” I replied.

To which he responded, “Maybe next time.”

He handed me my paper boarding pass marked with a seat assignment and pointed me to the outdoor waiting area.

I asked, “Where is security?”

“There’s no security. I’m it. I’ll check you in over there.”

I waited beneath the ceiling fan for a while as I tried deciphering garbled announcements. In the meantime, I kept my eye out for the man who checked me in as well as for a family of five all wearing the same shirt which they had made so I knew when to board.

Eventually the family went inside, so a few minutes later I followed suit, only the door was locked, and I couldn’t enter! Fortunately, another local tried too, and he knew the ropes. He knocked on the main door and when no one opened, he walked around to another door, where immigration let us in!

At this point, I was not convinced I was in the right place, but the family of five had the same hand written flight number on their boarding card as I did, so I became their shadow.

After passing through immigration, we sat at an air-conditioned gate. Had I known that, I would have tried to enter sooner! Anyway, I found some macadamia nuts at the tiny duty free shop for less than in the Hawai’i Airport where they came from…haha. The nuts served as my lunch before we boarded the 15 seat plane.

On the way to Samoa
Matching shirts and dresses

I was thankful to have a single seat on the left-hand side after my atrocious flight four days ago on Hawaiian Air with only half a seat to my name. On that flight, I had to ask the woman next to me to move her arm so I could put my tray table down which then became her new resting spot. But I digress.

Fagali’i Airport

Though American Samoa and Samoa are only 40 miles apart, I lost an entire day on my trip as we crossed the international dateline upon landing at the tiny domestic airport. I passed through the open air immigration with my bag waiting for me in a matter of minutes.

Outside, taxis waited where I got one for $10 Tala to Talofa Inn in Apia. The taxis aren’t metered, and I was warned by two Samoans who live in American Samoa that they will take advantage of Palagi (white people), so I had the correct price from my hotel before I arrived.

Talofa Inn

Apia is only about 10 minutes from the airport. Unlike Sadie’s By The Sea in American Samoa, Talofa Inn had one of the most uninviting hotel entrances I’ve seen. Set back from the street next to the Comp Tech store, the non-descript stairs invited visitors onto a large covered veranda.

Talofa Inn in Apia, Samoa

Inside, however, was a different story. It’s kitchen, sitting, and dining area attached to a hallway lined with six rooms were spotless, a welcome change from my room in American Samoa.

Talofa Inn is billed as a Bed and Breakfast, but I’d describe it more as a hostel style setting. I had the last room on the left of the corridor which I was excited about with it being the furthest distance from the dining area, but I found out Samoan like to drive fast and blare their music on the main street.

My room, though small, was very clean with everything I needed including a mini-fridge. I paid extra for my private bathroom which was down the hall. Anyone could have used it, if I didn’t lock it. Sunday night, the Inn was full and all but one guest were quiet. Fortunately, the guy who streamed is LOUD show went to bed around 11:30pm, and the next night only two of us had a peaceful evening.

Maketi Fou and Other Markets

Apia on a Sunday is rather quiet. All stores, including grocery stores, are closed. Luckily, not far from Talofa Inn, is the Maketi Fou market where a few vendors sold fruit and veggies. I picked up a large bunch of bananas and an avocado for only $4 Tala. I think that’s around $1.50 USD.

Maketi Fou in Apia Samoa

With snacks in hand, I strolled the quiet streets. I headed north on Vaea toward the clock tower. At the round about, I turned left to see the fish market, bus station, and flea market all clustered together. Aside from a few drunk guys, the area was vacant. To see the hustle and bustle, the fish market is best visited right before Sunday church when locals are prepping for after mass lunch, and the flea market is open Monday through Saturday.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral

I turned around and headed east on Beach Road, which changes names as it circles the island, toward the Sheraton, home of the famous Aggie Grey’s restaurant. Along the way, is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

It was recently rebuilt with timber-crafted ceilings and elaborate stain-glass windows for $13 million Tala. The enormous congregation seats 2,000. It so happened five o’clock mass was taking place as I walked by, so I popped my head in to listen to the beautiful singing. Though a lovely place, it’s a shame so much money was used to construct a building rather than to provide for a struggling nation.

Immaculate  Conception Cathedral in Apia, Samoa

Aggie Grey’s

Continuing along the coastal road, past a variety of businesses, I finally reached the Sheraton in an historic white building which includes Aggie Grey’s. Aggie Grey was a Samoan who married Charlie Grey, a gambler who lost all their money.

To support her four kids, in 1942, she borrow $180 USD, bought the site of a former hotel, and sold hamburgers and coffee to US soldiers. She even bypassed the New Zealand imposed prohibition! The spot was so popular for socializing that it became famous Pacific wide. It is said, James Michener’s character Bloody Mary in The Tales of the South Pacific is based on Aggie Grey.

Aggie grey’s in Apia, samoa

Over time the institution expanded into a hotel where many celebrities stayed. While I had hoped to grab a hamburger at Aggie Grey’s it is now a fancy restaurant as part of the Marriott (eventhough the sign outside still says The Sheraton). Fortunately, the hotel includes a more casual restaurant by the pool. In shorts and hungry, I visited this restaurant and ordered a delicious green papaya salad with seared tuna.

With the afternoon of travel and a slow Sunday evening behind me, I planned for my adventures the following day. Fortunately, I switched to T-mobile with free unlimited international data before I left, as I used up my free 300MB of WiFi in the first few hours of my stay!

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum

The following day, I was the first of the guests to breakfast at 8am. This is where the Bed & Breakfast does apply. Coffe,tea, and cereal are available on the counter while Lea prepares a plate of fruit with quiche or pancakes. The meal changes daily.

The skies were overcast with sporadic showers. I started the morning with a taxi for $10 Tala to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Robert Louis Stevenson had tuberculosis and was advised by his doctor to move to a warmer climate. As such, he came to Upolu. While he had already written his most famous works, he was still a prolific writer while in Samoa.

He lived in his mansion set on a large lawn with manicured gardens until his death in 1894. The original home was destroyed by a cyclone in the early 1990’s, and it was rebuilt on the hundredth anniversary of his death in 1994. The home is now a museum.

Visitors may take a guided 25 minute tour inside the house for $20 Tala. The home is decorated with period furniture and old family photos. In addition, on display are first editions of his most famous books, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum In Samoa

Mt. Vaea National Reserve

The museum is located adjacent to the Mt. Vaea National Reserve and Robert Louis Stevenson is buried there. There are two paths to his grave on the top of the mountain. One, short and steep, basically requires climbing stairs for half a mile. The other is much longer, but more gradual.

With the crummy weather, I took the short, steep trail which climbs through thick vegetation with a couple of lookouts. The path is extremely well maintained, and easy to follow after crossing the bridge at the beginning. The views of Apia were obscured by low hanging clouds, but the grave at the top looked cool in the fog.

RLS grave on Mt Vaea

After my hike, the museum called a taxi for me to return to Apia, also $10 Tala which we agreed to before I left. Back in Apia, I retraced many of my steps from Sunday, and visited the fish market, the flea market, and Maketi Fou once again. This time they were bustling with locals.

Colorful buses in Apia, Samoa

Lunch and a Relaxing Afternoon

I ordered fish and chips at the fish market and walked to the water front for a quiet picnic before returning to Talofa Inn. I had planned on visiting Papaseea Sliding Rocks which is also a short taxi ride, but the recent Trip Advisor reviews said the water was too low to slide, and they take your money without telling you, so I skipped that.

Palolo Deep Marine Reserve was another potential option I thought about, but the reviews were also mixed. It requires swimming out 100 meters to a dark blue hole at high tide or walking across the coral at low tide. Neither sounded terribly appealing.

In addition, the beaches in Samoa are family owned and visitors must pay to cross the land to snorkel. The fee is at the whim of a family member who sometimes tries charging a ridiculous $30 Tala. I’m not sure of the average charge here, but being a diver, I’m somewhat spoiled and am leery of “good” snorkeling reviews.

Samoa Cultural Village

Another deterrent included not having a car to store my things at the beach, so I ended up being remarkably lazy. Island time finally sunk in after ten days in the tropics. I strolled to the the Samoa Cultural Village where I planned on watching demonstrations about Samoan life, but confused my days. All day I thought it was Tuesday, but it was Monday and the “free” show is Tuesday through Friday.

That’s OK, I enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of sporadic showers, and the following morning attended the interactive sessions which take place from 10:30 to 12:30. The outdoor Cultural Village is located behind the Visitor’s Center next to the harbor on the North end of Apia. A variety of fales line an open space where different demonstrations take place.

The Pe’a Tatau

I thought they would all take place at the same time and visitors could wander from station to station, but instead it is more like a tour. Arriving a little late, I joined several visitors sitting with their shoes off in a fale (no standing and no shoes inside a fale). We watched men receive the pe’a tatau, an intricate “full-body” tattoo, the old-fashioned way!

Traditionally, the pe’a that goes from the knees to the belly button (front and back) was used for chiefs. Now men get it to represent their family and community. It is frowned upon if the man does not finish the 12, six-hour sessions that it takes to complete.

It is recommended to do the sessions in 12 consecutive days, but not required. Women may also get the tattoo, called a Malu, but for ladies the design only covers their upper legs and takes two sessions. No one would have known all the details had I not asked so many questions. Eventually the guy next to me complimented my questioning! What can I say. It was fascinating. I only wished I could take pictures! Some of the visitors wanted to get a smaller tattoo done that way. I’m passing on that custom in which about 50% of Samoan men partake.

Only a few artists know the design. They use a tool with a handle of wood and titanium needle, kind of like the arm of a record player. The artist holds the tool in one hand and taps the handle with another piece of wood to create the up and down motion of inking. While one artist tattoos, another wipes off excess ink with a cloth. A third person holds the man still by his feet, and a fourth person holds the man’s hand and wipes his forehead.

Cooking, Woodworking, and Making Siapo

Watching the tatau process was definitely the highlight, but I also enjoyed cooking our free lunch in the umu, a pile of hot coals. Select visitors tossed taro and breadfruit into “oven” which is covered with banana leaves. We moved on to other demonstrations while the food cooked (about 30 minutes).

Cooking demonstration at Samoa Cultural Village
Can see part of the Pe’a Tatau on his waist.
Also men do the cooking in Samoa.

After cooking, we watched men carve figurines like turtles, drums, and bowls. Many were on display for sale. Next, we passed by the massage fale, to watch women make siapo, a cloth made from Mulberry wood. To make the siapo, they cut the middle out of the branch, pounded it, dipped it in water and spread it with a shell. It’s amazing how a narrow piece of wood can turn into a flat square in ten minutes. Thereafter, they stained it with a design.

Making Siapo at Samoa Cultural Village
Making Siapo

The finale included and dancing and singing show along with our lunch served in woven baskets. In addition to the breadfruit and taro, we had a small piece of tuna and palusami, native dish of taro leaves drenched in sweet coconut milk which was wonderful.

Near the end of the performance, out came the basket for donation requests. The demonstrations were really too involved to be free. The show was particularly nice for this extremely rainy day with the weather not being too conducive to beach going. In general, I would have been content to just see the tatau and to taste the traditional food, but lunch had to cook while we visited the other sessions. For those who have never experienced similar cooking or dancing or for those who want to buy trinkets directly from the artist, it is quite a good experience.

Beach Bound

While my time in Apia was nice, after two days, I found myself itching to get to the beach. After all, I was on an island. Next door to Talofa Inn is Rental Car 4 Less. Guests of Talofa Inn receive a 20% discount, and Lea at Talofa Inn will organize the car rental.

I rented a car for my next two days on the island for around $50USD a day plus an international drivers license which costs $21 Tala for a month. Along with the rental car agent, we inspected the vehicle for scratches which seemed more important than in the USA since they require authorization to charge up to $2,500 Tala for any damage which can’t be disputed. Though the previous damage had not been repaired, the agent told me he could tell the difference between new and old scratches.

I thought, well this will be an adventure, especially driving on the opposite side of the road! Off I went to stay at Saletoga Sands Resort for two nights. To be continued…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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