I’d always known that time moves differently in the South Pacific, but I wasn’t aware that it was possible to lose a whole day! That’s exactly what happened in the hour between taking off from Pago Pago, American Samoa at 10:30am to landing in Apia, Samoa at 12pm the next day. Time gymnastics aside, Surprising Samoa is an undiscovered gem in the South Pacific, just waiting to be explored.
If you’ve read some of my other South Pacific posts about Tonga and American Samoa, you’d be aware that flights between island states in the region do not come cheap. The 45 minute flight from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Apia, Samoa was no exception, although at US$85, it may have been the cheapest in the area. We landed at the tiny Fagali’i airport, which only had a 600m long runway. As of 1st January 2020, this airport has been closed down and all of it’s flights have been redirected to the bigger Apia Faleolo Airport.
Super Small Airport in Surprising Samoa
The Fagali’i Airport was only a few kilometres from the town of Apia on Samoa’s second largest island, Upolu. All I needed to do was walk the short distance down the airport road to the main road to catch a local minibus for 2 Samoan Tala (WST)/US$0.75. As I was walking, a local guy started talking to me. This local guy, let’s call him Bruce, (not his actual name), was also going into town and said he’d help me find the bus.
It actually wasn’t that hard to find, it just required waiting at the intersection of the airport road with the main road. Bruce was saying that we may have a long wait but the minibus arrived soon after we reached the intersection. On the bus, the driver had a coin tray placed between his seat and the passenger seat, where all passengers were expected to place their fare. The driver would give change if needed but clearly preferred correct change.
Interestingly, the driver was on the lefthand side of the car, even though we were driving on the lefthand side of the road. Samoa changed from driving on the righthand to the lefthand side of the road back in 2009. The main reason for this was the high price of continually importing American lefthand drive vehicles in a region where righthand drive cars were more readily available. Although the change happened over 10 years ago, it is still possible to see quite a few lefthand drive vehicles, like this old-style American school bus that is now used for public transport.
Surprising Samoa Seaside
The bus dropped us off at a seaside bus station right near the local market. Bruce suggested that I might want to walk along the waterfront for a while. It was rather peaceful. He pointed out some points of interest to me while we walked along. Of course, there were palm trees but Bruce couldn’t tell me if they were naturally occurring or introduced.
Bruce then said he would help me find the place I was staying at. The problem was that the building at the address I was given was not the place I was staying at. We stopped and asked at places along the way but no one had any idea where my accommodation was. I eventually found the main building for the flats quite accidentally. My host had left a key there for me. I was relieved to finally be on my way to where I was staying!
The Sleepy Capital of Surprising Samoa
With a population of less than 40,000, Apia is one of the smallest capital ‘cities’ around. I had arrived in the early afternoon, but by the time I got to my host’s place, everything was quiet. Super quiet. There were barely any cars on the road. All the shops were closed. By 3pm! Wow. That could’ve presented a problem because I was hungry at that point. Imagine the relief I felt when I spied a small cafe that had people inside. I happily went inside only to find out that the people inside were staff and they were closed. Feeling sad, I started walking back towards the door when a worker asked if I wanted to take any of the food they had left on the counter.
I was able to have quite a hearty meal with the cafe’s leftovers. Including this interesting take on a salad. That was great because I’d planned a hike to a nearby hill, Mount Vaea. I had no idea what would await me on the top of the hill that stood 472m above the town. I just wanted to get a good view.
Hiking To The Highest Point Of The Island
For the first part of the hike, I had to walk along some suburban roads to get to the trail. The initial part of the trail was more of a dirt road running behind some local farms. The road may have still been in use, but not that often. Except maybe by the occasional cow.
About halfway up the hill, I met a local named Seb who was on his way down. He stopped to chat with me. He seemed surprised that I was on that trail, because it is the hardest way up to the hill. I thought it was weird that he would say that because I was finding it quite easy. I just shrugged it off thinking that other people’s ideas of difficult are different to mine. He was also worried about me going up by myself, so he decided to accompany me to the top. Even though he was already on his way down. I assured him that I’d be okay but he insisted. So now I had someone to talk to on the way up, which was lovely.
The Fun Way up Mount Vaea
We had actually come up to the hill next to Mount Vaea. I had noticed that on my map, but the second hill looked so close that I was sure I could find a way through the bush. Luckily Seb knew where the trail joining the hills was. That was where things got fun. Despite the trail being dry all the way up, this connecting trail was very slippery and muddy. Almost like there had been a recent downpour.
The previously open trail gave way to a well covered forest trail. That could explain why it was so wet even though there had been no rain. My trusty hiking shoes were having problems keeping me upright. But I was determined not to let the mud get the better of me! Although treacherous, the connecting trail was short. We were soon on the top of Mount Vaea.
Tomb With A View
From the top of the hill there was a view over almost the whole town of Apia, although it was slightly obstructed by trees at few points. The first thing I had noticed when I got to the top was a huge white structure. Seb had informed me on the way up that this was the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson. He had in fact thought that was the reason I was going up the hill.
If you don’t know of Robert Louis Stevenson, he was the 19th century author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What’s his connection to Samoa? He settled in Apia a few years before he died. He was revered by Samoans and Seb told me that when he died, Samoans surrounded him with a watch-guard overnight then carried him to the top of Mount Vaea and buried him. The inscription on the tomb was from Mr Stevenson’s own words –
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Heading Back to Town
Although there was an easier way down, it would take me several kilometers away from where I was staying. That’s one of the reasons I’d picked the trail I did on the way up. The start point was much closer to the area I was in. Seb had also parked his car on the road near the beginning of that trail, so we braved the muddy connecting trail again.
We got to see a lovely sunset over Apia on the way down. Seb then offered to drive me back to where I was staying. When Seb dropped me off, he suggested that after a shower, he could come back and take me for a drive around town.
Getting To Know Surprising Samoa
When Seb came back, we decided that it would be a good idea to eat something first. I thought all the shops had closed at 3pm, but there were a few restaurants that reopened for a few hours around dinner. I never would’ve known that without some local insight. It took a bit of time but Seb found a place that sold traditional local grub. Right next door to the local beer depository. Score!
We took our local food and beer to a nice little spot by the seaside before driving around the ‘city’. I hadn’t realised how small the city was until we drove around it. I had almost walked around all of it while trying to find my accommodation earlier in the day.
Seb decided that he wanted to drive me to the airport the next evening, so I told him the time I needed to leave and he agreed to be there at that time. Knowing that island time is a real thing, which causes people to be late a lot, I also made sure I had a backup plan!
The Sites of Surprising Samoa
The next day, I thought it was about time to see the city close up. It was lovely and quiet. My impression of surprising Samoa by that point was that it was kind of sleepy and slow-paced. That is to be expected on South Pacific islands. It could’ve also been possible that everyone was napping because it was so hot and there was nothing else to do.
When walking around, I barely saw any people. But I did come across the striking Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
Which was also beautiful on the inside.
My favourite sight in Apia was these amusing signs in the window of a pharmacy. Yes, an actual pharmacy in plain sight. Samoans have a great sense of humour!
Rush To The Airport
Seb didn’t turn up at the prearranged time, so my host took me to a point about halfway to the Faleolo Airport on his scooter. There he helped me flag down a taxi. The taxi driver then agreed to take me to the airport for the exact amount of Samoan Tala that I had left. That was great, because what I had left was a little less than the 80WST/US$31 it would normally cost.
I was starting to get a little concerned that I might be running late. It was a 30 minute drive to the airport and my flight was scheduled to leave in 1 hour. The taxi driver however thought that was plenty of time. I was on an island, where being late was essentially being on time. There was nothing to worry about. I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It was time to get ready for the next leg of my adventure in another South Pacific paradise; the Cook Islands.