Surprising Samoa – An Undiscovered Gem in the South Pacific

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside Bus Station

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. American Style Bus

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside View With Palm Trees K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside View

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Meat Salad

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. First Part of the Hike

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Baby Cow on the Trail

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Muddy Forest Trail

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. View From 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Robert Louis Stevensen's Tomb Sign on Mount Vaea K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Robert Louis Stevensen's Tomb on Mount Vaea

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Sunset Over The City

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Sunset

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Local Food on a Car Boot K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Local Beer on a Car Boot

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Town Centre K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Town Centre Building Art

When walking around, I barely saw any people. But I did come across the striking Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Which was also beautiful on the inside.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Immaculate Conception Cathedral Interior

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Town Centre Pharmacy Sign K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Town Centre Pharmacy Sign 2

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 Captivating Cook Islands.

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American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania

Picture this; you exit the airport terminal on a lovely tropical island to get your international flight to another tropical island. Once you step foot on the tarmac, you realise that the only plane that can be seen is not even big enough for ten people. In fact, you can only see 4 windows! This is just the first of many things that make American Samoa an oddity in Oceania.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Smallest International Flight Ever

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Smallest International Flight Ever

This tiny plane, the inside of which is about the size of a minivan, only runs once a week between Tonga and American Samoa. At US$374 for a flight that takes less than 2 hours, it was the exact opposite of cheap. But that’s not even the strangest part. On the way to the American Samoan capital of Pago Pago the plane made a scheduled stop in Samoa. Although they are in the same island chain, American Samoa and Samoa are separate states.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Inside the Tiny Plane.

Upon landing in Samoa, all seven people in the plane were required to alight and pass through immigration. Just to get back on the plane again straight away. Our plane was so small that our pilot also doubled as the cabin crew. He didn’t even need a microphone to do the safety announcement. As you could guess, there was no cabin service, but everyone got a window seat. As the flight duration was too short to reach cruising altitude, we all had a pretty awesome view for the whole flight.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. View From the Plane

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Entrance Fee

As I was the first person from our plane to make it across the tarmac to the arrivals area, there was no line at the immigration window. To tell the truth, it didn’t even feel like immigration. The officer welcomed me in a cool and casual way. That’s not normally something you expect when going through immigration! He then looked at my passport and told me that I needed to pay an entry tax to visit American Samoa.

For a moment I thought that he might have been talking about the Electronic System Travel Authorisation (ESTA) used in the US. American Samoa is a US territory, after all. So I said, “Oh, I have ESTA”. He then informed me that even though it’s an US territory, ESTA is not required. American Samoa instead required visitors to obtain an entry permit if they are staying in the territory for more than one day.

Seeing as I had a flight out the next day, I thought I’d check if I would be exempt from the fee. The lovely officer asked what flight I was leaving on, without asking for any proof. He must’ve memorised the flight schedules. That wouldn’t be particularly hard considering that there are only 3 airlines running international flights from that airport. He then handed back my passport and said, “Okay, have a good time in American Samoa”

As of 2019, people from the countries that could previously get the entry permit on arrival must now apply online for the Entry Permit Wavier Program (EPWP). The country list is the same as that for the US Visa Waiver Program. The processing fee for the EPWP just happens to be the exact same price as the old entry tax.

America in the South Pacific

After exiting the small airport, it was immediately obvious that this was a little bit of America in the South Pacific. Everyone was driving ‘trucks’, which don’t exist on other Pacific islands. Anything that wasn’t a truck, was a minivan from one of the many resorts in Pago Pago, or an old-style US school bus. Who knows how they got transported all that way.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Welcome to American Samoa K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. US Style Bus

Having visited the US on several occasions, Pago Pago really felt like it could be a small continental US town. The roads and infrastructure were almost identical to those I saw in the US. The island also had its fair share of American chains, like McDonalds as well as American style malls. All the people I spoke to had very strong American accents. Even they said they felt that they are a lot more Americanised that other South Pacific Islands. It’s actually something they are proud of.

The Beauty of American Samoa

Pago Pago, pronounced Pango Pango in Samoan is located on one of the two main American Samoan Islands, Tutuila. There is one major highway on Tutuila that runs from the airport in the southwest to the east of the island. The highway runs along the coast for almost it’s entire length, which makes for some mesmerising views on the way to your accommodation.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. The Flower Pot Rocks

The Flower Pot rocks are a prominent feature on the righthand side as you drive away from the airport. Just after them, you’ll see the Pago Pago Harbour, which is one of the deepest harbours in the world. The harbour is flanked on the opposite side by Mount Pioa, which is also known as Rainmaker Mountain. It is a big part of local folklore and is said to trap clouds, giving the harbour some of the highest amounts of rainfall in the area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Pioa Mountain

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – American Traditions

While American Samoans have passed down a lot of their traditions and folklore through the generations, they have also whole-heartedly embraced American customs. I got to see this first hand because I was there around Christmas time. While Christmas is celebrated around the world, there are certain things that I’ve only seen in the US during the festive season. That includes people going out of their way to decorate their houses with colourful displays of lights.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Colourful House Lights K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. House With Light Star

One final thing of note about American Samoa is that despite being in the same chain of islands as Samoa, it’s on the opposite side of the International Date Line. That means that it’s 25 hours, or more than a whole day behind it’s nearest neighbour. That definitely causes a few headaches when trying to book flights. In fact, when flying from Tonga or Samoa, you will land in American Samoa the day before you left. Then when it’s time to go, you’ll land two days after you left. That essentially means you’ll be flying back to the future!

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Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

The South Pacific Ocean is known for its crystal blue waters and amazing marine life. It’s also known for pristine beaches on resort islands. But probably one of its best-kept secrets is the tantalisingly tropical Tonga island chain. If you haven’t heard of the Kingdom of Tonga before, it’s about time you did! The archipelago of 169 islands in Polynesia that form the Kingdom of Tonga lie to the northeast of New Zealand.

Logistics of Getting to Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

To be honest, none of the South Pacific island countries are known for being easily accessible by sea. Unless you have your own boat. In fact, the most efficient way to move between them is to fly. Although quick, these flights do not come cheap, no matter when you book them. The flight from Nadi in Fiji, to Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga in the Tongatapu group of islands, took just over one hour but cost US$250.

The Fua’amotu international airport in Tongatapu is rather small. Interestingly, the runway is only graded to handle smaller jet aircraft, so you’ll never see a 747 there! Even though the airport is classed as international, don’t expect to be able to get a flight there from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the only connections are to and from Suva and Nadi in Fiji, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Sydney in Australia or Auckland in New Zealand. Perhaps the strangest thing about this airport is that it closes on Sundays. Let’s just say it takes a bit of planning to get there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. International Airport

Arriving in Tongatapu

Once you’re there, you’ll be given a welcome serenade, as seems to be the island way. This had also happened in Fiji but somehow the Tongan welcome wagon was a bit lackluster. Or maybe they were just too cool. As you would expect from a small airport, immigration was quick and the officers were really friendly.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. International Airport Welcome Serenade

The capital Nuku’alofa, is around 20 kilometers away from the airport but there was a slight problem. There was no public transport from the airport to the town. Taxis were, of course, available for 40 Tongan Pa’anga (TOP)/US$17.50. I had decided to do things a little differently. While researching for this trip, I had come across quite a few comments about hitchhiking being a viable way of getting around in Tonga.

A Hitchhiking Adventure in Tatilisingly Tropical Tonga

I’d barely even made it out of the airport grounds before a minivan stopped. This minivan was full of ladies who, almost in unison, motioned for me to get into the car. The ladies were very talkative and very interested in why I’d decided to go to Tonga. They seemed quite surprised that I would choose to go there. I got the impression that they believed Tongatapu was the most boring island in the Tongan chain and that there was nothing to do there.

After a while of chatting, the lady driving pulled over onto the side of the road. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Perhaps we were just waiting for someone? I couldn’t see any buildings around though. Just then, a lady seemed to appear out of nowhere and joined us in the car. It was at that point that the driver turned to me and asked if I had a license. I indicated that I did, then she opened her door and said, “I don’t like driving in town, so you can drive!”.

I was so surprised that I think I agreed before I really knew what was going on. But hey, I do like driving, so why not? The ladies directed me to their village, just outside of the town, where we had to drop someone off.

We stopped at a house where there seemed to be an impossible amount of people residing. At least 4 generations of people. They invited me in for dinner, but I had a host waiting for me in town, so I had to regretfully decline. My host Jasmin, who I’d meet from Couschsurfing, was infinitely amused that my hitchhiking adventure had turned in to a driving adventure. I guess that’s not an everyday occurrence.

Food in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

I was fairly hungry when I arrived and it was around dinner time. Luckily, Jasmin knew where the good local food was made. But what do you do when you’re waiting on a tropical island? Drink from a coconut, of course! A coconut straight from the fridge, no less.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Drinking Coconut

Cliche coconut consumption aside, I was looking forward to trying a local delicacy. A popular dish in the area consists of meat wrapped in taro leaves that have been soaked in coconut milk. There are two variations; Lu Pulu (beef) and Lu Sipi (lamb). I grabbed the Lu Sipi and it was super rich and delicious. Given all the meat and coconut milk it contained, it was also a very heavy meal. I was barely able to finish it!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Lu Sipi

Imported foods

Tongans also love having dessert after their super heavy meals and I was interested to see what Tongan desserts looked like. Unfortunately, pretty much everything was closed because I was on a small island after 7pm. I did manage to find an ice cream shop open though. It seemed to be the only place open besides a couple of bars. I’m not sure if that’s why it was so crowded, or if it was just because locals really love ice cream? Even if the only flavours available were vanilla, strawberry and blitz.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Super Scooper Ice Cream Shop

Another imported food that Tongans love is KFC. Tonga is too small for KFC to open there, but all Tongans know what it is. To the point where anywhere that sells any kind of fried chicken refers to it as Kentucky. Jasmin informed me that when locals fly back from New Zealand, where there are KFCs, they will bring back buckets of the stuff for the family.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Food Stall

Nightlife in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

When Jasmin was ready to retire for the night I decided to have a little walk around the town. Except for a few cars here and there, the town was very quiet. It wasn’t long until I’d found my way to some roadside tombs. They were quite ornate and it looked like people added flowers and tended to the graves every day.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tombs

As I wasn’t far from the sea, I decided to take a walk down to the waterfront. That didn’t go as I had planned. I could barely walk a few hundred metres without a car stopping to ask if I needed a lift. Tongans are a very caring bunch and seemed worried that a foreigner was out walking by themselves at night. After the fifth car stopped and I hadn’t even managed to walk 500 metres, I gave up and found some local beer.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Local Beer

Animals of Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

Of course, you would expect tropical islands in the South Pacific to be full of tropical animals like birds and colourful fish. I promise I’ll show you some of that later. Tonga also had its fair share of introduced animals wandering around. There were some stray cats and dogs, which you might expect to see almost anywhere in the world. But chickens weren’t really on the list of animals I’d expected to see. Never-the-less, they were everywhere and normally had a couple of chicks in tow.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongan Chickens

Other much larger animals that I was not expecting to see were boars. Obviously these had been introduced by European explorers and were eventually left to roam the islands. They generally seem quite docile and are always happy to eat any food you might leave out for them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongan Boar

There are stories of fishing pigs. These are boars that have lost their natural fear of the water and can be seen wading out at low tide to catch themselves some dinner. If you were thinking of going to Tonga for some sun and sea, you could end up staying to watch the fishing pigs!

Wandering Around the Town

As I’d been unsuccessful in reaching the waterfront at night, I decided to try it during the day. This time I was able to do it in a respectable five minutes! That’s how small Nuku’alofa is! On my wander, I was able to see some palm trees as you would expect.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Palm Trees

But one of the more interesting things I saw was the Centennial Church. This church was run by the Free Church of Tonga, an organisation set up by the Tongan King and a missionary in 1885.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Centennial Church

Unfortunately, Cyclone Gita hit Tonga a few months after I left, causing widespread damage. The church was one of the buildings damaged and as a consequence, is no longer in use. The royal tombs across the road fared better though.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Royal Tombs

As I got closer to the waterfront, there were a few memorials around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. War Memorial K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Memorial Plaque K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Waterfront Memorial

And of course, as it was coming up to Christmas, some seasons greetings.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Seasons Greetings

I’d come for the water though. While there was no beach to be seen, the area was calm and peaceful.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Waterfront

Tourist Attractions in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

As the Tongan island chain is particularly remote and not the most easily accessible, tourism hasn’t had a big impact on the area. That means that literally every tourist attraction on Tongatapu is listed on this roadsign.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Road Sign in Nuku'alofa

That’s not to say that Nuku’alofa has not been set up with tourists in mind. There are actually a few informational signs around to guide you on your way. Like this handy map of the island, near the waterfront.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongatapu Map

Under The Sea

After Jasmin finished work, she asked if I wanted to join her for a swim. She had two bikes so we rode down to the waterfront. Given the absolute flatness of Nuku’alofa, the ride was rather quick and enjoyable.

We left the bikes up near the carpark and walked along some rocks to the local swimming spot.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Rocks on the Waterfront

I spied this little fella in a rock pool on the way.

But the view was definitely better under the water!

The fact that Tonga is a little bit off the tourist radar and a little bit harder to reach makes it all the more enticing. The absence of the big resorts seen on other islands gives it a more genuine and homely feel. It’s definitely a must-see!

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Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji

When most people think of Fiji, they think of islands, beaches and resorts. While these are certainly prevalent, they are not really what Fiji is all about. When I think of Fiji, I think of my childhood Fijian neighbour, who I thought was the funniest and friendliest man alive. Because of that man, I was expecting a lot of friendliness and a whole pile of laughs in Fiji. I was not disappointed! Read on to find out more about the friendliness and festivities in Fiji.

Fiji Time

Being a chain of hundreds of islands in an endless sea means that Fiji has a culture and vibe all of it’s own. Aside from the friendliness that was noticeable instantly, one thing that struck me on arrival was that everyone was happy. This could be because they have their own version of time over in Fiji. This concept may be a bit hard for busy people to get a handle on. I’m sure you’ve heard of island time, but Fiji takes it to a whole new level with ‘Fiji Time’. They even have the t-shirts to prove it.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friends and Festivities in Fiji. Fiji Time Tshirt

Fiji time is really something else. Things move slower and no one is stressed by deadlines. This means that everyone always has time for others. Fiji has to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming places on earth. In fact, when you visit, you’ll leave with a new word in your vocabulary; Bula, the Fijian word for welcome. You will hear and see it everywhere!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Bula

All travellers arriving in Nadi are even given a welcome to Fiji serenade by locals in their colourful local threads. We may have had no idea what they were singing about, but it sounded cheery and quickly put us at ease.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friends and Festivities in Fiji. Airport Serenade in Nadi

One interesting thing about Fiji is that alcohol is super expensive. Like really, stupidly expensive. So much so that when locals have friends flying in, they ask them to grab some duty-free booze for them from the airport. It’s half the price! I had therefore agreed to grab some bourbon for my host, Save, who in turn met me at the airport.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – A Local Experience

Save lived in a very simple house in an area not too far from the airport. It was very green and lovely but I was disappointed to find that I was on the wrong side of the island to climb the mountains. The area only had a few small hills.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Far Away Mountains K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Little House on a Hill

As soon as we got to Save’s house, I met some of his family and we immediately sat down for dinner. As I mentioned before, Save’s place was rather simple, so they didn’t have a dining table. That meant that a rug spread across the floor became the dining table for a delicious local meal. Mostly eaten by hand. I like this idea actually. Who needs to wash those pesky knives and forks anyway?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Floor Dining Table

Save’s place was about a 10 minute walk down from the main part of town, where the buses to the city left from. On the way I saw some kids swimming in water that I wouldn’t think was good for them, but they seemed to be having a lot of fun! I also saw horses and chickens wandering around. It wasn’t until further into my South Pacific travels that I realised that chickens wandering around was a normal everyday occurrence on many Pacific Islands!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Horse and Water

I also passed a store that claimed to have all my needs. Although I found this claim dubious, especially considering the rather small size of it, I went inside to check it out anyway. It turns out that they didn’t have all my needs, but the lovely shopkeeper was eager to chat to me. With all that Fijian friendliness flying around, I didn’t leave that little store for over an hour.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Grog Shop

More Friendliness and Chats On a Fractured Fiji

On my many walks through the area that I was staying in, I noticed that there were a lot of Indian restaurants around. I’d also noticed Indian places of worship. I didn’t give it a second thought until the local bus into the city broke down. The bus driver invited me to sit in his bus and wait for the replacement bus to come. While waiting, he filled me in on why there was such a huge Indian population in the area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Indian Temple

Under British colonisation in the early 1900s, Fiji was a part of the indentured labour scheme. Indentured labour is pretty much just a nice way of saying slavery. While the labourers did get paid, the wages were very low and the conditions could sometimes be atrocious. These indentured labourers had been brought over to Fiji from India at the expense of the colonial government. Yet the government decided that, even though these labourers had contributed greatly to building the colony’s economy, they would not pay for them to go back to India.

That left many displaced workers with little to no money and no way of getting back to their birthplace. With nowhere else to go, they made Fiji their home. While I’d like to say it was all smooth sailing from there, according to Mr Bus Driver, it was not. Even though they outnumbered the indigenous population at one point in history, they remained under-represented with in the country’s parliament for several years. They also endured many years of racism. It seems like things may be getting better if this sign is any indication.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Respect and Love All Fijians Sign

Friendliness in The City

As this impromptu history lesson ended, the replacement bus arrived. Mr Bus Driver made sure I was the first person to step onto the bus. He indicated that I should take the seat behind him. The 30 minute drive into the city cost only FJ$1.5, which is around AU$1. It wasn’t long after getting off the bus that a friendly local had stopped me to say, “Bula!”.

He introduced himself to me as Will and said that if I needed anything while I was in the city, I could go to him. After showing me where the cheap local food was, he insisted that I go to his friend’s shop. He had told me the story of his friend being a struggling artist just trying to sell some traditional handmade crafts. I was expecting a small shop, but it was huge.

While I suspect that story was a bit of a speil, Will didn’t get pushy. With their proximity to Australia and New Zealand, Fijians are no strangers to cashed-up tourists. So I can’t really blame the guy for trying. Even though I didn’t buy anything, he still seemed happy. When I left he asked me to tell all my friends about the store, of course!

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Christmas and New Year

Given their colonial past, you would be correct in assuming that Fijians are big on celebrating Christmas and New Year. But of course, they do it with their own island twist!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Christmas Decorations

I don’t remember seeing many Christmas trees while exploring, but I did see many sets of lights arranged to look like Christmas trees.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. House Christmas Tree K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. LightChristmas Tree

When the new year is almost upon them, Fijians like the light up the sky with fireworks. As is done in many places. But what they do after is a little more unique.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fireworks

As I was walking to a house party I’d been invited to by some people I’d just met outside a club, one of my new friends told me to stop. I was a little puzzled and wondered what was going on. My friend advised that there were people behind a gate getting ready to throw buckets of water at us. We quickly crossed to the other side of the road, where he explained that this is somewhat of a local tradition. Throwing buckets of water at unsuspecting people walking past. Considering it was summer, I could think of worse things to endure.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Islands

I guess no trip to Fiji is complete without seeing a few different islands, right? But what’s a budget traveller to do? Would you believe there is actually an island resort in Fiji that caters to budget travellers? It’s still not what I would consider cheap, but the price is considerably lower than other islands.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. One of the Mamanuca Islands

Someone from the family that I stayed with for the second half of my stay, was able to get me an industry discount. That meant that I only paid FJ$190 (AU$125) for a day trip to Beachcomber, one of the Mamanuca Islands. The regular price at the moment is FJ$219 (AU$145).

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Resort, Mamanuca Islands

A free bus transfer to Denaru Marina comes with the purchase of an island package. That was great because I really had no other option to get to the marina, which was several kilometres out of town.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Ferry From Danaru Marina

The boat ride out was quite enjoyable. As you could imagine, there was plenty of blue water to keep me mesmerised. Along with some famous islands.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Blue Waters At Resort Island

There were sporadic announcements about upcoming islands where different movies had been filmed. Some islands were even named after the movies that were filmed there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Resort Island, Mamanuca Islands

We even stopped at a few of the bigger resort islands on the way to drop off passengers. They got their own special island welcome.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Beachcomber

Beachcomber itself is clearly set up for a younger, more active crowd.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Entrance to Beachcomber

Even though the whole island is less than one kilometre long, there’s a lot to do, if you’re willing to pay a bit extra of course. You could play mini golf on a fairly well-used course. Or do some kayaking. Although that option wasn’t available on the day I was there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Minigolf

The first thing you might notice is The Sand Bar, where you can get yourself a local beverage for about FJ$8.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. The Sand Bar at Beachcomber K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fiji Beer at Beach Bar at Beachcomber

But if you take 10 minutes to have a walk around the island, you might see some wildlife too.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Duck

Or there’s a small boat tour included in your day trip. They’ll take you out to the middle of the sea to let you do some snorkeling and feed some fish.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fish Near Beachcomber K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fish Feeding Near Beachcomber

Perhaps you’d just prefer to sit on the beach and admire the view?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Beach View

Keep an eye out for the next stop on my South Pacific tour; Tonga!

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Travelling the Maldives on a Budget

Is Travelling the Maldives on Budget Possible?

The Maldives is a fascinating destination that captures people’s hearts. What’s not to be fascinated about? Hundreds of tiny islands in the middle of impossibly blue waters sounds incredibly inviting to me! But given the infamous resort-like set up of the place, most would think that travelling the Maldives on a budget could prove quite challenging. You’d be surprised how easy it actually is!

While I appreciate the idea of travelling to relax, that’s just not how I travel. Resorts really do not interest me, but I’m always interested to see how the locals live. So I got in touch with a wonderful local Maldivian named Muhamed. He agreed to host me in his family home on the island of Hulhumale. It’s just over the bridge from the Velana International airport.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Volleyball Beach

Getting to the Maldives

As the Maldives normally cater to high-end travellers, the airfares to get there tend to reflect that. But being the cheapskate that I am, I’d managed to find a flight for around US$160 return from my home in Hong Kong. With a stopover in Sri Lanka! This was great for me, as I have a friend in Colombo. It also meant that the last leg of the flight from Sri Lanka to the Maldives took only 1 hour.

Awesome Views

To say that the Maldives looks amazing from the air would be an understatement. You’re looking over an endless blue ocean for most of the flight. Then outta the blue, pun intended, you start to see random sand bars in the ocean. They look so tiny, yet so intriguing. It’s interesting to think that people live on some these tiny, little, unprotected sand strips in the middle of a vast ocean. It’s also absolutely amazing how immaculately blue the waters are between the atolls and sandbar islands. Possibly one of the best views on approach to a country ever.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Near the International Airport
Boats Near the Airport

Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – A Warm Welcome

I was impressed that we actually landed on time and I was off the plane and through immigration within 15 minutes. My host Muhamed had kindly organised for someone to meet me at the airport. It was his brother who works at the airport. He had typed up a very professional-looking sign with my name on it, so that I could find him. I can honestly say that’s the first time I’ve had my own sign upon arrival into a country. I felt super special!

He then showed me out to the bus stop, where I could get the bus across the bridge to Hulhumale. The bus only cost 15 Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR), which is under US$1. He let Muhamed know when I had left on the bus, so he could meet me on arrival in Hulhumale. As a bonus, the bus stop in Hulhumale was about a 2 minute walk from Muhamed’s flat. Nevertheless, Muhamed picked me up on his moped because he was worried about me having to carry my bag. How lovely!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Near the Airport Area
Looking over to Male from near the airport

Hulhumale

Muhamed lived in a 4 bedroom place on Hulhumale where 9 other members of his family also lived. They still ensured that I had a bedroom to myself, even though I told them I was fine with sleeping on the couch. Maldivians believe in treating their guests like royalty. I was so lucky to have a local family allow me to stay with them. The family was of course interested in finding out more about me. Muhamed was the only one in his family that really spoke any English though. That meant he had to do a lot of translating!

Hulhumale is an island in the Maldivian chain that is northwest of Male. It is joined to Male and Hulhule, where the international airport is, by the Sinamale Bridge. Construction on the bridge had just been completed not long before I had arrived. I was one of the first people to cross the bridge. Before the bridge, the only way to travel between those islands was by speedboat or ferry.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Boat

Reclaimed Land

Interestingly, Hulhumale was completely constructed on land reclaimed in 2004. The government had realised back then that the land available wasn’t going to cater to the needs of the growing Maldivian population in the future. So they made their own land. There were many construction sites around Hulhumale. Muhamed advised me that the government was reclaiming even more land. He also told me that a lot of the land had already been purchased by luxury hotel groups.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Colourful Building With Construction Behind
Colourful buildings with construction behind

Hulhumale was colourful and all the roads looked brand new. There also seemed to be a lot of newly constructed buildings housing foreign cafe chains, especially near the beach area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Colourful Buildings

And it appears that someone in Hulhumale knew I was going to be there..
K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Kez Graffiti

Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – Getting Around

If people want to travel somewhere on the island they are currently on, they mostly use mopeds to get around. You’ll often see people on different mopeds riding side by side just having a chat. While there were always cars on the road, I didn’t get the feeling that traffic was a problem in the Maldives. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any traffic lights.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Hulhumale Intersection Without Traffic Lights
Intersection without traffic lights
Ferries Between Islands

If people want to travel between islands in the Maldives, they take a ferry or speedboat. There are regular ferry services between some of the 1000 plus islands in the Maldivian chain. Muhamed regularly travelled to an island called Villingili, which is south of Male. At a glance, this island has a very similar name to another small island, Viligili, that lies to the west of Male.

The reason for Muhamed’s constant trips to Villingili was that his wife and daughter lived there. While I was there, he needed to pick up his daughter from a class then take her back to Villingili. He asked if I would like to join him for the trip and of course I said yes! I wanted to see as many islands as I could during my short stay.

Villingili

While it was relatively easy to get to Villingili, the route wasn’t as direct as you would expect. We had to get a 50 MVR/US$3.20 ferry to Male first. Muhamed had an extra bike stashed there. He used it to take us from where the Hulhumale to Male ferry had arrived to where the Male to Villingili ferry would depart. That Ferry cost 25 MVR/US$1.60. The two ferries are run by different companies, Atoll Transfer for the Hulhumale to Male route and MTCC for the Male to Villingili route. That meant that the ports were on opposite sides of the island.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Male Ferry Port

It was night by the time we made it to Villingili. It was quite a small island and definitely didn’t have a tourist feel to it at all. Housing on the island seemed to consist of small, budget 1 bedroom flats on narrow streets. I wasn’t really looking that hard, but I didn’t see any cars there; only mopeds.

In the few hours since she had met me, Muhamed’s 6 year old daughter had taken a bit of a shine to me. The fact that we couldn’t speak the same language didn’t seem to worry her. She asked if I could stay at her place for that night, but I had to politely decline as I had already organised a trip to another island.

Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – Day Trip to Himmafushi Island

After some long chats with Muhamed about which island would be the best to go to on a budget with limited time, we came up with Himmafushi Island. It’s about 16km north of Male, which meant it was only a 20 minute boat ride. Muhamed had called ahead and found out that the speedboat from Male to Himmafushi was 100 MVR/US$6.50 per person. Muhamed was good enough to accompany me on the ferry to Male to make sure that I could find the right speed boat.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Male From The Water
Male from the water

When we got there, Mr boat guy advised that it was 150 MVR/US$10. The reason for the difference was that Muhamed had been quoted the local price. The tourist price was of course higher and Mr boat guy was adamant that was what I needed to pay. So I got myself a return ticket and jumped on the boat.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. On the Way to Himmafushi

Getting There

There weren’t many other people on the boat, so I could pretty much sit anywhere I wanted. I settled into a seat on the lefthand side of the boat, but then realised that all the good views seemed to be on the righthand side.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Bluer Water On the Way to Himmafushi

The trip out to the island was quite lovely. I was absolutely mesmerised by the water that just seemed to become bluer the further away we got from Male.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Blue Water and Islands On the Way to Himmafushi

Once Himmafushi came into view, it was obvious that it was a very small island. Only 1km long!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Entering the Himmafushi Port

I had always thought that bad parking was something you only saw on land. But when we were arriving at the Himmafushi port, I found out it happens in the ocean too.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Bad Parking at Himmafushi Port

Sand, Souvenir Shops and Street Art

When I finally got my feet back on land, I headed to the beach. As the island was so small, the beach was not hard to find!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Beach on Himmafushi

As I walked on the sand, I was amused as hundreds of little crabs scuttered around me. Some retreating into their shells because they perceived danger, while others made a break for the water. It was quite entertaining to watch.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Overdressed on Himmafushi

Whilst exploring the island, I was invited into a local souvenir shop, The Dolphin Shop. Inside the owner, Hussein gave me not one, but 2 gifts from his store. He also insisted that I stay for tea. Who was I to say no?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Dolphin Shop on Himmafushi

Speaking in Tongues

After chatting for a while, Hussein decided to utter a few words in Chinese. He wanted to check with me that what he was saying was correct. Then he invited me to visit again and proceeded to give me a Dhivehi lesson, for when I come back next year apparently.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Dolphin Shop Souvenir and Dhivehi Lesson on Himmafushi

Time to Go

Hussein had tried to convince me to stay a bit longer, but I eventually bid him farewell and took a short walk around the island before my ride back to Male arrived. I was very interested in the fact that an island with only 4 streets still managed to have some street art.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Street Art on Himmafushi

I’d had a wonderful day on the island and was treated to a lovely sunset on the way out.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travelling the Maldives on a Budget. Himmafushi Sunset

In the 4 days I was in the Maldives, I made it to 5 islands and managed to meet some cool locals along the way. The best part is that I spent under US$20 for all transport and food. This is due in part to the awesome hospitality of my host who always wanted to cook for me or take me places on his bike. All up, that’s less than US$200 for the whole trip, including airfares. So it turns out that travelling the Maldives on a budget is surprisingly easy!

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