Don't Leave Apia Without a Map -- If you're driving, be sure to bring an island map, available from the Samoa Tourism Authority.
Exploring Apia & the Rest of Upolu
The town of Apia sits midway along the north coast of Upolu, which makes it a centrally located base from which to explore the main island. The Cross Island Road runs 23km (14 miles) from town, across the range of extinct volcanoes that form Upolu, thereby bringing the south coast within easy reach of town.
A Stroll Through Apia -- Like most South Pacific towns, Samoa's capital and only town has expanded from one small Samoan village to include adjacent settlements and an area of several square miles, all of which is now known collectively as Apia, the name of the village where Europeans first settled. The old villages have given their names to the many neighborhoods of the sprawling metropolitan area, and much to the confusion of us visitors, the locals identify locations by neighborhood names instead of streets. The Apia area now has a population in excess of 50,000.
Most points of interest lie along Beach Road, the broad avenue curving along the harbor. A waterfront promenade extends along one side and churches, government buildings, and businesses line the other.
We start our walking tour of downtown at Aggie Grey's Hotel & Bungalows, on the banks of the Vaisigano River. This famous hotel and its founder are stories unto themselves. From Aggie's, head west, or to the left as you face the harbor.
The two large churches on the left are both Protestant, legacies of the Rev. John Williams, for whom the modern high-rise office building at the corner of Falealili Road is named. On the waterfront across Beach Road stands the John Williams Memorial to this missionary who brought Christianity to Samoa and many more South Pacific islands. Williams's bones are reputedly buried beneath the clapboard Congregational Christian Church, directly across Beach Road from the memorial. The missionary was killed and eaten on Erromango in what now is Vanuatu; the story has it that his bones were recovered and buried here.
The colonial-style Courthouse at the corner of Ifi'ifi Street formerly housed the Supreme Court and Prime Minister's office, before they moved into high-rise buildings across the road. In colonial times, it was headquarters of the New Zealand trusteeship administration and site of the Mau Movement demonstration and shootings in 1929.
Upstairs in the Courthouse, the small but interesting Museum of Samoa (tel. 63-444) is worth a brief look. It's open Monday to Friday noon to 4pm. Admission is free.
When he came to Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson first stayed in an old clapboard building in what is now the center of dining and drinking in Apia (it's the one with the upstairs veranda). The Marist Brothers' Primary School is on the banks of Mulivai Stream. Across the bridge stands Mulivai Catholic Cathedral, begun in 1885 and completed some 20 years later. Farther along, the imposing Matafele Methodist Church abuts the stores in the Wesley Arcade. According to a monument across Beach Road, Tongan Chief Saivaaia brought Methodism to Samoa in 1835.
The remains of the German warship Adler are buried under the reclaimed land, now the site of two huge, fale-topped government office buildings, built in the mid-1990s with foreign aid from China. On the water side of Beach Road stands a memorial to the Samoans who fought alongside the New Zealanders during World War II.
The center of modern Apia's business district is the Town Clock, the World War I memorial at the foot of Vaea Street. Across the street, the Chan Mow & Co. building is a fine example of late South Seas colonial architecture; its arches and red-tile roof make it look almost Spanish. Between the clock and the water stands a large Samoan fale known as Pulenu'u House, where local residents can be seen lounging or eating their lunches. Facing the clock, Nelson Memorial Public Library is named for Olaf Nelson, son of a Swedish father and Samoan mother. Olaf Nelson was exiled to New Zealand in 1928 for his leadership role in the Mau Movement.
Continuing west on Beach Road, you come to the sprawling Old Apia Market. Once the vegetable market, this large covered space is now home to flea-market stalls where you can find items ranging from sandals to toothpaste. One area is devoted to handicraft vendors, and you can stop and watch local women weaving pandanus mats, hats, and handbags. This is a good place to shop for woodcarvings and tapa cloth (called siapo here). I haven't had the stomach for such local fare since my days as a young backpacker, but the food stalls along the market's water side are the cheapest (and dirtiest) places in town to get a meal.
Fugalei Street, which leaves Beach Road across from the market, goes to the airport and the west coast. Walk down it a block, and turn left and go east on Convent Street past picturesque St. Mary's Convent and School. At the next corner, turn right on Saleufi Street and walk inland 2 blocks to the New Apia Market, a modern, tin-roofed pavilion where Samoan families sell a wide variety of tropical fruits and vegetables, all of which have the prices clearly marked (there is no bargaining). Like everywhere else in the islands, the market is busiest on Saturday morning.
Start Early by Watching the Police Band Parade -- Apia can be brutally hot at midday, so the best time to walk around it is right after the Samoa Police Brass Band marches along Beach Road (daily between 7:30 and 8am) to Government House, where it raises the national flag. It's worth watching the cops in their white helmets, light blue uniforms, and lava-lavas. If you take photos, don't get between the band and the flagpole.
The Mulinu'u Peninsula -- Beyond the market, Beach Road becomes Mulinu'u Road, which runs about a mile to the end of Mulinu'u Peninsula, a low arm separating Apia Harbour to the east from Vaiusu Bay on the west. About halfway out on the peninsula stand the American, British, and German Memorials, one dedicated to the German sailors who died in the 1889 hurricane, one to the British and American sailors who were drowned during that fiasco, and one to commemorate the raising of the German flag in 1900.
The Mulinu'u Peninsula is home of the Fono, Samoa's parliament. The new Fono building sits opposite a memorial to Samoa's independence, the two separated by a wide lawn. The Fono's old home is next to the road in the same park. A tomb on the lawn holds the remains of Iosefa Mataafa, one of the paramount chiefs.
Between the Apia Yacht Club and Sails at Mulinu'u restaurant stand the Malietoa Tombs, the freshest being that of Malietoa Tanumafili II, Samoa's first head of state, who was buried here in 2007. The tombs of Tuimalaeali'ifano and Tupua Tamasese, two other paramount chiefs, are on the western side of the peninsula. At the end of the peninsula stands the Apia Weather Observatory, originally built by the Germans in 1902 (apparently having learned a costly lesson from the unpredicted 1889 hurricane).
To travel along the roads of Upolu away from Apia is to see Polynesia relatively unchanged from the days before the Europeans arrived. Bring your swimming gear, for you'll also visit some of the South Pacific's most stunningly beautiful beaches.
The Northwest Coast: Apia to Aleipata -- One of the most popular sightseeing tours makes a loop from Apia to the long, magnificent white beaches of Aleipata District on Upolu's eastern end. Most of Upolu is a volcanic shield that slopes gently to the sea, but because the eastern portion is older -- and therefore more eroded and rugged than the central and western areas -- this spot has the island's most dramatic scenery.
The East Coast Road follows the shore for 26km (16 miles) to the village of Falefa, skirting the lagoon and black-sand surf beaches at Lauli'i and Solosolo. Look for Piula College, a Methodist school on a promontory overlooking the sea about 3.3km (2 miles) before Falefa. Turn in at the playing field and drive around to the school on the right. Park there and follow the steps down to the freshwater Piula Cave Pool. Bring snorkeling gear to swim through an underwater opening at the back of the pool into a second chamber. The cave pool is open from 8am to 4:30pm Monday through Saturday; admission is S$2 (US80¢/40p). There is a rudimentary changing room for visitors. No alcoholic beverages are allowed on the grounds.
To the left of the bridge beyond Falefa village, Falefa Falls are especially impressive during the rainy season. The road climbs toward 285m (935 ft.) Le Mafa Pass in the center of the island, with some great views back toward the sea. Another rugged, winding road to the left just before the pass dead-ends at Fagaloa Bay, once a volcanic crater that exploded seaward, leaving a mountain-clad bay. Although paved, the Fagaloa Bay road is steep and winding, so drive with caution.
Once you're over the pass, the main road crosses a bridge. Just beyond, an unmarked road goes to the right and cuts through the forests down to the south coast. We will come back this way, road conditions permitting, but for now go straight ahead on the Richardson Road. Once a bush path, this paved road crosses a refreshingly cool high plateau and skirts Afulilo Lake, formed by the country's hydroelectric dam.
Lalomanu Beach -- From Afulilo Lake, the road gently descends into Aleipata, an enormously picturesque district. As you turn the corner to the south coast, stop at the overlook on the small promontory overlooking Lalomanu Beach, one of the most gorgeous in the South Pacific. Your photos from here will be among the best you'll take in Samoa, for the view includes a clifflike escarpment behind a narrow shelf of land bordered by a long, white-sand beach. Four small islands offshore enliven the view, and on a clear day you can see the jagged blue outline of American Samoa on the horizon.
There's not enough space at Lalomanu for a village, but a collection of rustic beach fales, available for camping, stands on these sands. They have restaurants, so stop for refreshment here.
Keep going along the southeast shore to Vavau village, where the paved Le Mafa Pass Road begins (don't take the road to the left; it dead-ends at a river). Le Mafa Pass Road climbs steadily uphill to a viewpoint overlooking 53m (174 ft.) Sopo'aga Falls. The villagers have built a small park on a cliff overlooking the deep and narrow gorge, complete with picnic tables and toilets. They charge S$3 (US$1.20/60p) per vehicle, but that's a small price to pay for this view.
The Cross Island Road -- The Cross Island Road runs for 23km (14 miles) from the John Williams Building on Beach Road in Apia to the village of Si'umu on the south coast. Along the way it passes first the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum at Vailima and then the Malololeilei Scenic View, a park on the eastern side of the road. Pull off here and take the short walks to views over Apia, the sea, and a waterfall. Back on the road, you'll later pass the modern, nine-sided House of Worship, one of six Baha'i Faith temples in the world. Open for meditation and worship, the temple was dedicated in 1984. An information center outside the temple makes available materials about the Baha'i Faith.
After passing the temple, the road winds through cool, rolling pastures. Near the top of the island, a rough road leads off the Cross Island Road westward to the new Lake Lanoto'o National Park. The 400-hectare (988-acre) preserve is home to rare endemic bird species, including the red-headed parrot finch and the crimson-crowned fruit dove. Lake Lanoto'o, Samoa's largest lake, is filled with goldfish introduced by German settlers in the 19th century. Unless and until the often muddy trail is improved, it will take at least an hour to hike into the park, a feat best done with a guide. For more information contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (tel. 23-800; www.mnre.gov.ws).
On your way down to the south coast, watch on the right for a parking area overlooking Papapai-tai Waterfalls, which plunge 90m (295 ft.) into one of the gorges that streams have cut into central Upolu's volcanic shield. Of the many waterfalls on Upolu, Papapai-tai is the most easily seen.
The Southwest Coast -- A left turn at the end of the Cross Island Road in Si'umu village on the south coast leads to O Le Pupu-Pue National Park and the Togitogiga National Forest. The park contains the best remaining tropical rain forest on Upolu, but you'll have to hike into the valley to reach it. Some 51 species of wildlife live in the park: 42 species of birds, five of mammals, and four of lizards. Lovely Togitogiga Falls is a short walk from the entrance, from where a trail to Peapea Cave also begins. It's a 2-hour round-trip hike to the cave, which is a lava tube (it's dangerous to enter during heavy rains). Another walking trail leads seaward to arches cut by the surf into the south coast. Mount Le Pu'e, in the northwest corner of the park, is a well-preserved volcanic cinder cone. The park and reserve are open daily during the daylight hours, and there's no admission fee. Contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (tel. 23-800; www.mnre.gov.ws) for more information.
Heading west from Si'umu, the road soon passes the Sinalei and Coconuts Beach Club & Spa resorts and then the nearby Togo Mangrove Estuary, a tidal waterway that's alive with birds, flowers, bees, and other wildlife.
Some of Upolu's most beautiful beaches await on the southwest coast, particularly in the Lefaga district. One of these is at the village of Salamumu. Farther on the south coast road, Matautu village boasts Return to Paradise Beach. Palms hang over this sandy beach punctuated by large boulders that confront the breaking surf. It gets its name from the movie starring Gary Cooper that was filmed here in 1951. The S$5 (US$1.65/80p) per-person custom fee charged by Matautu village is well worth it.
From Matautu the main road winds across the island to the north coast.
You will wish you had stayed longer on Savai'i. Green mountains rise out of the sea and into the clouds across the 21km-wide (13-mile) Apolima Strait that separates it from Upolu. Savai'i is half as large as Upolu, yet it has only a quarter as many people as its smaller, more prosperous sister. On Savai'i, rural Samoan life is much like it always has been. People reside in villages mainly along the east and south coasts.
The northern part of Savai'i has practically deserted lava fields and forests. The last major eruption from its 450 volcanic craters occurred between 1905 and 1911. According to geologist Warren Jopling, there's a cycle of activity of about 150 years, so the next eruption should be due within the 21st century.
The other attractions on Savai'i are its long, white beaches, especially on the north side around the village of Manase, home to some of Samoa's most popular beach fales.
Unless you have a week or more and plenty of energy, you should take a guided tour of this large, sparsely populated island with little public transport and few road signs. Even then, you'll need 3 days to see the sights and have no time for the beach.
Browsing Through a Living Museum -- You won't believe your eyes when you tour the lava fields of Savai'i with Australian geologist Warren Jopling. Having lived on Savai'i for many years, Warren is an expert on Samoan customs and lifestyles (everyone knows him). Touring with him is like walking with a living geological and cultural museum.
The East & North Coasts -- Leaving the Safua Hotel, the east-coast road soon passes a memorial to the Rev. John Williams, and then goes up a rise to Tuasivi, the administrative center of the island and site of the hospital and police station. From there it drops to Faga and Siufaga, two long, gorgeous beaches. Many villages along this stretch have bathing pools fed by freshwater that runs down underground from the mountains. Only the south side of Savai'i has rivers and streams. Rainwater seeps into the porous volcanic rock elsewhere and reappears as springs along the shoreline.
Mount Matavanu last erupted between 1905 and 1911, when it sent a long lava flow down to the northeast coast, burying villages and gardens before backing up behind the reef. Today primitive ferns primarily populate the desertlike Matavanu lava field. The flow very nearly inundated the village of Mauga, which sits along the rim of an extinct volcano's cone. The villagers play cricket on the crater floor. Past Mauga is the Virgin's Grave, a hole left around a grave when the lava almost covered a nearby church. The steeple still sticks out of the twisted black mass. The villagers charge S$3 (US$1.20/60p) to visit the grave.
The north-coast road past the lava fields is picturesque but holds little of interest other than gorgeous tropical scenery.
On the north coast, the village of Manase has a gorgeous white-sand beach, which has made it the beach fale capital of Savai'i. It also has a Turtle Conservatory, where you can swim with the turtles in freshwater pools -- after paying a S$5 (US$2/£1) custom fee.
The South Coast -- On the south coast near Vailoa, on the Letolo Plantation, stands the ancient ruin known as Pulemelei Mound. This two-tiered pyramid 72m (236 ft.) long, 58m (190 ft.) wide, and 14m (46 ft.) high is the largest archaeological ruin in Polynesia. It is similar to the ceremonial temples, or maraes, in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, but it is so old (more than 1,000 years) that the Samoans no longer have legends explaining its original function. Shortly before his death in 2002, Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon Tiki fame, visited the mound and organized an archaeological expedition, which cleared the pyramid of vegetation. Excavations continued through 2004. You can read about them at www.kon-tiki.no/Research/samoa/index.html. A narrow dirt track, which passes Olemoe Waterfall, ends some 300m (984 ft.) from the mound. A steep and often muddy track leads down to the waterfall.
From the mound, the south-coast road continues to Gautavai Waterfall, a lovely black-sand beach at Nu'u, and the geyserlike Taga Blowholes on the island's southernmost point.
Manono & Apolima -- You will pass the islands of Manono and Apolima on the trip to Savai'i. The top of an extinct volcano, Apolima is the more scenic of the two. Its beachside village of Apolima-tui sits inside the crater that collapsed on one side, causing the island's half-moon shape. Small boats shuttle between Apolima Island and the village of Apolima-uta on Upolu's western end. Boats to Manono leave from Mulifanua Wharf. Samoa Scenic Tours (tel. 22-880) at Aggie Grey's hotels operates day trips to Manono and its surrounding reef, and Island Explorer (tel. 32-663 or 777-1814; www.islandexplorer.ws) has sea-kayaking expeditions to Manono.