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Trivia Question: You’ve just landed after a one hour flight. Upon landing, you change the date on your watch but not the time.
Where are you?
Well, if you started in Tonga – after a quick crossing of the International Date Line – you are now in Apia, Samoa.
And after three adventurous days in Tonga, that’s exactly where I find myself at midnight on Tuesday. No wait, Monday. (Landing at midnight only confuses the situation further.)
I will be spending 4 nights here in Samoa, the next stop on this 30-day trip around Oceania.
The first two in the capital of Apia on the main island of Upolu. And the last two on Samoa’s sparsely-populated, wilder-side – the island of Savaii. Flights are not daily in Samoa but when one comes in – even at midnight – the airport is abuzz.
Despite the late hour, I am excited because I have elected to spend my two nights in Apia at a Samoan legend, the historic Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows (now known as the Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s).
The history of Aggie Grey in Samoa
During World War II, US soldiers visited Apia from all over the Pacific for their rest and relaxation breaks. Aggie Grey, a local entrepreneur, built up a business selling hamburgers to these servicemen.
Her business soon developed into a successful hotel visited by the likes of Marlon Brando and William Holden – who each have bungalows named after them. And it remains the best hotel on the islands to this day.
It is believed that Aggie herself was the model for James Michener’s Bloody Mary, made famous in the musical South Pacific.
The long ride from the airport takes an hour but I finally arrive at Aggie’s and check in at almost 2am. After settling into my bungalow and cranking up the A/C – which I missed dearly in Tonga – I head straight to bed.
A Visit to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vailima
The next morning I head out to explore Apia and hit the local market for some souvenir shopping. After a quick tour around town and a few purchases, it’s time to head to my primary objective for the day – the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum and grave.
When Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny arrived in Samoa in 1889, Stevenson was already the well-known author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Scottish writer suffered from a lung disease throughout his life and came to Western Samoa in search of a climate more suitable for his health.
Though he intended to stay only a few weeks, Stevenson fell in love with Samoa.
He bought nearly 400 acres of land on Mount Vaea where he built a magnificent mansion called “Vailima.” He became very involved in Samoan politics and was a big supporter of the islands’ independence from European rule – earning him the adoration of the Samoan people.
Stevenson’s time in Samoa was, sadly, short-lived. After 5 years on the island – and at the young age of 44 – he died of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage while on his back porch. Two hundred grieving Samoans carried his casket to the top of Mount Vaea. There, they buried him overlooking the town and sea that he loved.
Though the museum is only about 2 miles away, the front desk agent at Aggie’s advised a taxi as the walk is entirely uphill. I take her advice and grab a cab for a ride up. This is the best decision I make all day.
As we drive along, I realize the walk would have been quite strenuous in the Samoan mid-day heat.
Once we arrive, the driver offers to wait and take me back (for a nominal fee, of course). But I send him on and plan to walk back….downhill. I want to spend some time at the museum and also make the hike up to the grave. And I don’t want to feel rushed by having someone waiting for me.
There are only about 8 other people there when I arrive and the tours start whenever enough people are assembled.
Apparently 8 is enough because our tour of the house starts just after I arrive. Our extremely knowledgeable tour guide, Margaret, walks us through each room of the house. Along the way, she gives us the history of each room and brings the whole house to life for me.
Margaret later explains why she is so passionate about the museum and its story. Her great grandmother was a servant in the house during Stevenson’s life and she is named after his mother. The entire family was loved dearly by the Samoans especially those who lived and worked at Vailima.
The tour is fascinating and once it’s over, it’s optional to make the climb up Mount Vaea to view Stevenson’s final resting place. Margaret informs us that the hike to the top takes about 45 minutes and advises water, sturdy shoes and bug spray.
Since bug spray has been my perfume of choice since arrival in Tonga, I have that one covered.
An ill-advised hike up the hill
Figuring 2 out of 3 is good enough, I buy a bottle of water in the gift shop (my second and final good decision of the day) and head to the start of the trail.
I should point out that no one else from my tour group elects to make the hike to the grave. But I can’t resist. How can you come all this way and not?
Plus, Margaret promises the view from the top is spectacular and I’m a sucker for a great view.
I’d only been hiking about 10 minutes when I realize my tennis shoes would have been a much better choice than the flip flops I’m currently wearing. Too late now.
The climb is a lot steeper than I expected and the path is just large rocks at some points. The other issue is that recent rain left the trail muddy and slick in spots – not good news when you’re wearing inadequate footwear to begin with.
But I press on, thinking it can’t be much farther to the top. In the back of my mind, though, I keep thinking that getting back down this mountain might be tricky.
The view from the top
Finally, after 45 minutes of climbing practically straight up, I reach the grassy plateau at the top of the mountain where the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife lay. Margaret was right, the view is spectacular.
I’m glad I toughed it out – but, of course, I still have to climb back down. I take a few minutes to breathe, drink my water and take some photos before beginning the climb back down.
Once I start heading back down, I become acutely aware that I am completely alone on the mountain. I’d seen no one else on the trail the entire way up.
About halfway down, disaster strikes.
At a particularly steep step down across rocks, I carefully set one foot down on the ground (easy does it) – and it promptly slips right out from under me in the mud. This sends me sliding down the mountain about 6 feet through wet earth and brush.
Oh Lord, this can’t be good.
Regaining my composure quickly, I grab hold of a tree and pull myself back up onto the trail. This would have been a whole lot easier if the ground were dry.
A quick wellness check reveals no injuries other than a few scratches (which later develop into bruises) and a minor brush with hysteria.
I’m not gonna lie, I did panic for a brief moment. Luckily, though the drop-off from the trail is steep, it’s also thickly wooded so I couldn’t fall too far without something to stop me.
Looking back, I realize the flaw in my decision-making.
It goes a little something like this, “I run marathons, I can (insert ridiculous physical activity here).” After giving it some thought, I come up with several other examples of how this logic has previously failed me:
1) Hiking up the mountain above Machu Picchu in Peru
2) Hiking up Table Mountain in Cape Town
3) Running the Marrakech Marathon.
Dirty and more than a little flustered, I make my way back down the rest of the mountain without incident. At the bottom of the trail, near the house, there is a pond with a trickling waterfall where Robert Louis Stevenson used to bathe.
I take advantage of the waterfall to clean off my muddy feet and hands. Then I brush the drying mud off the rest of me and manage to emerge from the woods looking reasonably presentable.
The most damage inflicted on my pride.
I still make the walk back to Aggie Grey’s, determined to shake off the incident on the mountain and carry on. When I get back – probably looking homeless to the front desk staff – I take a long hot shower and decide to stay at the hotel for dinner.
The next morning I awake and survey the damage. I already have several small scratches on my arms and legs from climbing across the reefs in Tonga. Now, I have a few Samoan bruises to add to the mix.
Honestly, it’s starting to look like I’m kick-boxing my way across the South Pacific.
The Ferry From Upolu to Savaii
On Day 3, it’s time to leave the island of Upolu and take the 90-minute gut-churning ferry across to Savaii (Tip: Take the big ferry, not the small one – the ride was rough!).
For my two nights in Savaii, I’ve chosen the Savaii Lagoon Resort. Located on the north side of the large island, the resort has only 10 bungalows, all beachfront.
When I arrive, I’m greeted warmly by Patricia and Christoph, the German couple who manage the resort and live onsite. I’m escorted to my bungalow which has the best location of them all on the resort’s pristine beach. It was the only one available when I booked – and, of course, it was the most expensive – but it’s all relative on Samoa.
My bungalow is beautiful. It’s extremely spacious and modern (by Samoan standards). The bathroom even has a luxurious outdoor shower. Unfortunately, like Tonga, it’s still without A/C and a hairdryer (I haven’t had a good hair day since Auckland).
And I receive only a blank stare when I inquire about internet. (2020 Update: They do have wi-fi these days.)
I guess most people who come here on holiday don’t care about such things. But I have a job to keep up with that finances all this globetrotting. So wifi is a must. When pressed, Christoph says he thinks the nearest village of Manase (a 30 minute walk away) has an internet café.
Dining on Savaii
Christoph is also a chef and runs a very small but well-known restaurant at the resort. He creates only 2 dishes each night, both based on the type of fresh fish he is able to buy that morning. The menu is posted on a chalk board and you must let him know by 3pm each day if you plan to come to dinner.
For my first night on Savaii, I decide to try Christoph’s cuisine (which comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor). I settle into my bungalow just in time to enjoy a stunning sunset before dinner. Christoph’s cuisine does not disappoint and my grilled tuna dinner is fantastic.
Lazy days on Savaii
The next day, I have grandiose plans to hire a driver for a day tour of the island. But after my adventurous treks through Tonga and Apia, I’m in dire need of a day of lazing around on the beach.
And the Savaii Lagoon Resort has the perfect beach for it. So, I admit, I am completely lazy on day two…and it’s divine.
I do, however, manage a morning walk into Manase. I stroll around the village meeting a few locals and a lot of kids along the way.
Back at the resort, I spend a relaxing day on the beach and finish the paperback I’ve been reading since Australia.
That evening, I head over to the Le Lagato Resort & Spa next door for dinner and their Thursday night “fiafia.” Fiafia is a traditional Samoan meal cooked in a pit of hot stones called an “umu” followed by singing and dancing. It’s quite an enjoyable show and a definite highlight of my visit.
The Samoan “Fale”
One of the more unusual things about Samoa are the beachfront fales available all over the island.
Different from the fale I stayed in on Tonga, these are extremely basic huts that cater to the backpacker-set (starting at about $20 US per night). This is just one more reason I know I could never live the backpacker lifestyle.
Though they arguably occupy some of the most pristine beachfront in Samoa, I’m the kind of girl that considers indoor plumbing a necessity, not an option (I wouldn’t last a day on Survivor). Besides, I already consider my current lack of A/C to be roughing it.
However, you can find a slightly more luxurious fale option at Stevenson’s Bungalows if you’re really dying to try the traditional experience.
Samoan “open houses”
Also unique to the islands are the Samoan “open houses.”
These round, columned structures with just a roof and concrete floor are open to the ocean breezes. They are used as a meeting house or guest house for any guest who wants to stay there.
Samoan custom traditionally requires families and villages to offer passing visitors hospitality, including overnight accommodations. A visitor can enter the guest house at any time for a short rest. The immediate family will respond, according to tradition, by preparing food and water for the visitors.
After the guests are fed and rested, the village chief will politely inquire about the purpose of the unexpected visit and the intended length of stay. Guests are treated with kindness and consideration and offered any further help if needed.
Even though such buildings are reserved for important purposes, they remain open and empty most of the time.
Samoans accept this knowing that their guest and meeting houses stand ready as places of refuge for anyone in need of help. These buildings represent the power, prestige, generosity and hospitality of the families who build them and their affiliated villages.
The Lovely Samoan People
The Samoans are very welcoming people and the dozens of available open houses dotting the islands attest to that. My walks through the villages – where I am cheerfully greeted by everyone I pass – are a highlight of my visit.
Especially the kids walking home from school who are quick to ask my name and smile for my camera.
Life in Samoa – on Savaii, especially – remains very simple to this day. It revolves around the village and the family and is known as “fa’a Samoa” – the Samoan Way.
The tourist infrastructure is primitive but slowly developing. You get the sense that the Samoans aren’t in any hurry to become a major tourist destination. It’s a nice change of pace from the rest of the South Pacific.
For now, the “Simply Samoan” lifestyle suits me just fine. And I know that if I ever need a place to stay, there’s an open house in Samoa waiting for me.
Next stop, Fiji!