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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 found myself…at midnight on Tuesday, no wait, Monday (landing at midnight only confused the situation further).
I will be spending 4 nights in Samoa. 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).
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 remains the best hotel on the islands today. 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 took an hour but I finally arrived at Aggie’s and checked in at almost 2am. After settling into my bungalow and cranking up the A/C – which I missed dearly in Tonga – I went straight to bed.
A Visit to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vailima
The next day I headed out to explore Apia and hit the local market for some souvenir shopping. After a quick tour around town and a few purchases, it was 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 where they buried him overlooking the town and sea that he loved.
Though the museum was only about 2 miles away, the front desk agent at Aggie’s advised a taxi as the walk was entirely uphill. I took her advice and grabbed a cab for a ride up. This was the best decision I made all day.
As we drove along, I realized that the walk would have been quite strenuous in the Samoan mid-day heat. Once we arrived, the driver wanted to wait and take me back (for a nominal fee, of course) but I sent him on and planned to walk back….downhill. I wanted to spend some time at the museum and also make the hike up to the grave and I didn’t want to feel rushed by having someone waiting for me.
There were only about 8 other people there when I arrived and the tours start whenever enough people are assembled. Apparently 8 was enough because our tour of the house started just after I arrived. Our extremely knowledgeable tour guide, Margaret, walked us through each room of the house giving us the history of each room and bringing the whole house to life for me.
Margaret later explained why she was so passionate about the museum and its story – her great grandmother was a servant in the house during Stevenson’s life and she was named after his mother. The entire family was loved dearly by the Samoans especially those who lived and worked at Vailima.
The tour was fascinating and once it was over, it was optional to make the climb up Mount Vaea to view Stevenson’s final resting place. Margaret informed us that the hike to the top would take about 45 minutes and advised water, sturdy shoes and bug spray. Since bug spray has been my perfume of choice since arrival in Tonga, I had that covered.
An Ill-Advised Hike up the Hill
Figuring 2 out of 3 was good enough, I bought a bottle of water in the gift shop (my second and final good decision of the day) and headed to the start of the trail. I should point out that no one else from my tour group elected to make the hike to the grave, but I couldn’t resist. How can you come all this way and not? Plus, Margaret said the view from the top was spectacular and I’m a sucker for a great view.
I’d only been hiking about 10 minutes when I realized I would have been a lot better off in my tennis shoes instead of my flip flops. Too late now. The climb was a lot steeper than I expected and the path was just large rocks at some points. The other issue was that it must have rained on the mountain that morning because the trail was muddy and slick in spots – not good news when you’re wearing inadequate footwear to begin with.
But I pressed on, thinking it couldn’t be much further to the top. In the back of my mind, though, I kept thinking that this would be tricky to get back down.
Finally, after 45 minutes of climbing practically straight up, I reached 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 was spectacular. I was glad I’d toughed it out – of course, I still had to climb back down. I took a few minutes to breathe, drink my water and take some photos before beginning the climb back down.
Once I started heading back down, I became acutely aware that I was completely alone on the mountain. I’d seen no one else on the trail the entire way up. About halfway down, disaster struck.
At a particularly steep step down across rocks, I carefully set one foot down on the ground (easy does it) – and it promptly slipped right out from under me in the mud sending me sliding down the mountain about 6 feet through wet earth.
Oh Lord, this can’t be good.
Regaining my composure quickly, I grabbed hold of a tree and pulled myself back up onto the trail (which would have been a whole lot easier if the ground had been dry). A quick check revealed no injuries other than a few scratches (which would 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 was steep, it was also thickly wooded so you couldn’t fall too far without something to stop you.
Looking back, I realized 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 came 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 made my way back down the rest of the mountain without incident. At the bottom of the trail, near the house, there was a pond with a trickling waterfall where Robert Louis Stevenson used to bathe.
I took advantage of the waterfall to clean off my muddy feet and hands, brushed the drying mud off the rest of me and managed to emerge from the woods looking reasonably presentable…the most damage inflicted on my pride.
I still made the walk back to Aggie Grey’s, determined to shake off the incident on the mountain and carry on. When I got back – probably looking homeless to the front desk staff – I took a long hot shower and stayed at the hotel for dinner.
The next morning I awoke and surveyed the damage. I already had several small scratches on my arms and legs from climbing across the reefs in Tonga, now I had 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
Day 3 and it was 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’d chosen the Savaii Lagoon Resort. Located on the north side of the large island, the resort had only 10 bungalows, all beachfront.
When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by Patricia and Christoph, the German couple who manage the resort and live onsite. I was escorted to my bungalow which had the best location of them all on the resort’s pristine beach (not by choice, 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 was beautiful. Extremely spacious and modern (by Samoan standards), the bathroom even had a luxurious outdoor shower. Unfortunately, like Tonga, it was still without A/C and a hairdryer (I haven’t had a good hair day since Auckland). And I received only a blank stare when I inquired 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 you don’t get to travel like I do without having to be available to clients to earn your keep. When pressed, Christoph said he thought the nearest village of Manase (a 30 minute walk away) had an internet café. Score!
Christoph is also a chef and runs a very small but well-known restaurant at the resort creating only 2 dishes each night, all 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 decided to try Christoph’s cuisine (which came highly recommended on Trip Advisor). I settled into my bungalow just in time to enjoy a stunning sunset before dinner. Christoph’s cuisine did not disappoint and my dinner of grilled tuna was fantastic.
I had grandiose plans to hire a driver for a day tour of the island the next day (my only full day on Savaii) but after my adventurous treks through Tonga and Apia, I was ready for a day of lazing around on the beach. And the Savaii Lagoon Resort had the perfect beach for it.
So, I admit, I was completely lazy on day two…and it was great.
I did, however, manage a morning walk into Manase, followed by a walk around the village meeting a few locals and a lot of kids along the way.
Back at the resort, I spent a relaxing day on the beach and finished the paperback I’d been reading since Australia.
That evening, I headed to the Le Lagato Resort & Spa next door for dinner and their Thursday night “fiafia” – a traditional Samoan meal cooked in a pit of hot stones called an “umu” followed by singing and dancing. It was 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.
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 and 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 was cheerfully greeted by everyone I passed – were a highlight of my visit. Especially the kids walking home from school who were 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 – 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!