Polynesia and Independent Samoa: How the People Live

Lano Beach - Savai'i island in Samoa.
Lano Beach – Savai’i island in Samoa. Neil Liddle photo.

GoNOMAD Destination Mini-Guide for Polynesia/Western Samoa

By Lucy Eglington


South Pacific, Polynesia. Formerly known as Western Samoa, and not to be confused with American Samoa (wholly different!), independence was granted in January 1962, and in 1995. Western Samoa became the Independent State of Samoa.

Map of Samoa

It consists of two major islands, Upolu and Savai’i, with a population of approximately 196,440. 143,418 of those live on Upolu, and about 35,744 of those in and around Apia, the tiny capital. 93% of the population are Samoan, the remaining 7% are Euronesians.

Many people speak English, helping to make Samoa an easy and welcoming place to travel to.


The islands are surrounded by both stunning white-sand beaches and craggy volcanic coastlines with blowholes, lava tubes, and some great surfing. The humid tropical climate makes for an amazingly lush rainforested interior, filled with high jungle peaks, craters, and waterfalls that thunder into crystal-cool pools.

 Upolu and Savai'i, SamoaProbably the most traditional of the Polynesian Islands, the ancient fa’a Samoa (Samoan way) is still the modus operandi here: the majority of people live this way in villages dotted around the coastline.

This traditional culture is in conflict with modern life, but it’s still working — most peoples’ daily lives still consist of farming, fishing, and feasting — together with handicrafts, music, dancing, and singing.

Samoa is developing its tourism industry in a culturally and environmentally responsible way. Samoans are gentle people, proud of their land and their culture, and they’re not interested in the fast buck approach to tourism that has destroyed so many other destinations.

They actively discourage visitors who are not interested in their culture or environment, so if you just want to lie on the beach, Samoa might not be the place for you. But if you want to experience a genuine Polynesian culture in a bountiful, beautiful environment, you’ll find more than you could imagine here.

Samoa is a developing country. Poverty is common in the rural areas of Samoa, but the country is building its self up economically. A large part of that success is due to tourism.


By Air
As Samoa is one of the stopping-off points on the Los Angeles/ Australasia route, it is easily accessible from Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and Tonga. If you are flying across the Pacific with Air New Zealand, you can normally choose a stopover here without increasing the price of your ticket.

Both Air New Zealand and Samoa Airways fly to Faleolo airport (35km west of Apia). Airport buses and taxis run from there to the center of Apia.

  • Air New Zealand
    USA Tel: 1-800-262-1234
  • Samoa Airlines
    USA Tel: +684-699-9126.

By Sea
Samoa is popular with the boaties, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to scrounge a ride on a yacht to and from neighboring destinations like Tonga of Fiji.

Getting around
You can hire jeeps from about US$40 a day. Make sure you stock up on fuel because it’s only available in town. There are several car rental companies in Apia, so shop around for the best rates.

  • Funway Rentals
    Tel: + 685-22045

Taxis will take you to most points of the island but they can be expensive, and it’s important to agree to a price before you set out. Most rides in town will cost US$1.50, and a trip to the airport is US$12. A half-day’s sightseeing should cost about US$18.

By Bus

If you are relying on getting somewhere for a connection, don’t catch a bus. Buses in Samoa are like a wild game: they appear plentiful, but catching one is easier said than done. Timetables are completely at the mercy of the drivers and if they can’t be bothered, the bus doesn’t go. It is also important to know that there are no official bus-stops in Samoa.

Conversely, you may find your driver decides to divert to his friend’s house…on the other side of the island. Visit this website for information on getting around in Samoa.

Finding the right bus is only the start of the fun. Once you’re squeezed on board, you’ll be amazed to discover a cornucopia of decorative items covering the dashboard; anything from rubber spiders, posters of Jesus and dangling CD’s, to Elvis beach towels, fairy lights, money, and flags of all nationalities.

Samoans also have amazing seating and stacking system. A bus isn’t full until the aisles are full of bags (with a layer of people atop them), and the seats are stacked up with people. And I do mean stacked.

Sitting on a complete stranger is quite unnerving to us space-conscious Westerners, but it’s de rigeur here. It leaves you with a dilemma though. Do you chat politely to the person underneath you as you jiggle up and down in their lap, or just studiously look at your fingernails?

By Bike
Hiring a bicycle is a rewarding way to cover the islands, but it’s hard work on the hills and can be uncomfortably hot. However, it gives you countless opportunities to meet people on their home turf, and you get a taste of the real slow-paced Samoa. A bike rental will cost about $130.

By Boat
Another excellent way to explore is by kayak or canoe, and it’s the only way to get access to some areas. Make sure you go with someone who knows the local area, as currents here can be strong.

As most of the attractions here are based around the natural environment, they’re open all year round. Nearly all the land here is family-owned, so whenever you visit a beach or trek through a forest, remember you are in someone’s backyard. Ask permission from the local villagers, and note that you will probably be asked to pay a small customs fee (usually US$.75 —US$2).

  • Upolu
    All sorts of rogues and castaways have washed up in Apia throughout history, and they have left their mark on the tiny island, which has a run-down, seedy colonial charm. Much of town life takes place along the busy harbor-hugging Beach Road, and strolling along here is a slice of modern Samoan life.
  • Palolo Deep Marine Reserve
    On the outskirts of Apia, the reserve is home to a huge host of marine creatures, and the warm waters make it a perfect snorkeling spot. It’s a good idea to wear shoes in: it can be a long walk over razor-sharp rocks and corals to the best spots. You can rent snorkeling gear for US$4, if you have your own, entry is just US$.75.
  • The flea market on Beach Road
    Sells a multitude of handicrafts and souvenirs. The adjacent fish market is a crazy, busy place where the day’s catch is landed and sold, although it’s not recommended for the squeamish.
  • The fascinating and bustling markets fou (behind the bus station)
    The main market, and where the locals go to sell their produce. It’s also the cheapest place to buy food in Apia.
  • Magrey Ta’s Beer Garden on Beach Road
    A good place to go for a knees-up and Cindy, Independent Samoa’s most famous fa’ afafine (respected transvestite) and local celebrity, struts her stuff there in an elaborate cabaret every Thursday.
  • The Papasee’a Sliding Rock
    A 5m (16ft) slide down a waterfall straight into a cool jungle pool. This is one of Samoa’s top attractions, and it can be quite a nerve-wracking experience: lots of people chicken out once they are at the top! To get there, take the Se’ese’e bus from Apia, and ask directions from the Papasee’a intersection. Entrance is US$.75.
  • Fatumea pool (or piula cave pool)
    18km along the north coast from Apia lies a sparkling, freshwater cave pool where you can swim, snorkel or just splosh around with the local kids. Next to the ocean, it has a daring underwater swim-through into an adjoining cave. The entry is US$5.00 for adults and $3.00 for kids.
  • The Aliepata region on the Eastern end of Upolu
    Famous for its beautiful white-sand beaches and clear water. Because Samoans are not big beach-goers and tourists are thin on the ground, you may have the place to yourself. There’s a cluster of beach fales around Lalomanu village and all of them cost about US$10, including sleeping mats, mosquito nets and three meals a day.
  • Vailima
    Robert Louis Stephenson’s home and grave lies about set in the hills, in a botanical garden and rainforest about 6 km from Apia (entry is US$6 for adults). It has been carefully restored as a museum and a fascinating hybrid of Scottish homestead with tropical colonial mansion.
  • There is a stone fireplace, pretty pointless in the hot climate, and the Stephensons’ servants were dressed in tartan lavalavas!. Robert Louis is a hero in Samoa and his name here was “Tusitala” (teller of tales). When he died, his body was carried to the top of nearby Mt. Vaea and he was buried with the reverence normally reserved for a great chief. His tombstone is an hour’s walk from the house, and bears the famous epitaph:

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 the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.


For the most authentic and unusual attractions head to some of the smaller islands nearby.

Manono Island
An untouched, traditional island. People live almost entirely in fales in an eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle. Visitors are welcome, as long as they observe the rules and share in the traditional way of life. Dogs, vehicles, and excessive noise are all banned here, and visitors are expected to dress and behave modestly.

To get there, take a bus from Apia to the Samoan Village resort at the western end of Upolu. From there, catch a launch across to the island (US$.40 each if the boat is full, US$8 for the whole boat).

Apolima Island

Even more remote. Lying west of Manono, it has one village of 150 residents, guarded by high cliffs with only one tiny sea entrance. If you want to visit here, it’s best to be invited by one of the villagers. Mr. Sa’u Samoa in Apolima-uta (on Upolu) can help to arrange an invite and your transport.


Savai’i is rugged, undeveloped and sparsely populated. Its culture is also more traditional than that of its smaller sister, Upolu. If you are spending any sort of time in Samoa, a visit here is a must. To get to Savai’i you have two choices, plane or boat.

Boats run two or three times a day from Upolu to Saleologa in Savai’i, but they often miss a run and they’re chock-a-block at weekends. If you don’t mind waiting, it’s very economical at US$2.50 each way for foot passengers (Tel: 45518).

The Tafua Rainforest Preserve is a lush area of rainforest, with great walking tracks, flying foxes and a rugged lava coastline filled with caves and lava blowholes.

The Matavanu Lava Fields on the northeastern coast are a wild, otherworldly moonscape, and there’s a great day walk around Mount Matuvanu’s huge crater. It’s quite a walk in the hot, humid air but well worth it for the spectacular view. The Falealupo Rainforest Preserve is a stunning, pristine rainforest with a canopy walkway from the top of a truly immense banyan tree.

If you fancy a night in the canopy, you can arrange to sleep up there. The tree platform sleeps up to 6, and it costs $50 per person including meals.In southern Savai’i, a must-see is the Taga Blowholes. These are among the biggest ocean blowholes in the world and the sheer power and force of the water blasting through them is an awesome spectacle.

Daring folk have been known to throw coconuts into the holes and watch them rocketing upwards with the force of a missile, but unless you’re sure of yourself, those sorts of stunts are best left to the locals.

Olemoe Falls is a Tarzan-style waterfall plummeting into a deep blue swimming pool surrounded by jungle. This spot is perfect for swimming and diving, and an idyllic place to have a picnic and escape from the heat of the afternoon.

Pulemeiei Mound, not far from the falls, is Polynesia’s largest ancient monument. It is a 12-meter high pyramid, and so overgrown that it’s almost impossible to locate! The best way to find it is to go with a local.


The rugged coastline, the lush tropical rainforests, and the volcano fields make Samoa a great place for hiking and trekking, and all over the islands, there are beautiful walks through reserves and plantations.

Ask in villages, the tourist office, or at your accommodation for detailed local information. As well as the beautiful swimming and snorkeling beaches around Upolu and Savai’i, Samoa offers some pretty good SCUBA diving, although it’s not quite up to Fiji standards.

<p “text-align: left;”>There is also quite a surfing community here, and there are a few good breaks around the islands. If you’re a surfie, head for the Seaside Inn in Apia, and ask for the owner, Cyril Curry: he’s the local expert.

Around the islands, fishing leases are owned by the individual villages, so you will need to ask in the villages and hand over a few Tala if you want to try your luck locally. In Samoa, you can try anything from a day trip to the beach, to a weeklong epic that will have you staying in villages, eating local food and tramping through the jungles.

  • Eco-tour Samoa
    Tel: 22144
    Offers informative environmental and cultural tours in their specially-adapted carved and painted local bus (you won’t be able to miss it!). They can arrange anything from a day out around the island to time on Manono Island, or kayaking trips through the mangroves. Their action-packed “Samoan Safari” tour takes in all the islands and costs US$137 per day per person, all-inclusive. 5% discount if you mention GoNOMAD
  • Outrigger Adventure Tours
    Tel: 20042
    Run day tours to beaches, waterfalls and to Manono island. They also offer a Sunday tour where you can enjoy a traditional meal in a village. Prices for all tours are US$16 per person, including food.
  • Safua Tours
    Tel: 51271
    Operate on Savai’i and offer cultural and scenic tours, including tapa-cloth making, tours to Pulemelei Mound and cliff top walks. Prices vary according to tours.


Wandering around the villages, and involving yourself in village life, is probably the most interesting thing you can do here, and certainly the most educational. One of the mainstays of village entertainment is Kirikiti. The Samoan equivalent of cricket, it’s a crazy game; the only solid rule being that the Home team automatically loses if they can’t supply enough food!

The bats are three-sided, and the balls are homemade, so it’s anybody’s guess where they will actually go. The rules are unbeknownst to anybody except a few of the players (the number of which can vary), and the scoring is completely arbitrary, depending on whose plantation the ball lands in. If you’re keen on a game, just hang around when one is going on: you’re sure to be invited to join the fun.


Apia has a range of accommodation to suit all budgets.

  • Samoan Outrigger Hotel
    +685 20042
    The well-run, colonial-style is 5 minutes from town in a peaceful area. It has clean, tidy dorms at US$9/bed, or singles/doubles for US$45, all including breakfast.
  • Aggie Grey’s Hotel
    Tel: +685-846-2800
    Named after its famous and feisty owner (believed to be the inspiration for James Michener’s character Bloody Mary), the hotel is filled with colonial memories and is one of the most notorious hotels in the entire South Pacific. Rooms here have all the amenities and cost from US$170.

Out of Apia, the most interesting (and cheapest) option is to stay in one of the beachside fales dotted around the coast. These cost from US$6 a night for a mattress and a mosquito net. Meals are usually extra (about US$6).

Fales are much more comfortable than the cement homes that many Samoans now own: they’re fully ventilated in the hot, soupy climate, and sleeping in one is like being out under the stars. The only problem with them is that they’re not lockable, and because they’re on stilts, you may have a wobbly awakening as local pigs use them as scratching posts during the night.

Just turn up at any of the many beach fales in the Lalomanu area and inquire locally. Few, if any, take or require advanced bookings Namu’a Island.

  • Namu’a Island Beach Fales, Aleipata. Pesega
    P.O. Box 6021, Apia.
    Tel: +685 30160

If you are traveling through the villages, you may well be invited to stay with people in their homes. This is a marvelous opportunity to understand Samoan life, and you may well make some lifelong friends. When you are leaving, it is polite to repay your hosts in some way, either with cash, luxury goods such as tins of corned beef (which people would not normally buy themselves), or something you have brought from home.

Gifts should reflect the value of the generosity you have received. When you are giving your gift, present it as “a token of your esteem, in thanks to your hosts’ generosity.” If you offer it as payment for services rendered, you may deeply offend your hosts and they will have great difficulty accepting it.

For formal homestay arrangements, contact the Samoa Visitors’ Bureau. It isn’t really worth trying to camp here. There are very few designated areas and when you are in sight of a village, you may embarrass the locals as they will feel obliged to invite you to stay with them.


In Apia, eating options are many and varied. If you’re on a budget and you want to eat with the locals, go to the maketi fou market for cheap food stalls. You can enjoy anything from pancakes to palusami for just a few Tala. There are also several cheap restaurants (US$3-4 for a big meal) including a pizzeria, Chinese restaurants, fast-food places and sadly, a drive-thru McDonald’s.

Apia has a few upmarket eateries, among them the delicious Sails restaurant overlooking the harbour, with starters from US$4 and main dishes at about US$12. Outside Apia, especially if you are staying in a fale, you will find more traditional fare.

As imported food is expensive, local crops, coconuts, fruit, pork, chicken, and seafood will form the bulk of your diet. There are a few traditional dishes that occur in various forms throughout the Pacific, some of which are more palatable than others.

For example, the grey-green worm-like palolo on toast, or Coca-Cola bottles filled with sea-cucumber insides (both delicacies) could send you packing. ‘Ava (or kava) is a drink made from ground pepper plant roots, which has a slightly narcotic effect. Often drunk before gatherings and village meetings, it looks (and tastes) like old dishwater!

Samoans like their fatty foods and modern “delicacies” to watch out for are turkey tails (little lumps of gristle with thin strips of meat in them) and the peculiarly named “mutton flaps;” fine dining’s darkest hour. Exported from New Zealand, they are basically the bits from the cutting-room floor.

The chances are, you’ll be invited to share a traditional Polynesian feast cooked in an umu, a traditional Polynesian above-the-ground oven. A hot fire is made in a pit and covered with stones. The food is placed on the stones and the whole thing is covered and left while everybody goes off to church.

Sunday meals are nearly always cooked in this way, and some of the dishes are wonderful: fresh-caught octopus baked in taro leaves and coconut cream, suckling pig, or palusami (taro leaves, sweet potato, and onion) and breadfruit.

One unavoidable dish is taro. This local root vegetable looks and tastes a lot like greying lumps of wallpaper paste. The meal is often washed down with koko Samoa: locally grown cocoa mixed with hot water and sugar, it’s a chocoholic’s delight. If you miss out on a Sunday feast with a family, you can still try the traditional fare.

  • Pasefika Inn
    Tel:+685 20971
    Offers a traditional Sunday lunch, including all the dishes above and more.


The flea market and the Maketi Fou in Apia are probably the best places to buy authentic gifts, and they have stalls selling everything from tapa cloth to multi-legged carved ‘ava bowls, coconut shell jewelry, and kitchenware.

An inexpensive buys are baskets and other items of woven pandanus, or carved painful-looking weapons. There are also a number of more expensive craft shops selling all of the above, as well as local works of art and larger carved artifacts.


Samoans like to party and along with the traditional Christian holidays, the following festivities also take place:

  • The 1st, 2nd and 3rd of June is the celebration of Independence Day. Samoa actually became Independent Samoa on 1st January, but because that was already a public holiday, the locals decided to spread out the fun! This is a massive celebration with singing and dancing, feasting, speeches, outrigger canoe races, and a whole host of other competitions.
  • The 1st-2nd week of September is the Teuila Festival. A riot of choir singing, fire-knife dancing, traditional dancing, fautasi (long-boat) racing and a whole host of other events are staged. There is also a mini-Olympics and just about anything else you can think of.
  • The Rising of the Palolo takes place twice: after midnight on the seventh day after a full moon in October, and again in November. Palolo are blue-green stringy worms that emerge from the coral reefs to mate, and they are scooped up with enthusiasm by the locals, who consider them something of a delicacy.
  • The second Sunday in October is White Sunday. This is a special day to honor the children, where everybody dresses in their whitest finery and goes to church. In a reversal of normal hierarchy, feasts are held afterward where the adults serve the children. This is also an important family day similar to Christmas, and people will travel far to be back in their villages.


Visas are not required for visits to Independent Samoa for trips under 30 days, but you must have a valid passport and an onward ticket.


Samoa is not the cleanest place on the planet, and quite a few travelers pick up mild stomach problems here. The best way to avoid this is to only drink bottled water or soft drinks, available in most places. No immunizations are actually required for a visit to Samoa, but you may want to think about having a few basic ones such as Typhoid and Hepatitis A.

As with all destinations, check this out with your doctor or travel clinic at least a month before you go. There is no malaria, but occasional outbreaks of dengue fever and filariasis occur, so protect yourself from insect bites. Wear long clothes at and after dusk, and use a good repellent containing DEET.

There are medical facilities here, but they are fairly Spartan. If you do come down with anything serious, get yourself to New Zealand, Hawaii or Australia.


The currency is Samoan Tala ($1US is roughly equivalent to ST2.50). There are no ATM’s in Samoa, but you can change travelers’ checks or hard currency in the three main banks in Apia, the airport, and a couple of the larger hotels such as Aggie Grey’s. There is also a small bank on Savai’i, in Saleologa.

Internet access is available in the computer shop in Apia, just across the road from McDonald’s. However, it is expensive and awfully slow. A few of the hostels are catching on, and should be providing services in the near future.


The intricate web of Samoan courtesies and customs is confusing, but it’s also the reason Samoa is such a unique and interesting place. Many people still live in villages in fales, traditional open-sided huts on stilts. Each village consists of groups of aiga, (extended families).

The chief of each family is the matai, and the individual matais make up the village council. These matais are responsible for enforcing the (strict) village rules within their aiga, and handing out punishments, which can range from small fines of money or animals to banishment (for the most serious crimes).

Property within the aiga is communal, which can lead to light-fingeredness, so watch out for small, covetable items! Different groups share different responsibilities: the young men are responsible for growing food. Single women are traditionally responsible for producing luxuries, such as fine mats, oils and siapo (tapa cloth made from beaten bark and painted with vegetable and bark dyes).

Married women are dedicated to looking after their husbands and extended family. Sometimes, a male Samoan chooses to dress and/or behave as a female, and is known as a fa’afafine. Though we would call them, somewhat derogatorily, transvestites, in Samoa, fa’afafine are respected and accepted members of the community, and they are privileged to belong the worlds of both men and women.

There is a closely observed hierarchy of respect in each family. Matai, priests, doctors, and teachers are all at the top, and in turn respect the other members of the council. Children respect their parents and everybody respects the elderly. You will see this system in action if you are invited to share a meal with a Samoan family: the children serve the food to the most respected family member first and then down.

As a tourist, you will be placed in a position of high regard, so it is important to honor this by behaving appropriately (see Cultural Do’s and Don’ts below). 97% of Samoans are devout Christians, and the church is a big part of every villager’s life.

Each tiny village has its own church, and there is a tremendous amount of “keeping up with the Jones’s:” villagers have been known to cripple themselves financially to build a bigger, grander church than that of a neighboring village.

Traditional tattooing is still practiced here and you will see men with fantastic blue-black tattooed “shorts” across their thighs and lower backs. These tattoos are created using the traditional (and agonizing) method, so it’s no surprise that the bearer is regarded as a brave and courageous Samoan.

The tattooist — himself a very respected member of the community — uses sharpened shark’s teeth or boar’s tusks to tap the dye, made from burnt candlenuts, into the person’s skin.

The whole process can take up to a month, and to give up halfway through brings shame on the young man and his aiga.

Cultural Do’s and Don’ts

Cultural do’s and don’ts Women travelers should be careful of over-friendliness towards single Samoan men: your friendliness may be misinterpreted. Western women are seen as particularly desirable, and you may unwittingly break a Samoan heart! Ladies should dress modestly in lavalavas (sarongs) or knee-length skirts, and keep shorts and swimming gear for the beach. Men should wear knee-length shorts or lavalavas, and shirts should be worn at all times.

Public displays of affection are not a good idea as Samoans are very reserved and dignified. If something isn’t happening the way you’d like it to, don’t get annoyed or aggressive. You will lose the respect of the people you are dealing with and will disgrace yourself — a serious no-no in these parts. If you’re not sure how to behave in a given situation, be polite and respectful, and don’t be afraid to ask.

Samoans are very proud of their culture and will be only too happy to explain things to you. Bargaining is unacceptable here, and if you try you may appear rude and disrespectful (or stingy!). The people do not “rip off” travelers, and you should pay the prices quoted. Tipping is neither expected nor encouraged.

Please try to avoid giving gifts to children in villages — begging is almost non-existent in the Samoas, and it is heavily discouraged. If you find yourself being invited to church, it is a great experience, whatever your religious persuasion. If you decide to opt out, remember that Sunday is a day of quiet and rest, so keep your own revelry to a minimum.

When invited into a fale, you should remove your shoes and sit cross-legged, or cover your legs. Never enter a home if people are praying or having a meeting.

If you are in a village between about 6 and 7 pm, you may hear a gong or a similar sound. This is Sa, and is the signal for people in the village to return to their homes and prepare for their nightly prayers. During this time you should sit down and not disturb anyone. 10 or 15 minutes later, another signal signifies it’s over.


Official Website of the Board of Tourism www.samoagovt.ws

An amazingly up-to-date site with all the info you could ever want including news and links, created by two locals. The Samoan Visitor’s Bureau in Apia is very helpful and staff can provide you with the best information on what’s happening locally, tours and useful maps of the area.
Tel: +685 24799

The Samoan Visitors Bureau also has a branch in the USA:
Lake Blvd 475, PO box 7740, Tahoe City, CA 96145
Tel: +1-684-633-9805

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