Living Fa’a Samoa: Hospitality and Family Rule

Samoans drink kava, the local intoxicant, on the Island of Upolu.
Samoans drink kava, the local intoxicant, on the Island of Upolu.

‘The Other’ Samoa is filled with friendly family people

By Kent E St. John

[Editor’s note: Independent Samoa is just to the east of American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States.]

I felt like a Lilliputian upon arrival in Apia on Samoa, a little man in a world of giants. Some of the world’s best rugby players and football players are Samoan.

During my exploration I found that giant warm hearts beat in the Samoans; hospitality and family rule, and have for centuries.

Samoa always plays things its own way, perhaps the reason that it was where Polynesians first established independence from European colonization.

To this day they maintain a traditional lifestyle and the land is under their control, unlike many others such as Hawaii or Tahiti.

If a beachfront high-rise is your thing, then Samoa may not be. If culture coupled with blue lagoons and waterfalls and empty beaches is to your liking, Samoa is a perfect match — days of exploration and nights of fresh seafood on a beach under the stars. As you pass villages, waves and smiles follow — truly a day in a South Pacific paradise.

Bloody Mary’s Bloody Good

On my arrival to Samoa, I headed to Apia, the capital on the Island of Upolu and the legendary Aggie Grey’s Hotel, a place opened by Aggie in 1933. The hotel was once the old British Club but gained fame as a club for American servicemen during WWII. Today it’s owned by Sheraton, but it is still a comfortable and historic place to bed down in Samoa.

Welcome to Samoa
Welcome to Samoa

Today the mix of old and new is perfect and I was greeted by Aggie’s daughter, who over the course of my stay would regale me with stories of past visitors such as James Michener and Bill Holden.

In fact Michener wrote, “I find it quite the pleasure that one hotel in the South Pacific, in which I spent many fruitful hours, now has a room which bears my name… Aggie Grey’s in Samoa.”

The character Bloody Mary from Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (and later the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific) was based in part on Aggie, and Michener would still love it there.

From the hotel I headed for a stroll through Apia, delighted with its somewhat scruffy appearance, clearly a city not blighted with a dressed-up for tourists look. It has layers of feeling dating from long ago with a few modern structures; it feels good.

Funky restaurants and shops are laid out pell mell and the market near the center is perfect. Apia was the ideal beginning to my Samoan sojourn. The beach Vaiala was close enough to walk to and the Papase’ea Sliding Rocks a short bus ride away. Evenings at Aggie’s shared with expats, visitors and locals were the common the ending of wonderful days.

Treasure Island

Boat to Manono
Boat to Manono

One traveler to Samoa eventually made the island his home on Upolu, the author Robert Louis Stevenson. His mansion built in 1890 is a treasure, a mix of European and Samoan features. Stevenson was so beloved by the people there that he was given the mantle of Tusitala (Teller of Tales).

On the Southeastern side of Upolu is Aleipata, place of picture-perfect beaches and reefs, a 90-minute bus ride from Apia. While there are a few resorts, wonderful options are the numerous beach fales (thatched roofed platforms) to rent cheaply if simply. The area was hit by a tsunami in 2009 but is rebuilt to the point where lodging has reappeared and a new warning system added.

Two of the best places to visit are the Togitogiga Recreation Reserve and the O Le Pupu-Pu-e National Park; waterfalls, lava tubes and hiking through rainforests can fill many a day. The other usual island options such as kayaking, surfing and fishing are also readily available.

The many villages also make for great car rides, each with a church and traditional meeting place for village chief and elders, a chance to participate in a Kava Ceremony is possible at some. All too soon it was time to ferry to Savai’i fully attuned to Samoa vibes.

Savai’i Daydreaming

The Alofaaga Blowholes on Savai'i in Samoa
The Alofaaga Blowholes on Savai’i in Samoa. Photo by Kent St. John.

While larger than Upolu, Savai’i is more laid back, and while villages ring the coast, the interior is rugged and mountainous; more than 450 volcanic cones fill the skyline.

A car is a prime tool for exploring the island, but hitching isn’t difficult. I based at Le Lagoto, a small resort near the village of Fagamalo.

This resort has a place on my favorite places to stay list; the name is Samoan for sunset and for great reason. The rooms are traditional style fales with every modern convenience, the beach is fantastic and we had some great lobster on the resort deck.

As I sat sipping a cold beer, my waiter Simon had something to add to my amazement.

“The Fagamalo Peninsula has had a magical hold for many years,” he told me. “It is one of two entrances to the underworld. Follow the path on the water left by the sinking sun and there it is.”

Forget the underworld; I felt closer to heaven.

Meeting the Craterman

The next morning I headed to Mount Matavanu Crater to hook up with the Da Craterman. He tells me that he is the most famous man in the world. “Everyone come to heer cause Da Craterman heer.”

The fiafia at Angie Grey's.
The fiafia at Angie Grey’s.

He reeks of hooch but is a happy guy. Soon we reach the top and below the island spreads. Craterman’s signs are posted along the way, done in his pidgin English, saluting visitors from 110 countries. After the climb I headed to the freshwater spring pools just a few feet from the ocean, refreshing.

It was soon time to continue on the ring road around Savai’i and past the villages, each with a church and a place for chiefs and elders to meet.

Eventually I reached the Alofaaga Blowholes, an amazing display of nature’s power. As the waves crash to shore water is sent through some lava tubes and sprays at least 100 feet in the air.

In a display of island playfulness, a local villager began dropping coconuts at just the right time into the holes sending them sky high. Hours could be spent watching the spray of water and crashing of waves but an afternoon dip at Afu-a-Au Falls beckoned. Spending the end of the day in tropical seclusion ideal, the spring fed water smooth and silky, perfect.

After Church in Savai'i
After Church in Savai’i

A Night at Luisa’s

I ended my stay on Savai’i at a place named Luisa’s Chalets, perfectly funky with accommodations ranging from motel-style rooms to plywood fales set on a lagoon with crystal clear waters. The main meeting area has a restaurant and bar area complete with pool table and surrounded by jungle.

After a pleasant dinner I ended up sitting with some Peace Corp volunteers at a table over the lagoon, they all meet at Luisa’s every few weeks on getaways from their postings. It was wonderful to listen to this group of intelligent hard-working young people doing their part to improve the world.

I asked what would be some things to do on my last few days in Samoa. Two things were highly recommended: attending a church service and attending a fiafia, a traditional feast.

I did both and loved doing so. Everyone was all decked out on Sunday, and the service an amazing mix of brimstone and music, smiling faces glad to see a visitor attend. Make sure you dress with respect and adhere to custom.

Before catching the ferry back to Upolu, I also went to a fiafia. Preparations had begun long before I awoke. Deep pits were built to fire up; when the fires are ready, various foods are wrapped in banana leaves and buried.

The amazing assortment of different foods will please anyone who attends. The laughter and smiles are infectious and you are treated royally. I was determined to learn more about the Samoan way of life. It was time to head to the very traditional island of Manono.

Reflecting on Samoa's past
Reflecting on Samoa’s past

Marvelous Manono

No motor sounds or barking dogs permeate the air of Manono; both are banned. It was tranquil and a step back in time. With my guide Tookie we walked the one-and-a-half-hour trail that circumnavigates the island, on one side the ocean, on the other the traditional homes and villages.

It was also a chance to get the skinny on traditional lifestyles. Tookie was wonderfully frank and had the traditional pe’a tattoo markings, intricate and exacting designs from thigh to the waist and shoulders.

“It was most painful to get,” Tookie said, “but to back out after starting is a sign of cowardness. A man must not be left alone while getting the tattoos done. If you are, the aitu (spirits) could take you.”

My next question was about the apparent mix of church and traditional rites. “Samoa is very traditional, but the beliefs of the early missionaries somehow fit,” Tookie said.

“The real beauty of our system is the village. The chiefs and councils do things for the good of all and Samoans consider their land sacred. That’s the reason it is preserved intact and not filled with resorts that undermine the island like others in the South Pacific.” I certainly had to agree with that.

A fish feast in Samoa
A fish feast in Samoa

I had heard about the so-called third gender in Samoa and asked about it. The fa’afafine are biological males with a strong feminine orientation. They are then raised as female children and respected in Samoan culture. They are known for hard work and family dedication.

The fa’afafine generally have a varied sex life be it male or female. If with a male it is not considered a homosexual relationship as they are their own gender.

All too soon it was time to head to Aggie Grey’s Resort near the airport where I spent a day being a resort citizen. Yes it is possible. While it was very pleasant, it is the other Samoa that intrigues still. The Resort has anything for those that are looking for in a resort, it’s a bit removed from Fa’a Samoa meaning Samoan Way.

Further Information:

As always I begin planning with the country’s tourism site and Samoa has a great one filled with ideas and information. Cultural explanations can be found there as well as good lodging choices.

I flew Air New Zealand to Samoa a wonderful flight with great service. Samoa was under control of New Zealand for a bit so it was a natural fit, one of my favorite airlines.

Aggie Grey’s Hotel and Bungalows was a great place to begin my travels to Samoa, in fact Aggies has climbed onto my list of great hotels, full of character and charm.

My best stay of the trip was at Le Lagoto Resort on Savia’i Island. The fales were perfect, the beach beautiful and the food was terrific — a winning combination. The sunset is top tier and I wished my stay was longer.

Luisa’s Chalets perfect place filled with funk and good times. Various types of accommodations ensure that one fill fit your style and pocketbook. Travelers from around the world end up here.

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