A less-travelled alternate to Fiji and Vanuatu, Samoa offers a range of outdoor activities, beautiful scenery and super-friendly people. The population of Samoa is about 200,000, and there are almost twice as many Samoans living outside of Samoa (predominantly in Australia, New Zealand and the US). Since missionaries introduced Christianity in the early 19th century, Samoa has become the most religious country in the world, with only 0.2% of the population identifying with no religion (on par with Somalia). Every village has multiple churches – often very grandiose buildings – and daily life is structured around the Christian worship calendar. Sunday is a day of rest – so just about every business and tourist attraction is closed.
When to visit
Samoa’s climate is consistently good year-round, with an average of 30 degrees – but it feels warmer due to the very high humidity. However, there are distinct wet and dry seasons, so the best time to travel to Samoa is from June to September when rainfall is lowest. November to April is also the tropical cyclone season, although they only occur occasionally in Samoa.
Getting to and around Samoa
An archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, Samoa’s airport (Faleolo International Airport) on Upolu has direct flights from Australia (Sydney and Brisbane), New Zealand, Fiji and the US (Honolulu). Samoa is closer to the US than it is to Australia, being just over half-way between Sydney and Honolulu. Until 2011 it was on the “other’ side of the International Date Line. On 30 December 2011 Samoa moved west of the International Date Line to ease commerce with its main trading partners Australia and New Zealand, so it’s now three hours ahead of Sydney and one one of the first places in the world to celebrate the New Year.
It’s a 35min drive from the airport to Samoa’s capital, Apia, and a 5min drive to the ferry terminal. Only four of Samoa’s ten islands are inhabited – Upolu, Sava’ii, Manono and Apolima – and the largest two (Upolu and Savai’i) are connected by a car ferry. The easiest way to get around the two largest islands is by renting a car – the main roads are all sealed. Vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the road – but only since 2009, when Samoa decided to change the side of the road they drive on from right to left.
The speed limit is officially 40km/h in towns and villages and 55km/h on open roads- but the locals seem to (mostly) drive half the speed limit… You’ll just need to be careful to avoid the animals which wander along and across the roads: Samoa has 56,000 cattle, about 500,000 free range chickens, 129,507 pigs (in 2021) and many roaming dogs (Samoa has one of the world’s highest recorded levels of household dog ownership) – none of which have great road sense.
Many resorts will offer a transfer service from the airport and there are a surprisingly large number number of taxis. Or you can catch one of Samoa’s brightly coloured buses – there are no bus stops – just wave at the bus driver to get on, and pull the cord along the roof of the bus when you want to get off.
How long to stay in Samoa?
A week or so gives you time to explore both main islands – make it two weeks if you want to get a bit more off the beaten track, such as exploring some of the smaller island or doing the longer hikes. We had 8 days, and I’ve got a few places I’m keen to come back and visit – Apolima Island would make an interesting day-trip, and the hike to the summit of Mount Silisili takes 2-3 days and a bit of pre-planning.
Upolu (4 days)
There’s not much left of our first day in Samoa after we land at 4:30pm, picking up a rental car at the airport and making our way to Apia, the capital of Samoa. We’re staying in Apia at the Tanoa Tusitala Hotel for the first two nights, from where we can explore the northern part of Upolu. Along the way, we’re treated to the first of many spectacular sunsets.
Day 1: Around Apia
We’re ready to do some sight seeing on our second day, hitting the road to look at some of the attractions around Apia. We take the Cross Island Road, stopping briefly at the The Baha’i House of Worship Samoa. One of only eight in the world, the Baha’i temple is unique architecturally with its nine symmetrical sides and entrances and large dome and is surrounded by 20 acres of beautiful prayer gardens.
A bit more than half-way along the Cross Island Road is Papapapaitai Falls, the tallest waterfall in Samoa with a drop of 100m. And one of only two waterfalls in Samoa you can visit without paying an entry fee!
Next is Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, a marine biodiversity area with many shallow reefs that support a diverse range of coral and fish species. It was one of the first Marine Reserves to be established in the South Pacific, being formalised in 1974.
On the outskirts of Apia is Papaseea Sliding Rocks, a series of waterfalls and water holes – which is named for its natural water slides. A steep descent down a set of steps brings us to this beautiful and shaded swimming spot.
We head back into Apia for lunch, stopping at McDonalds – the only one in Samoa. It’s also the most most expensive meal we have in Samoa – we later discover from a local guide that it’s a popular restaurant for young men looking to impress their girlfriends with an expensive dinner!
In the afternoon, I head back up the Cross Island Road to the Vailima Botanical Garden, the starting point for the hike up to the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny atop Mt Vaea.
A short, steep path or a longer trail through dense tropical rainforest lead to the top of Mt Vaea. The summit has filtered views of Apia, the surrounding mountains and valleys, and the Pacific Ocean. Just below the peak is the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny.
We head to the Taumeasina Island Resort for dinner – we couldn’t stay here as it was booked out, but it would be my pick for the best place to stay in Apia.
Day 2: Drive to the South Coast
The following day we visit one of the many flea markets in Apia, before heading to the south coast of Upola where we are staying at the Saletoga Sands Resort for three nights. The most direct way would be straight across the island on the Cross Island Road, but we are taking the Main East Coast and driving around the eastern half of the island. There’s some stunning scenery along the east coast.
We stop along the way at the Piula Cave Pool, a freshwater pool by the sea formed by a natural spring flowing out of a cave and out to sea.
From Piula, the road follows the coast for another few kilometres, before crossing the eastern end of Upolu. The road climbs quite steeply to a high point where there’s a view of the coast from the informal Lemafa Scenic Site (there’s a signpost, but no formal lookout area).
We reach Saletoga Sands Resort by 4pm, where we have a beach front villa a stone’s throw from the tranquil lagoon. As well as a great location, Saletoga Sands Resort was awarded the Samoan Tourism’s “Best Cultural Performance Award” or its fiafia for three years in a row (2017-19).
We’re treated to another spectacular sunset to complete our second (full) day in Samoa.
Day 3: Waterfalls and Swimming Holes of eastern Upolu
We hit the road again today to do a loop around the eastern end of Upolo, visiting a number of spectacular waterfalls. Our first stop is the To Sua Ocean Trench, a spectacular swimming hole.
The natural swimming hole is surrounded by lush jungle, and reached by a 30m ladder. It’s one of the best-known attractions in Samoa, so we head there early and have the crystal-clear salt water to ourselves for an hour.
Next stop is Sopo’aga Falls, which is only about a ten minute drive from our resort along the Main South Coast Road. As with almost every attraction, we pay our entry fee and walk the very short distance to the viewing area on top of the steep cliffs opposite the waterfall.
Next, as we turn onto the Le Mafa Pass Road and head towards the centre of the island, is Fuipisia Waterfall. It’s on the same river as the previous waterfall and about the same height, but is more spectacular as the viewpoint is closer to the falls.
It’s a slightly longer walk to reach the viewpoint, and a rough track continues to the top of the waterfall, where you can swim.
Not as impressive is Falefa Falls, reached by a short paved path.
The last waterfall of the day is my favourite: Sauniatu Waterfall combines a picturesque cascade with a swimming hole surrounded by rainforest. There’s only a few other people swimming here when we arrive and I’m really glad we made the effort to come here.
We return to the resort via a loop that takes us to the eastern-most point of the island. Just off the east coast of Upolu is Fanuatapu, an uninhabited island, and Namu’a Island, which is also uninhabited but can be reached via a short ferry ride and offers great snorkelling.
The last section of the loop along the southern coastline has a series of resorts and beautiful, protected beaches, including the famous Lalomanu Beach which has been recognised as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
We’re back at Saletoga Sands Resort by late afternoon, for dinner and another breathtaking sunset.
Day 4: Surfing and Hiking on the south coast
It’s an early start today: my son has booked a surf tour and the boat is leaving from the beach in front of Coconuts Beach Club Resort. I’m taking the opportunity to do a couple more hikes – the first to Mount Fiamoe, a volcanic peak in the middle of the island.
Mount Fiamoe (938m)
An overgrown service trail leads to the rim of an old volcanic crater, which has tall antenna masts on both sides. There some great views from the top of the northern and southern coasts of Upolu – and even better views if you climb one of the tall antennas!
It’s taken a bit longer then planned to explore Mount Fiamoe, but I’ve got just enough time for a change of scenery, on one of Samoa’s best-known coastal walks.
A short but spectacular walk that follows the top of the cliffs above the ocean, through Pandanus forest. Multiple lookouts provide a view of the rugged coastline and multiple rock arches, before the trail reaches a large, open lava field.
I make it back to Coconuts Beach Club Resort just in time to pick up Luke, who really enjoyed his surfing adventure with Manoa Tours.
Although we’re back at our resort again by lunch, after our very early (5:30am) start, it’s a quiet afternoon.
Day 5: To the Ferry and Savai’i Island
We’ve got a one-hour drive this morning to the western end of the island, where we are booked on the 2pm inter-island car ferry. Our first stop is at the Togitogiga Waterfall, a picturesque waterfall and swimming hole in the O Le Pupu Pue National Park.
As we continue along the Main South Coast Road, we pass the Giant Clam Sanctuary. An initiative started in the 1980s to restock overharvested clams and to teach the communities about being ecologically responsible, over 45 villages participate in the Giant Clam Program. This is the only location where you can snorkel, with the clams being about 30m offshore.
The Main South Coast Road follows the coast pretty closely, and with only a few brief photo stops we arrive at the Mulifanua Wharf Ferry Terminal with plenty of time to spare.
From the wharf you can see the smaller island of Manono on the left, and the larger and more distant Savai’i island on the right. We’re on the MV Lady Samoa III, the larger but slower of the two ferries that run between Savai’i and Upolu.
Savai’i (2 days)
The largest (and highest) island of Samoa, Savai’i has a population of about 45,000 – compared to 145,000 pople living in Upolu. The traditional culture and way of life in Samoan society remains strong in Savaiʻi, which has fewer signs of “modern life” and less development than the island of Upolu. The ferry lands at Salelologa Wharf on the eastern side of the island, and we make the one hour drive up the Savai’i Lagoon Resort on the north side of the island.
It’s a great resort – my favourite of the three we’ve stayed at in Samoa. We’ve got two beachfront bungalows; it’s a small and intimate resort with only ten self-contained bungalows along a small beach, from which there is access to a shelteered lagoon for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking. The restaurant has a daily-changing menu, and great view over the lagoon from which to enjoy the sunset.
Day 6: Around Savai’i Island
While the rest of the family have a quiet day, Luke and I hit the road to do a circuit of the island. It’s about 195km around the enture island – so you can see all the main attractions in a day. (Luke’s not keen to see any of the caves – so we skip these on our drive.) Although we’re driving anti-clockwise around the island, start at the Saleaula Lava Field which is a couple of kilometres from our resort. A London Missionary Society (LMS) Church sits in ruins, with a solidified lava flow through its arching entrances.
The lava flow was from the 1905-1911 eruption of Mt Matavanua, when lava flowed over 25,000 acres with a depth of over 100m, destroying two villages in its path.
A short walk from the church along the lava flow is the “Virgin’s Grave”, where the lava is said to have avoided the grave of a young girl.
A long section of the North Coast Road is inland, passing three cave sites (which I’ll come back and visit tomorrow) before reaching the coast again near the western end of the island.
The Coast Road cuts across the end of the island; we turn onto Falealupo Road which goes all the way to the western tip of the island. On the way we stop at Moso’s Footprint. I should have taken my son’s advice and kept driving, as it’s really not worth stopping. According to myth, Moso’s Footprint – a 2m long depression in basalt – was made when the giant Moso stepped over to Fiji from Samoa (the other footprint can be found on Viti Levu in Fiji). In the words of Lonely Planet: “This ancient 1m-by-3m rock depression is decidedly unremarkable apart from the legend that surrounds it”.
Although so far there hasn’t been much in the way of signposted attractions, it’s a very pleasant drive along the unsealed road, with the ocean a stone’s throw away.
Near the western tip of Savai’i is Falealupo, which was described as “the last village in the world to see the sunset of each day” until the dateline was moved in 2011. Near the village is the Falealupo Church Ruins, a Catholic church which was destroyed by Cyclones Ofa and Val in 1990 and 1991.
This is definitely worth a stop to explore the enigmatic ruins of the church.
The lava field continues behind the church to the ocean.
At the very western tip of the island is Cape Mulinuu, where according to legend the dead pass into the underworld. There’s a beautiful beach, although the surf and rocks mean that swimming is not recommended.
Cape Mulinuu is also home to several historical sites; the main one is mauga fetu, a series of star mounds. These are rocks placed into a rough star shape, known as spiritual places where the matai (chiefs) from each of the villages would meet around the edge of the mound. Some of the rocks have grooves or have been hollowed out for grinding tools or to be used as ava bowls for ceremonies.
Near the star mounds is Ana O Vaatausili (The Giants Cave), where legend has it that a young boy entered the cave for three nights, emerging as a giant to fulfil his destiny of avenging his nephew who was killed by his enemies. Opposite the cave is is the Vaisuatoto Well (which translates to “water flows red”), where local villagers remembered the water of the well being strangely red. The legend is that a man called Taotunu would clean out the internals of his atu fish (skipjack tuna) in the well, before poking the lower part of the fish and releasing them back into the sea alive.
Before we leave, the local villager who showed us arund the site sells us a few coconuts, which he cuts down from a nearby tree, expertly husking it and knocking off the top.
We complete the loop around the western end of Savai’i island, passing a few more scenic lagoons and beaches.
The next stop is the rather underwhelming Lovers Leap, where the “legend but a true story” has it that there was a famine in the village of Salega, and believing that their family left them there to starve a blind woman named Funea and her daughter Salofa jumped off the cliff. As soon as the mother and daughter hit the water they transformed into a turtle and shark.
The South Coast Road follows the top of high cliffs for a while, before descending to the coastline.
The next stop is well worth it: Alofaaga Blowholes in the village of Taga propel a roaring jet of water up to 30m in the air.
Multiple blowholes were formed by lava flows creating a series of tubes, which connect a flat clifftop of lava rock with the ocean below.
An enormous lava flow must have once flowed into the ocean along this part of Savai’i, as coastline consists of volcanic rocks for a long distance. The Mu Pagoa Waterfall is formed by the Lata River spilling over an old lava flow into the South Pacific Ocean. It’s a fairly rare tidefall (the only one in Samoa and one of a small number around the world) where a waterfall drops directly the ocean.
The last stop on our Savai’i island is another waterfall, or rather waterfalls. Afu Aau Waterfalls (also called Olemoe Falls) is a spectacular series of cascades, with the spring-fed river flowing from the rainforest into a number of swimming holes. It’s also really busy – we don’t see any tourists, but there are at least 50 locals enjoying an afternoon swim.
From here we head back to our resort, for dinner and another spectacular sunset.
Day 7: The Lava Caves of Savai’i
It’s our last full day in Samoa, and everone else has a morning snorkelling trip booked – I’m heading back out to explore some of the lava caves. But first I head south to the Afu Aau Waterfalls (again) – this time I have the place completely to myself for an hour.
Then it’s back up the up to the top of the island – the furthest cave is the La’auolola lava tube caves, which is accessed by a pleasant forest trail through mahogany, ifilele, teak, kava, eucalyptus and banyan trees. The cave entrance is surrounded by moss-covered volcanic rocks.
Created by a lava flow in the 1700s, the Laauleola Cave is the longest (known) cave in Samoa – and the 25th longest lava tube in the world. It’s 5,047m in length, going all the way to the ocean – the first 500m is fairly accessible, before a drop which requires climbing and caving experience. The cave is also famous for the white rumped swiftlets and bats that live inside. If you’ve got time for only one cave, this is the one to visit.
The easiest cave to explore is the Pe’ape’a Cave, which is right next to the North Coast Road (not to be confused with the Ana Pe’ape’a Cave or Swiftlet Hole which is located in the O Le Pupu-Pue National Park). The cave is believed to stretch for 1km, but after about 50m there’s a tight squeeze that prevents further progress. It’s the least spectacular of the three caves in this area, but the best one to visit if you don’t have much time or have small children.
A bit trickier to reach and the most challenging cave is the Paia Dwarfs Cave: according to local belief, dwarfs still inhabit this lava tube cave and their footprints can still be seen today. The turn-off to the cave is signposted on the North Coast Road, but after that there’s no other signage. Fortunately I happen to encounter a car coming down the rough road in the opposite direction, and the locals show me the entrance to the cave. A short walk from the road at -13.49177, -172.408 reveals the cave entrance, which from the outside looks like a small animal burrow.
It’s actually a fairly large entrance, but after a short distance there’s a steep and slippery drop, which I don’t feel comfortable negotiating on my own. The trick with this cave is to find a guide in the nearby village of Paia, as you can venture a fair way in – but it involves some crawling and potentially some swimming. The cave is said to be at least 1.6km in length, and potentially much longer.
Heading back to the resort for a late lunch, I take advantage of an overcast afternoon to explore the area by kayak. A small distance offshore is a circle of sticks in the water; I find out later that this a form of aquaculture. Fish are held in here until they grow to a large enough size to be harvested.
I paddle about 4km to the edge of the Saleaula Lava Field, passing a few nice beaches on the way – this is as far as you can go the east, without entering open water (high tide is also essential!).
It’s our last Samoa sunset, before we head back to the airport.
Day 8: Back to Upolu
Although we have a full day in Samoa, with our flight leaving at 6pm, we’re spending most of the day driving from our resort back to the ferry terminal, and then to the airport. We take our time driving down the coast to the Salelologa Wharf.
Our 1pm ferry is the MV Samoa Express II, which is a bit smaller but quicker than our ferry across to Savai’i. After driving onboard, I watch how every square centimetre of the vehicle deck is used, with the ferry capable of accommodating up to 40 vehicles.
It’s a bit choppy on the way back, due to high winds, so I stay out on the top deck enjoying the breeze. We pass by Apolina Iisland again – home to around 100 people and less than 50 visitors a year, the island is just 5 square kilometres in size and one of the hardest places in Samoa to reach. A 35-minute ride in a small boat ride is required, and then a narrow, swirling channel needs to be negotiated to reach the island’s only bay (which is a volcanic crater).
We’ve got just enough time to stop at the Sheraton Samoa Beach Resort – which is between the ferry terminal and the airport – for lunch before returning our car at the airport. (It’s a nice resort – but after our smaller and more intimate resorts I’m glad we’re not staying here!)
It’s been a fantastic trip – a longer flight than Vanuatu or Fiji, but lots to do (if you choose to!), friendly people and beautiful scenery.