Fantasy trips

Still off-limits: Why I can’t wait to visit to Samoa

With a love and preservation of ancient arts, glamourpuss beaches, affordable hut life and some of the best swimming spots on the planet, Samoa cannot reopen soon enough for Lucie Grace

Thursday 21 July 2022 11:49 BST
Samoa’s To-Sua Ocean Trench
Samoa’s To-Sua Ocean Trench (Getty/iStock)

What’s your idea of true, no-room-for-improvement heaven? For me, it’s waking to the sounds of gentle waves under a beach fale – a small thatched bungalow on stilts, open to the elements. Or, more specifically, it’s stepping out of that fale and straight onto the sands of Vavau Beach, lapped by one of Samoa’s many tropical lagoons, and devouring pineapple slices for breakfast before snorkelling in an aquamarine ocean trench. Is that so much to ask?

For more than two years, it has been. Following a firm closure as the pandemic darted around the globe – punctuated by a short-lived travel corridor with New Zealand – my dream cluster of Pacific islands are reopening to Britons on 1 August for the first time in 28 months. My desperate wait for Samoa to roll out the welcome mat is a familiar tale: it’s the place I’d planned a big adventure to in 2020, foiled by events known all too well. It should have been a research trip to meet local artists keeping the ancient tradition of tatau alive. Tatau, or tattooing as it’s come to be known across the world, originates in Samoa, which has archivists, curators and renowned artists I was ready and raring to meet.

Tattooing isn’t the only unique tradition these Polynesian islanders are keeping alive. “Fa’a Samoa’’, or “the Samoan way”, is a 3,000-year-old culture that has withstood colonisation by Germany and Britain, and still takes pride of place in day-to-day life. It’s a reverence towards nature, elders, faith and family that is visible daily in Samoans’ careful, considered approach to food, traditions and the arts.

Beach huts on Upolu island, Samoa (Getty/iStock)

Like most visitors to Samoa, when the country lets me in I’ll likely stick to the two main islands – Upolu and Savai’i. Upolu is home to more than 70 per cent of Samoa’s population, as well as the charmingly low-rise capital city, Apia; Savai’i is the slightly larger, yet less touristy, of the two. International flights – usually from New Zealand, Fiji or Australia – land at Apia’s Faleolo international airport, so Upolu is the natural starting point. That’s where I’ll begin, grabbing an all-important local sim card, learning some of the language and letting my jet lag settle, before juggling tattoo-culture research with waterfall chasing.

Upolu’s To-Sua Ocean Trench – a 98ft-deep swimming hole – is a stunner, with hues of blues and greens so effervescent that they verge on neon

Samoa also has two smaller inhabited islands, Manono and Apolima, plus several uninhabited islands only reachable by boat. But Savai’i and Upolu have plenty of stunning natural sites, scenery and cultural traditions to feast upon between them. While being in the first wave of tourists returning to a recently reopened country means seeing it in all its uncrowded glory, it can also feel tricky or vulnerable to venture far off the beaten track. On a recent “first back in” trip to India, I found transport links into the sticks to be patchy and the locals wary of returning tourists. Sometimes a government’s “open for tourism” message hasn’t quite hit home yet.

Either way, Samoa’s easily accessible “greatest hits” are jaw-dropping. Upolu’s To-Sua Ocean Trench – a 98ft-deep swimming hole formed when its lava roof dropped into the ocean – is a stunner, with hues of blues and greens so effervescent that they verge on neon. The island is also blessed with the Fuipisia, Togitogiga and Falefa waterfalls, all contenders for the world’s most beautiful, swimmable waterfall experiences. I’d learned that the majority of the nation’s natural wonders come with entrance fees charged by the local families who own the land and maintain the area, who then live off the proceeds, which feels like a great means of direct support, now more than ever.

Siva afi, or fire knife dancing, is just one of Samoa’s proud traditions (Samoa Tourism)

Another characteristic of a visit to Samoa is staying in an all-inclusive resort, with beach fale accommodation and all meals provided. Restaurants and cafes are scarce outside of Apia, so it’s handy to have everything provided by your chosen hosts. If traditional, wall-free fale digs don’t appeal, there are hotels in the capital city – but for me, a wide-open place to stay where I can stare out at the Pacific Ocean is absolutely part of the allure of this trip.

The majority of the nation’s natural wonders come with entrance fees charged by the local families who own the land and maintain the area, living off the proceeds

Fale resorts dot much of Upolu’s coast, and come in all levels of luxury and affordability. But to get the best of Samoa’s remote, wild beach-hut vibes, I’ll head over to the sister island Savai’i. Its north side has long been on my radar as somewhere to snorkel with wild sea turtles. Though I’m not a fan of animal sanctuaries – I’m never fully convinced of their “ethical” practices – I hear that if you stay in Manase, to the west of Tanu Beach, it’s easy to visit a reef where the turtles feed every evening. Swimming at a respectful distance that doesn’t disturb their feed, I hope to get incredible quality time with our flippered friends.

Researching Savai’i during the lockdowns, I circled on the map the powerful geysers at Alofaaga, shooting vats of water sky-high, and the striking Saleaula Lava Fields and Lava Church – Savai’i is a volcanic island, after all, though it’s pretty dormant (there hasn’t been an eruption here since 1905). As my 2020 mental picture of heaven hadn’t even factored in turtles and lava fields, my long-awaited trip to Samoa is likely to deliver even more daydream paradise than I’d bargained for.

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