Upolu, although not the largest of the Samoan islands (that honour belongs to Savaii), is home to the capital of Samoa, Apia, and is the center of commercial and government life. It’s also the home of the island nation’s international airport; so if you’re only visiting one of the Samoan islands then it’ll probably be Upolu. Being a Pacific island it’s exactly what you’d expect; laid back, tropical and with crystal-clear turquoise-ocean fringed with palm trees….sounds terrible, right?
Despite being a small island nation the good people of Samoa seem to have managed to locate Faleolo International Airport at the furthest possible point from everything else on Upolu (which is good news for the tranquility in Apia and the resorts, but bad news after a long flight). The easiest way to tackle the 45 minute journey to Apia (or to a resort) is to pre-book a hotel shuttle. However, if like me you arrive in the pitch black only to find that your hotel has failed to send the shuttle driver then fear not! I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights when I couldn’t find my shuttle because a kind local (I only settled on the decision that he was kind after 15 minutes of shooing him away through fear he was there to rip me off) offered me his phone to call my hotel. Having received confirmation that a shuttle wasn’t going to arrive (minus any apology) my new best friend found me a reputable taxi driver (of which there were plenty in attendance). The message of this long-winded story is that, unlike many countries I visit on a regular basis, those standing outside the airport touting taxi rides seem to be fairly trustworthy and really helpful in Samoa. That said, you should always be vigilant and pre-negotiate the (very reasonable) fare to wherever you’re going and Samoa is no different.
If you’re feeling more adventurous then there are public transport options from the airport including an airport bus that serves the major Apia Hotels and standard public buses (the latter being a short walk from the terminal building). Both are obviously cheaper than a taxi but probably not worth the extra hassle unless you’re on a tight budget. If you are on a tight budget then check out the link in the additional resources section for more information on the public transport options and latest price information on taxi rates to Apia.
Samoan banknotes have a phrase on them that reads ‘Fa’avae i le Atua Samoa’ which means ‘Samoa is founded on God’; and boy do they live to that mantra. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a higher concentration of churches in my life. The biggest impact of Samoa’s devout nature comes on Sundays when a lot of the major tourist spots and restaurants shut for the day, and in some locations even going in the water is restricted (bit of a bummer if you’re an atheist snorkeler or diver). Beyond Sundays you should also avoid walking through villages during Sa (evening prayers) which lasts from 6-7pm every day.
Buses on Upolu are brightly coloured, ridiculously inexpensive and a tourist attraction in their own right. All of them are named with their destination and you pay as you hop-off at the end of your journey. There are bus terminals (at the food market and flea market) but no bus stops, so you just have to wave one down when you see it. The real ‘highlight’ though comes if the bus is full. Samoan’s think nothing of sitting on a strangers lap, so if you happen to be seated on a full bus then don’t be surprised if a rather burly Samoan gentleman just comes and parks his derriere on your lap!
If you’re keen to visit Savaii (the larger of the two islands) then my first piece of advice is to visit the Savaii Tourist Board website that I’ve provided in the additional resources section. In terms of getting to Savaii the easiest option is the ferry. Mulifanua wharf (from where the ferry departs) is a quick 5 minute ride from the airport so if you’re planning to head straight to Savaii when you get off the plane in Upolu then you’ll be at the ferry terminal in no time. If you’re getting there from Apia you’ve got a similar drive as to the airport. In terms of ferry tickets, you need to purchase them from the booth in the middle of the wharf terminal which only opens about 20 minutes before the ferry departs (the Savaii tourist board website has the latest ferry schedule, but there is no way to buy tickets in advance at the moment). On the other hand, if you’re taking your rental car then you’ll need to book in advance through your rental car provider.
Piula Pools: A lot of people (myself included when I first arrived) seem to confuse Piula Pools and To Sua Ocean Trench (which I talk about below and HERE). In reality Piula pools, although billed as one of the top attractions of the island, is nowhere near as impressive. That said, it’s much closer to Apia and worthy of a pit stop for a picnic, swimming or snorkeling. To give it a simple description; it’s a cave pool that you can swim in (I managed to find a total of two fish whilst snorkeling, so nothing groundbreaking in that respect). On the way to Piula (and about 5km outside of Apia) you should also probably stop off at the Papase’ea Sliding Rocks which is a 5m natural waterslide in to a freshwater pool. Just remember that most land (including the tourist attractions that sit on them) is owned by villages, families, or individuals. As a result you should see if you can spot someone to ask permission to enter (do that first before you enter as not doing so can be deemed a little rude in Samoa) and they’ll likely ask you for a small entry fee.
To Sua Ocean Trench: To Sua is on the southern side of Upolu close to Vavau. There’s a small entrance fee but it’s well worth it. Once you’ve navigated the (quite frankly scarily slippery and high) wooden ladder down in to the trench you can swim about to your hearts content. The trench is surrounded by manicured gardens making it a nice place to spend a couple of hours picnicking. One word of advice, wear sandals when roaming around the gardens! I was going barefoot and trod on something that gave me a pretty nasty bite and it took all of my strength not to offend the devoutly religious locals with some of my cruder London vocabulary. You can check out my review of To Sua HERE.
Palolo Deep National Marine Reserve: If you enjoy snorkeling then this is one of the best places to go on Upolu; and its right in downtown Apia which makes it a breeze for accessibility. You might spot turtles or all manner of other aquatic sea life. Just be aware that if you visit in lower tides then you’ll probably want to take some sturdy dive shoes (or, heaven-forbid you own a pair, crocs) to navigate the rocks that line the seabed. Palolo also has the benefit of being one of the places that remains open on a Sunday, so take advantage! Alternatively, if you’re staying on the southern side of the island then there are plenty of places to go snorkeling. I was particularly a fan of Lalomanu where you can also hire a Fale (see below) and relax for the day (off the coast you can also see the old leper colony island). Just beware of the sun; as a ginger my skin is as white as the driven snow, but even I was taken by surprise at how quickly I want lobster-red on a completely overcast day!
Waterfalls: If you like a good waterfall then you’re firmly in luck; they are dotted all over Upolu (most notably the interior of the island on either of the cross-island roads). The photo below is from the (incredibly difficult to spell and type) Papapapaitai Falls which is a 100m waterfall into a pretty spectacular gorge. Others you might want to check out are Fuipisia, Sopsaga and Togitogiga. If you do the circular road route through the middle of the island then you can check-off pretty much all of them in a single day.
Hiring a Fale: The best way to describe a fale is as an open sided beach hut. You’ll see them dotted on the coastline all around the island and they can be hired for the day and for the night (if you want an authentic, sleep-on-the-beach experience). If you’re on a budget, or if you just want some shade for a day on the beach then this is the way to go; it’s probably just best to avoid cyclone season! As Lalomanu has been voted one of the best 5 beaches in the pacific you might want to check out the Taufua Beach Fales located directly on the beach.
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum: If you’re a massive RLS (that’s Robert Louis Stevenson rather than some obscure boyband) fan then there’s a chance you might already know that he spent his last days on Upolu for health reasons (I had no clue before I arrived). His home has now been turned in to museum and to Samoan’s he was a really big deal; take, for example, the fact that 200 mourning Samoans carved a route up Mount Vaea and passed his coffin from person to person up the ‘Road of the Loving Hearts’ to his burial site! These days you can still hike the 45 minute route up to the burial site which (besides paying your respects to RLS) provides a panoramic view across the island.
Airport Transportation Website: http://apia.airport-authority.com/transportation
Samoa Tourism Authority Website: http://www.samoa.travel/
Savaii Tourist Board Website: http://www.takemetosavaii.com/