We arrived in Apia from Auckland after a most event-filled 24 hours of travel (read about that adventure here). So similar to the other Pacific Islands I have visited, Samoa is a land of palm trees gently waving in the wind, hot air clamouring to stick to you, far too many mosquitoes and a slow way of life.
Wild pigs, dogs and chickens run amok in the streets with the children, juicy pineapples are available for sale at every roadside stall, houses all have large open-concept spaces out front to sit, eat, gather and avoid the intense heat, rubbish is tied up neatly in bin bags and left on roadside shelves for collection (the streets are impressively clean and garbage-free), the ocean laps up at everyone's gardens and geckos dash across the walls.
We have been saddened to see the impact of coronavirus in the country - the hotels are empty, the markets sit full of sellers with their goods and no-one comes to buy, the rental car shops are eerily quiet and full of cars all day long and taxis are desperate to drive even one person around. We hope that once the dry season rolls around (June-September), that the trickle of tourists will increase; tourism is heavily depended on here.
Samoa during the rainy season (October-May) is hot and humid, with the chance of torrential rain gushing down any moment. We visited in March, during the shoulder season and found it to be quite wonderful - we sat at around 30 degrees each day with a few showers dotted but barely enough to distract us from our plans. The hot season must be quite unbearable if we're already hovering above 30.
Where to Stay in Apia
There's plenty of accommodation to choose from in Apia, the capital and largest town on the island of Upolu. We stayed at Olivia's Accommodation, the budget backpacker's accommodation of choice and met a handful of other backpackers traveling through, relatively unphazed by the virus threats. We weren't overly impressed but at least the beds were comfortable, breakfast was included and there was hot water to shower in. Wifi was available by purchasing vouchers for a set price. It was also wonderfully close to all amenities - Samoana Rental Cars is next door and Frankie's, the local supermarket, is just down the road, as is a gas station.
After we came back from Savai'i, we spent two nights at Dave Parker Eco Lodge up in the mountains with the most breathtaking view over all of Upolu and the coast. The room was huge and wonderful, almost like an apartment with a kitchenette and big bathroom and, as an added bonus, six puppies all barely three weeks old were more than happy to spend all their time with us!!!
Getting Around Upolu
The best way to discover Samoa is to rent a car; the buses are unreliable and infrequent, especially if you're hoping to see a lot in a day. We rented a car for 120 tala from Samoana Rental Cars for 24 hours and found it comfortable, easy and straightforward. You drive on the left in Samoa, as in New Zealand, and most Samoans have a car. Gas was reasonable as well; 80 tala fills a tank but we got around the island for less than 30 tala!
To drive in Samoa, you'll need to buy a temporary driver's license - you can get this from the Tourism Authority Office in Samoa or at any of the rental car shops. At the rental car shop, we paid 21 tala; it may be cheaper in town.
There's also plenty of taxis which will willingly flag you down and offer to take you anywhere you need to go. Negotiate a price before you get in; we paid 15 tala for a 10 minute drive.
The cheapest way to get around is by bus, which we only did on Savai'i. Buses typically have a set route and all you need to do is wave one down, hop in and tap on the window to get let off. There's no set stops except for at the start and finish of the route. Buses are quite cheap - from the airport into Apia is just 3 tala (vs a taxi which can be about 60!).
Things to Do on Upolu
We spent a morning wandering around Apia. It's a very busy town with plenty of people and shops set up. We noticed immediately the abundance of churches - it seemed there were five on every street! Most Samoans are Catholic; attending church is a pinnacle of their community and way of life.
Just outside Apia is the home of Robert Louis Stevenson (the author of many famous novels including Treasure Island) where he spent his last years of life. Just beside the house, you can hike up to visit his grave, a 45-minute trek each way. Be warned, it's an easy trail but the heat makes it slow going!
Continuing on the Cross Island Road that connects the northern coast of Upolu with the south, you'll reach Papapapaitai Waterfall, immensely powerful and massive falls tumbling down. You cannot reach the waterfall but the viewpoint is enough to gape at.
Further along, Togitogiga Falls are a much smaller but more easily reachable set of falls that allow you to wander right up and feel the fresh spray. Well-kept grounds are a delight to wander in and perfect for a picnic lunch in an open fale.
To Sua Ocean Trench
And then, the momentous finale - the To Sua Ocean Trench. Perhaps the most famous image of Samoa, the incredible waters of the ocean lapping into the deep trench, accessible only by a wooden ladder. This spot did not disappoint as we lazily floated in the hole, living out our bucket list and relishing in the beauty of our surrounds.
It was an added bonus that we happened to run into two of Nico's friends he had met over a year ago while working in Motueka, New Zealand - the traveler world is small after all!