The small nation of Samoa lies about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, geographically and culturally in the heart of Polynesia. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’, Samoa is blessed with stunning natural beauty, a laid-back lifestyle and vibrant culture. A paradise devoid of mega-resorts and tacky theme parks, it’s inhabited by people as warm and welcoming as the tropical sun, devout in their religion and proud of their Fa’a Samoa (Samoan Way).
THE SAMOAN ARCHIPELAGO
The Samoan archipelago comprises ten islands grouped at 14 degrees south of the equator, just west of the International Date Line. Their combined land area amounts to 2,934 square kilometres consisting of four main inhabited islands — Upolu, Savai’i, Manono and Apolima — and six smaller uninhabited around the south-east point of Upolu and the southern part of Apolima Strait. The islands are surrounded by a deep maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering 120,000sq km — the smallest in the South Pacific.
Upolu is Samoa’s main island, with 75 per cent of the population, and its largest city, Apia, is the seat of government and centre of commerce. A central mountain range extends the length of the island, with a high point at Mauga Fito (1,100m). Savai’i is the largest island in Samoa and the fourth largest in Polynesia, with a mountainous hinterland rising to its highest peak at Mt Silisili (1,866m). Upolu and Savai’i are separated by the Apolima Strait but connected by a regular ferry service.
Volcanic eruptions emanating from a geological ‘hotspot’ at the edge of the Pacific Plate created the islands. This heritage is visible in jagged cones and extensive lava fields found on the bigger islands, especially at Saleaula on the central north coast of Savai'i where eruptions by Mt Matavanu (1905–1911) left 50sq km of solidified lava. Samoa is still considered geologically active, and as recently as September 2009 an 8.3 magnitude undersea earthquake shook the archipelago, generating a 10m tsunami that claimed 190 lives and devastated villages up to 1.6km inland on the south coast of Upolu.
Both islands are covered by lush vegetation, their heights blanketed by extensive rainforest in which banyan trees tower above the canopy, while the lower contours bear scrublands, marshes, pandanus forests and mangrove swamps. Most of the arable land is given over to agriculture. Because Samoa is relatively remote, few animal species have colonised it. Apart from two species of fruit bat, mammals not introduced by humans are limited to marine varieties — whales, dolphins and porpoises.
About one-third of Samoa’s land mass is listed as key biodiversity area, including the Lake Lanoto'o and Pupu Pu'e National Parks on Upolu and, on Savai’i, the Falealupo Rainforest Reserve and the Central Savai'i Rainforest, the largest patch of continuous rainforest in Polynesia. Seven marine reserves around much of the coastline assist in managing sustainable fish stocks and marine biodiversity. Three of these — Safata, Aleipata and Palolo Deep MPAs, all on Upolu — have protected status, developed in partnership between the Government and village communities.
Samoa has a tropical-monsoon climate that is warm and humid all year round, with little variation in temperature but distinct wet and dry seasons. The cooler, dry season spans May to October, making this the most popular time for visitors; the wet season is November to April, when high temperatures and humidity combine to deliver 75 per cent of the total annual rainfall.
The seasonal rainfall pattern is greatly influenced by the position and strength of the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), an atmospheric phenomenon that lies between Samoa and Fiji. In the dry season the SPCZ is normally to the north-east of Samoa and is weak or inactive; during the warmer months, however, it moves over and past Samoa, bringing heavy rainfall.
There is significant year-to-year variability in rainfall strongly influenced by the El Nin~o-Southern Oscillation. El Nin~o tends to bring lower than normal rainfall for Samoa, associated with droughts and forest fires. La Nin~a, on the other hand, is generally associated with above average rainfall, often causing flooding in low-lying areas.
Samoa is also prone to cyclones, particularly from late-January to mid-March. Two or three cyclones are predicted for the 2019–20 season, with at least one forecast to reach Category 3 or higher. Samoa has no cyclone-safe anchorages or marinas and sailing vessels should avoid travelling here during the these times.
It is thought Samoan ancestors were Austronesians who came from south-east Asia via Melanesia in ocean-going canoes, guided by the stars. The oldest evidence of human occupation in Samoa is Lapita village, dated to about 1000BC, partially submerged in the lagoon at Mulifanua. Over the centuries, the Samoan people engaged in trade, battles and intermarriage with the neighbouring islands of Fiji and Tonga, interweaving the cultures and bloodlines of these groups.
Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to sight the islands in 1722. Whalers and traders soon followed and established a settlement in Apia. In 1830, John Williams arrived from the London Missionary Society, followed by Methodist, Catholic and Mormon evangelists. Samoans rapidly embraced Christianity because of the similarity between its creation beliefs and Samoan legend, and because of a prophecy that a new religion would take root in the islands.
During the second half of the 19th century, British, German and American powers vied for supremacy, each supporting tribal factions in a civil war that ended in 1899. That same year, the Tripartite Convention gave the Americans control of the eastern island group (American Samoa) and Germany the western islands (Western Samoa). Britain relinquished its claims in Samoa in return for concessions in Tonga and the Solomon Islands.
On the outbreak of World War I, New Zealand captured Western Samoa, and after 1918 administered the territory under trusteeship through the League of Nations, and later the United Nations. In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific nation to gain independence and dropped ‘Western’ from its name in 1997.
FA’A SAMOA (THE SAMOAN WAY)
About one-fifth of Samoa’s population of 200,000 resides in Apia, while the remainder live mainly in villages along the coastal margins of Upolu and Savai’i. Many expatriate Samoans live in Australia, New Zealand and California.
Despite centuries of European influence, Samoa has retained many traditional customs, including a complex social code known as Fa’a Samoa, which underpins all aspects of society, daily life and politics. At the heart of Fa’a Samoa is the Aiga, the extended family group that includes cousins, nephews, nieces and parents-in-law. Family is all important, a respect for one’s elders is strictly adhered to and being of service to your extended family is seen as one’s duty.
Each Aiga is headed by a Matai (male or female) who is elected by adult members of the family. The Matai combine to form the village council, led by an Alii (high chief), which administers village affairs and makes laws. In addition, each village has a Pulenu’u (a combination mayor and police chief) who acts as an intermediary between the village and the national government.
Samoa is a deeply religious society, reflected in the motto on the national crest that 'Samoa is founded on God'. Ninety-eight per cent of the population identify themselves as Christian and almost every village has at least one church of the various denominations. Sunday is a day of worship and spending time with family. No physical work is done, and most shops and businesses are closed.
Samoa’s economy is dependent on family remittances from overseas, development aid and agriculture, in that order. Remittances from expat Samoan families account for as much as one-sixth of household income and more than 20 per cent of Samoa’s GDP. Though very much its own country, Samoa relies heavily on foreign aid, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, and on grants and loans through the Asian Development Bank. These funds are mainly applied in developing sectors such as natural resources, energy, municipal infrastructure, and on projects designed to boost revenue and employment in Samoa’s emerging tourist sector.
Primary industry plays a critical role in the economy and more generally in Samoan society. More than a quarter of Samoa’s land is devoted to crops and livestock. The sector employs around two-thirds of the Samoan workforce and supports the majority of rural families with staples for consumption and as a secondary source of household income.
Agriculture and fishing are responsible for the bulk of the country’s commodity exports, including coconut oil and cream, taro, cocoa, copra, bananas, beer, timber and frozen or canned fish, while tourism is an expanding sector. Samoa’s primary imports include industrial supplies, cars, machinery, consumer goods and petroleum products. A disproportionate value of imports over exports delivers a near constant negative balance of trade, a trend that is likely to continue due to Samoa’s isolation, limited natural resources and narrow economic base.
Founded in the 1850s, Apia, Samoa’s capital and largest city, has a population of about 40,000. Situated on the central north coast of Upolu, the urban sprawl reclines along a narrow coastal plain between Mount Vaea and a beautiful natural harbour. Faleolo International Airport is a 40-minute drive west of the city.
Apia is small with not much in the way of beaches, but it’s worth exploring the excellent cultural centre, a couple of bustling markets and an eclectic collection of local eateries to get an introduction to island life. Some of the fascinating natural and cultural attractions include the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve off Vaiala Beach, the Museum of Samoa, writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s former home ‘Vila Vailima’, the adjacent botanic gardens and Mt Vaea for a magnificent view overlooking the harbour.
Apia has the largest and busiest harbour in Samoa, handling almost all of the country’s international sea freight. Maritime traffic includes commercial shipping, private yachts, cruise liners and ferries that service Tokelau and American Samoa. It is Samoa’s only clearance port for customs, quarantine and immigration. The Main Wharf was constructed in 1966 on Point Matuatu, the bay’s northeastern arm, and is operated by the Samoa Ports Authority.
As part of a US$30 million project funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the harbour has recently undergone a program of work to rehabilitate the port’s navigation aids, straighten and extend the Main Wharf to 302m to allow larger cruise ships to berth, and increase the hardstand for more storage space for shipping containers. A second project, funded by the Asian Development Bank, extended the breakwater by 100m (doubling its length), to better protect the Main Wharf and marina from northerly swells and enlarge the turning basin.
Tucked behind the port facility in an inner harbour is Samoa’s only marina, which is also the base for the Samoan International Game Fishing Association (SIGFA). The ‘SIGFA International’, the biggest game fishing event in the South Pacific, is held in April/May each year, and anglers from all over the world are attracted to the week-long tournament.
Upolu is easily explored on a network of roads that connect its northern and southern shores through a lush hinterland dotted with volcanic peaks and towering waterfalls. Some of the island’s must-see attractions include the spectacular 55m Fuipisia Falls, the cliff-top walk along the O Le Pupu Lava Coast, the palm-fringed black sand crescent of Aganoa Beach and the remarkable To Sua Ocean Trench.
The adventure continues with a 90-minute ferry ride across Apolima Strait where Savai’i presents a scenic smorgasbord of lush rainforest, sea-smashed cliffs, pristine waterfalls and rugged mountains. Arriving at Salelologa, travellers are delivered to a main road that traces the island’s coast, connecting magnificent attractions that include the intriguing Alofaaga Blowholes, the pristine Falealupo Rainforest Reserve and the awe-inspiring Saleaula Lava Field.
Samoa is not just a convenient stopover on a trans-Pacific voyage, it’s also a fantastic cruising destination in its own right. Recreational boats tend to visit harbours and remote anchorages along the north coasts of Savai’i and Upolu plus some limited anchorages along Upolu’s south coast. A comprehensive guide to destinations around the main islands is contained in a 2017 publication by the New Zealand Hydrographic Authority, augmented by the 2015 Cruising Guide to Samoa.
Both islands feature many bays and inlets that are suitable anchorages for small recreational craft, but not all are covered by large scale charts with current or adequate hydrographic data. The LINZ charts, available in paper or digital format, are the best. Digital charts are largely incorrect for most of Samoa, except in the immediate vicinity of Apia.
Although Savai’i is generally free of offshore obstructions and sailing hazards, its steep rocky coastline is often subject to heavy surf conditions. The south coast of Upolu is deep and relatively clear of dangers, but with few places suitable for landing. The north coast is fringed by extensive reefs and has a number of shoals and submerged rocks within five miles of the shore. Apolima Strait is mostly deep and free of hazards.
There are no lights on Savai’i to aid offshore navigation and the only significant landmark is the radio mast at Asau Harbour. The light on Apolima Island is the only navigation beacon in the strait. Upolu’s two commercial harbours, at Apia and Mulifanua, are well marked with beacons, buoys and leading lights, and landfall navigation lights are located at Cape Faleula, Apia and the Fanuatapu Islet.
Samoa’s tidal range is relatively small and tidal streams are generally weak (less than 1kt). The South Equatorial Current flows predominantly from east to west, generally at 1.5kt or less. In Apia, the prevailing current sets across the harbour entrance, predominantly to the west, at 1.5kt and up to 4kt during the wet season. The sea temperature is uniformly in the low-20s. South-east trade winds dominate the dry season, backing to the north-east during the wet season.
2019 MEASLES OUTBREAK
In September 2019, the island nation found itself in the grip of a measles outbreak sparked by an infected passenger on an incoming international flight. During the government-declared state of emergency that lasted until 29 December, there were over 5,700 cases and 83 deaths. Tragically, 40 per cent of deaths were babies under one, and nearly 90 per cent among children less than five. The cause of the outbreak was attributed to decreased vaccination rates (only 34 per cent in 2018), but by 22 December an estimated 94 per cent of the eligible population had been vaccinated. At the date of publication, the travel advice issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was ‘exercise normal safety precautions.’
Samoa offers visitors a special holiday experience in a tropical setting — fantastic sailing, kilometres of white sand beaches, spectacular waterfalls, traditional villages and a truly authentic Polynesian culture. You may arrive a stranger, but the friendly locals will make you feel like part of the family — it’s the Samoan Way.
Samoa Ports Authority (Apia)
P: (+685) 64400
VHF Channel 16
P: (+685) 20924
Samoa Immigration Office
Convent St, Apia
P: (+685) 20291, 20292 or 21474
Samoa Customs Services
Port of Apia, Matautu
P: (+685) 21561
Samoa Meteorology Division
P: (+685) 20855, 20856 or 67200
Samoa Tourism Authority
Beach Rd, Apia
P: (+685) 63500, 63520 or 63521
Australian High Commission
Beach Rd, Apia
P: (+685) 23411