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Around ‘Upolu

Published
June 16, 2023
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FROM ĀPIA, I headed out to tour the rest of Upolu, the most populous of the two main islands of the Independent State of Sāmoa.

Tourism map of ‘Upolu that I originally saw on the wall in the Beautiful Sāmoa visitor centre in Āpia

The best place to find out where to go is the Beautiful Sāmoa Visitor Information Centre, where I got the map above.

At the Visitor Information Centre

Another view of the Visitor Information Centre!

Another map of Upolu. Map data ©2023 Google. North is at the top for this map, the one above, and all the maps and aerial images below.

Upolu has a combination of low-lying coastal areas where practically the entire population lives and rugged volcanic highlands in the middle. The highlands are especially rugged in the eastern half of the island, where they are partly covered by the O Le Pupū-Puʿe National Park, the largest national park on Upolu. The name loosely means ‘from the sea-cliffs to the mountains’.

The O Le Pupū-Puʿe National Park is shown as a dark green patch on the second map above under the words Tuamasaga Atua, which are actually the districts whose border it spans. There is also another, much smaller national park in the middle of the island, around Lake Lanoto‘o. This is not shown in either of the maps above, but I talk about it further below.

The two other dark green patches in the second map are the Uafato Conservation Area, which lies across some really rugged coastal terrain in the east, and the Sa’anapu Conservation Area in some gentler terrain in the southwest.

Getting a rental car was quite hard. I was told I couldn’t get one. But I just looked at the companies on Google Maps and rang three of them. They said to ring back tomorrow and see if anyone has returned their car. In the end, I got one from a place called Juliana Rentals.

I used TripAdvisor, which was very, very good for what to see in and around the island. And the official travel guide to the Independent State, Beautiful Sāmoa.

As I mentioned in my earlier posts about Āpia, it is a funny thing that despite many attractions and a similarly exotic reputation, Sāmoa receives far fewer visitors than Bali: in fact, dozens of times less. It means that you won’t be jostled by crowds most of the time in Sāmoa, though some destinations were still very popular as we shall see.

There are two main roads outside of Āpia, a ring road that goes around the island and Cross Island Road, or the Cross Island Road, in the middle from Āpia to the South Coast. The name of the loop road changes depending on where you are.

Several of the most famous attractions in Upolu are in the eastern half of the island, best visited by driving around the ring road and then back to Āpia via the Cross Island Road. These roads run around an area called the East

I headed east from Āpia along the ring route, known in that area as the Main East Coast Road, till I came to the Piula Cave Pool, which is crystal-clear and really famous. The pool is about 25 km along the road from Āpia. Here is a YouTube video that shows the pool on a day when there was nobody there.

That may have been unusual, because when I turned up there were about a hundred people in the pool, much like one of the photos on the relevant page of Beautiful Sāmoa. So, I did not add to the throng and instead pressed on eastward.

Sāmoa is close to the equator, about 14 degrees south. The islands have a tropical climate in which the daytime temperature typically ranges between 24 and 30 degrees C, with a dry season and a rainy season. It was getting toward the end of the rainy season when I was there, and it rained heavily that day.

Past Falefa Falls , Sauniatu Waterfall and Fiupisia Falls (there are lots of waterfalls on Upolu!), you get to Lalomanu near the southeastern tip of the island, another of the great attractions of eastern Upolu. The beach at Lalomanu has a lovely view of the Aleipata Islands, just offshore, as well as a beautiful shallow offshore reef.

Lalomanu and its reef. Imagery ©2023 CNES/Airbus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2023 Google.

Lalomanu Beach with Nu’utele Island in the background. Photo by Neil, 31 July 2007, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Fales (cottages), Lalomanu Beach

More Tourist Fales on Lalomanu Beach

Lalomanu Beach is the Bali of Sāmoa in some ways, in the sense that many tourists go there for two weeks and never go anywhere else, just drinking and eating and partying. I went to a cultural performance at the place I stayed at Lalomanu, the Taufua Beach Fales.

You can also take a ferry out to Namua Island, one of the Aleipata Islands, where there are more beach false and where you can really get away from it all.

Snorkeling on the reef between the mainland and the islands, you can also see sea turtles, a fairly common sight on the reefs off Sāmoa.

But apart from that, there is not much else to do but chill out. Which of course suits a lot of people.

That time, I did not do the whole ring route, heading back to Āpia a bit after 6 am the next morning on the bus, which only costs 8 tala and runs at several different times of the day. A taxi from Āpia costs 100 tala, so the bus is very economical. You don’t really need a car to get around on ‘Upolo.

But if you were doing the ring route, clockwise, you would head westward along the South Coast to Vavau Beach and the nearby Lotofaga Village and nearby To Sua Ocean Trench, a magnificent saltwater pool formed by a collapsed cave, which is connected to the sea by submarine caves.

Vavau

Vavau

I made a video at each end of Vavau Beach:

And here are photos of To Sua, which is best visited at high tide, as it is too shallow otherwise. The first photo seems to show it at low tide.

To Sua Ocean Trench, near Lotofaga Village. Photo by Neil, 31 July 2007, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is my photo of the To Sua Ocean Trench with people in it, when the water is a bit deeper I think.

Here are the gardens near the trench:

After which you can either carry along the coast or detour inland a bit past the Sopoaga Falls and their viewpoint before returning to the coast.

The Sopoaga Falls

Here is a video I made at the falls, regretting that it did not seem to be the kind of waterfall that came with a swimming hole attached!

There are lots of smaller beaches and resorts along the coast: I am only giving the names of the biggest and most famous ones. There are plenty of places that aren’t so famous such as Tafatafa Beach, where there is a huge reef and a little island called Nuʻusafeʻe Island that you can kayak or catch a boat to, and Poutasi, where there is an arts centre.

Tafatafa Beach. Imagery ©2023 CNES/Airbus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2023 Google.

All of these lagoons are home to sea turtles and such exotica as giant clams, and there are organised turtle tours that you can go on. At Tafatafa Beach, there is accommodation at Brenda’s Beach Fales and also at Vaiula Beach Fales.

Benda’s Beach Fales, Tafatafa

Beach Fales at Tafatafa

A modest conference centre at Tafatafa

And then you come to the National Park.

On the Main South Coast Road as it cuts through the park, in a westward direction, you come to the Togitogiga Waterfall, which is not very high and actually another popular swimming hole like Piula and To Sua.

The Togitogiga Waterfall

Less than two kilometres further westward you come to the Ma Tree Walk, leading to a huge tree with buttress-like roots.

The Ma Tree

At nearly the same spot, a track leads down to the wild southern coast, to the Lava Field Coastal Walkway. According to Google Maps, the hours for this are from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, with Saturday and Sunday closed.

The Lava Field Coastal Walkway and Ma Tree area. Imagery ©2023 CNES/Airbus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2023 Google.

The Lava Fields Track

Another view of the Lava Fields Track

The lava fields end in low cliffs which the waves explode against, like blow holes.

The South Coast was hit hard by the tsunami of 2009, which also wiped out Lalomanu, and before that, the cyclones of 1990 and 1991.

About five kilometres further westward along the road, in Siumu, is the turnoff to Cross Island Road, by which you can cross the highlands and return to Āpia.

Central Upolu, on the Cross Island Road. Map data ©2023 Google. This does not show the service road to Mount Fiamoe.

Roughly halfway back to Āpia you come to the tallest waterfall in the island Pacific, called the Papapaitai Falls. At 100 to 120 metres, its viewpoint provides a magnificent spectacle.

All of these waterfalls are at their most thunderous in the wet season, of course.

A little further along, on the left, is a road that leads to Lake Lake Lanoto’o National Park. Off to the left once more from that road is the Mount Fiamoe Service Road, which leads to the 938-metre Mt Fiamoe, only a further 150 metres higher than the road-end and well worth ascending for the view on a clear day.

Another attraction in this area, getting closer to Āpia, is the Tiopapata Art Centre. On the east side of Cross Island Road, at about the same spot, is another place I would like to have visited, called the Forest Café. It is on my list for next time.

But although everybody talks about the eastern part of Upolu as the most touristy half along with Cross Island Road, the coast west of Cross Island Road, both on the northern and the southern side, actually has more beautiful offshore reefs than the rest.

Just west of the Saanapu Conservation Area is the Return to Paradise Resort, which is said to have the best beach on Upolu (private). The beach was a setting of the 1953 film Return to Paradise, which you can view in its entirety in 4K on YouTube courtesy of SamoaMedia.

Return to Paradise is also right next to the Giant Clam Sanctuary, which is also worth visiting for a glimpse of the colossal molluscs, which have brightly coloured mantles (i.e., flesh) that you can see when they are open.

Map of the area around the Return to Paradise Resort, including Lefaga Bay (name added for this post) and the Saanapu Conservation Area. Map data ©2023 Google.

Further west is the Faleaseela River Walk in Lefaga Bay, which I have indicated in the map just above. This is fairly intrepid. Alternatively, you can hang out at Lefaga Beach, itself astoundingly beautiful.

Right at the western tip of the island is the resort of Le Vasa, which gazes out over a reef extending nearly four kilometers to Manono Island, in the Apilima Strait that divides Upolu from Savaii. You can do a boat tour out to Manono Island.

Le Vasa around to the Airport. Imagery ©2023 CNES/Airbus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2023 Google.

Here is a short video I made at the Le Vasa Resort, ending with “This is the life!”

A little further around the coast in the direction of Āpia is the Sheraton Sāmoa, looking out over more reefs next to Faleolo International Airport, where I landed from Auckland and from where I would later fly out.

The EFKS Museum, halfway between the airport and Āpia, is also well worth visiting.

As in American Sāmoa, I noticed lots and lots of churches. Many of the churches are indicated on the map with the letters EFKS, short for the Sāmoan words for Congregational Christian Church of Sāmoa, a denomination descended from the nineteenth-century London Missionary Society. Whence the name of the EFKS Museum. though it has all sorts of exhibits.

This is the EFKS Matautu Falelatai, at Matautu on the western side of the South Coast, another filming site for Return to Paradise.

The villages are run by the matai or chiefs, and have nightly prayer curfews. It’s a strictly religious place.

As you might expect in so traditional a society access to abortion and divorce is fairly restrictive, though not completely so.

They say nobody’s really homeless here because they have large families and a lot of land. On the other hand, there isn’t much work. The average wage is about 300 tala a week. And a lot of people don’t grow their own food these days, either. Many Sāmoans rely on remissions from overseas and the proceeds of the modest tourism industry, including cultural performances, which they have in some of the resorts as well as in Āpia.

Lastly, here is a list of accommodation places in Āpia and the more rural parts of Upolu, which I also saw at the Visitor Information Centre.

I think the best value for accommodation on the island is actually Airbnb, because with Airbnb you get free cancellation up and up until the day before you arrive, whereas with booking.com, it’s a little bit different.

There are three bus places in Āpia where you can get the bus if you choose to get the bus in town and around the island. But I just hired a car.

After touring Upolu for a while, I headed to the biggest of the Sāmoan Islands, Savaii, the subject of my final post about Sāmoa, at least until I go back!

Further Information

Beautiful Sāmoa: The official travel site for the Independent State of Sāmoa

Sāmoa Pocket Guide: Another very useful website

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