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Savai‘i: The Big Island of Sāmoa

Published
June 30, 2023
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FROM ĀPIA once more, I took a 100-tala shuttle to Mulifanua at the western end of ‘Upolu, near the airport, to catch the ferry to Savai‘i.

The Independent State of Sāmoa. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

I enjoyed the trip across the Apolima Strait, past the smaller islands of Manono and Apolima. The crossing normally takes an hour to one and a half hours and ends in Salelologa, just east of the Tafua Rainforest Preserve.

Mulifanua

A selfie on the ferry

Coming into Salelologa

Savai‘i is large, but only quite thinly populated, with no airport. It is the largest of the Sāmoan Islands, the local equivalent of the Big Island of Hawai‘i, to which its name is related.

A wall map of Savai‘i, showing the ferry route and some key spots

The huge volcano in the middle is not yet worn down. And so, comparatively few people live on Savai‘i, mostly along the coastal ring road.

I was staying at Tailua Beach Fales on the northern coast of Savai‘i, in a locality called Manase, a famous turtle-watching spot. I was booked for four nights at the Fales.

Beach fales are popular with tourists as they are the authentic Sāmoan way to sleep on a hot night, with built-in air conditioning in the sense of being quite breezy. Unfortunately, it seems that the Sāmoan travellers now prefer artificial air-conditioning, their own centuries-old indigenous solution now deemed somewhat old-hat. As a result, the fale providers were hit hard during Covid.

I shared the shuttle from Salelologa to Manase with another traveller I met on the ferry named Tony, who was staying at the Stevensons at Manase, a more costly 3-star hotel.

A pavilion at the Tailua Beach Fales

The woman who owned the Fales, Lauititi Tooalo, who is in the media story about air conditioning linked above, said that they grew all their food and had stopped buying from the supermarket. That came about because of Covid-era hardships. They had papaya that they had grown themselves, and papaya jam and pineapple jam. They caught their own fish, mainly at night.

Lauititi Tooalo, with the author

Several of her fales had washed away in the last couple of years, to add to things, and she was rebuilding.

Dogs are mostly banned throughout Manase, though there are wandering dogs elsewhere. The Tailua Beach Fales had a no-dogs policy, and there were no pigs allowed either (just as well!)

Manase is a very popular place for tourists to base themselves, and there are other fales there, such as Jane’s Beach Fales.

The Stevensons Hotel is beautiful: stunningly painted and architecturally brilliant. There are pictures of it on this Beautiful Sāmoa page. Though as I say, a bit more upmarket.

At Stevensons at Manase

Breakfast and dinner were included in my 80 tala a night room rate at the Tailua Beach Fales. The breakfast was toasted sandwiches with bacon and egg. And the fresh fish that I had for dinner was pretty amazing also.

Manase

Then I walked eastward along the coast road, past several knots of houses, to the township of Fagamalo and the Le Lagoto Resort and Spa, an amazing four-star resort where you could go scuba diving. It was just across the road from Dive Savai‘i, the only PADI dive centre on Savai‘i, where you can also organise diving trips. Fagamalo has particularly extensive offshore reefs, so it is a real diving and snorkelling hotspot.

The food at Le Legoto was divine. I had taro nachos. Obviously, they boiled the taro and made It into nachos. I had oka: the raw fish and coconut salad which is popular in Sāmoa. They had sashimi as well.

Later, when I got a taxi to Vaimoana, the taxi driver told me she does taro hummus.

So, Savai‘i is pretty amazing when it comes to food and what they grow and what they make.

Tony and I hired a couple of bikes and we biked to the Saleaula Lava Field. That was a 12 km day.

The author on a hired bike, near Manase

The lava field was created by the eruption of nearby Mt Matavanu between 1905 and 1911, which slowly buried several villages, so slowly that no one was killed.

Plants growing through the lava

A ruined church pokes up out of the lava. Nearby, there is a site called the virgin’s grave, the grave of a chief’s daughter who died before the eruption as a teenager and which was spared by the flowing lava. There is apparently a scientific explanation, but legend has it that the lava showed respect.

The prevalence of natural disasters — eruption, tsunami, cyclone — and the abandonment of villages, mean that ruined churches are not a rare sight in Sāmoa.

(As is typical of many such sights in Sāmoa, there is a small entry fee of 5 tala to see the ruined church. It is always worth keeping some money handy for these things.)

The entire village was clearing up the lava fields as they were expecting 250 Chinese visitors on Sunday. So, the whole village and the chiefs were enjoying that.

I went to this turtle display place where there were 25 turtles in a small place, and people would lift out the turtles to have their photo taken. I did not think that that was appropriate.

People hassling the turtles

But anyway, I hung out with the person from the boat and we went biking and we did all these things, and it was a good few days. As my stay drew to an end, I learned that the Fales were expecting 54 people. Part of the place had been reclaimed by the sea and the owner was having to rebuild. Good on her.

After the Tailua Fales, I caught a taxi to Asau Bay, near the western tip of the island, where I stayed at the Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge. This was an hour’s ride for 80 tala, from the woman who made taro hummus. Here are some photos of Va-i-moana and a video I made there as well.

Tony beside the sign for the Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge

The author at sunset. A tip for this kind of photo is to use the flash, then it looks really slick!

At Va-i-moana you have free use of the lodge’s kayaks. You could hire snorkel gear for 50 tala as well. I should have come here with my own. I don’t know why I didn’t: just not used to doing it in NZ waters, which generally aren’t so beautifully clear and full of coral, and no sea turtles either. I will definitely bring snorkel gear next time.

For 60 tala a night at Va-i-moana, I got breakfast, an extensive breakfast so that you didn’t need lunch. And then in the evenings, it was really interesting because you could have chicken for 30 tala or crayfish for 50 tala, depending on whether the crayfish was available or not.

There aren’t many commercial fishing boats in Savai‘i, apparently, so the hotels and restaurants rely on local fishers to go out and catch the fish. This is a bit hit and miss, and so, at times, there is no fish on the menu for two or three days. Still, it’s very authentic.

Va-i-moana is run by Saleimoa and Rosie Va‘ai. Saleimoa is a grandson of the second Prime Minister of Western Sāmoa, and was on the Sāmoan Tourism Association. He said to me that Va-i-moana had started out in his father’s day as a camp used for American milling companies.

(There’s more of a history of Va-i-moana on the lodge’s website, vaimoanaseasidelodge.com.)

I took photos of some of the houses which had been constructed out of wood, milled timber, as opposed to the more traditional Sāmoa Fale style.

The proprietor’s father had also planted 300 acres of cocoa trees. And then the family diversified into growing coffee as well.

These days, they sell their cocoa to Whitakers in New Zealand. They have a personal relationship with Whitakers. They used to sell 80% to Whitakers, but now they are more diversified.

They have a processing plant for the cocoa beans. They take out the beans from a surrounding fruit, and ferment the beans with banana leaves. After the fermentation process, the beans are dried and they are sent to New Zealand in the dry state.

They propagate the baby cocoa plants and they give them away to young people to plant and to get their plantations going. Or they pay ten tala to learn how to grow cocoa.

They also have contact with people from Ghana, a really major cocoa-growing country in Africa. Apparently, the Ghanaians want to produce chocolate in their own country, which makes sense. Chocolate should be produced in Sāmoa as well. More factories will come here.

The farmers I took a photo of get 400 tala a bag, which looks like it weighs 20 kg.

In the nearby hamlet of Vasalia, my travelling companions and I and went to a Mothers’ Day service in a Protestant church. It was really hot, but we stayed there for an hour. We gave a donation and interestingly enough, they list how much money people donate, which must be a bit embarrassing for some. The women at the church were dressed in their traditional white dresses and white hats, and they all gave us a lei. Mothers’ Day is a national holiday, of course.

And then we went to the Vaisala Hotel. Like a lot of the hotels in the Independent State, it was a bit run down, possibly as a result of the still-recent impact of Covid on tourism. Even a Va-i-Moana the wharf needed a bit of work. But the Vaisala Hotel had beautiful walkways.

We went snorkelling at Vaisala, and saw a few more fish.

But I think the best snorkelling would be at Fagamalo.

I decided to see the rest of the island as part of a guided tour with its own transport laid on, as a taxi was too expensive at 80 tala or $NZ 55 for an hour’s ride to get anywhere on this sizable island.

There are buses on Savai‘i, brightly painted and run by families like the ones elsewhere in the Sāmoan islands. But things are even more informal on Savai‘i, with no bus stops outside of Salealoga, and I think you would have to be a local to know when one was due to trundle through any given village on the ring road.

I decided to pay 200 tala for a guided tour and see the westernmost part of the island, district called Falealupo, where the spirits of deceased Sāmoans, the Aitu, leap from a sacred headland, Cape Malinu‘u, to leave Savai‘i for the new world, swimming in a nearby rock pool before they depart.

This legend is very much like the Māori one in which the spirits leap into the Pacific from Cape Rēinga to swim back to the place the Māori call Hawaiki, a sort of Garden of Eden from which all Polynesians are traditionally believed to have come, and which lends its name to Hawai‘i, Savai‘i, and many other similarly-named places across the Pacific.

There are lots of signs explaining all this at Cape Rēinga in New Zealand, and at Cape Malinu‘u as well.

The area is hugely attractive, but you aren’t allowed into the rock pool, that is all.

At Malinu‘u, there is an ancient archaeological mound known as a star mound, from its shape. They’re finding many more of these all over Sāmoa with modern scientific methods, though it was always known that the islands had what early colonists called ‘pyramids’.

The guide on my trip, Nu‘u, helped to explain it all. There is also a canopy walk through the treetops at Falealupo, another major attraction.

In December 1991, Savai‘i suffered a direct hit from category-4 Cyclone Val, the worst storm to hit the Sāmoan islands since the 1889 Āpia Cyclone, which drove German and American warships jockeying for colonial dominance at the time onto a wrecking shore; I mentioned that cyclone in an earlier post. Before that, in February 1990, the islands were also hit by another devastating storm, Cyclone Ofa. Because of the storm surges from these cyclones, many of the villagers were displaced and moved inland or uphill.

We visited a church that was damaged in Cyclone Ofa and then abandoned: another of the abandoned churches of Sāmoa.

There was also a church that wasn’t wrecked. Perhaps it replaced the earlier one.

At Falealupo

As this is at the western end of the island, you can see and photograph beautiful sunsets as well.

As at Va-i-moana we also saw some cocoa pods awaiting the treatment.

Next, we went to the Alofaaga Blowholes on the southern coast, from which jets of water are blasted high into the air. Locals sometimes put coconuts down the blowhole, to see them shot into the air like cannonballs.

After that, we went to some beautiful waterfalls called Afu Aau, also known as Olemoe. They were stunning, with beautiful clear water in the pool below. I enjoyed that.

One thing I noticed in Sāmoa, as much on Savai‘i as elsewhere, was that open pavilions are to be seen everywhere. They are apparently a focus of social life.

A traditionally-designed pavilion

I was going to climb Mount Silisili, the highest peak on the island, but as it is a rather intrepid hike the weather was still changeable at the end of the wet season, with a good chance of being shrouded in fog at the top and not getting any of the famous views that you are supposed to get, I decided not to.

Mount Silisili is at one end of the A‘opo Conservation Area, a mahogany forest which has its other end at the village of A‘opo, where the ring road curves inland to avoid some coastal wetlands.

A map of Savai‘i which shows the A‘opo Conservation Area and Mount Silisili, in the middle of the island

Under the mahogany forest there are lava tubes, including the La‘auolola Caves, a sort of lost world. These are a really major attraction, at least for those in the know: for there isn’t a lot about them on the Internet apart from rave reviews on sites like Tripadvisor. They are on private land and you can only do guided tours. I hadn’t organised this beforehand, so unfortunately I missed out.

I met a lot of cycle tourists on the island. Quite a few, such as two who were staying at Vaisala, were extremely unfit and overweight. Why on earth they’d hire a bike in Āpia and ride all the way to the ferry, and then take the ferry to Savai‘i in 33-degree heat, is beyond me.

Apparently, they have an option of hiring electric bikes in Āpia, but people choose not to, which I think is a bit sad. So I keep meeting these cyclists, women and men who had given up and were hitchhiking and bludging rides and cars. So, if you’ve got the option to hire an electric bike, then it is better to actually take an electric bike.

Also, I took photos of the following two ‘tombstones’ to China Aid and US Aid, respectively, on Savaii.

After that, I headed back to Mulifanua on ‘Upolu.

What else can I say? Well, after building Western houses, many Sāmoans have now taken to sleeping once more in traditional fales, which are fairly breezy, because of the sticky weather. The more of those traditional fales they have outside their house, the more wealth it reflects that that family has as well, so they are a bit of a status symbol. And that is all in spite of what I’ve heard about Sāmoan travellers preferring to stay in air-conditioned hotels. Maybe a fale is not really considered a proper getaway, now, if you sleep in one at home.

Finally, we picked up a German tourist, and she had a very good idea. When you fly in and land at the airport, it is very close to the ferry. So, you should just hop on the ferry and head for Savaii.

Mulifanua is also where ferries go for Manono Island. So, it is a good base for that as well.

Updated with a minor correction 2 August 2023.

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