It’s a liberating feeling to get on a plane with your best friend and leave the domesticity and daily grind behind, even if only for a few days. Preferring access to acquisition and experiences over things, my sister and I decided the less touristy Samoa was the perfect destination for enjoying an enriching (and rare) child-free vacation together.
Thanks to its lush landscape, rich culture, warm people, laid-back lifestyle, and miles of deserted beaches, this Polynesian haven seemed to offer it all (minus the big chain resorts, binge-drinking, and sunburnt backpackers dancing on tables).
Hovering over Faleolo International Airport on the mountainous island of Upolu, the turquoise water and the coconut trees visible from my window seat gave a delightful first impression. Located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand in the Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean, Samoa consists of 10 islands each with their own points of interest.
Given our desire to slow down and enjoy the natural attributes of the country, rather than moving around too much, we chose to base ourselves on Upolu, Samoa’s main island. Home of the capital city, Apia, Upolu is host to countless natural wonders and Samoan points of interest, like the unmatched To-Sua Ocean Trench.
For that reason, Samoa is pricey and tricky to get to compared with destinations like Hawaii, however, if you want to experience island life at its most enchanting, this little South Pacific nation will steal your heart like it did ours. Here’s why.
As a travel junkie, I spent my 20s traversing the globe, rushing from one city to the next in a bid to tick sights off my bucket list. Now in my 30s, I prefer “slow” travel. Instead of seeing how many cities or monuments I can visit in a week, I crave off-the-grid destinations, shopping at local markets, eating homegrown dishes, connecting with locals, and exploring and enjoying the natural attributes of a country. Of course, a touch of luxury and a cheeky coconut mojito on the beach are always welcomed, which is why Samoa was on my radar.
Later on, as we road-tripped around the island in our rental car, we were grateful we had time to stop and purchase fruit from roadside stalls, chat with local families, lounge in fales on the beach, and swim in deserted blue lagoons. Pigs, hermit crabs, and chickens dart across the coconut tree–lined roads, while beaming children run beside our car waving as they leave church with their mothers, who fan themselves with palm leaves. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long before we are living on “island time.”
Life's a Beach
Although you can easily book guided tours of the island, we opted to rent a car and take our time exploring Upolu ourselves. Rental cars are affordable, and they make it easy to get around—stay on the left side, though!—and they make it safe for a couple of gals to cruise around as ’90s reggae tunes like Inner Circle’s “Sweat” (hello, holiday theme song!) blast from the stereo.
Upolu is like the set of a film, with brightly colored buses packed with locals, villages dotted with pastel-hued fales, meetinghouses, and quaint churches surrounded by brilliant red and yellow flowers. As we followed the road hugging the jagged coastline, we came across miles of unpopulated white sand beaches trimmed with coral reefs and sheer cliffs that dropped straight into the ocean.
Highlights included Vavau Beach and the scenic Lalomanu Beach on the Southeast coast of Upolu. At Lalomanu, you’ll find the Taufua Beach Fales and a casual café/restaurant—no shoes required—right on the sand, where you can eat sashimi and Hawaiian poké, drink Vailima beer, and listen to reggae before snorkeling in the lagoon.
Often referred to as the world’s most magical swimming hole, the To-Sua Ocean Trench has been on my bucket list for years. It’s one point of interest not to be missed. Located in the village of Lotofaga, the 98-foot-deep swimming hole was formed when volcanoes erupted on the island and much of the ground fell away.
Surprisingly, To-Sua was devoid of crowds and fanfare; if you simply pay your $20 WST ($8 USD) at a small office and walk through the picnic fales and manicured gardens past To Le Sua (the smaller, less impressive trench), you’ll find the utterly breathtaking attraction. Best of all, we had it to ourselves, save for three boisterous local kids who took pleasure in telling us that the last tourist who tried to swim through one of the hidden underwater tunnels out to the Pacific Ocean never came out. Noted.
We climbed down the steep, slippery ladder—this is not for the faint of heart—and dove into the turquoise water from a viewing platform. The tidal surge can be strong, so there’s a rope through the middle of the trench you can hold as you float on your back and admire the moss-covered rock walls and water droplets falling from the overhangs. Bring a snorkel, and check out the tropical fish darting along the sandy bottom.
Magical pinch-me moments like this abound in Samoa. While there are many waterfalls to explore on Upolu, we opted to visit the lesser-known hidden gem Fuipisia Falls after our To-Sua experience. Blink, and you’d miss the entrance, which is in a local family’s front yard just off the Pass Road. (In Samoa, most land within a lagoon or bay is the property of a village or family, so you have to ask permission to visit, and you’ll often pay a small fee.)
We paid our smiling host our $10 WST ($4 USD) and walked five minutes along a muddy jungle track and through a flowing creek. There were no fences, no signage, and no tourists—just one dramatic waterfall cascading 100 meters down a sheer cliff surrounded by jungle. A dense path to the right leads to the watering hole and rapids at the top.
Returning to our car, the host led us to his backyard shower to wash the mud off our feet while his amused kids looked on. Other must-see sights include the natural water slides at Papase’ea Sliding Rocks, Piula Cave Pool, Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson’s sprawling homestead, the bustling local market (Maketi Fou), and Samoa Cultural Village.
The beauty of a Samoan vacation is you can do as much adventuring as you like or just chill out and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the island. We stayed at Sinalei Reef Resort, a boutique 33-acre property located right on the beach in the ancient village of Siumu on Upolu’s southern coast.
Owned and run by Matai Joe Annandale and his sister Sose, Sinalei is the ideal combination of luxury and traditional Samoan architecture and hospitality. It was founded by Joe and his wife, Tui, who sadly passed away when a tsunami devastated the region (and damaged the hotel) in 2009. After rebuilding the resort, the Annandale siblings have carried on their dream of offering an authentic Samoan experience for guests from all over the world.
Our ocean-view room boasted a large balcony that overlooked the reef, and it was our favorite spot to enjoy a couple of cocktails and watch the sunset over the reef and the waterfront spa, Tui-I-Lagi (named after the late Tui). The spa offers a myriad of traditional treatments using medicinal plants and herbs passed down from generations, and it’s located on the water so you can hear the ocean lapping at the rocks below during treatments.
The idyllic setting aside, the employees, all from the surrounding villages, are the backbone of Sinalei. If it’s marble floors and silver service you’re expecting, look elsewhere. Sinalei has a soul, and the vibe stays with you long after you check out.
Food for Thought
Sinalei adopts a farm and ocean-to-plate philosophy of “fresh, local, and honest” when it comes to food. What they don’t grow on the grounds, Sose and Joe source from local producers, farmers, and fisherman.
Their waterfront restaurant, Ava I Toga, serves local dishes like masi-masi Samoa (fresh fish wrapped in banana leaf, and seasoned with coconut cream, lemongrass, ginger, fresh chili, tomato, and lemon basil) and oka (raw fish in lemon juice and coconut cream).
The nearby Seabreeze Resort is also a perfect spot for a fancy lunch by the water or head into Apia town to try one of many solid restaurant offerings. Try Bistro Tatau, Nourish Café (for healthy vegetarian food), Home Café, Le Petit Café, Paddles Restaurant, and Giordano’s Pizzeria. And if you’re looking to drink and dance like a local, head to Y Not?, which is close to the town center.
Aside from the natural landscape, it’s the Samoan people who give life to the island. When we give a local man, his young son, and their bag of homegrown limes a lift to lively markets in Apia, he explains that Samoa is governed by Fa’a Samoa (“the Samoan Way”), which centers around celebrating and embracing traditional values, local culture, and the environment.
“Our culture is rich, robust, and very much alive,” Sose later tells me. “It’s not for everyone, but Samoa is appealing to those looking for Fiji 50 years ago and Hawaii 100 years ago.”
Planning your next adventure? Tell us where you’re going in the comments below.
The writer was a guest of Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa; however, her opinions are her own.