It was on our trip back from the dusty, dry and bustling town of Labasa on the northwest coast of Vanua Levu Island, Fiji that we contemplated the content for our next articles. As we bounced along on one of the local buses, enjoying the spectacular scenery, we decided that a comparison of customs and cultures would, not only take us on a trip down memory lane, but would provide our readers with an insight into these wonderful islands, many of which we feel in love with.
Having enjoyed our time and travels through the French Polynesian Islands with the World ARC “dropouts”, as we were nicknamed, we had already said our goodbyes to Do Over earlier in the month, but, as we set sail from Boro Boro on 6th July 2016, it was time to say our goodbyes to Nina and Kiwi Beanz as well, not knowing when our paths would cross again, given that we were heading on a northerly route to the Samoan Islands via Surwarrow, as they all headed on the southerly route via Palmerston and Nuie to Tonga.
Prior to our passage from Boro Boro, we had made the decision to stop in Surwarrow, a marine reserve of the Cook Islands, given the weather forecasts, but would continue on to American Samoa if conditions dictated. As luck would have it, the forecasted four-day break in the weather was holding, allowing us to make our scheduled stop and we were having one of our best sails since leaving Panama: Sunny blue skies dotted with fair weather cumulus, 5-7 Ft seas, 13-18 Kts of wind and a 0.5 Kt current with us. The wind did lighten though as forecasted, but we entered the lagoon of Surwarrow on 10th July 2016 in completely flat seas, under blue, sunny skies. Entering the pass was a little different though; a bit like swimming back up a flushing toilet. Being escorted by black-tipped sharks all the way to tiny anchorage area was also an odd sight.
Since we were the only yacht there, picking our spot to anchor was a fairly straightforward task and we were soon greeted by the Surwarrow rangers. After initial introductions, the formalities of clearing in were completed efficiently and professionally, following which we received a list of “don’ts” and advise on some of the possible “dos”. It was at this point that some disappointment set in.
We were not allowed to visit any of the other islands rimming the atoll, since the bird population had essentially been desecrated by an infestation of rats and the area was considered ecologically vulnerable, while the Cook Island conservation authorities worked to try and restore it. Also, lobster fishing was no longer possible as this had been over-fished and snorkelling or diving was considered risky, given the shark population that was now present in the lagoon. These were, in fact, all the primary reasons we had looked forward to visiting Surwarrow in the first place.
We did, however, have permission to visit Anchorage Island, where Tom Neale had lived and wrote the book, “An Island to Oneself” and was also the island believed to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. Regardless of our disappointment, it was clear why. This little island, literally in the middle of nowhere, scattered with coconut palms swaying gently in the breeze, trimmed with the whitest sand we had ever seen and surrounded by the most magnificent shades of turquoise and blue waters, was indeed idyllic.
From Paw Paw we could see the entire circumference of the atoll with the small motos dotted along the reef. After five days at sea, although we were tempted to drop the dinghy and make our way to shore almost immediately, we decided to rather enjoy the scenery and explore the following day. So, instead, we floated just off Anchorage Island and watched the sea life, what was left of the birdlife and the most amazing colours of the water.
While the Society Islands have spectacular waters, the difference here was that the water changed to completely different colours as the day progressed. The sky was multiple shades of the clearest blues as well, making it difficult to distinguish the horizon. We had never seen anything like it. Then, add a turtle that just popped up to take a peek or all the fish that Roy found curiously examining our anchor when he snorkelled to check it and we knew we were in a very special place indeed! One could say we were enchanted by it. What made it extra special was the fact that we were two of only four people in the entire world who occupied it. It was a very strange feeling indeed to be totally alone!
Our first evening was one of the strangest as well. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with basically no one else around, there were modern day occurrences that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with. For example, locking up for the night or worrying about a possible theft during the night or having another yacht anchor on top of us or having noisy neighbours or dealing with loud music from ashore that goes on until all hours of the night. There were also thoughts about what one would do in the event of a medical emergency, amplifying the feeling of total isolation, which, while over-powering, was also very liberating.
Our decision not to go ashore on the day we arrived, however, turned out to be a mistake. We realised something was amiss the following morning when we spotted the rangers removing their tender from the water and tying it up to one of the coconut palms on the beach. Further investigations via the VHF radio revealed that they were expecting a storm that would last for at least the next three days. However, after re-examining our weather information, there was absolutely no indication of any impending storm. Needless to say, we spent the next three days trapped in an unprotected anchorage with poor holding - fortunately Paw Paw wrapped herself around a huge rock which held us – bouncing around and wishing we had undertaken our explorations when we had the opportunity, knowing in our hearts, it would not be presented again.
On the final day of the storm, while making arrangements to clear out, we asked the rangers if there was anything they needed; perhaps some food items from our ship’s stores like, flour, sugar or rice. We had a good giggle at the response: “Do you perhaps have any beers?” So, after rummaging around the bilges and uncovering a dozen beers and a bottle of rum, as well as baking them two batches of Irish soda bread, we headed ashore, finally.
Before working our way through the trees to the "house" of the rangers; a very basic, albeit functional open-air building, we stopped to enjoy a walk around the beautiful little beach, which we had been looking at longingly for days, swing in the hammocks and watch the millions of hermit crabs, following which we were warmly welcomed and given a short tour of the premises. This revealed the original building which Tom Neale had built and lived in before his death in 1978 and had been re-purposed as a "book exchange" library. After the clearing out paperwork was completed, we enjoyed a wonderful chat with the rangers and learnt that they were father and son, who spend six months of the year in Surwarrow, primarily to oversee yachts visiting the atoll. Then we encountered the first highlight of our visit to Surwarrow - The rangers showed us an enormous coconut crab. The second highlight didn’t happen until we had made our way back to Paw Paw, where we were greeted by our security detail - our newly adopted black-tipped sharks that had circled the yacht since our arrival.
While preparing for our early morning departure to American Samoa and feeling very despondent that we’d visited yet another destination only to spend numerous days and nights aboard, while being pinned to precarious lee shores of coral reefs due to bad weather and having to jam in our activities into a precious few hours or indeed forego many, one act of kindness changed our perspective in an instant.
Following our short visit ashore, we noticed the rangers put their tender back in the water just before dusk and exit the lagoon in very lumpy seas and pouring rain. A little concerned for their safety and rather confused at their departure, we kept a watchful eye and were relieved to see them return to the dock about an hour later. After watching a lot of activity on the dock, the tender eventually headed out towards Paw Paw. With a huge smile, one of the rangers brought us a gift - three rainbow runners which they had just caught and filleted for us.
Given the weather conditions in which these two men had ventured out, not to mention the generosity and kindness from people with so little, it was not only staggering, but humbling and, once again, demonstrated that, no matter how beautiful a destination is in terms of its topography or what conditions we experience in terms of weather, it is the people that always make it special!
The morning of our departure, there were, however, two yachts entering the lagoon as we were leaving, both of whom had spend the four days of the storm at sea and, after chatting to them briefly on the VHF radio, they appeared to be worse for wear. It certainly brought home the fact that, in this past sailing season, we had to pick our poison.
We have always thought it prudent to make our passages with the best weather window possible. However, given the high frequency of the winter storms, we were barely making our next destination before the next storm hit. As a result we were spending our time in marginal and less than ideal anchorages in the bad weather vs. being at sea. With this in mind we decided to change our tactics and take a timeout until the weather stabilised significantly; in particular, until we observed a cessation of the low pressure systems reaching into the tropics from the South Seas. So, with a plan to make it to Samoa as soon as possible and full of renewed enthusiasm, we departed Surwarrow on 14th July 2016.
En route to American Samoa, we sailed passed the uninhabited atoll of Rose Island and the eastern islands of American Samoa known as the Manua Islands comprising the islands of Ta'u, Ofu and Olosega. While these islands are inhabited, sailors have to pass them by, since the only anchorages available to yachts in American Samoa are on Tutuilla Island.
While our passage to American Samoa was another less than desirable one, we were pleased to arrive in the primary anchorage of Pago Page on 17th July 2016. Unfortunately this anchorage did not reflect that of a typical tropical island destination. The water was dirty so we were unable to run our watermaker and a huge tuna cannery, located in the harbour, belched out the most disgusting odours. Mix that with torrential rain, a constant drone and diesel fumes from a nearby generator plant and it was anything, but paradise!
Then add the fact that this was the most expensive destination to clear in and out of, not to mention the very laborious process involving six different departments - customs, port authority, harbour master, finance, health and immigration. Fortunately we had the yacht fumigated in Surwarrow at no charge so we didn’t have to incur any additional costs to have it inspected and fumigated here. That said though, the officials who assisted us were amongst the most friendly and welcoming we have encountered. It certainly left us with a wonderful first impression of the American Samoan people. Add to that the delightful chat we had with an elderly man while waiting for some rain to pass and we were starting to understand why we were told not to judge American Samoa by the dreadful Pago Pago anchorage.
The Samoan Islands have been populated for 3000 years, but known to the western world for just over two centuries. Archaeologists state that early Polynesians travelled from South East Asia into the Pacific populating the islands of Papua New Guinea to Tonga and Samoa. It was sometime later that they migrated east to the Cook Islands, Nuie, Tahiti and Easter Island before heading to Hawaii and New Zealand.
Today, Samoans are regarded as the largest full blooded Polynesian race left in the world. “Fa'a Samoa”, the Samoan way, is the foundation of their culture and heritage, with the “Agia” (extended family) being the core, led by “Matai” (chiefs) and where each family member has a role to play in their “Tautua” (service) to the extended family. The only major change in the culture over the 3000 years was the introduction of Christianity which forms the basis of their society.
As visitors, there are guidelines to follow so as not to cause offense, like asking permission before taking a photograph or honouring the “Sa” when villagers observe a half an hour of prayer at dusk or not drinking or eating while walking through a village or ensuring you cover your outstretched legs when sitting down on the ground if you don't cross them.
While all this seemed a little overwhelming at first, venturing out was in fact a great deal of fun and reinforced our first impressions of the people. In all our travels, we had not come across such jolly, helpful, friendly people. They were simply delightful! Also, our rides on the “Agia” (local buses belonging to various families), were very cheerful and festive, given all their decorations and upbeat music that they pumped out, not to mention very convenient and inexpensive. For a dollar a ride, it was certainly the cheapest way to get around!
Getting things done was very easy as well. For example, getting our propane tanks filled. We dinghied ashore, caught a bus within five minutes which then dropped us off right outside the propane facility. Ten minutes later both tanks were filled and we hopped straight back on the same bus, since the driver had waited for us. We were there and back in less than half an hour.
However, before we had even got on to the bus, we had a gentleman approach us and offered to take us to the propane facility if we could wait about an hour. Completely unprompted, he saw us standing at the side of the road with our tanks and came over to offer some help. While we didn't mind taking the bus at all, we were just so astonished to have received the offer and thanked the man profusely for his kindness. It was mind-blowing just how lovely these people are.
Our primary reason for visiting American Samoa was, however, that we needed a new depth sensor and this was the most inexpensive and convenient location to have it shipped from the USA. We collected our shipment from the Post Office on the day of our arrival without a hitch. Also, Roy was in desperate need of new glasses, another service we cannot fault. From eye exam to glasses on his nose was no more than four days.
Unfortunately, because of the poor holding in Pago Pago, it was too precarious to leave the yacht, which meant we were unable to explore the island and enjoy whatever else the country had to offer. The slightest puff of wind sent yachts dragging through the anchorage, so most yachts had someone on anchor watch 24 hours a day. With only Roy and I onboard, that meant we had to divide and conquer to get the necessities done and resulted in us only being able to enjoy an outing together that was in close proximity to the anchorage.
We did, however, enjoy a visit to the Jean P. Haydon Museum, which depicts the history and culture of the islands and has artefacts, like a woven mat that is 500 years old as well as a small Samoan flag that was carried to the moon by the Apollo Moon astronauts. It, together with three moon stones, was presented to the territory by President Nixon, acknowledging American Samoa's link to the missions. Specifically, five of the missions splashed down in the territory's waters and all the astronauts transited through Tutuila on their way back to the US mainland. The museum also had a very interesting photo gallery which gave a great insight into island life.
Additionally, we enjoyed a lunch at Sabies by the Sea, where Roy had hot chicken wings and a Budlight, his first since his trip back to the USA the year before. In many ways, we were back in America!
Another highlight of our visit to American Samoa was catching up with Do Over. We had not expected to see them again until New Zealand after they left Boro Boro, as they were heading to Fiji, which was not part of our itinerary at the time. Although a short and sweet encounter, we enjoyed a wonderful evening with them before they set sail for Tonga.
It was during this visit that we met their neighbour, Vasco, who was also tied up to the huge shipping mooring they were sharing. A single-handed sailor in his late seventies from Bulgaria, who had built his yacht together with his brother, but when his brother died unexpectedly, he decided to still complete the circumnavigation they had dreamed of. What an unassuming, incredible man he was and certainly entertained us with his stories.
By Friday, 22nd July, American Samoa had served its purpose and it was time for our overnight sail to Samoa. We arrived, however, in Apia on Sunday, 24th July 2016, having crossed the International Date Line that rendered the leap year null and void for us. We went from UTC-11 hours to UTC+13 hours and aged by one day in the blink of an eye. We were 20 hours ahead of Arizona, 12 hours ahead of the UK and 10 hours ahead of South Africa. Trying to find the best time to call family and friends certainly became a challenge and has remained one.
Besides a glimpse into the Samoan lifestyle while in American Samoa, Samoa was the first destination where we really experienced huge cultural differences between French Polynesia and the rest of the South Pacific Islands and definitely felt that Samoa was indeed the best kept secret of the South Pacific.
Our first of two rather bizarre experiences, however, was the marina / anchoring rules in Apia, where one has to use the marina, unless the marina is unable to accommodate the draft of the vessel or they do not have space. In our case they claimed they did have space until they saw the size of Paw Paw, not to mention the fact that we had limited manoeuvrability due to a problem with our port engine. Regardless, it was an enormous relief to eventually be in a clean, protected anchorage, with excellent holding, plenty of depth and swing room, which we hadn’t had since leaving Moorea.
The second bizarre experience was the officialdom process. It was nothing like what was described in all our cruising guides or what was noted on www.noonsite.com. The only step we managed to get completed, after waiting on board most of our first day, was to obtain our release from quarantine by the Health Department after they eventually came out to Paw Paw that afternoon. Getting the rest of the process completed i.e. Customs and Immigration, was a lot stranger!
We were told that the officials had to return to their offices, but had left the necessary documentation with the marina staff for us to complete and return to their offices the following day. However, we were also informed by the marina that we had to pay a visit to the Port Authorities to settle our anchorage fees, since we weren’t staying in the marina. When we got there, they had no idea what to charge us and seemed clueless as to what to do with us, other than to ask us to please come back the next day. Our trip to the Customs Service office was no better, as the individuals there seemed clueless on what to do with us as well. Totally confused and in desperation, we headed to the Immigration office. It was amazing, that once we found the correct individuals, the entire process was completed within ten minutes, including our trip back to Customs. The final piece of the jigsaw was Port Authority. Turns out there were no fees to pay, hence the confusion around us wanting to pay anchorage fees. On hindsight they must have thought we were completely nuts!
Having eventually completed the officialdom process, we were eager to commence our explorations. First stop was Apia, the capital, but not before we enjoyed a light breakfast at the Bay Walk Café, a walk along the promenade and a visit to the Catholic Cathedral, where the carved wood ceiling, the paintings and the stain glass windows rivalled anything we had seen to date. Simply spectacular! We then discovered a neat and tidy city, with well maintained roads, sidewalks, working traffic lights with pedestrian crossings and gorgeous old buildings dating back to when this was a German territory. There were plenty of shops, restaurants, bars, banks, coffee shops etc. In fact it reminded us a lot of Colombia being a well managed, self-contained country. The icing on the cake was that it was as cheap as Colombia.
Our exposure to the richness of the Samoan customs and cultures, however, started with our visit to the Samoan Cultural Village, though we were left in no doubt that there was also a huge influence by the dominance of the church in the daily lives of the people, as well as a somewhat regimental throwback from the German culture. For instance, at 05H30 and 18H00 every day the bells of the Catholic Cathedral tolled calling everyone to prayer. At 09H00 every morning a siren sounded to inform all civil servants that the work day had begun. The siren rang again at the start and end of the lunch break and one last time at the close of the work day. In conjunction with the morning siren, the Samoa Police Marching Band paraded every morning from the Fire Station to the Government Building where the national flag was hoisted to the national anthem.
At first we felt like we had entered a very strict, military dictatorship type environment, but that impression soon wore off. When we got to participate in the experience of the marching band and the raising of the flag, we discovered that it was a source of national pride, given that everyone in town, whether walking, driving or sitting, stopped their activity to observe the ceremony. We also leant that this national pride extended beyond this ceremony and was an integral part of their lives, laced with the traditional customs and cultures. Outside of this discipline and structure, the people merrily went about their daily business and one had a sense that Apia was, in fact, very cosmopolitan. Mix all of this with a strong Polynesian culture and the result was a very strange, yet fascinating cultural contrast; one we thoroughly enjoyed!
Our day at the cultural village was the most fascinating cultural experience we'd had since our trip up the Chagres River to the Embera Indian Village in Panama. The day started off with us weaving our plates on which our lunch would be served, as well as weaving some headbands. We were then welcomed by our host and provided some history of the country, but our insight into the culture or “Fa'a Samoa”, the Samoan Way, grew with each “Fale” we visited, an open-air house slightly raised off the ground vs. the stilted and closed-in houses in French Polynesia. Samoa has managed to hold onto its ancient daily practices, passed down through the generations, and is a lifestyle enjoyed still to this day.
Similar to the American Samoan culture, the entire culture in Samoa also revolves around the family unit, supported by a firm belief in a higher universal being, which later translated to Christianity when the missionaries arrived, where each village is comprised of a single extended family i.e. grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc, headed by the chiefs, who can be male or female, and where everyone in the village has a specific purpose and a role to fulfil for the good of the whole.
Our first “Fale” was the “kitchen", where the men prepare the above ground, open fire using coconut husks and all the dried banana leaves, palm leaves, used plates, etc to heat the volcanic rocks. Due to the physical nature of this activity, the men prepare all the meals for the village. This is similar to the French Polynesian culture, except that the fires in French Polynesia are below ground in a pit. Also, the various foods prepared i.e. breadfruit, taro, which is a root vegetable, spinach in coconut cream and tuna wrapped in banana leaves was very similar. However, instead of the food being placed in a huge rack which is lowered into the pit and left for approximately three hours to cook as in French Polynesia, here the food was layered between the hot volcanic rocks and left to cook for approximately 45 minutes.
While we waited on lunch, we received a demonstration on how a coconut husk is removed using a traditional tool and then how the coconut cream is extracted from the flesh using something that resembled a bird's nest, made from the dried bark of a banana tree and, incidentally, is also used as a body scrubber. The extraction of coconut oil was also demonstrated and, although the coconut is an integral part of the French Polynesian diet as well, the processes used were very different.
The traditional dancing and singing, which we were treated to prior to lunch, was very different to what we had seen in French Polynesia. Instead of the gyrating hips of the Polynesian woman dancers, the Samoan women were very graceful and the men more physical in their dance.
While it was difficult to choose a highlight of that day, the “Ava” was very special. It is primarily a welcoming ceremony, where a drink is prepared using the root of a pepper plant, but can only be made by the daughter of a High Chief, who, in our western culture, is the equivalent of a Princess. The drink can then only be served to the guests by a warrior, a man who has the “Pe'a”, the mark of Samoa. The symbolism behind a Princess preparing it and everyone sitting cross-legged on the ground is to reflect that we are all created equal. We never encountered this type of ceremony in French Polynesia, but we did experience similar, although less formal ceremonies, called the “Kava” in Tonga and Fiji.
After lunch we entered the “Fale” of the wood carvers and then onto the tattoo artist. The interesting fact about these particular skills, is that they are passed down through a bloodline and no one outside of that bloodline can practice the specific art. Based on the family name, everyone knows who the tattoo artist is within Samoa. “Tatau” is the local name for tattoo and Samoa is one of the few places in the world where the art is practised in the traditional way by “Tufuga Ta Tatau”, the master tattooists, using handmade tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. Also, the “Pe'a”, the mark of Samoa, is given to men who choose to have it and begins at the waist, covering every bit of skin down to the knees, with intricate, unique designs chosen by the master tattooist. It is considered a very painful “rite of passage” for titled and untitled men alike.
Our final “Fale” demonstrated the art of “Siapo” (tapa). We literally watched the bark of a branch be transformed into a cloth and then painted with a design chosen by the artist. The “Lava Lava” (sarongs) worn on formal occasions are made in this way. While the “Siapo” was something we saw on all the South Pacific islands, the designs painted on the cloth were unique and specific to each country.
The entire day provided us with so many new experiences and gave us an incredible appreciation for this wonderful nation. At the time we didn’t realise it, but we also gained insights into the cultures of the other Polynesian nations of Tonga and Fiji, which we had yet to explore.
Another cultural difference between Samoa and French Polynesia, which was lovely to see, was thevarious traditional outfits worn by the men and woman and as the school uniforms worn by the children. For men and school boys it was the very smart and attractive “Lava Lava” worn with a matching collared shirt, printed with a traditional design. For the girls it was a pinafore-type dress and for woman, the “Poletasi”; an outfit consisting of a blouse and full-length matching skirt in a traditional print. We saw similar outfits worn by the woman in Tonga and Fiji, but with different lengths to the blouse or with a straw skirt overlaying the skirt, for instance, as in Tonga. But, what did everyone wear on their feet? Flip-flops, of every colour and style you can imagine. For a more formal occasion the men wore beautiful leather sandals, but flip-flops ruled the day!
Without a doubt, what will go down on record as the most unusual experience was Elaine's visit to a traditional healer for a Samoan massage, known as the "Fofo". It uses a wide range of techniques from a gentle rub ("Mili Mili"), to kneading ("Lomi Lomi") and slapping, pounding and chopping ("Tu'i Tu'i") along with singing. Coconut oil mixed with various healing herbs and spices are applied to the skin during the process. The only bit Elaine didn't experience was the massaging of the balls of the feet while standing or walking ("Soli"). Never before during a massage has she been put into so many different positions and there was definitely no room for modesty. In an essentially partitioned, open air “Fale”, with a small sarong covering the entrance, one strips off down to one’s shorts / panties and lies on a huge flat, adjustable bed covered with another sarong. That's it i.e. no covering for oneself.
The lady healer was as old as the hills, but as strong as an ox. Describing the process is difficult, but it was akin to somewhat of a spiritual experience while the entire physical body is being realigned. Needless to say, although extremely relaxed, according to Roy, Elaine looked like "a deer in the headlights" for the remainder of that day and, by the afternoon, felt like she'd run a marathon. At one point, Elaine began to think that the idea of seeing a traditional healer had been another one of Roy's hair-brain ideas, similar to the belly-button piercing incident years before, but had to admit that, by the next day, felt incredible and it was, after all, a brilliant suggestion!
While many of the traditional foods we sampled were the same as in French Polynesia, only referenced by a different name, we did learn about the natural healing power of the “Three Brothers”; garlic, turmeric and ginger; that when consumed together, are believed to heal all sorts of ailments. That coincided nicely with a few delicious hot teas with the same ingredients, barring the garlic, which we encountered at various cafes around Apia and subsequently learnt to make ourselves.
A cornerstone of the Samoan culture is definitely religion, but the magnitude, not to mention, the enormity of the church structures, or more aptly, the spectacular Cathedrals and Temples, was beyond comprehension, given such a small population and it was, most definitely, in total contrast to that of French Polynesia and, indeed, the rest of the Polynesian nations. Every Christian denomination that one can think of is represented in Samoa, not to mention the number of retreats and Theological Colleges. It certainly gave us an appreciation for the local story about cyclone Winston, the largest storm on record: After devastating Fiji and parts of Tonga, it headed towards Samoa, but “when it saw all the churches in Samoa, it turned around and passed back over Fiji”.
We had the opportunity to experience this influence every Sunday, when islanders enjoy a day of rest and time with family. Visitors are encouraged to do the same. Also, attending a mass at the Catholic Cathedral in Apia, while it was hard not to be moved by the service, given the very relaxed family atmosphere, the spectacular setting and the beautiful singing, the straight talking priest was, at times, so blunt, he made us laugh and came across as a respected family member like a grandfather, father or big brother rather than the traditional priest.
An aspect of Samoa that we did not care for, however, was the Chinese influence. While observing the activities of the anchorage and commercial dock, it was hard not to notice that it was very busy for such a little port. We saw ships from all over the world, loading and unloading containers - Hong Kong, Panama, Polynesia, Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia and China. What was most disturbing though were the number of Chinese fishing vessels we saw constantly coming and going, as well as running their generators 24/7, causing a lot of air pollution. After curiosity eventually got the better of us, we asked a few questions and learnt that Samoa handles all the distribution of goods to the Cook Islands and that the Chinese fishing vessels unload their catch onto larger “mother ships” in this port before they return to China. We also learnt that fishing wasn’t the only pie China had their fingers in. Apparently many of the government buildings are Chinese built and many of the businesses around Apia are Chinese owned. Need we say more! Oh, and Chinese flip-flops can be purchased for less than $2US a pair, while tinned apples cost $6US- Staggering!
As in American Samoa, getting things done in Samoa was just as easy and having access to all the amenities a full-time cruiser needs was very refreshing. Whether it was internet / data services, provisioning, fuel, propane, laundry, the service was available and very inexpensive, not to mention, convenient with access to the very inexpensive public transportation or taxi services, of which there were numerous and where the buses, although larger than American Samoa, were just as upbeat and fun to ride.
An unexpected pleasure of staying in Samoa was the numerous options for provisioning and the widest selection of international or local produce. There is a huge fresh produce market as well as a fish market and an abundance of grocery stores ranging from the corner mini-mart to large supermarkets, all reasonably priced.
The fish market had a daily supply of freshly caught mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, swordfish, red snapper, etc while the supermarkets stock New Zealand lamb and beef, organic fruit and vegetables, wines from all over the world, as well as freshly baked goods like Cornish pasties, sausage rolls and various other filled pies, not to mention the cream donuts, cakes and a range of breads. One can purchase, for instance, oranges from Australia, vanilla wafer biscuits from India, scotch finger biscuits from Fiji, locally grown organic tomatoes and a green pepper, a loaf of freshly baked bread and coconut donuts, all for under $5USD. The fresh produce market is packet with all sorts of locally grown fruit and vegetables, from fresh turmeric and ginger to tangerines, breadfruit, bokchoi and everything else in-between. It's fair to say the coconut donuts must be an acquired taste though. That is a polite way of saying they were actually disgusting!
None of the cruising guides we'd read about Samoa mentioned the availability of such excellent provisioning. Had we known, we definitely would not have stocked up in French Polynesia the way we did at considerable extra expense. Oh well, lessons learnt!
Besides the wonderful culture experiences we enjoyed in Samoa and the ease of getting things done, we also had plenty to keep us busy in terms of sight-seeing and enjoying the beautiful land and seascapes, all of which, was achievable using the public transportation.
For the first week or more, we actually never ventured out of Apia. Instead we enjoyed our walks along the breakwater wall into the city centre and frequented the myriad of cafes, restaurants and bars, as well as some of the local tourist attractions, like the parliamentary buildings, the courthouse and various memorials to the ships that sank in Samoa around the time of World War II. A short walk from the marina in the opposite direction took us to the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, with its scattering of beach “Fales”, picnic tables, tree-swings, showers and toilets, creating a naturally rustic environment for visitors to use. It was here where we enjoyed beach picnics and spent many an afternoon reading under a tree. Blissful!
It was also the site where we had the most unusual snorkel; inside the crater of an inactive underwater volcano. The coral was unbelievable. We've never seen such an intricate variety of coral and abundance of colours. Some of it looked like oversized bunches of beautiful flowers. The fish had the most amazing designs, which weren't the usual stripes of varying size or colour, but more geometric and discovering that there was such a creature as a Sea Dragon was simply amazing. It wasn't, however, until we took a walk along the beach and enjoyed a swing on one of the tree-swings hanging from the huge trees that we realised the Marine Reserve and the beach “Fales” were actually occupied by the family that owns the land. The clue was seeing the school children arriving home and doing homework in one of the “Fales” while the mom watched TV in another.
Happy Hours were enjoyed at Cocktails on the Rocks on the waterfront or at the Edge Cocktail Lounge in Marina Apia. We treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at Paddles, one of the top restaurants on the island, where we ate a delicious meal of fresh salt & pepper calamari and a local dish called “Samoan Oke” for starters. “Samoan Oke” is a fish, in our case it was yellowfin tuna, cured in lemon juice and coconut milk and then has various other ingredients added like onion, cucumber, red pepper and fresh herbs. For the main course Elaine had a seafood pasta dish which was overflowing with calamari, mussels, prawns and mahi mahi, while Roy opted for the pork belly with various sides. Other dinners of Wood Fired Oven pizzas washed down with a tasty red wine were enjoyed with friends at Giodanos Pizzeria. Lunches were enjoyed at the Gourmet Seafood restaurant and at the Sails Restaurant, where we ate a delicious lunch of freshly caught swordfish. Elaine had hers in fishcakes topped with a pineapple salsa and Roy had his battered, with the usual choice of sides.
Morning coffees were enjoyed at Milani Café or at Legends Café, where we discovered our new favourite cool drink made from fresh turmeric and ginger and served with plenty of ice or at Nourish, where we discovered hot teas made from freshly ground turmeric and ginger and from turmeric and passion fruit or at the brand new Aggie Gray Sheraton Hotel, where we enjoyed afternoon cappuccinos and baked delights such as black forest cake and raspberry cheesecake.
We played golf at the Royal Samoan, rated as one of the top 100 golf courses in the world, set in the mountains about 15 minutes drive from Apia. Although a longer course than we had expected, we didn't do too badly at all and it was simply lovely just to get back into the swing of things.
Our first bus trip took us to the outskirts of Apia. Our destination - the Museum of Villa Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson’s home.
Born in 1850, the Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, famous for books like Treasure Island, Ship Wrecked and Dr Jackal and Mr Hyde, lived out the latter years of his life on Opolu Island, until his unexpected death from a brain haemorrhage in December 1894. He also holds a special place in the hearts of the Samoan people as he was instrumental in ensuring the release of all the chiefs from prison and returning the political landscape and governance to its former state and one that still exists today. This affection was shown when two hundred Samoan men cleared a trail up Mount Vaea while carry his coffin to his burial site.
When touring the beautiful island plantation house, one has a sense of it being a welcoming home. Seeing his manuscripts on his desk and first editions of his books in the library certainly highlighted his achievements. The house itself, boasting five bedrooms, a smoking room, a library, a sick room, and the great room as well as the outdoor kitchen, with marvellous views from the spacious verandas which overlook the gardens and ocean, is tastefully restored to reflect the grandeur of past eras after being destroyed in a cyclone.
A surprising, although very touching event of our tour, was the tour guide singing a poem, written by Robert Louis Stevenson’s eighteen years before his death and inscribed on his tomb:
"Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will
This to be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill."
After our tour we hiked the 3.4 km, along the same trail cleared all those years ago, to visit his tomb which overlooks the city of Apia and enjoyed the most magnificent views.
After gaining some confidence on our first successful bus trip, we were feeling brave enough to take a number of trips thereafter. The first was up and over the mountains to the south side of the island and the village of Siumu; specifically to the Coconuts Resort and Spa, viewed by many as one of the top resorts on the island, but more renowned for the cuisine at their restaurant as well as its beautiful white sandy beach and the black sand beach nearby.
The bus ride was an adventure in itself. Unbeknown to us it was shopping day. Having found a seat near the front of the bus, we waited for all the villagers who had come from Siumu or one of the villages along the route, to finish their shopping in Apia. Then, after the bus driver ensured his radiator was full of water, a telling sign of things to come, and the bus loaded with huge bags of flour and rice, boxes of frozen chicken and all sorts of groceries, we headed out. However, not even 10 minutes later it was another stop; this time to fill the bus with diesel and for the villagers to fill their jerry cans with petrol or pop into yet another supermarket where they bought all sorts of freshly baked goods. By now we were starting to wonder just how far away this village actually was.
Eventually, with passengers loaded and the bus full to the brim, we started the journey. For the first 45 minutes we travelled straight up and for the second 45 minutes we travelled straight down, holding onto our seats so as not to slide out of them. It literally was straight up and down the mountain.
The views and scenery as well as the glimpse into rural Samoa, however, were worth every bump in the road. Once in the countryside, we could see the colourful “Fales” set in beautiful gardens, vegetable gardens, fruit trees and subsistence farming, school children in their traditional dress uniforms; such a contrast to the city and, of course, a whole different world from the fabulous resort where we had lunch.
Before we disembarked we asked the driver what time the bus returned. His reply: “Be here at this spot at 3 o'clock" and, at 3 o'clock he was there to pick us up having made a special trip down the country lane to fetch us. It was as if someone had told him we were waiting because as soon as we jumped on board he did a u-turn and headed back to collect his other passengers. Just the coolest thing!
And, we weren't disappointed with our lunch either. We shared a sampler platter for starters, followed by a main course of yellowfin tuna carpaccio for Roy and New Zealand mussels for Elaine. Dessert was a delicious freshly baked molten chocolate cake and ice-cream, with cappuccinos topping off this fabulous gastronomic experience.
A short taxi ride from the marina to the bus terminus started our second outing; the northwest coast of Upolu Island to the village of Malua, where we visited the EFKS Museum at the School of Fine Arts. Rated as a "must see” tourist attraction, we were definitely not disappointed. The wood carvings by the students were spectacular, many depicting various ancient legends, but just as many were the creation of their imaginations.
Our final excursion, after renting a car for the day, was to explore the south-eastern part of Opolu Island and it was certainly a day of unexpected treasures.
After getting our picnic lunch together, loading up our snorkelling gear and picking up the car, we enjoyed the drive along the north-eastern coastline through some of the prettiest villages we'd seen, before heading south through the mountains and the Le Mafa Pass.
Our first stop was the viewpoint of the Sopoaga Waterfalls. It was something out of a story book. From the beautiful gardens and picnic table area, one had a wonderful view of the gorge with the waterfall as the backdrop, set amongst the lush tropical vegetation. It was here where we meet the owner of the property and learnt that all the tourist attractions in Samoan are on private land and are established as well as maintained by the owners for the common benefit of the village. It certainly explained what we had witnessed in the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, but not only demonstrated the entrepreneurial spirit of the Samoan people, but also reflected their basic culture of the “Agia”, where the entire culture revolves around the family unit, where everyone in the village has a specific purpose and a role to fulfil for the good of the whole and, if that includes capitalising on a natural resource on the land they own, then so be it.
Our next stop was the To Sua Ocean Trench and something beyond what we expected. While we had seen photos of the trench, they did not do it justice at all. The entire area is beautifully setup against the backdrop of a stunningly rugged coastline with spectacular jade and turquoise waters. One can’t help, but notice the completely different colours of the water here compared to the other islands we visited in the South Pacific. Instead of shades of blue and turquoise with a white sandy bottom, the water here is amazing shades of green that seem to be emphasised by the dark volcanic bottom.
Beach “Fales” provide the perfect spot under the shady coconut palms to savour the views and dry off in the sun, while the picnic tables at the rock pools provided the perfect spot for our picnic lunch.
The trench itself is actually two volcanic lava tubes that are connected. After descending a very steep ladder, one is rewarded with a swim in the clear, refreshing saltwater and at low tide you can swim from one trench to the other. It is a most unusual geophysical phenomenon and understandably another one of Samoa's "must see" destinations.
After our picnic lunch and a refreshing shower to rinse off, we were back on the road; this time to visit the Aleipata District, where we witnessed the devastation caused by the tsunami that hit this coastal area in 2009 and where the villages are still struggling to recover. We first heard about this particular tsunami and the destruction caused, while in American Samoa, when we received an explanation as to why the holding in Pago Pago was so poor, given all the debris i.e. houses, cars, furniture, etc, that had been washed into the anchorage. It wasn’t until we arrived in Niuatoputapu, Tonga, that we were told about the human aspect of the destruction.
Our last stop was the Piula Cave Pool in the grounds of a Theological College. This was another strange phenomenon, where a volcanic cave, filled with fresh water is only meters from the ocean. The level of the pool remains constant with the water seeping into the ocean, but not vice versa. Add to this the tropical reef fish that ended up in the pool, but have somehow adapted to the fresh water. To say we took a refreshing swim here would be an understatement - It was freezing! We also had the good fortune of arriving on the college's sports day so we got to see the men playing the Samoan version of cricket and the woman playing volleyball in full-length traditional dress, including a head covering similar to a “burhka”, minus the “fly screen”. How on earth they could actually move and not pass out from heat exhaustion was beyond us, but both games were entertaining nonetheless.
On the day we visited a local tailor to have Elaine's "Poletasi" made, we knew our time in beautiful Samoa was drawing to a close. After choosing the fabric she wanted, she was measured and then had the opportunity to choose specific design elements. Being a more formal outfit, Elaine looked forward to wearing it to a nice upscale restaurant at some point in the future, but mostly as a wonderful reminder of the special time we had spent in Samoa. This was emphasised again on the evening before our departure, after a delicious tuna feast on board, sitting on the trampoline under a beautiful full moon. There haven’t been too many places we have visited during our sailing adventures where we felt we were leaving our hearts behind and with those thoughts we said our goodbyes to beautiful Samoa the following morning, 19th August 2016, as we set sail for Tonga, taking with us the fondest of memories. It’s fair to say, we simply loved Samoa!