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Samoa (Upolu)


Central Apia has been transformed in recent years, with enormous government buildings overshadowing the older churches and trading companies that still line the waterfront in the traditional South Seas movie-set manner. Yet away from the center this city of 35,000 is only a cluster of villages. Rocking in Apia Harbor, where the Vaisigano River has cut an opening in Upolu's protective reef, are a motley assortment of interisland ferries, container ships, fishing boats, and cruising yachts. As at Papeete, you'll see teams of men paddling outrigger racing canoes around the harbor at sunset, about the only two towns in the South Pacific where this is still so. Yet the languid inertia of Apia is pervasive.

Apia makes a good base from which to explore northern Upolu, and there's lots of accommodation in all price brackets. The food and entertainment possibilities are also very good, so give yourself a break and see the city one step at a time. Get into the culture and prepare yourself for that big trip around Savai'i. Samoa is Polynesia's heart and Apia is the bright light around which the country revolves.

Central Apia
By the harbor side where Falealili Street meets Beach Road is the John Williams Memorial, dedicated to the missionary who implanted Protestantism in Samoa in 1830. Nine years later Williams was killed and eaten by cannibals on Erromango Island in the New Hebrides (present Vanuatu). Later his remains were returned to Samoa and buried beneath the porch of the old Congregational Christian Church (1898) across the street.

A block west on Beach Road is the historic wooden Courthouse dating from German times, which served as government headquarters until 1994. On Black Saturday, 29 December 1929, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, leader of the Mau Movement, was shot in the back by the N.Z. Constabulary while trying to calm his people during a demonstration against the colonial regime in front of this building. Eight other Samoans were also killed and five years of severe repression followed, only ending with a change of government in New Zealand.

West again is imposing Mulivai Catholic Cathedral (1885-1905), formerly a landmark for ships entering the harbor, and Matafele Methodist Church, a fine building where marvelous singing may be heard during Sunday services. Across the street is the gigantic eight-story Government Building, erected in 1994 with a multi million dollar interest-free loan from the People's Republic of China. It and the neighboring seven-story Central Bank of Samoa wouldn't be out of place in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Kuwait, and stand as stunning examples of third-world megalomania. Earthquakes are common at Apia and both of these massive buildings stand on unstable reclaimed land, which tends to magnify the impact of quakes, so you could be looking at ancient ruins in the making. The police band marches from their barracks near the Courthouse and plays the national anthem at the raising of the flag here at 0750 on weekday mornings.

Nearby is the Chief Post Office with the modern headquarters of the ANZ Bank opposite. The former post office on the site of the bank burned down mysteriously in 1986, just as an official inquiry into hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing funds was about to begin. A block west in the center of the traffic circle where Vaea Street meets Beach Road is a Clock Tower built as a WW I memorial. On opposite corners of Vaea Street and Beach Road are the former Burns Philp store, now Chan Mow Supermarket, the National Provident Fund building housing the agency that administers the country's pension fund, and the Nelson Memorial Public Library, named for Olaf Nelson (1883-1944), a leader of the Mau Movement.

Farther west facing a small harbor is the Fish Market. The numerous locally owned longline fishing boats here have made fish a leading export during the past few years, but safety standards are minimal and several boats and crews are lost each year. The Flea Market nearby was Apia's main vegetable market until 1995 when it was moved three blocks inland. You can shop for handicrafts and clothing here, and cheap food stalls are along the side closest to the harbor. One of Apia's two bus stations is also here, and just beyond is the flashy new Women's Center, built with another Chinese loan. The large wooden building almost across the street is the headquarters of the Samoa Trust Estates Corporation. These were once the premises of the German trading companies whose assets were seized when New Zealand invaded in 1914.

Mulinu'u Peninsula
Just northwest of the old market is the Kitano Tusitala Hotel, which is well worth entering to appreciate the great hand-tied roofs of the main fale-like neo-Samoan buildings erected in 1974.

Continue northwest on Mulinu'u Street, past two monuments on the left commemorating the disastrous 1889 naval debacle (see History, earlier in this chapter) when the German cruiser Adler and several other ships sank during a hurricane. There's also a monument on the right that recalls the raising of the German flag on 1 March 1900 (die deutsche Flagge gehisst).

The large beehive-style building farther along on the left is the neo-Samoan Parliament of Samoa (1972). The smaller old Fono House nearby now houses the office of the Ombudsman. Across the field is the Independence Memorial (1962), which declares, "The Holy Ghost, Council of all Mankind, led Samoa to Destiny," and behind it is the Lands and Titles Court, which reviews village council decisions, disagreements over customary lands, and matai title disputes.

At the end of the Mulinu'u Peninsula is the Apia Observatory, founded by the Germans in 1902. After the unexpected hurricane of 1889, the Germans weren't taking any more chances. Note the many impressive royal tombs of former paramount chiefs both here and down the road to the left. Mulinu'u is the heartland of modern Samoan history.

In 1889 Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author of the adventure classic Treasure Island, purchase approximately 162 hectares of bushland at the foot of Mount Vaea, three and a half km inland from Apia and high above the sea, for US$4,000. Stevenson named the place Vailima, meaning "five waters," for the small streams that ran across the property, and here he built his home and spent the last five years of his life.

During a power struggle between rival Samoan factions, some chiefs were imprisoned at Mulinu'u. Stevenson visited them in confinement, and to show their gratitude, these chiefs built him a road up to Vailima when they were released. The Samoans called Stevenson Tusitala, or "Teller of Tales." On 3 December 1894, at the age of 44, Stevenson suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage while helping his wife Fanny fix dinner. He's buried just below the summit of Mount Vaea, overlooking Vailima, as he'd requested.

The stately mansion with its beautiful tropical gardens was first sold to a retired German businessman, then bought by the German government as the official residence of their Governor. Of the present complex, Stevenson had the central building erected in 1890, and in 1891-92 the east wing was added to provide proper quarters for his mother. The Germans built the westernmost wing in 1897. The N.Z. regime took it over when they assumed power in 1914, and until recently Villa Vailima was Government House, official residence of Samoa's head of state.

In early 1992, after Hurricane Val did serious damage to Vailima, Mormon businessmen from Utah and Arizona obtained a 60-year lease on the property with the intention of creating a museum. The complex was largely rebuilt, and in 1994 the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (tel. 20-798) opened on the centenary of the writer's death. You'll be led through a series of bedrooms dedicated to various members of the Stevenson family, but all of the furniture and heirlooms on display are replicas except for three chairs and a few books. Temporary exhibits are housed in a gallery upstairs in the west wing and you may visit these on your own after the tour. There's a marvelous view from the breezy upper verandah.

A bit east of the Stevenson mansion is a smaller red-roofed house once occupied by a son of the head of state but now empty. Outside this building is an old-fashioned mahogany steering wheel inscribed "Fear God and Honor the King, Samoa 1889." This is from the British ship Calliope, the only one to survive the naval debacle of that year. Britain donated the wheel to Samoa when the ship was broken up after WW II.

In 1978 a Botanical Garden Reserve with a loop trail was established at the bottom of the hill adjoining Vailima. Adjacent is a pool for swimming and a small waterfall (dry except during the rainy months). The hiking trail up to Stevenson's grave on Mount Vaea begins here. A map of area is just down the road to the grave to the right of museum gate.

Mount Vaea
An almost obligatory pilgrimage for all visitors to Samoa is the 45-minute climb along a winding trail to the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, just below the 475-meter summit of Mount Vaea. After the small bridge turn left. Five hundred meters up, the trail divides with a shorter, steeper way to the right and a much longer less-used trail to the left. A good plan is to go up by the short trail and come back down the longer way. After rains, the trail can get muddy.

The path to the top was cut by 200 sorrowful Samoans as they carried the famous writer's body up to its final resting place in 1894. From the tomb there's a sweeping panorama of the verdant valley to the east with the misty mountains of Upolu beyond, and in the distance the white line of surf breaking endlessly on the reef. The red roof of Vailima directly below is clearly visible. It's utterly still--a peaceful, poignant, lonely place. Stevenson's requiem reads:

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 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.

Stevenson's wife Fanny died in California in 1914 and a year later her ashes were brought back to Samoa and buried at the foot of her husband's grave. The bronze plaque bears her Samoan name, Aolele, and the words of Stevenson:

Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life
Heart-whole and soul free,
The August Father gave to me.

Side-Trip Southwest
Catch a Seesee, Siusega, or Tafaigata bus at the markets and ask the driver to drop you at the closest point to Papase'ea Sliding Rocks. You can also come on the Alafua bus to the university (see below), but this will add about 15 minutes to your walking time. You slide down three rocks into freshwater pools--don't forget your bathing suit. It's open daily (Sunday included!).
    At Alafua, below and to the east of this area, is the 30-hectare Samoan campus of the University of the South Pacific (the main campus is in Fiji). In 1977 the university's School of Agriculture was established here, with assistance from New Zealand. To the left of the main gate is an agricultural training center funded by the European Union. The university's two semesters run from February to the end of June and late July to mid-November.
    On the way back to Apia notice the Mormon Temple (1983) on the airport highway. The golden angel Moroni trumpets The Word from above, but only Mormons are allowed inside. The Church of Latter-day Saints established its Samoan headquarters here in 1902. Just a few minutes' walk west along the highway from the temple is the impressive four-tier tomb of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, the Mau Movement leader mentioned above.
    Beer lovers might like to visit the Vailima Brewery at Vaitele on the road to the airport. You'll only be allowed in on Thursday, and it's a good idea to call the Personnel Manager (tel. 20-200) beforehand to make sure he'll be available for a tour (no tasting). Plenty of buses travel out this way (including those marked Afega, Faleula, Puipa'a, Toamua, Vaigaga, Vaiusu, or Vaitele).

Side-Trip Inland
For a bit of heavy hiking, catch a Mulivai, Salani, Sapunaoa, Siumu, or Vaovai bus up the Cross Island Highway to an unmarked turnoff on the right for Lake Lanoto'o, otherwise known as "Goldfish Lake," high in the center of Upolu at 590 meters above sea level. Walk straight west on the dirt access road for just under an hour until you see the power lines end abruptly at a transformer on a pole, plus several radio towers down a road to the left. Continue straight ahead another 500 meters to a point where the access road turns left (south). Walk 400 meters south on this road until the radio towers are visible again on the left. On the right directly opposite here an overgrown trail runs due west to the lake, another one-hour walk. When you arrive at a destroyed microwave reflector on top of a hill, the lake is just below you to the left.

The unmarked way takes a bit of intuition to find and some of the locals living on the main road to the trail ask exorbitant fees to act as guides. There's no admission fee to the lake, so just take your time and follow the instructions provided above and you'll be okay. The route to the lake is very muddy following heavy rains, so only go after a couple of days of sunny weather. Expect fallen trees across the route and some confusion toward the end. This is a very strenuous hike, so be prepared.
    The opaque green waters of this seldom-visited crater lake are surrounded by a mossy green bush dripping from the mist. Swimming in the lake is an eerie experience. To add to the otherworldliness of the place, Lake Lanoto'o is full of goldfish, but you'll have to wait patiently if you want to see any from shore (bread crumbs might help). This hike is ideal for seeing Upolu's high-altitude vegetation without going too far from town, but sturdy shoes and long pants are essential.

On your way back to Apia stop to visit the Baha'i House of Worship (1984), Mother Temple to all Baha'is in the region. The temple is at Tiapapata, eight km from Apia and a 30-minute walk down the highway from the Lanoto'o turnoff. The monumental dome soars 30 meters above the surrounding area and has nine sides, symbolizing the unity of the nine major religions of the world. Inside, the latticework of ribs forms a nine-pointed star at the apex of the dome. The seating is arranged facing the Holy Land (Israel) because this is the final resting place of Baha ÕUllah (1817-92), Prophet-Founder of the Baha'i Faith. This majestic building, funded by Baha'is around the world, is open to all for prayer and meditation daily 0900-1700. Also visit the information center (tel. 24-192), to the left as you approach the temple.

Palolo Deep
One of Apia's nicest attractions is the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, a natural reef aquarium operated by the Division of Environment and Conservation. The signposted entrance to the reserve is near the main wharf at Matautu, in fact, the Deep's main draw is its convenience to Apia. You can easily wade out to the Deep at low tide if you have something to protect your feet, and although the reef has been heavily damaged by hurricanes, much of the coral has regenerated and there are plenty of colorful fish (bring along bread to feed to them). Even if you don't intend to swim, the reserve garden is a very nice place to sit and read with lots of benches and relaxing lagoon views. This place is so peaceful it's hard to believe you're just a five-minute walk from the center of a capital city. The helpful staff do their best to serve visitors, but they also let you relax in privacy. Facilities include toilets, showers, and changing rooms. You can rent snorkeling gear and buy cold soft drinks (no beer). The Deep is a perfect escape on Sunday--make an afternoon of it.

For more general information on Samoa, go to:

For more regional information on Samoa, go to:

For more product information on Samoa, go to:

We have included Samoa in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Bounty Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage.

Another option is to create your own package to Samoa by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, carrental, flights and excursions on the islands.

Copyright text from David Stanley's guide Moon Handbooks South Pacific, published by Avalon Travel Publishing, used with permission.

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