Samoa biking tour 2008
A cycle tour seemed the logical way to see Samoa. What we wanted was the sense of being outdoors that comes with a wilderness beach camping holiday, combined with the sense of exploration that accompanies a good tramp, with a bit of luxury and romance thrown in. Frances and I had considered a few other options but skiing was looking a poor choice with New Zealand in the grip of on-going storms. We pondered the brochures of South Pacific resorts showing wonderful beaches, showcase pools and nice rooms, but knew that after two days and two books we would be bored. Then we remembered a conversation with Nathan.
Nathan Fa’avae, one of the world’s top adventure racers, had told us about the great cycle tour they had done the previous year. He and Jodie, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had toured both islands of Samoa towing their two young kids in a bike trailer and they had written up some excellent notes on where to stay and what to expect. They loved the place and it soon became obvious why.
Finding the Island of Savaii
Our decision to visit Samoa was made at the last moment and apart from Nathan and Jodie’s notes, which we had only skimmed, we had not done any research and precious little preparation. We knew that ATMs would accept New Zealand cards and that everything closes on a Sunday, but not much more. Our first mistake was thinking the airport was near Apia, a reasonable assumption as the airport is referred to as Apia in the airline schedules. In reality it’s almost half an island away from the capital. So we spent our first morning wandering around Apia, looking unsuccessfully for maps before cycling off on the wrong road out of town. Then we cycled 30 kms back to the airport on the country’s busiest road in the hottest part of the day. Not quite the idyllic start we had wanted. From there it was only another 10 kms to the ferry across the Apolima Strait to Savaii, the bigger but less populated of the two islands.
The “big ferry” was out of action for its annual survey so we crossed on a little puddle jumper, baking on the open deck for the one and a half hour crossing. It was the Saturday before Fathers Day, a very important celebration in Samoa and the ferry was full to overflowing with people returning home for the long weekend. Everyone aboard was keen to talk to us and we were quickly given the maps we had been unable to buy in Apia along with plenty of advice on where to stay and what to visit.
First taste of Savaii - delights and nasty insects
Lusia’s Lagoon Chalets were located a kilometre up the road from the port and provided the relaxed, casual atmosphere that we imagine Island resorts to have. The open sided bar was particularly welcoming and after a swim in the lagoon we quickly relaxed in the tropical garden setting. It was so pleasant that we stopped for an extra night.
Sitting in an open-air restaurant I felt something run across my foot and looking down I saw a long scaly tail disappearing up my trouser leg. An interesting moment of stress followed as I balanced the embarrassment of dropping my trousers in public against the fear of something large and unknown heading for my crouch. Discretion momentarily ruled and I jumped up shaking the trouser leg furiously. When that didn’t work I ran my hands firmly down the trouser leg and promptly felt an incredibly painful sting or bite on my knee. I few seconds later the mystery was solved as a 15 cm centipede dropped onto my foot. The locals assured me it was only painful, not fatal so I settled down to enjoy the attention and support supplied in generous measure by everyone in the restaurant. Later research indicates we had encountered the only “nasty” the island has.
We circumnavigated Savaii in a week or so, cycling for about one to four hours a day and staying on a different beach every night. We quickly developed a routine that began with an early morning swim, a huge, leisurely breakfast and maybe another swim before we cycled for a bit to the next beach. Then came the hard decision of the day, which to do first – have a beer or a swim. Cooled internally and externally we would settle down for a read or take a quiet stroll along the foreshore. A well earned dinner, often with a local band to serenade us, would then be served as we sat watching the sun set.
Savaii is a classic volcanic island with a lush green interior rising steeply to over 1800m. It’s about 180kms by sealed road around the coast. The route has a few hills, but with excellent swimming beaches dotted all the way round, it’s never more that a few hours between idyllic places to stay. A reef surrounds most of the island, so the sandy beaches quickly give way to stunning coral outcrops. It pays to take a few minutes to understand each beach and ask locals about conditions as while every resort had good swimming and snorkelling areas, there are the usual water challenges of rips and sea conditions can change a lot with the tide.
Fales - the main accommodation in Samoa
Accommodation around the island is in beach fales. Fale (pronounced far lay) are small huts, generally located right on the beach in the sand with stunning views. A few fale are located in tropical garden settings, which tend to be cool and pleasant. The traditional fale have thatched roofs and coconut matting sides, while newer styles incorporate steel roofs and timber shutters. The matting is rolled up or shutters opened to catch the breeze, with the result that the fales were always at a comfortable temperature. Mattresses and mosquito nets come as standard. Often the ablution blocks weren’t that flash, but they all had flush toilets and showers. Hot water wasn’t always available, but when it was, we often didn’t use it as the water and air temperatures were warm enough.
Fale accommodation comes with at least dinner and breakfast, which is usually served in an open sided dinning room. The food was always good and varied from resort to resort. Some meals were quite traditional Samoan and would include taro, breadfruit and lots of fried stuff. The real delicacy was oka, very fresh fish marinated in coconut milk. Other resorts had stronger kiwi or even Indonesian influences in the kitchen. We never had a bad meal, although we did pass up the traditional Island bully beef – which is 90% fat.
Our hosts at these resorts were always interesting and interested in us. Most families send at least some of their children to New Zealand, Australia or the US and rely quite heavily on them for ongoing financial support. When the parents retire, their children are often expected to come home and look after them and run the family business the passing visitors. Either way they were always happy to provide fresh coconuts, mangos, oranges or other fruit for a very small amount. Interesting conversations would often develop, particularly as many Samoans have visited New Zealand and all seem to have relatives there (In one year 40,000 emigrated there out of a total population of 180,000).
August was “winter” and the dry season, which meant the humidity was lower and temperatures were not supposed to rise above 30 degrees during the day. Indeed, cycling was generally more comfortable than expected as we would start out quite early and were generally cycling in a breeze. While it certainly generated an honest thirst that could be cooled with delicious fresh green coconut juice or beer, it was never debilitating. Getting caught on a big hill in the middle of the afternoon in a windless spot might be a different story and we heard the odd muttering from other cyclists about these conditions.
Every day and every night was different. All the fales were at beautiful beaches and provided tremendous sun sets and/or sun rises, but they each had something special. Lano was a quiet and very traditional place where we ate at the family house while Manase was busy resort on a long sweeping beech. Vaisala was the only hotel we stayed in. Set right on the beach in its own picturesque and private bay it was a monument to past grandeur. Hurricanes and time had not been particularly kind to the place, but the meals we superb and the eight of us staying that night were entertained by a four piece band that included a “Samoan violin” – a 10 litre paint drum with a broom stick and a single string.
The western end of the island is the most westerly place in the world and from the beach at Falealupo we gazed out on tomorrow, for we were standing on the edge of the dateline. This is sometimes a problem as New Zealand is 23 hours ahead of Samoa and it’s very easy to end up returning a day later than expected, especially when the flight leaves at 1 am. In this case a flight leaving Tuesday evening Samoa time arrives in Auckland two days later. While we couldn’t divine much about what tomorrow might bring, the sunsets at the western edge of the world were stunning.
Surfing on Savaii
Satuiatua is renowned as a surfing beach, but it also has stunning coral that is teaming with tropical fish. Impatient for the tide to rise we swam through narrow channels in the coral, amazed the quantity and colour of the fish. The resort is focussed around the bar where a rock band performs most nights. The band was never going to set the world alight, but sitting on the beach, with the band playing in the background and the water sparkled in the moonlight was magic.
Aganoa (pronounced Anga noa) is even more of a surf resort than Satuaitua as it is the only place in Samoa where surfing is permitted on a Sunday. The reef here finishes only 200m off shore so from the bar/dining room there are great views of the surfing action and with the waves dumping onto the reef it appeared spectacular. Several nasty fresh coral grazes were being sported by the surfees as testament to the challenges. Inside the reef we enjoyed snorkelling amongst the resident turtles and the biggest fish we saw on our tour.
Cycling - the ideal way to see Samoa
Cycling was the ideal way to explore the island. On our journey we had stopped and explored numerous places of interest including lava tubes (caves created by lava flows cooling at the top while continuing to drain below) where our guide explained how her village had sheltered in them when a hurricane hurled the sea 400m inland, destroying the coast. We had lunch atop a banyan tree, swam in the cool pools below the Afu Aau water falls and stood in the spray of the Alofaaga blowholes. But best of all we had met lots of really interesting people, kept fit and still had plenty of romantic evenings on sunset beaches.