The farthest and only inhabited US territory south of the Equator, American Samoa, is a small group of five volcanic islands in the South Pacific. It is half way between Hawaii and New Zealand. American Samoa belongs to the US but is not a part of it, that is, its population are US nationals but not citizens. So they do not have the right to vote nor are they subject to the US constitution or tax system. Nonetheless, the islands have the highest rate of enlistment in the US Army, which is considered a valuable employment alternative to the tuna canning industry.
American Samoa has many a claim to fame. It is considered the oldest Polynesian culture. Its history dates back 3,000 years, but it is one of the most developed countries in the Pacific thanks to its ties to the US, which brought cars, infrastructure development and fast food.
American Samoans have the highest rate of obesity in the world, as much as 94% is considered overweight. After two months traveling the Pacific, I was shocked to arrive in American Samoa and suddenly see plenty of SUVs and two MacDonald’s in a country of only 55,000 people.
In 2009, American Samoa decided to change its time and move to the other side of the International Date Line to be on the same day as the US. This change effectively turned the islands from the first place where the sun rises every day to the last place for the sun to set, thereby erasing the 29th of December 2009 from its calendar. Its sister island Samoa, with whom it shares culture and traditions, is only 100km away. But its on the other side of the International Date Line. So flying 20mins between the two means landing on a different day completely.
American Samoa is one of the rainiest parts of the world. Although the summer months are meant to be drier, it still rains almost every day and low clouds permanently linger on Rainmaker Mountain and the surrounding hills. The weather is humid and hot, which helps make the country look even more mystical and bright green. Parks cover most of the island and white sand beaches coexist with black sand and rocky bays. The volcanic nature of the islands paired with the green of its rain forests makes the beaches and bays of American Samoa look like emerald clear waters against a dark seabed which contrast beautifully with the lush parks.
American Samoa, the last undiscovered paradise
American Samoa is probably the last undiscovered paradise in the South Pacific. Its remote location and the limited international flight connections have kept it away from tourism already deployed in Fiji or Vanuatu.
Reaching Pago Pago Airport involves flights via other remote parts of the world like Hawaii or Samoa. International arrivals, at 5,000 per year, are negligible and the tourism infrastructure is entirely locally owned without any of the international brands in sight. Trying to find Fagatele Bay, I came across the Tourism Office and walked in. The lady there had not seen a tourist in a few days and was so happy that I was visiting. She was also so surprised I was traveling alone, that she offered to come with me in my rental car and show me around. She pointed at the turn off point for Fagatele Bay, drove with me to Turtle and Shark point, showed me the Eastern point on the island and shared many stories about the country.
Despite its small size, American Samoa is a very diverse island. There are high peaks and one of the deepest and largest natural harbours in the world. Rainmaker Mountain, above the harbour, traps water and provides the highest amount of rainfall of any other harbour in the world. The views from above are dramatic. The islands have national parks with lush rainforests and fluffy beaches.
Given the extremes and variety, it comes as no surprise that there is a lot to see and do in American Samoa. Let me share some of the best activities and sightseeing places from the time I spent there. The best way to discover it all and to see most of the places on the list is to rent a car. Otherwise, reaching some places might be difficult, not possible or may require a lot of time spent on buses and walking around.
Things to do in American Samoa – Tisa’s Barefoot Bar & Grill
Tisa’s Barefoot Bar & Grill is a great beach bar to enjoy lovely tropical cocktails on wood carved chairs and tables just above the sand. The beach there is pretty and Tisa rents a couple of fales on the beach. Don’t expect electricity, TV or even doors, these are traditional Samoan fales.
Come for dinner on Wednesday night when Tisa prepares a traditional Umu (earth oven) and you can eat real Samoan food with your hands on a communal table from banana leaves. Samoan food is hard to find otherwise as locals favour fast food, so this is your best bet. Tisa’s Barefoot Bar is indeed best enjoyed barefoot. Come see the sun set behind the horizon.
Things to do in American Samoa – ‘Two Dollar Beach’
Some of the most famous beaches in Samoa are around the area where Tisa’s and Avaio Beach (also known as $2 beach) are. Here you need to pay the $2 entrance fee to use the beach, but it is quite pretty and has golden sand.
Things to do in American Samoa – National Park of American Samoa
Visit the Office of the National Park in Ottoville first to get tips on what to see and handy maps. They will be very helpful as they get very few visitors.
Things to do in American Samoa – Visit the world’s largest tuna packing factory
Pago Pago’s most visible feature is Starkist, the largest tuna packing factory in the world, sending a thousand containers a month to the US with canned tuna. The entire area around the town smells of fish and walking past the factory involves closing your nose. It may be a bit of a hit and miss, but if you are visiting and show real interest, I have been told you could request for a tour and they may be amenable to it. When else will you be so close to such a huge tuna plant?
Things to do in American Samoa – Surfing
When I was in Samoa, the local diving team told me that they would head out to American Samoa just for the surf. With the sharp volcanic mountains and the rough seas, American Samoa is a great place for surf and big waves. There is however nobody surfing and almost no surf infrastructure, so you will most likely have to bring your own equipment. But I did see large waves making for awesome surf.
Things to do in American Samoa – Go to church
Sundays in the Pacific are best spent in church. A lot of activities and private businesses are closed on Sunday as it is forbidden to work. The last day of the week is entirely devoted to going to church and spending it eating with family. And church is an elaborate affair with long sermons, lots of singing, colourful hats and great feasts.
Things to do in American Samoa – Pola Island Trail
Follow the main road past Vatia Village and continue onto the trail. When you cannot proceed further, park the car and walk the last few meters to a rocky beach with crashing waves and fantastic views. Again, you will be alone.
Things to do in American Samoa – Tia Seu Lupe
One of American Samoa’s star mounds, Tia Seu Lupe is an ancient archaeological star-shaped pyramid like structure. The mound is made of several raised platforms built with stone and were historically used to catch pigeons. The village chiefs would sit inside huts built on top of the mounds and compete with one another to see who could catch more pigeons. The villagers would watch in what could go on for days. Tia Seu Lupe is located near the Catholic cathedral in Tafuna
Things to do in American Samoa – Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a great place to see turtles, whales, sharks and giant clams, as well as corals and fish of all types. The land surrounding the bay belongs to the Fuimaono family who has lived near the bay’s slopes for thousands of years. You will need to get permission from the family’s caretaker, who usually lives by the fenced entrance, Mr. Asuemu Fuimaono.
Finding the turn to the Bay is quite hard as the sign is on the main road but often hidden. You might have to drive around a few times to find it. Beware, the drive past the fence might be a bit tough when is rains, as it is very muddy and slippery. You need to bring a 4×4. Park the car and go down to the beach through the steep path. When you get down to the beach, you are almost surely going to be by yourself. There are no facilities there so bring your snorkel, mask and fins and head out into the ocean.
Things to do in American Samoa – Aunu’u island
Aunu’u is a tiny volcanic island 1.2 miles southeast of Tutuila. Parts of the island can be walked over a couple of hours and there is only one road around. Some parts are inaccessible and will require proper trekking shoes. Don’t miss the blowholes and the quick sands, quite an interesting sight. There is no other way around than by foot. The white sand beach in front of the pier and the village is the finest and prettiest you will see in American Samoa. You can get to Aunu’u on a quick boat ride from the small pier on Tutuila and you can take the public island bus to get there. Just ask around.
Things to do in American Samoa – Palagi beach
This is a fine stretch of golden sand beach with palm trees falling over the water and not a single tourist in sight. Palagi beach is as Polynesian as a beach can be. Rustic, authentic and peaceful. Bring a coconut with you or simply have a siesta on a perfectly shaped palm tree trunk.
Things to do in American Samoa – Be the last in the world to see the sun set
As the last place where the sun sets every day, American Samoa is a romantic’s paradise. The beach below Poloa, after the winding road that snakes through the jungle past Amanave and Palagi Beach, is the last place in the world where you can see the sun set every day. The beach is pretty much deserted and the effects of the 2009 tsunami that killed 200 and destroyed a large part of the island are still visible. You can see the temporary aid tents provided by the US Government and cars and houses that were destroyed by the fierce waters.
Things to do in American Samoa – Turtle and Shark Site
“The legend says that during a time of famine, a grandmother and granddaughter were rejected by their families as they were too burdensome. So they threw themselves into the ocean to cast their fates upon the whimsy of the life-giving sea. Transformed through magic into a turtle and shark, the grandmother and granddaughter sought out a new home. Long did they travel and many times were they turned away until they arrived on the shores of Vaitogi.”
“Defined by high cliffs and a rough coastline, the inhospitable shores were inhabited by a compassionate and generous people, and the old woman and her granddaughter, transformed back into their human form. They were welcomed, fed and made this village their new home. Moved by the unexpected generosity, the old woman agreed, but she still heard the call of the sea as well. Unable to stay on land, she informed her hosts that she and her granddaughter must return to the sea, where they would make the village waters their permanent home. She gave the villagers a song to sing from the rocks and a promised that when they sang the song she and her granddaughter would come.”
When I was there with my new found friend from the tourism office, she called the locals to come sing for us. And to my incredible and skeptical surprise, as the song went on and on and more villagers joined in, I started to feel like I was in the middle of a bewitching. Imagine my face struck with amazement when I saw first the turtle and then the shark appear on the surface. The locals looked at me and smiled. It was quite a moment. And they did it just to show me.