The other Samoa has a unique charm and pace, writes Peter de Graaf.

American Samoa is just a short hop from Apia in the other Samoa, yet it's so far off the Kiwi traveller's radar it may as well be on another planet. But if you do end up in the only US territory south of the Equator, what can do you there?

1. Take a hike

The top of Mt 'Alava (490m) offers superb views over Pago Pago Harbour. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The top of Mt 'Alava (490m) offers superb views over Pago Pago Harbour. Photo / Peter de Graaf

American Samoa is home to the only US national park in the Southern Hemisphere and has a dozen well-maintained hiking trails. They range from a 200m amble to an 11km slog up Mt Alava with spectacular views of Pago Pago Harbour from the abandoned cable car station at the summit. For history buffs, the World War II Heritage Trail follows a ridge past a series of gun installations, built for a Japanese invasion that never happened. Nine walks are open on the main island, Tutuila; the outlying Manu'a Islands have three more.
Go to nps.gov/npsa for more information.

2. The umu at the end of the world

Dubbed "the bar at the end of the world" by a US documentary maker, Tisa's Barefoot Bar is a local institution and one of the few beachfront drinking establishments. It's run by the indomitable Tisa and her Kiwi husband, Candyman, who went to American Samoa on a construction contract 18 years ago and never left.

Advertisement

Since then Candyman has become an expert in preparing umu, the Samoan version of the hangi, and he's a stickler for tradition —you won't find any tinfoil here. The umu costs $65 per person and bookings are essential at tisasbarefootbar.com. If you can't make it to the Wednesday-night umu, it's worth stopping by any time for a pina colada, a swim and a chance to meet two great characters.

3. Ride an aiga bus

Brightly painted 'aiga buses are the best way to get around in American Samoa. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Brightly painted 'aiga buses are the best way to get around in American Samoa. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Taxis are pricey in American Samoa but there's another transport option that is cheap as chips and lots of fun. Brightly painted aiga buses ply the main roads of Tutuila and cost US$1 for any distance — just look out for the village you want on the destination sign and flag one down. These buses are owned by local families or aiga (hence their name) and are decorated with the owner's taste in local legends, religious scenes and superheroes. Inside there's usually a sound system blasting out reggae beats; air-con isn't required because there's no glass in the windows. If you don't want to get stranded, be warned that they stop running early in the evening on weekdays.

4. Go for a paddle

Le Vasa Outrigger Canoe Club is a waka ama (or va'a) club based at South Pacific Watersports at Utulei on Pago Pago Harbour. They train every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from about 5.30pm and welcome new paddlers. Or you can hire a stand-up paddleboard and explore on your own. Go to levasa.org for more information.

Members of Le Vasa Outrigger Canoe Club paddle in the shadow of Matafao Peak. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Members of Le Vasa Outrigger Canoe Club paddle in the shadow of Matafao Peak. Photo / Peter de Graaf

5. Call a turtle

The best-known legend on Tutuila Island revolves around a blind grandmother who was fed a rat by her family in a time of famine. Angered by this disrespect for an elderly relative — a Samoan cultural offence if ever there was one — she took her granddaughter and leapt from the cliffs at Vaitogi. The grandmother was transformed into a sea turtle, her granddaughter into a shark. Locals still call to the turtle and shark from the clifftops; the turtle almost always puts in an appearance but the shark is more elusive. Just don't point when grandma shows up or she will disappear again. If there's no caller at the cliffs just ask around for Seno.

6. Take a cultural journey

Peter Taliva'a, a chief on Aunu'u Island, a short boat trip from Tutuila's eastern tip, offers a hands-on experience of traditional Samoan life.

Peter Taliva'a demonstrates the many uses of the coconut. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Peter Taliva'a demonstrates the many uses of the coconut. Photo / Peter de Graaf

He'll show you how to make coconut cream, open a coconut and weave coconut fibre rope, then you'll make your own plate from coconut fronds and harvest taro from his plantation. After exploring his island (population 800) on foot you'll be able to feast on the fruits of your labour. The whole Aunu'u cultural experience, including an ava ceremony and traditional lunch, costs $66. To book, contact Peter via his Facebook page, Samriel's Aunu'u Island Getaway.

7. Praise the Lord

Take in a sermon at one of American Samoa's churches. Photo / Getty Images
Take in a sermon at one of American Samoa's churches. Photo / Getty Images

Normal life grinds to a halt on Sunday in God-fearing American Samoa. Every village seems to have at least three over-sized churches and they're full every Sunday morning. Put on your best frock (make sure it's modestly below the knees) or trousers and join them. The sermon may be long and sprinkled with hellfire but the singing will be heavenly.

8. Play a round of golf

Golf is a popular pastime on American Samoa's 18-hole, par 72 course at Ili'ili, where the real drawcard is the backdrop of jagged volcanic peaks. The green fees are $10 weekdays or $14.80 weekends.

9. Hang out with locals at Fagatogo market

The covered market at Fagatogo, by Pago Pago Harbour, is open daily except Sunday but really comes alive from 6pm-9pm every first and third Friday of the month. It's a good place to pick up produce, buy clothing or souvenirs, and try local treats like panikeke (Samoan doughnuts) — but mostly it's a great place to people-watch and hang out with the locals.

10. Dive Big Momma

The outlying Manu'a Islands have some spectacular snorkelling and diving — not to mention a coral head dubbed Big Momma, said to be the biggest in the world — and it's virtually unexploited. If you're keen to pay a visit to Big Momma, Pago Pago Marine Charters organises trips anywhere in American Samoa. On the main island, Fagatele Bay has the longest-established marine sanctuary and some of the region's best marine life.

11. Chill out on one of the Pacific's most beautiful beaches

Ofu Island, in the Manu'a group about 120km east of the main island of Tutuila, has a truly spectacular beach. With impossibly white sand and crystal-clear water backed by coconut palms and sawtooth peaks you could argue it is in fact the most beautiful beach in Polynesia. The catch is, flights to Ofu are infrequent so getting there usually involves flying to neighbouring Ta'u Island, then hiring a fishing boat at eye-watering expense ($295-$370) to make the crossing. It's so beautiful it might just be worth it.

12. Have a feed

Cafe DDW on the harbourfront (next to South Pacific Watersports at Utulei) specialises in Western-style food served in the epic portions American Samoans love. However, check the specials blackboard for Samoan treats such as oka i'a (raw fish marinated in lime juice), panikeke (Samoan doughnuts) and koko laisa (cocoa rice).

13. Try a local brew

When I visited American Samoa most bars served a choice of Vailima beer (which is brewed in the other Samoa and is perfectly drinkable) and Bud Light (which is neither). Shockingly, the territory had no beer of its own. That is about to change, however, thanks to a local brewing enthusiast and his Flying Fox Brewing Company in Pava'ia'i village. Nate Ilaoa will produce Koko (cocoa) Porter, Masina Atoa (a wheat beer flavoured with orange peel) and lime-infused Yolo Kipolo. Check flyingfoxbeer.as to see if he's open for business yet.

14. Go bird spotting

Pola Island is American Samoa's top seabird nesting site. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Pola Island is American Samoa's top seabird nesting site. Photo / Peter de Graaf

American Samoa makes up for its lack of land animals with birds and bats. The fruit bats are huge and can be seen day and night, even in town, and seabirds like the white-tailed tropic bird and the red-footed booby (I didn't make that up) are abundant along the coast. The top seabird nesting site is Pola Island, a 120m-high slab of rock off Tutuila's north coast. The best views are from the hiking trails around Vatia village. Bring binoculars.

15. Go time travelling

This is easier than it sounds. After a 30-minute flight from Apia, you will land in American Samoa about 23hr 30m before you left. Blame the International Date Line.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Pago Pago Airport in American Samoa, also known as Tafuna International Airport,
is a short flight from independent Samoa. Two airlines, Talofa Airways and Samoa Airways, fly from Fagalii domestic airport in Apia. Flights take 20-35 minutes and start from $62.

GETTING AROUND

Several firms offer rental cars, otherwise the island's aiga (family) buses are fun and inexpensive. There are no schedules and they don't run at night or on Sundays.

ONLINE
visittheusa.com