American Samoa doesn’t see a lot of visitors, and most of those are visiting for the day from cruise ships. But this little U.S. territory is eminently worth a visit for its traditional culture, natural beauty and incredible hiking. Here’s what we wish we’d known when we were planning our trip to American Samoa.
There are five islands in American Samoa: Tutuila, Aunu’u, Ta’u, Ofu and Olosega. Most travelers to American Samoa will begin their journey on Tutuila: it’s home to the international airport and capital city as well as the majority of the population. But if you’ve come all the way here, don’t let your visit stop with Tutuila! It’s easy to get to Aunu’u as a day trip from Tutuila; getting to Ta’u, Ofu and Olosega (collectively called Manu’a) requires a bit more planning, but is completely doable and incredibly worthwhile.
The National Park consists of land on Tutuila, Ofu and Ta’u, but maintains trails in areas outside the park, too. The National Park of American Samoa is unique in that the land is leased to the NPS by the families who own it, rather than being owned by the federal government. It’s a system that respects the traditional familial land ownership of Samoans—the backbone of Samoan culture—and it means that the NPS works on conservation very closely with local villages. Locals still use park land for fishing, harvesting and other activities they’ve traditionally done there, and the NPS looks to village chiefs for permission and cooperation with park activities.
Currently, Hawaiian Airlines operates two flights per week to Pago Pago. These are the only flights that come here from the U.S. It’s rare to find a sale on this fare, but Hawaiian does occasionally offer deals through Expedia, so watch there for sales. If you’re planning this trip a while in advance, it might be worth looking into Hawaiian’s Mastercard offer: you can get a large signup bonus and use those points on your Pago flight.
If you don’t want to fly directly from the U.S., you can get to Pago from both Western Samoa and Tonga with Talofa Airlines. We took a circuitous route to American Samoa, first visiting the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Western Samoa (we visited all these places over the course of a two-month-long trip, not all at once.) We booked each of those flights one-way and the total of all of them ended up being cheaper than a single flight from the mainland to Pago. If you have the time and would like to do some additional travel while you’re on the other side of the world (which we’d highly recommend!), play around with options in Google Flights and on Skyscanner to find the best deals on a series of one-way flights that will eventually land you in Pago.
Getting to Aunu’u:
Aunu’u makes a great day trip from the eastern end of Tutuila. Get yourself to the dock at Au’asi and wait there for the boat; it’ll cost you $2 each way. Before you set off on Aunu’u, make sure to ask the driver how late the boat will be running; you don’t want to miss the last one.
Getting to Manu’a:
There are two ways to get to the Manu’a islands: by boat or by plane. The boat is a large ferry that carries passengers and cargo roughly once a week. The schedule is unpredictable and changes so often that it’s not worth trying to work the dates out too far in advance; if you’re set on taking the ferry, make sure you have a large enough window of time in American Samoa to accommodate its schedule. Depending on the weather, this can be an extremely rough ride and it’s likely your fellow passengers will be puking their guts out around you (turns out Samoans are known for being prone to seasickness; who knew??) If you have a flexible schedule, a strong stomach and a very tight budget, the ferry might be a good fit for you. It costs $35 one way and takes about 5 hours. If your final destination is Ofu, you might luck out and have the boat stop there first; otherwise, you’ll be stuck going all the way to Ta’u and then riding back to Ofu.
If you want a less nauseous, easier-to-plan option for getting to Manu’a, you’ll want to take the plane. Samoa Airways currently runs four flights per week from Pago Pago to Ta’u (at time of writing, they’re on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday), and one flight per week to Ofu (at time of writing, it’s on Thursday.) Both are about $160 and can be booked within a month of your travel date. If you want to visit Ofu but can’t make the once-a-week flights, it’s easy to take the plane into and/or out of Ta’u and take a boat to Ofu. This will involve flying into one side of Ta’u, catching a ride to the wharf on the other side of the island (~$20), then taking the boat over to Ofu ($150 for 2-3 passengers). Because you have to pay for the boat, this route will cost you more, but it’s a good way to fit a visit to Ofu into a tighter schedule.
How Long to Stay:
We stayed in American Samoa for 8 days and really wished we’d had longer. Your trip will depend, of course, on how much time you have available, but if you’re on the fence, may we attempt to persuade you to stay at least two weeks if at all possible? Here’s why: American Samoa is on the other side of the world. It’s an expensive flight that’ll make your carbon footprint awfully big, and there’s a good chance you’ll only make it there once in your life. If you can really make it count by going all-in in terms of time and in-depth exploration, we think it’ll be 100% worth it.
There’s a lot to do in American Samoa and a lot of culture to take in. If you’re visiting the Manu’a islands on your trip (and you REALLY REALLY should), the easiest (and cheapest) way to do that is by flying in and out of Ofu. That flight only happens once a week, so you’ll spend that full week in Ofu. It’s quite hard to book the flight to Ofu more than a month in advance, since the airline (Samoa Airways) doesn’t generally schedule flights very far in advance. So if, when booking your international flight, you give yourself two weeks or more in-country, you’ll easily be able to fit a trip to Ofu within that window of time.
If you need to stay connected to home, get a SIM card from Bluesky when you arrive in Pago. We had good service in most places in Tutuila, all over Aunu’u, and in the more populated spots in Manu’a. Internet access is easy to find in Pago’s hotels and Vaoto Lodge on Ofu also has WiFi. You won’t get the speeds you find on the mainland, of course, but it should work for most purposes.
Where to Stay on Tutuila:
There are plenty of accommodation options on Tutuila. Two popular choices are the Tradewinds Hotel (bland, but clean and nice) and Sadie’s By the Sea (which we heard several unfavorable reports of from fellow travelers, but may still be worth looking into). Tisa’s Barefoot Bar runs eco-fales on Eastern Tutuila and the beach there is beautiful, so it would be a good option for a laid-back stay if it’s in your budget. There are also several AirBnB options. If we’d had the time on Tutuila, we’d have loved to do a homestay. The NPS maintains a list of families who will open their homes to you; contact the Pago visitor’s center for up-to-date info. You’ll contact the family yourself, so be aware of the time change and be patient with the language barrier! (We contacted several homestay families before we decided to cut our time on Tutuila so we could visit Ofu. While most people in American Samoa speak English well, we sometimes had trouble communicating clearly over the phone.) For a fuller report on the homestay program from people who actually experienced it, check out this post from the Switchback Kids.
Where to Stay in Manu’a:
There are two main accommodation options in Ofu/Olosega: Vaoto Lodge and Asaga Inn. Vaoto is right next to the airstrip, so if you’re flying in and out of Ofu, it’s extremely convenient. It’s also right next to the NPS Visitor’s Center and a short walk from the national park area itself. Asaga Inn is right next to the bridge that connects Ofu to Olosega; it’s closer to Olosega village. Both have stunning views and are close to mind-boggling beaches.
On Ta’u, your options are more limited. The NPS can help you arrange a homestay with a Samoan family on the island; the ranger in Ofu should also know if there are any other options for accommodation. At time of writing, a small, family-run hotel is set to open on Ta’u, but it’s hard to get booking information online. Contacting the NPS will probably be your best bet for arranging something here.
It is possible to camp in American Samoa, though you’ll have to get permission from whoever’s land you’re landing on. In some places, the NPS rangers can give you an idea of where to camp and who to contact for permission; in other places, you’ll have to ask around the village for the chief and get permission directly from him. Samoans are very helpful and generous; this doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily grant you permission to stay on their land, but you’ll at least be able to find someone who can help you figure out if it’s possible. Make sure you have a backup option in case your camping plans fall through, and put all your Leave No Trace skills to the test. Be respectful of your hosts, pack everything out with you, and live lightly. Camping is not a mainstream activity in American Samoa—you might be the first experience someone has with a foreign camper, so don’t mess it up for everyone who comes after you. You won’t have any facilities, and there are very few public toilets on the islands, so be aware. Don’t try to stealth camp; Samoans take land rights very seriously and if you’re caught, it could mean trouble. And don’t even think about sleeping outside without a reliable mosquito net!
Even if you’re not a national park junkie, a visit to the NPS Visitor’s Center in Pago should be your first stop when planning your activities. The rangers there can give you loads of info. on trails and sights, and will be able to offer some cultural insight too. This website also has lots of great information. Because American Samoa is not (yet) a super-popular destination, you will probably have great luck calling the NPS Visitor’s Center or Tourism board before your visit to get answers to specific questions; in our experience, these people were more than willing to take some time and help us out.
Tutuila has a great bus system that can get you all around the island, though it might take a while to cover large distances. Hitchhiking is common and easy to do on any of the islands; we didn’t hitch since there are so many of us, but with one or two people, you can probably manage to get where you need to go without trouble. For maximum flexibility, it’s worth renting a car so you can squeeze as much into your visit as possible, though driving yourself always means missing out on the cultural experience of public transportation.
On Ofu, if you stay at Vaoto Lodge, you can borrow one of their bicycles. We cycled all around the island and it was an incredibly pleasant way to get around. Without a bike, your options here are limited to walking and hitching.
Where to Eat on Tutuila:
Pago has a good range of restaurants and plenty of well-stocked grocery stores to keep you fed. Traditional Samoan food is delicious and well worth a try. In the smaller villages and on Aunu’u, your food options will be more limited. Small stores stock lots of processed foods and few fresh options. If you want to eat healthy, your best bet is to stock up on produce, healthy snacks and sandwich fixings from one of the bigger groceries around Pago before you head to other parts of the island.
Where to Eat in Manu’a:
There are no restaurants in Ofu/Olosega and only four small stores spread over the two islands. All the stores have eggs and milk, plus a range of processed food (ramen is a staple.) Fresh produce is hard to come by, unless you’re getting it from the fruit trees on the island. Unless you want to subsist on ramen and Pringles, bring some food with you from Pago, or plan on having meals at your accommodation. We bought breakfast and dinner each day from Vaoto Lodge; they accommodated our vegetarianism deliciously and gave us some of the best food we had in all of Samoa (which is saying a lot—we had some excellent food there.) You can work out meals with your accommodations before you go, but definitely do think through this—getting food on the islands can be very tricky and you really don’t want to be stuck eating stale Marshmallow Mateys your whole stay.
What to Do on Tutuila:
American Samoa is one of the best places in the South Pacific for hiking, since the NPS has the resources to maintain trails in an area where things get overgrown super quickly. There are several trails around Tutuila that’ll give you a taste of both the jungle and the coast. Around the village of Vatia, the Tuafauna Trail leads through rain forest before dropping you off on a rocky beach with gorgeous views of Pola Island and it’s sea arches. The Lower Sauma Ridge Trail will take you down to an overlook of the northeast coast of Tutuila and the archeological site of a star mound (be careful on this trail, as it’ll be very slippery if it’s been raining before your hike!) The Mt. Alava Trail is more challenging and offers panoramic views of the island (or so we hear! It was closed when we visited, so we weren’t able to check it out for ourselves.) On the western end of Tutuila, another trail will lead you to the secluded beach of Cape Taputapu and long views over the ocean. On Aunu’u, you can follow the 4WD track around the island to see isolated sea arches, surf-pounded coves, a lake in the island’s volcanic crater, a lake of quicksand and taro marshes.
Aunu’u’s beach is lovely and a great way to cool down after you’ve spent some time exploring the island on foot. The water is clear enough to see the reef and some of its inhabitants even without a snorkel mask, but if you want to snorkel, this is a great place to do it. Alega Beach is regarded as Tutuila’s best, and Two Dollar Beach (which will cost you 5 dollars to access) is also lovely. Just outside Vatia, the rocky beach at the end of Tuafauna Trail is a bit rough for swimming, but a great place to watch the surf and listen to the shore’s stones clicking and clattering as the waves recede—it’s completely lovely. On the west side of the island, you can be the last person on Earth to see the sunset at Cape Taputapu’s beach.
You can rent a kayak from Sadie’s or from a few other outfitters in Pago. A paddle around the harbor is a great way to take in the gorgeous views around the city.
To get a taste of Samoan culture, stay with a family through the NPS’s homestay program! While we weren’t able to do a homestay here, we did stay at family-run fales while we were in Western Samoa and were able to have the experience of being brought into a Samoan home to participate in some of their traditions.
Attend a fiafia show to watch traditional dances and to see some fancy fire spinning. The Tradewinds Hotel hosts a fiafia on Friday nights. An umu (often held on Sunday for lunch) is the Samoan method of cooking in an underground oven. Try taro, breadfruit, palusami (young taro leaves in coconut cream), oka (raw fish in coconut cream), pork and seafood.
What to Do on Manu’a:
You might just spend your entire visit to Manu’a thanking your lucky stars to be in this absolute paradise. This is a great place to slow down and just enjoy yourself, especially if you’re flying in and out of Ofu and have a full week on the island.
The NPS maintains two trails on Ofu/Olosega and one on Ta’u. At the far end of Olosega Village, you’ll find the Oge Beach Trail, which leads up the side of Mata’ala Ridge and steeply down to Oge Beach. If you don’t want to descend all the way to the beach, just getting to the top will give you wonderful views over the island. Ask the ranger in Ofu to call the village chief for permission before you hike this trail.
Ofu’s most rewarding hike is up Tumu Mountain. The trail ascends through the jungle on a grassy track; at the very top, it opens up to a spectacular view over Ofu. The trail is mostly shaded on the way up, but you’ll still need lots of water: Ofu is very humid and this trail will make you sweat. Go early in the day for cooler temperatures and pack a picnic for the top.
No one is allowed to hike either of these trails on Sunday, so keep that in mind when you’re planning things out.
Beaches and Snorkeling:
Ofu Beach is regarded by loads of travel magazines and bloggers to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and we’d definitely agree with that assessment. The national park protects the stretch of beach and the reef extending from it; the coral here is one of the healthiest in the world and makes for incredible snorkeling. Research teams from all over the planet come to Ofu to study the secrets of the reef here—it’s wonderfully resistant to rising ocean temperatures and after being wiped out in the 2009 tsunami, rebounded quickly. Wait for high tide to snorkel at Ofu Beach so you have enough clearance over the coral and BYO snorkel gear.
Because the reef starts so close to the shoreline, Ofu Beach isn’t the best spot for a swim. For better swimming, try the end of the beach near Olosega Island, where you can jump off the bridge (if the current isn’t too brisk) or just have a splash in the deeper water below the bridge. Another good option is the beach in front of Vaoto Lodge, along the airstrip. This is also a great spot for a snorkel and it’s deeper, so you don’t have to wait til the tide is all the way up.
To swim at other spots around the island, get permission from the village chief first. On Sundays, you can swim in front of Vaoto Lodge or in the park, but nowhere else.
If it’s a clear night, don’t miss laying out under the night sky for a while. These little islands are the definition of isolated and the clear air makes for some of the best starry nights you’ll ever see.
Coconut crabs are the largest land bug in the world, and they’re abundant on Ofu. We saw small ones in the rocks near the airstrip and enormous ones in the jungle on our way up Tumu Mountain.
One of the NPS’s missions is to protect the fruit bat population that calls American Samoa home. These bats, also called flying foxes, can be up to three feet across and feed on the fruit trees around the islands. We saw them everywhere we went, but most abundantly on Ofu around the beach.
The ride from Ta’u to Ofu is wonderfully scenic and is a great place to see some marine life. We saw loads of flying fish and had dolphins swimming and jumping around our boat. The boat ride between Tutuila and Aunu’u is also a good place to spot dolphins. The reef all around Ofu has lots of sea turtles and reef sharks; if you do enough snorkeling, you’re likely to see both. If you’re on the islands between mid-August and October, you may also get to witness the humpback whale migration. A ranger we talked to at the visitor’s center in Pago saw the whales from atop Tumu Mountain, and the water was so clear that he could see the whole pod in detail. Just his report of it had my jaw on the floor.
American Samoa is an incredibly special place, rich in culture and natural beauty, with friendly people, few visitors, and some of the best snorkeling in the world. If you get a chance to visit, don’t miss it!
And if you’ve got any extra time, we highly recommend adding a side trip to Western Samoa as well. It’s a quick and inexpensive flight away, and you won’t regret spending more time in this South Pacific paradise. See this post for some top spots in Western Samoa to inspire you!
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