National Park Number: 45 of 59
This past year of traveling has been more educational than any other year of my adult life, including the ones I spent in college and grad school. One of the many things I’ve learned about is the existence of American Samoa.
American Samoa comprises five tiny islands deep in the heart of the South Pacific; adjacent to and culturally twinned with Western Samoa, American Samoa is not an independent nation like its brother, but a territory of the United States. It has one of the best-protected natural harbors in the world, so it’s a strategic port for the U.S., but it’s also an area of tremendous natural beauty. The landscape of the islands is dramatic: sheer volcanic peaks covered in a tangle of greenery and fruit trees, with rugged coastline, soft sands, fascinating wildlife, and one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. It’s also home to one of America’s most remote national parks.
I figured we’d be inclined to love American Samoa, especially since it took so much effort to get there. But I had no idea how much we’d come to love this place over our eight days there.
We had a cultural primer to the islands because we’d spent the previous two weeks in Western Samoa. There, we experienced the warmth and hospitality of the Samoan people, traditional foods and dances, and a commitment to religion that makes Sunday a day of countrywide rest. Everything in Samoa revolves around family; land ownership passes down through generations, relatives building near each other and coming together in large communal fales (open-air huts) to eat, talk, and rest. It’s a collective society that emphasizes interdependence, community and belonging; when Samoans who have emigrated return to their home country, family care and a parcel of land await them. No one is homeless in Samoa.
Because foreigners can’t buy land there, the national park’s protected areas are leased from the families that own them. The park is managed with close involvement and input from the local villages, so our visit there was more of a cultural experience than any other national park we’ve visited. The highlight of any of our traveling is always the people we meet along the way, and Samoa proved this rule true many times over. The park was worth a visit just to hear the stories of the people who live there.
But it also quickly became one of our favorite parks for its natural features, too. American Samoa is one of the best places in the South Pacific for hiking, since the NPS maintains all the trails in the quick-to-become-overgrown landscape. We spent our first day hiking around the village of Vatia; the jungle was covered in fruit trees and flowering plants and filled with butterflies, birds, and scuttling hermit crabs. We hiked to the rocky beach, where we could see sea arches carved in the volcanic rock along the coastline and hear the tapping and settling of cobblestones on the shore as each wave receded. On our way out of the village, we gave a ride to a hitchhiking man who told us all about his kids who’ve moved away to the states. This is a common story all over American Samoa: with few job opportunities available on the islands, kids move to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland after high school, often joining the military along the way.
On Aunu’u, a tiny island just off the coast of American Samoa’s main island of Tutuila, we hiked around the perimeter of the island, guided by a neighborhood dog who, the villagers reported, loves palagi (white people.) We were happy to have this little pup, Smoky, who seemed to know all the most scenic spots on the island. He led us to a pebbly beach with a sea arch and tiered tide pools, then to a marsh of quicksand (which we’d read about beforehand, so we luckily knew not to step in it), a surf-pounded cove, and a taro-filled marsh. We met a WorldTeach teacher living on the island (from Waco, Texas of all places!) and Graham and Margie made fast friends with the neighborhood kids while we waited for the short boat ride back to Tutuila.
The bulk of our time in American Samoa was spent on Ofu Island, which I can only describe as The Most Beautiful Place On Earth. Ofu is the definition of remote—there is one flight in and out per week, and only 30 permanent residents and about 150 visitors a year. It’s a place where dolphins swim alongside your boat, crabs larger than basketballs click their claws at you as you pass them and fresh coconuts await your picking. When we arrived, the village’s firefighter gave us a ride in his firetruck to where we were staying, which is a pretty grand welcome to any place and thrilled the kids to no end.
We stayed at the Vaoto Lodge, where the other guests were a couple from Seattle and the LDS sister missionaries. The lodges’ owners, Deborah and Ben, cooked us breakfast and dinner every day and loaned us bikes and snorkel gear for getting around the roads and the reefs, respectively.
For the next five days, we pedaled, hiked and swam around the island until we were fully enamored and ready to stay in this place forever.
There are some very nice things about going to a park with so few other visitors. One is that the park ranger is genuinely glad to see you and can spend loads of time giving you thorough advice about what you should see and do there. Our lodge was next door to the visitor’s center/ranger’s house, and we loved being able to pop in to ask all our questions to Brian the Ranger and his wife, Rebecca. The owner of our lodge grew up on Ofu and moved back there several years ago to run the lodge that her parents started. She also had great advice and the answers to every question we put to her, plus a collection of board games our kids became obsessed with. When in paradise, these guys’ fondest wish was to sit inside and play Yahtzee.
But we didn’t end up playing too much Yahtzee, because the ocean was calling. Ofu Beach is considered by some travel magazines to be the most beautiful beach in the world, and though I haven’t seen all the beaches in the world, I’ll go ahead and agree. It’s powdery white sands front warm, translucent water and are backed by leaning coconut trees and the dramatic peaks of Ofu. The coral reef hugs the shoreline, making some of the planet’s best snorkeling simply a matter of taking a step into the water and sticking your face under. Ofu’s coral is the healthiest in the world; mysteriously resistant to the rising ocean temperatures that have bleached reefs nearly everywhere, scientists come here to study what makes this coral so resilient. Everywhere else I’ve snorkeled or scuba dived, I’ve seen coral at least partially bleached and broken; here the coral is massive and vibrant, bleached only at its tips where it peaks over the water at low tide. The fish are abundant, the water is clean and the whole place made us incredibly happy and hopeful.
Ofu is home to other wildlife too, like the fruit bats that can grow to be 3 feet across and that feed off the bananas and breadfruit on the trees around the beach; or the coconut crabs, the world’s largest land bugs, who spend their adolescence in the water, then migrate to the jungle, where they’re strong enough to climb coconut trees, pinch the fruit off and crack through the husks to eat it. We saw a few of these on our hike up Tumu Mountain—they’re unbelievably large and menacing.
The hike to the top of Ofu on Tumu Mountain was one of the best we’ve been on, with an otherworldly payoff in the form of sweeping views over the island. From above, you can see the massive reef through the crystalline waters and the crescent of brilliant sand that hugs the water. We sat at the summit a long time, eating our lunch and gaping at the scenery.
Our best moments in American Samoa were the quiet ones, laying on the beach, bobbing in the waves, biking through the jungle and watching fruit bats swoop overhead, laying under the stars. The morning we left, before catching our boat to Ta’u, I rode down to Ofu Beach a final time to watch the sun rise. Standing on the beach, a high wave caught my feet and soaked the ends of my pants; the water was so warm and quick and fizzy that I started to giggle and then immediately to cry—I was both ready to go home and wanting to never go home, brimming with joy and sadness and longing and, most of all, gratitude.
I can’t overstate how thankful we are to be on this trip, to have seen and learned about the things we have. It doesn’t escape us how lucky we are, and we feel that recognition of our blessings pulsing through every day.