National Park of American Samoa

When my husband and I decided to get married on the island of Oahu (though we live in North Carolina), we had to consider where else we could possibly go for a honeymoon.  Since we were already so far out in the Pacific, we decided we take the trek down to American Samoa.  While working on our goal to visit every national park site, and get the corresponding stamps, we figured we wouldn’t often be this close to National Park of American Samoa.  And a honeymoon is a great excuse for extravagant travel.

The beach on the Island of Ofu

Our journey began at the Honolulu International Airport, where we boarded one of two weekly flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago.  The flight is about five hours long, and packed with Samoans returning to the island from Hawaii, burdened down by many packages.  (There seems to be no charge for luggage on this flight, so many people were obviously taking advantage of this by bringing cheap supplies back with them).  Pago Pago is located on the island of Tutuila, though usually the entire island is referred to as just Pago (pronounced Pungo).  We had made reservations at Sadie’s By the Sea, one of about three hotel options on the island.  American Samoa does not really cater to tourism.  There are cabs readily available, and some lodging options, but it seemed to us that most people visiting Pago were there for business related to the tuna industry.  In fact, we were asked several times if we were there for either business or missionary work.  Sadie’s was a perfectly adequate hotel, although previously we had heard that American Samoa, though an American territory, is more like a foreign country .

Lots of time to relax on Ofu

The following morning we returned to the airport to try to get ourselves to the other outlying islands, specifically the island of Ofu.  Until a few years ago, a flight existed between Tutuila and Ofu, but that has been discontinued.  While in Samoa, we heard several reasons why.  The first is that the airstrip on Ofu has been shut down because the FAA deemed it too short and dangerous for flights, and to lengthen it would require great cost and the destruction of many delicate and precious coral.  We were also told that the airline itself decided not to fly there anymore because the one plane they had, that could land on the runway, was broken with no timeframe on repair.  Whatever the reason, we had read beforehand that it is difficult to get to Ofu now.  The method we heard others use was to fly to the island of Ta’u, then pay a fisherman to transport between the two islands.  There is no scheduled ferry.  The islands are only about six miles apart.  We knew this could be a lengthy and complex undertaking, especially with the concept of “Samoan Time”, in which it is perfectly acceptable to show up three hours late.

At the Tutuila Airport, we were given our first lesson in “Samoan Time”.  We had tried many times to contact Inter Island Air, through both email and over the phone – to no avail.  No one ever returned our inquiries.  We arrived at the airport at 9am, to be told there might be room on the flight to Ta’u but we needed to wait until 10am when they would begin checking in the flight.  10am came and went, with no indication that the flight was leaving.  The man behind the counter typed furiously on a keyboard, but that was the only activity in the terminal.  Everyone else sat patiently waiting, with stacks of boxes to transport.  In the meantime, we were able to contact Jim at the Vaoto Lodge on Ofu and he said he would do whatever he could on his end to get us over there.  Eventually there was an announcement that the flight would check in at 11am.  That time came and went, with another announcement that the flight would leave at 2pm.  At 1pm, we were called into the office and asked to pay for the round trip flight, but without a guarantee for a return flight on any specific day.  They checked in our bags and gave us a handwritten boarding pass, on which was simply written our first names.  We waited at the gate until about 3pm, when we were unceremoniously told to walk out to the plane – a small prop plane with no temperature control or door between the cockpit and the passengers.  We were arranged by weight, and though we had been told there might not be room for us on the plane, it was not full.

National Park of American Samoa

Despite all this, our flight to Ta’u was uneventful.  Upon arrival at the Ta’u Airport (a tiny airstrip and outside gate area) we weren’t sure what to do.  We approached the woman who looked like she was in charge, and asked her how to get to the harbor.  There are only a couple hundred villagers living on the island, and no cabs in sight.  Everyone else on our flight was quickly being picked up by family.  Loafy (as we were later told was her name) sighed and said Jim had called her and we were to hop into the bed of her truck for a ride across the island.  Loafy is the woman to know on Ta’u.  She decides who flies and when on Inter Island Air, as well as seeming to control much of the local politics.  It is good to make a positive impression on her, we were told.  The road through the villages was under construction, but it was a quick ten minute drive to the harbor.  There were two boats tied up, and one was piloted by Mike, who was to take us across to Ofu.  We had to pay $150 each way for the ride, on the tiny fishing boat, controlled  by an outboard motor.  We were warned the seas might be too high for the crossing, but they relented at the last minute, gladly, since there are no accommodations on Ta’u.  We would have been taken in by a family for the night, until the seas were down.  The crossing took about an hour and a half, through waves easily ten feet high.  Luckily, neither of us are the sort to get seasick, but this journey is not for the faint of heart.  There is no radio, and though the men communicated via cell phone, they only received reception close to land.  The rolling waves were crashing over the front of the boat, and the captain and his two men were constantly wiping water off of their faces.  We were crammed into a small plywood enclosure on the front of the boat.  Seated, we barely fit.  At times, we were able to stand and look around, but the rocking and rolling of the boat made that quite interesting.

Boat trip to Ofu

Once we arrived on Ofu, Jim picked us up at the boat dock.  Ofu is a tiny island, connected to the island of Olosega by a bridge.  We drove the mile from the dock to the lodge, through a very small village.  There are no resources on the island, except a small store that sells only the essentials – like sugar and flour.  Supplies arrive weekly on a government boat from Tutuila – which also takes passengers.  This is another option for getting to Ofu, though the boat runs on a rough schedule, takes eight hours each way, and you’ll be seated in the hold with livestock and supplies.  Sometimes it doesn’t run at all.  The Vaoto Lodge was built and maintained by the Malae family.  There are several private cottages, each with its own bathroom.  Meals are served family style in a community kitchen.  Jim and his mother Marge were fantastic hosts.  We are vegan, and they were able to provide wonderfully fresh baked bread, just picked fruits, rice, and veggies for us at every meal.  Right next to their lodge is the location of the Ofu station for the National Park of American Samoa.  We were told Carl, the new ranger, had arrived recently with his family.  What a job!  He mostly helps out the multitude of researchers who come to Ofu and stay the Vaoto Lodge, attracted by the pristine waters, coral, and virtually unpolluted air quality.  We met him and he assured us he had a stamp, and that he’d bring it by at dinner that evening – which he did!  Little did we know that this stamp falls under the “most wanted” category, though we knew we were traveling to spot many would not be able to access.

Snorkeling in Ofu

Time on Ofu is best spent snorkeling, swimming, and laying on the beach.  The water is warm and usually within a few degrees of the air temperature.  Jim even took us to jump off the bridge between Ofu and Olosega.  We were told that the hike to the top of Tumu Mountain was overgrown, and not to bother, unless we brought a machete with us to cut down the undergrowth.  We instead spent more time in the water.  Multitudes of fish and coral were easily visible in the clean, pure water, especially at low tide.

We spent three amazing days on this island paradise, which has been touted as the most clean, uninhabited beach in the world.  We mostly had the beach to ourselves, since Islanders do not go there anymore.  They believe that archeologists disturbed the spirits of their ancestors when a dig was completed several years ago.  We were the only guests at the lodge that week, besides a lone scientist doing research on the coral reef.

Our return trip was as eventful as our trip to the island.  Loafy had to be contacted and sweet talked into giving us a spot on the return plane from Ta’u.  Since there is no telling when the flight will leave Ta’u for Tutuila (there isn’t a schedule on their website, and rumor has it they only fly when they have enough passengers to make a profit) we had Mike the fisherman pick us up early in the morning, though we had to wait for the seas to go down again and for him to finish fishing, which he still did on the way back to Ta’u.  We spent only about an hour at the Ta’u airstrip before our plane showed up to fly us back to Tutuila, and then we took a very slow cab ride back to Sadie’s By the Sea.  (Cars rarely travel above 20 mph).

The next day we rented a car so that we could visit the National Park on the island of Tutuila.  We first went to the visitor’s center, which has been relocated to Ottoville because of the damage to the original visitor center during a hurricane.  It is in a strip mall type area, and the rangers there were very friendly.  As well as our stamp, they gave us some information on drives through the park and hiking trails.  We did not have enough time to hike either of the Mount ‘Alava trails, though they sound like they’d be a lot of fun.  We did drive up and over the Mountain and on to Vatia, passing through several picturesque villages.  The herds of wild dogs (a big problem on Tutuila) and villagers watched us pass, the latter with a friendly wave.  Several trails have very interesting descriptions in the brochure.  “Park at the private house without blocking driveway access. Ask for permission from the house owner to hike the trail.”  Also, “Due to unfriendly dogs, please drive past the last house at the end of the paved road in Vatia Village.”  We were able to locate each place, following the map, and took a short hike on the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail, with views of Pola Island, a nesting habitat for birds.  We also ventured through several villages, drank juice and soda with a chief, and tried Samoan Mexican food.  We departed from American Samoa back to Honolulu after a couple of days in Pago.

Tutuila is a beautiful island, looking past the tuna factories and other signs of urbanization, but nothing compares to Ofu.  It is truly an untouched beauty.

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Bridge Jumping in Ofu

Here is a little video of us jumping off the bridge between the islands of Ofu and Olosega, which is in the Manu’a Island chain in American Samoa. You really couldn’t ask for a more scenic place.

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