More stories from our trip to the South Pacific

There were a number of other random topics and travel stories from our South Pacific trip I wanted to write about that didn’t fit well into the specific posts about American Samoa, Samoa, and Fiji. If you haven’t already read those posts, you may want to start there first.

An imperfect trip

We hadn’t planned on doing this trip in 2018. But since we were so close to completing my national parks quest—and because we found some cheap(er) flights—we decided to stretch a bit and get it done this year. That would open up a possible international trip in 2019.

It wasn’t the perfect timing (it’s the rainy season), and we would have preferred to have a couple extra days for the trip. Given our destinations and the available flights, our itinerary would be a bit wonky too. We’d fly to Fiji from LAX, stay a night, then fly to Samoa, stay a night, then cross the island so we could fly to American Samoa from a different airport, and stay in American Samoa for a few days—before then working our way back to Fiji again. And it would cost more than we had budgeted for travel this year.

But it’d work. That’s one of the tenets of our travel philosophy: an imperfect trip is always better than a perfect trip that never gets scheduled.

An imperfect trip

How we nearly missed our anniversary

One of the reasons to do the trip this year was to celebrate our three year anniversary. Because we had larger trips planned over the holidays these last two years, we’ve had to make due with less desirable trip destinations for our anniversary. We were hoping to finally reverse that. We’d celebrate our anniversary (a Sunday this year) in the South Pacific!

But we nearly failed—for a sneaky little reason. We would leave Phoenix on a Friday night after work, flying overnight. But because we’d cross the International Date Line during the flight, we technically wouldn’t be landing until Sunday morning—missing Saturday completely. Had we booked the trip to leave a day later, as we had once considered, we would have missed our anniversary entirely this year.

It’s similarly confusing when you travel from Samoa to American Samoa, which is a short 25 minute flight in a small commuter plane. Our flight departed on Tuesday at 10:35am but landed the day before, Monday, at 9:50am. Thank goodness that it was Jen who had to figure out all these bookings.

Bula!

It’s hard to spend much time in Fiji—at least anywhere that tourists might go—without hearing the greeting “Bula!” countless times each day. It was downright unusual to encounter a non-tourist and not being greeted with it. It’s both endearing and a bit unnerving, at least at first. On one hand, I guess it’s great for your existence to be confirmed by every passerby, but it also gets a bit tedious, too—especially when you have to interrupt your conversation to respond back. If the greeting wasn’t always delivered with a smile, you’d start to feel like a flight attendant robotically thanking each passenger as they deboard a plane. I’m not sure this happens at the same frequency in everyday life among local residents, but it’s sure memorable when you visit from afar.

Having failed to research local customs prior to the trip, when we first landed I didn’t realize that I’d be greeted with “bula” so routinely and, nursing a cold, I didn’t always hear what was said.

So occasionally, I thought I heard the word “hola” as someone passed by. As an Arizonan, I’d reflexively respond with “hola,” and then immediately feel stupid—like when the usher at the movie theater says “enjoy the movie” and you respond with “you too” just out of habit…and well before your brain can stop your mouth from moving. This happened more often that I’d like to admit that the first day, though I eventually developed the routine.

The resorts we booked

We’re generally not what you might call “resort people.” When we travel, we usually opt for cheaper accommodations, rarely choose full service hotels, and are generally more comfortable being on our own rather than constantly waited on. For instance, we’d prefer to bring our own beverages to the pool rather than order from the poolside bar—if only to save some cash.

Because we’re often traveling fast, we also tend to spend very little time at the hotel to begin with. Living in Arizona, we don’t view hotel pools—even really nice ones—as particularly special. We also don’t spend much time relaxing on the beach, opting instead for more active activities. So booking nice resorts rarely makes sense for us.

But for this trip, the best hotel choices in Fiji and Samoa seemed to be resorts.

Sheraton Fiji Resort

We chose the Sheraton Fiji Resort largely for its price, convenient location, and the fact that it also offered us access to the pools of two additional adjacent resorts. We figured that we might better entertain ourselves with more options available to us, and we were right.

Denarau Island
Denarau Island stands segregated from the rest of the Nadi area

The resort is located on Denarau Island, which is basically a gated community comprised of resorts, the port where many boat tours leave from, and a golf course. It’s entirely separated from the rest of city and even features a gate house at the entrance. So if you’re looking for a hotel to mingle with the locals and take in some authentic Fijian culture, look elsewhere. But it is a convenient and attractive destination for those primarily concerned with relaxing by the pool and sipping fruity cocktails.

And that was our basic itinerary for our first day in Fiji—just relaxing at the resort while we acclimated to the time change. Fresh off the long (and predictably sleepless) flight from LAX, we arrived at the resort before 7am. Luckily, the resort was generous and let us check in to our room immediately. We grabbed a quick nap, applied sunscreen and bug spray, then made our way to nearest pool.

Evening light over the resort pool

We each grabbed overpriced drinks from the poolside bar and toasted our three year anniversary. We sipped on our drinks and enjoyed the ocean view, before growing a bit bored. What can I say? We’re just not very good at doing nothing while on a trip.

It didn’t take long for us to notice a small convenience shop across the pool that sold wine and beer at a fraction of the cost of the poolside bar. We bought some and made our way to a second pool, turning the complimentary Fiji Water bottle from our room into a pool-safe wine glass.

The lonely woman from England who gave us a sunburn

This second pool resembled a lazy river wrapped around a tended garden, except without the jets and inner tubes. We slowly walked a few laps around, drinks in hand. Eventually, an older English woman started a conversation—one that just would not end.

It was pleasant enough, mostly focused on travel, but it was clear that she was dying for personal interaction, her husband sound asleep after some morning drinking. Minutes passed, and then an hour, and we couldn’t quite pull ourselves away. Nearly two hours later, we finally managed to break off the conversation and exited the pool—only to realize how burnt we had gotten while being stuck there longer than expected.

Tanoa Tusitala Hotel in Samoa

We stayed at the Tanoa Tusitala Hotel near downtown Apia in Samoa, which would allow us to easily explore Apia Town on one of the nights. But our taxi ride through the city from the airport was uninspiring and we quickly decided to just relax at the hotel, especially since I was still sick.

It’s a pleasant hotel, with lush gardens that make you to forget that you’re in the middle of the city. But it’s also not a very large property, so there aren’t many options if you’re spending substantial time there. Nonetheless, we relaxed, enjoyed some drinks, and occasionally the pool on more than one evening there.

Our Samoan waiter/taxi driver

One thing that was readily apparent in both Samoa and Fiji is that the locals are hungry for tourism dollars. We were routinely asked by hospitality workers about our trip plans, everyone angling to land or retain a customer.

Taxi drivers wanted to know if we needed another ride later in the week. Waiters would make friendly conversation about where you’re visiting from and then offer to be your tour guide on their day off. While it could get a bit annoying, it was also hard not to appreciate their hustle.

So after some quality service by a waiter in Samoa, we canceled the hotel shuttle and booked him as our taxi driver the next morning to the airport.

Beers and crabs on the beach

For our last night in American Samoa, we decided to forgo the hotel bar and instead grab a six pack and enjoy the hotel pool—only to find it unexpectedly closed for maintenance. There was a small beach near our room, so we headed there instead.

We apparently crashed a crab party on the beach—there were dozens, jittering up and down the beach. They were rather timid at first, scattering across to the other end of the beach or quickly burying themselves in the sand when we approached. Eventually, however, they made their way back to where we were sitting. Luckily, I had grabbed my headlamp from my backpack, which I used to shoot this short 30-second video.

Mosquitos and Dengue Fever

One of our biggest concerns prior to the trip was the risk of mosquito-borne illness, especially given the Dengue Fever outbreak the region experienced last year. The National Park Service offers several warnings on their website, and we were cautioned by other park travelers to take the issue seriously.

And so we did. We brought long sleeved shirts and hiking pants and treated virtually everything with permethrin. We stocked up on DEET, both in spray and wipes. We arrived to find plenty of warnings—at the airport, on billboards, and in pamphlets.

And…we promptly encountered virtually zero mosquitos. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The airport in Samoa

We’ve flown out of some small airports in the past, but the Fagali’i Airport felt more like a small bus station than an airport. As the case with many buildings here, most of the “lobby” of the airport was lacking walls and open to the elements, sort of like a half-fale. There were some waiting benches, two desks that served as ticket counters, and a large table awkwardly placed where you might stand in line.

There was no one around, so we patiently waited in the lobby until our flight time approached, noticing that locals began lining up near the table. We soon learned that the table was akin to the security line. Two security officers used the table rummage through each passenger’s luggage by hand before allowing them to check-in at the counter, a process that involves weighing both your bags and yourself.

It’s hard to say that this was an effective security check. The officer looked at Jen’s luggage first, opening it up to find an incredibly organized suitcase filled with a variety of Eagle Creek Pack-It travel bags—apparently not what he was used to seeing. He grunted, then peaked into a single one before passing her through. The officer must have spent a total of 5 seconds looking at just one half of my suitcase, poking my packing cube of shirts, before allowing me to pass.

Fagali'i Airport in Samoa
These two doors serve as the airport’s only gate at Fagali’i Airport in Samoa.

After we checked in, a similar exercise with our small backpacks occurred in the hallway leading to the gate, along with a quick wanding with the handheld metal detector. A few steps further and you found yourself at the immigration desk, which featured the world’s cheapest sign—literally just a sheet of copy paper with the single word Immigration printed on it.

After getting our passport stamped, we turned the corner and found ourselves in the waiting room. This small room had two glass doors exiting right out to the waiting plane with a few benches. We sat directly in front of the door. When the departing flights were announced, a worker would just pop his head into the room and say the destination’s name, and a few people would shuffle out the door and onto the plane. I’ve had to show more proof to get my In-N-Out Burger order at the counter.

On the return flight, there was a bit of a backup at customs at this same airport. So naturally, our bags were completely waved through the security checkpoint without any inspection.

An authentic cultural experience?

I tend to be more interested in the natural environments of the places we travel to—so exploring cities and local food & culture usually takes a back seat on the itinerary to mountains, waterfalls, and coral reefs. But we both appreciated the cultural education we received during our respective land tours in both Samoa and Fiji.

Granted, throughout the trip, it was clear that there were differing levels of authenticity in some of the “traditional” cultural practices demonstrated for tourists like ourselves. For instance, there was a wide difference in the kava ceremonies performed on Schooner Island than the one performed at the village we visited. It wasn’t hard to figure out which one was geared more towards tourists.

Fijian dancing
What percentage of this nightly show is authentic? I have no idea, but I’d bet it’s less than they’re letting on.

Whenever I’m in one of those situations, I always find myself wondering how much of it is authentic and how much is simple entertainment. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much. We’re never in a destination long enough to really take in the intricacies of culture anyway. Broad strokes can still give you a sense of what a place is about.

Speeding tickets in Fiji

One of the more surprising things we noticed during our long bus ride in Fiji was how many speed traps there were on Queens Road, the major highway accessing the “Coral Coast” along the southern end of Viti Levu. There were both speed cameras, as well as numerous police officers standing behind their vehicles with radar guns.

I also noticed that our tour guide, standing in the front of the bus as we traveled, would routinely flash hand signals towards oncoming traffic. I asked what he was doing, and he revealed an intricate system alerting other drivers to upcoming speed traps. Apparently, flashing your lights is a ticket-able offense, so these hand signals have evolved instead. Maybe our cultures aren’t so much different after all?

The only Americans around

One of the things I hadn’t expected was that we’d be one of the few Americans around these islands. It doesn’t matter much, of course, but it just hadn’t occurred to me that we would encounter so few Americans wherever we went—we’re usually quite ubiquitous in tourist destinations.

The vast majority of tourists were from Australia and New Zealand, with another smattering of English and Germans. We managed to run into some of the same tourists on different tours or islands.

“Oh, look, the Americans are on this tour, too.”

Thanks for reading!

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the rest of the trip posts.

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