Our travel schedule would only allow us limited time in Samoa during our South Pacific trip. So we booked a full day tour that we thought would give us a good sense of the island.
The tour was billed as exploring the “Pristine Waters of Upolu,” and was the premier tour offered by Samoa Highland Adventures. An all-day adventure, it included fresh and salt water swims at five different destinations: Sauniatu Waterfall, Piula Cave Pool, Lalomanu Beach, To Sua Ocean Trench, and Togitogiga Waterfall.
In addition, we’d stop at two different mountain passes, plus a viewpoint of Papapapatai Falls—among the highest in the country. By the end of the day, we’d see nearly half of the island, making a big loop around the western side before cutting back up through the interior.
If we only had one full day in Samoa, it seemed like this was the best way to spend it.
The morning of the tour, we were met in our hotel lobby by our two tour guides, who reviewed all of the day’s details. We seemed to have especially fortunate timing for our tour—it was the last day for one of our guides, and so he had brought in his successor, who happened to be a local village chief. Even better, we learned that we were the only two people on the tour.
We hopped into the vehicle and started off for our personal tour of Upolu, heading east along the coast from Apia. Along the way, we got to know our guides better, as they narrated our drive and explained some Samoa history and culture. About 45 minutes into the drive, we veered off towards the interior, our destination ahead along a steep and bumpy road.
The first stop of the day was perhaps our favorite.
We arrived a few minutes later in an unlikely location: an LDS compound. Yes, you read that right—we would be enjoying a unique swimming hole at a small, secluded Mormon village.
We nodded at the village entrance guard and stopped to inspect a (somewhat) traditional fale the church had built before proceeding to park. A short walk across a grassy path led you to the edge of a scenic gorge, the site of an extinct volcano. Steps were carved into the basalt and a metal railing helped you switchback your way towards the bottom.
On one side of the gorge was a waterfall, perhaps 30 feet tall, that dumped into a pool that stretched from wall to wall. The near edge of the pool lapped up against a rocky stream bed, which meandered down the canyon and vanished behind a curve in the gorge. Lush vegetation hung over the gorge rim, moss covering much of the near-vertical walls.
While not impressive in terms of height, the waterfall—tucked into this secluded and intimate gorge—was breathtaking nonetheless. We slowly made our way down and scrambled over the remaining boulders to the edge of the water. We had the entire place to ourselves.
The water was crisp, but refreshing. A few steps into the water, I had to stop to gaze around in befuddlement—wow, what a great spot. How could a place like this offer such solitude? We eventually made our way to the waterfall, where we took turns shimmying onto the ledge at its base and leaning back while the falling water forcefully pounded our neck and back. Later, we just floated for awhile, staring up at the sky through the leaves above as the calming sound of the waterfall lulled us. It was simply sublime.
And this was just the first stop. If this was any indication, it was going to be a memorable day.
Piula Cave Pool
Next on the agenda was a stop at the Piula Cave Pool, located just off the coastal highway on the grounds of a Methodist theological college. This natural freshwater pool is a popular local swimming hole—one that offers a much different visitor experience than the first.
We made our way down a long set of stone stairs from the parking area to the edge of the cave pool, which was situated between a small cliff face and the ocean between two manicured lawns and some beach fales. A concrete walkway encircles the front half of the pool, whereas the rear half features a partially submerged lava river tube that you can swim into.
About 10 kids and a handful of adults were already enjoying the outer pool when we arrived. We entered the water and left the crowd by swimming deep into the cave, passing fish and a large eel on our way. The cave went back about 50 yards, much deeper than the faint sunlight glimmering off the water could properly illuminate.
Once well into the cave, the sunlight from the entrance cast a blue glow through the water, eerily silhouetting any swimmers.
We sat at the back of the cave along an isolated but conveniently located natural ledge that resembled the bench seating of a hotel hot tub. Enjoying the moment, we chatted with our guide about what we had seen so far and what we’d see later in the day, while our guide answered other random questions we tossed at him.
By the time we exited the cave, it had started to rain—this is, after all, the rainy season here in the South Pacific—though our towels and backpacks remained shielded by the beach fale.
We made a quick stop at the garden restroom, a large roofless bathroom stall that featured numerous plants and flowers. Not a bad place to pee, really, and especially pleasant for a public restroom.
The mountain passes
Back on the road, next up were the mountain passes. We stopped for a snack at the first one, which offered excellent views of Fagaloa Bay and back into the interior of the island.
In spite of being part of the same chain of islands, Samoa looks quite a bit different than American Samoa. Whereas American Samoa was dominated by a nearly-vertical mountain spine that crept right up to the shoreline, Samoa had more graceful valleys, many of which had been put to use as plantations. Both islands feature lush tropical vegetation; but in Samoa, it seemed to consist of fewer trees and more ground cover and vines. This likely all stems from the fact that Samoa is several times larger than American Samoa, providing it quite a bit more topographical diversity. It’s also clear that Samoa is home to a much more vibrant agricultural industry—we passed by quite a number of plantations.
The guide and I hopped into the bed of the truck for the journey over Le Mafa Pass, which offered unobstructed views for this especially scenic portion of the drive.
Snorkeling at Lalomanu Beach
Next on the itinerary was some beach and snorkeling time. We arrived at a small beach resort serving a beautiful stretch of beach, found some shade under two coconut trees, and grabbed our snorkeling gear.
We skipped putting on fins, which was a mistake in retrospect. The current was rather strong in the bay, which forced us to spend a fair amount of energy staying in place. While the coral reef in this area wasn’t in the best shape, we did see quite a number of fish species.
When we returned to the beach after snorkeling, our guide had prepared a coconut for me to try. Once rehydrated and back into the vehicle, we continued along the south shore towards our next destination.
To Sua Ocean Trench
Featuring tended flower gardens and scenic cliff side fales, the grounds surrounding the To Sua Ocean Trench are alone worth the visit. But the trench itself is the stuff of travel magazines.
After a quick prelude at the trench rim, we wandered over and had lunch near the cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The highlight of the meal was definitely the local fruit, including the most delicious pineapple ever. A short rainstorm ensued, which was well-timed as we sat under the shelter of the fale. It’s no wonder these things are seemingly everywhere in the Samoa islands.
After lunch, we wandered back across the grass to the main attraction. Harboring a scenic swimming hole, the trench is actually a 90 foot deep volcanic blowhole that’s linked to the ocean by a cave. As the waves crash through the cave, the resulting muffled sounds a bit like deep breathing. Stairs make their way down the edge of the trench, with a very long and awkwardly large ladder extending down to a wooden platform positioned several feet above the water level.
The whole thing resembles some sort of primordial sinkhole with a tropical pool at the bottom and a fence encircling the cliff edge. It’s one of those places that’s hard to describe because it seems so unreal.
Because the trench receives both fresh and salt water, it’s a bit briny. The water level fluctuates with the tide, but it’s a bit deeper than what the photos show. You can cannonball off the platform without hitting the bottom, for instance. For such an iconic destination, I was surprised that there was never more than one other couple or family at the trench while we were there, and we even had it to ourselves for awhile, too.
Located in O Le Pupu-Pu’e National Park, these gentle cascading waterfalls would be our last swim of the day. A short walk through a lush canopy deposited us above the upper falls, where a restroom and some metal fales stood. A mossy rock staircase led into the gorge, where the lower falls fed a pool below.
Once again, we were treated to an intimate little basalt-lined canyon with moss-covered walls, featuring a waterfall-fed pool. How many of these does this gorgeous island have? The stream feeding the falls was flowing lower than usual, but it more than enough to enjoy. A small group was there when we first arrived, but—mirroring the rest of the day—we soon we had it all to ourselves.
Papapapaitai Falls viewpoint
Our last scheduled stop was the viewpoint for Papapapaitai Falls. Located across a deep canyon from the highway, the water plunges off the side of a vertical cliff face roughly 300 feet to the canyon floor. Unlike the other waterfalls of the day, I wouldn’t want a neck massage from this one.
Some thoughts on our guides
The ride back to the hotel was punctuated by quite a bit of levity—mostly retelling stories of old adventures and drunken shenanigans. We made an unscheduled stop for gelato so one guide could say goodbye to a friend before he left the island. We made another quick stop for some Vailima beer to celebrate his departure.
Beyond the normal narration, the entire day had sparked interesting conversations, as we had learned a bit about both of our guides, their connection to Samoa culture, and their personal dreams. In turn, they had learned about our various travel quests, and what drove us to travel as much as we could, as well as a bit about our life in America.
The guide who was leaving was preparing to embark on an open-ended sailing adventure around the South Pacific, hoping to connect the cultures of Polynesia and keep some ancient sea navigation methods alive.
The other guide had recently returned to his native island after briefly chasing a Western lifestyle in New Zealand. He was still in the process of establishing an eco-resort back on Samoa.
We would have enjoyed the same tour with other guides—these destinations don’t disappoint. But the combination of these two guides, plus being the only two on the tour, really made the day special. By the end of the day, we were friends—they even invited us to dinner afterwards.
When we booked the trip, we presumed that Samoa wouldn’t be a place that we’d want to return to. We were wrong.
➞ Be sure to check out more from our trip to the South Pacific.