Christmas in American Samoa - Part One
Trip Dates: December 20th, 2018 – December 27th, 2018
I’m convinced there is no greater sense of accomplishment than touching down in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean and visiting one of the most least visited, most remote United States National Parks. The National Park of American Samoa is the one of the few parks actually located on a United States Territory and the only US National Park located in the Southern Hemisphere. When people asked me why I was going to American Samoa, my driving force was the National Park. But, after having visited the beautiful islands that make up American Samoa, I think my travel companions (Christa + Jeremy) and I can say there are so many more reasons to visit in addition to the National Park.
So, without further ado, the [extended] highlights of our visit to American Samoa:
The National Park of American Samoa The Visitor Center: When we landed in Pago Pago on Thursday night (12/20), we knew it was pretty much inevitable there would be a partial government shut down the following day. And, having traveled 4,795 miles, we knew our first stop Friday morning (12/21) had to be the Visitor Center for the National Park. After all, we hadn’t traveled that far to not get a stamp in our National Park passports! Mission accomplished and, as was the theme of the trip, we got more than we bargained for. Ranger Ronald gave us a tour, shared the Samoan culture with us, and ultimately connected us with Peter who, in turn, would become the highlight of the trip but… not before the Rangers of the National Park of American Samoa presented me with not only my Junior Ranger badge but a Junior Ranger certificate complete with a Junior Ranger ceremony! It’s no wonder the park won a “Find Your Park” award during the 2016 Centennial year, the Rangers truly went above and beyond, all the while managing the logistics for the impending shutdown.
Hiking Trails: The National Park of American Samoa was established in 1988 (yes, a newer park!) in order to preserve and protect the coral reefs, the tropical rain forests, the incredible fruit bats, and the Samoan culture. While much of the land (and waters) are leased through a long-term agreement with the American Samoa Government and National Park Service, I truly hope the aforementioned is protected forever because each and every aspect is remarkably beautiful.
Our first hike after leaving the visitor center was a moderate hike on the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail. This hike proved to be my favorite because of the breathtaking views at the end. When we got to the end, I saw the ocean extending out as far as my eyes could see. I saw the tall and skinny Pola Island, home to seabirds. And I saw the most magnificent blue pools that I really, really wanted to go into but I also really, really didn’t want to die on my first day in paradise. Alas, I need to go back towards the end of life.
Our second hike led us to a rocky beach with views of the coastline. The road getting to the Pola Island Trail was a fun one but worth it. And, because we’re a bit on the crazy side (no, not crazy enough to go into the magnificent blue pools and die on my first day in paradise), we opted for a third hike – all on the same day. We finally found the trailhead for Tuafanua Trail and got started on the 2.2 mile trail. Although rated by the NPS as a “moderate” hike, humidity will take its toll quickly as we hiked up switchbacks through tropical rainforests. We hiked all the way up to the ridge… just to start an incredibly steep decent down to a rocky beach. The decent was so steep that we needed to use the ladder and ropes that were on the trail. Did I mention the first hike was my favorite? Hike #3 was grueling. We rewarded ourselves with a couple drinks back at Sadie’s by the Sea later that night. If I thought hike three was bad… just wait until I talk about hike four on the island of Ofu!
The Island of Aunu’u
We spent day three (12/22) on Aunu’u with Peter Taliva'a (Aunu’u’s resident tour guide and Samoan Chief!). December 22nd also happened to be my 29th birthday and a day I’ll never forget. Aunu’u was one of the many highlights of the trip – perhaps THE highlight – and if you want to read more our experience with Peter of Aunu’u, click here: https://www.kristamuscarella.com/single-post/2019/03/20/My-Birthday-In-South-Pacific-Paradise.
There’s more to do in Pago Pago than I knew. There’s a “mall,” a movie theater, restaurants, ice cream, plenty of beaches, and churches. Speaking of churches, the locals use Sunday as the day for church, for rest, and especially for quiet around the villages. With that being said, our Sunday before heading to the island of Ofu was…an interesting mix of all those things. We talked to the locals and were told it would be ok if we went to the private beaches on Sunday. So, first stop: Two Dollar Beach. Interestingly enough, two dollars increased to five dollars a while ago but the name has stayed the same. The experience was weird, the drinks were even weirder, and we didn’t stay long. The drinks were TOO good over at Tisa’s Barefoot Lounge and we stayed nearly all day, soaking up the sun, sipping on some Pina Colada, and laughing with great friends. We finally met Tisa but I’m still pretending we didn’t, it’s better that way. Naturally, I know it was a good day as I have no recollection of what we did that evening…!
This ‘highlight’ could be an entire post in and of itself. But, I’ll try to briefly summarize here. When I saw pictures of Ofu Beach, I knew I had to do whatever it took to get to Ofu – an island that’s part of the Manu'a Group of the Samoan Islands– 75 miles away from the main island of Tutuila. When I say I was willing to do whatever it took to get there, do know that it took a lot because flights from Pago Pago only go to Ofu once a week. So, we took a flight with Samoa Airways to Ta’U (yet another island) and then we hopped in the back of a pickup truck to go from the airstrip to the boat harbor and then took a boat across the islands IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN from Ta’U to Ofu. I…I was scared and I don’t think I had ever been happier to step on land before.
Update: I said I would TRY to briefly summarize but alas, Ofu deserves its own post... Check back soon as it'll be posted this Thursday! I promise, it's already written!
Cut to three days later: We made it safe and sound from Ofu to Pago Pago on our 14-passenger plane. Jeremy, Christa, and I hung around Pago Pago that day (12/27), most of which was spent at the Goat Island Café (the restaurant at Sadie’s by the Sea) before we headed back to the airport for a long, overnight flight back to the Continental United States.
All in all, logistically speaking, this trip was a challenge. Not only was it expensive, it was challenging to coordinate everything. I guess we could say it was foreshadowing for my Alaska trip – some of which I planned while sitting at the table of Vaoto Lodge. In a nutshell, we made the trip happen due to hard work – in every sense. We flew Hawaiian Airlines from LAX to Oahu (Christa and I had a three-day stopover there while Jeremy had to work) and then from Oahu to Pago Pago. We ended up renting a car from Avis that we picked up the day after we arrived as we had planned (notwithstanding some island life challenges). We flew from Pago Pago to Ta’U on a Monday with Samoa Airways and Deb coordinated the boat for us to get from Ta’U to Ofu. We flew from Ofu to Pago Pago on a Thursday with Samoa Airways. We stayed at Sadie’s by the Sea while in Pago Pago and at Vaoto Lodge while on Ofu. There are things to do and places to eat on the main island. I added some of these places to a “collection” on Yelp you can find here.
Last but certainly not least, I have to give a giant thank you to Jeremy and Christa who joined me on this trip. Christa and I were on our way to New Zealand last June – however high in the sky, on an airplane – when we bought our airfare to American Samoa. Jeremy purchased his airfare not long after as he, too, is on a quest to visit all of the National Parks in the United States. There aren’t too many people who would travel 4,795 miles to visit a National Park but I’m so thankful they joined me. It was a trip I will never forget! Someday I’m going to have logistic guides for each park. Until then, please feel free to contact me for tips or other information if you’re planning a trip to American Samoa!