This week I am delighted to feature the tropical paradise of American Samoa in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States. Our tour guide is my colleague Jessica Rowland, who traveled with me on my last trip to Pago Pago for our Future Leaders of the Pacific conference.
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American Samoa – Where America’s Sun Sets Each Day
By Jessica Rowland
Jagged peaks covered in rainforest, stunning beaches with warm Pacific waters, and a rich cultural history make the journey to American Samoa a once in a lifetime experience you’ll want to repeat. I consider myself truly blessed to be one of only a few thousand visitors per year to have made the journey to the “heart of Polynesia.”
I have only visited American Samoa once (so far), but I fell in love with the islands. I flew up with my Embassy colleagues to help run our Future Leaders of the Pacific conference, which meant that I spent most of my time working indoors. I did, though, get a chance to explore a bit of this island paradise. I was particularly struck by the stunning sunsets. (American Samoa is the last place in the U.S. to see the sun set each day due to its position up against the dateline.)
American Samoa lies 2,300 miles (3,700 km.) southwest of Hawai’i and 1,600 miles (2,600 km.) from New Zealand. The territory consists of five volcanic islands (Tutuila, Ta’u, Ofu, Olosega, Aunu’u, Nu’utele) and two coral atolls, covering just 76 square miles (196 sq. km.) of land. You can reach the capital, Pago Pago, by air from Apia, (Western) Samoa or Honolulu, Hawai’i.
American Samoa has been a territory of the United States since the signing of the April 17, 1900 Deed of Cession. More than 90% of residents are Samoan, and Samoan and English are both spoken in the islands.
The population numbers about 67,000, with the vast majority (95%) living on the island of Tutuila. The capital, Pago Pago, is rightly considered one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.
The best way to experience the island of Tutuila is to rent a car and drive the island. There’s only one main road, so getting lost isn’t a worry. The coastal road runs past villages, pristine white-sand beaches, traditional-style fale meeting houses, churches, and dense forests.
I happened to be in American Samoa on a Sunday, the day of worship when businesses and the government are closed down. American Samoa’s motto is Samoa la Muamua Le Atua (“God is first”). Nearly 98% of the population is Christian, with a variety of denominations across the islands. Traditional dress to church is a white shirt for men and a white dress for women. All churches on the island warmly welcome visitors, and you should consider attending a service, in part for the wonderful music.
I visited the village of Leone, where most early contact between Europeans and Samoans took place. It was once the ancient capital of Tutuila, and it was the landing site of John Williams, the first missionary to arrive in the islands, on 18 October 1832. The London Missionary Society built the first church in American Samoa, Zion Church, an imposing white and yellow structure to the left as you drive into the village. Leone is also known by the famous Leone High School Taumafai Choir.
On September 29, 2009, Leone was hit by a tsunami generated by an 8.3-magnitude earthquake. The village continues to rebuild, and I enjoyed talking with the high-spirited local kids frolicking in the fresh waters of Leone Falls. If you drive west of Leone, you will come across Atauloma Girls School, in an idyllic place to snorkel. There is no church in the area, so locals as well as visitors swim on Sundays. I didn’t see anyone living near the School, and I was told that’s because the place is believed to be haunted.
Not far away is Fagatele Bay, which is thought to support the greatest diversity of marine life in the American National Marine Sanctuary System, with 168 species of corals, over 1,400 species of algae and invertebrates, and nearly 300 species of fish. In 1986, the area was designated a “National Marine Sanctuary” by Congress in order “to protect and preserve an example of a pristine tropical marine habitat and coral reef terrace ecosystem of exceptional biological productivity.”
The bay is regularly visited by green sea turtles, dolphins, and humpback whales. Because of the fragile nature of the system, visitors need special permission to access the sanctuary and must bring their own equipment. The drive and the subsequent hike down to the bay are absolutely stunning, lined with towering palm trees and lush vegetation.
The land around the approach to the bay is owned by Mr. Asuemu Fuimaono, and you’ll need to stop at his house for his permission to enter. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours but still had a wonderful chat with the family about the area. We ended up snorkeling at a nearby beach, and I saw some of the most amazing underwater sea life I’ve ever seen, including a wide variety of sea cucumbers and some of the most intact corals I have encountered while snorkeling anywhere.
On the eastern side of Tutuila, a must see is the National Park of American Samoa. Although the least visited and least known of America’s national parks, it is certainly one of the most spectacular. It was the 50th national park to be established and is the only one south of the equator. The park comprises pristine land and waters on the three islands of Tutuila (American Samoa’s main island), Ta’u, and Ofu. The Ofu is one of the most visually stunning islands in the South Pacific, and that portion is the crown jewel of the national park.
The National Park features hiking trails, secluded villages, beaches, and interesting historic sites within 10,500 acres of protected land and waters. Adventure seekers can climb and explore some of the highest sea cliffs in the world.
The carefully preserved primeval forest is home to large numbers of birds species, other wildlife, and exotic plant life, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. There is a home-stay program that places visitors in local families’ homes to learn local customs and better enjoy the park.
For history buffs, the eastern side of Tutuila is well worth a visit. The American Samoa Historic Preservation Office lists more than 600 important sites and runs an interesting walking tour that covers the top 21, including World War II historic sites. The naval station in Pago Pago played a critical role in Allied efforts in the Pacific theater, with particularly intense activity during 1942 and 1943, including an attack by a Japanese submarine. The naval station is now a Historic District listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
If you are a regular reader of the Ambassador’s blog, you’ll remember that Tutuila was one of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s first stops in her iconic island-hop tour of the South Pacific during the height of the Pacific war. As a back-and-forth battles with the invaders continued during August and September 1943, she launched herself on a goodwill trip — on a single, small, unescorted airplane — through the region to raise morale, rally the troops, and thank our allies for their steadfastness and fortitude.
American Samoans are deeply proud of their history of distinguished military service. The territory has the highest percentage of citizens serving in the U.S. Armed Forces of any American jurisdiction, as well as the highest percentage of veterans. In addition to military history, there are also other historical gems to discover. In fact, the Jean P. Haydon Museum was one of my trip highlights.
Most people don’t know that American Samoa played a pivotal role in five of the Apollo Program missions. Astronauts returned to Earth just a few hundred miles from Pago and were transported to the islands en route home to the mainland. Three moon rocks gifted to the American Samoan Government are on display in the museum along with a flag carried to the moon by one of the astronauts. The museum also displays art, Samoan artifacts, and other items of cultural significance.
I had the pleasure of being in Pago on Superbowl Sunday, which was fun because American Football is a big part of life in American Samoa. In 2010, the National Football League had 1,696 players, of whom a greatly disproportionate 28 were from American Samoa. Soccer is also big on the islands, and Johnny “Jaiyah” Saelua made headlines by being the first transgender player to compete in a men’s FIFA world cup qualifier. If you are a sports fan, plan your visit for October so that you can enjoy the big sport and cultural festival of Moso’oi.
Whenever you visit, you should be sure to experience a traditional fia-fia fire dancing show, delight in the eclectic blend of American and Samoan cuisine at the Goat Island Café, and indulge your shopping impulses at the colorful local markets around Pago Pago harbor. There are of course modern shopping centers in the center of town as well, with low prices and a wide array of American products.
I’ll wrap up for today with one of the most rewarding must-do excursions for visitors — a short flight east from Tutuila to visit the Manu’a Islands group, comprising Ta’u, Ofu, and Olosega. These lush tropical oases are home to fewer than 2,000 people (who retain a traditional way of life relying on local fishing and farming) and have some of the most dramatic landscapes in the South Pacific. All three islands are volcanic remnants, rising out of the sea with dramatic vistas. Manu’a contains one of the larger peaks in the South Pacific islands, Lata Mountain, at 3,170 feet (970 meters).
Known as the “sacred islands” because of its great cultural significance, Manu’a is considered in the Samoan oratory tradition to have been the origin of Polynesian culture generally as well as Samoan culture specifically. It is said that Manu’a was the ruling center of an eastern Polynesian empire which included all of the Samoan archipelago and other nearby islands, and that the genealogy of all Polynesians east of Samoa originated here. I have also heard folks say simply that Manu’a is paradise.
While my time there was brief, I will cherish my wonderful memories of my week in the islands of American Samoa. I am proud to call many of the young American Samoans I met my friends, and I look forward to a return journey soon to explore even more of what the islands and surrounding waters have to offer.
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I very much agree with Jessica’s sentiments. For more information about American Samoa, things to see and do there, and how to plan your trip, take a look at the websites of the American Samoa Visitors Bureau and USA Discover America. There are daily flights from Apia on both Inter-Islands Airways and Polynesian Airlines. Hawaiian Airlines flies direct to Pago Pago from Honolulu three times per week.