American Samoa: The Park, The People and The Culture

When we first started planning our 59 National Park tour, we had no idea that there was a National Park in American Samoa.  This fact gave us pause.  American Samoa is a ten hour flight from Los Angeles.  The islands are expensive and remote.  We had read that many travelers had skipped American Samoa as part of their National Park quest. Ultimately, we included American Samoa as a part of our swing to Hawaii's National Parks.  The rewards we received from this beautiful land of amazing people made us realize that our hesitation was unwarranted.  We recommend that anyone looking for an incredible adventure place the islands on their itinerary.

 

We flew to American Samoa from Honolulu--a five hour flight.  Hawaiian Airlines has just two trips a week.  Visitors must choose from between a long weekend visit or a weekday visit.  There are no other options.

 

The National Park of American Samoa is the only national park that American Citizens need a passport to visit.  American Samoa protects its own borders for both unwanted plant and animal life and for immigration.  The customs process was chaotic reminding us what we had experienced in the Caribbean.  Most of the people on the flight were Samoans returning from Hawaii or the mainland.  They did not pack lightly.  The family standing at the baggage carousel with us had at least twenty checked bags.  As a result, it took over an hour for our luggage to drop through the chute.  It took another hour to get through customs.  Hundreds of people were at the airport waiting for their loved ones to return.  From the time we got off the plane, it took three hours to get to our hotel.  Not a great start we thought.  This turned out to be the only inconvenience we experienced.  The balance of the trip was carefree.

 

We stayed at Sadie's by the Sea situated on the Pago Pago Harbor.  Sadie's is the only "resort" on the main island of Tutuila. It has approximately fifty rooms.  Land is scarce on the island and rarely comes up for sale because of communal land ownership.  As a result there are no mega resorts and tourist traffic is light.  Most of the people staying at Sadie's were there on business.  We were questioned many times why we were there.  A few Samoans were surprised that we were there on holiday.  We were pleased to awaken to this view of the harbor.

 

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American Samoa lies well south of the Equator.  It is one of two U. S. territories in the Southern Hemisphere  (the other is Jarvis Island).  In addition to the main island of Tutuila, there are numerous other small islands and atolls.  Tutuila is about the size of Washington, D.C.  The census of 2010 recorded 55,000 residents.  The U.S. acquired American Samoa in 1899 for its strategic location in the Pacific.  The islands played an important role in World War II.

 

On the first day we rented a car and headed to the new visitor center for the National Park of American Samoa.  The previous visitor center was destroyed by a tsunami in 2009.   We met Ranger Sam and Eymard--their social media guru.  They expected us.

 

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Once there, we received everything we would need to have a successful trip.  In addition to Park information, they briefed us on things such as where to eat and what to look for while driving.  The island has a 25 mph speed limit which is strictly enforced.  Both Sam and Eymard were warm and inviting.  They took a great deal of time teaching us about Fa'a Samoa or the Samoan Way.  We learned about Samoan's deep devotion to their families.  We got a lesson about communal land ownership.  We view several presentations on traditional dance and crafts.  Much like home, things such as God, family and children are important here.

 

Our first stop in the National Park was Rainmaker Mountain.  It towers 1716 feet above Pago Pago Harbor and is the gateway to the National Park.  Most days, the mountain is shrouded in clouds and fog.  We felt fortunate to see it on a clear day.

 

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As we entered the park we began to understand the differences that we had read about.  The main park road runs from village to village.  Hiking trails cross private land and permission is required to cross.  Some land owners might require a payment to continue hiking.  The curious fact is that the National Park does not belong to the National Park Service.  The service leases the land from the people of American Samoa.

 

The signature view at the park is of a structure in Pacific called Pola Island.  We went to this spot numerous times, spent many hours enjoying the view and hiked to a beach with a different view.  Its one of those places in the National Parks that never looks the same twice.

 

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To the east of Pola Island the park features a rugged volcanic coastline.  This part of the Park is impenetrable to all but the most skilled hikers.

 

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Hiking trails were slick in the Samoan rainforest.  The main challenge while hiking was staying upright.

 

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The village of Vatia is located at the end of the main park road.  It has a church, an elementary school and about 200 souls.  The children there greeted us enthusiastically.  Imagine having this view from your front porch.

 

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Small unoccupied beaches dot the Samoan coastline.  Most beaches are privately owned.  When you go, please check to see if payment is required to use them.  We understood that the $2.00 Beach came with a $5.00 tariff.

 

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The Samoan rainforest in the park is rich in plant and animal life.  Many species of both occur only on the island.  We enjoyed photographing flowers.  Birds were much more elusive.

 

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As noted faith is extremely important in American Samoa.  98% of the population practices Christianity.  The island has numerous impressive churches.  We stopped at several of them during our stay.  The congregants were happy to see us and allowed us to ask questions and take photos as we wished.

 

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Athletics are huge in American Samoa both for the competition and as a way for residents to  seek bigger and better things.  There are thirty American Samoans in the NFL and over two hundred attend college on Division 1 scholarships.  For a population of 55,000, these are amazing numbers.  The island hosts boat races twice a year.  The participants represent their village.  Winning is a big deal.  We saw race practice while we there.  The road and beaches were packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite rowers.

 

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Starkist Tuna is the largest private employer on the island.  Approximately 2,100 people work at the cannery.  Jobs are scarce on American Samoa.  The unemployment rate hovers around 25%.  American Samoa could, in our view, benefit from increased tourism.   Currently, the facilities are not there to support increased tourism.  We were only aware of two other non-Samoans visiting the National Park  during our five days there.  Overall all the National Park records about 23,000 non-Samoan visitors a year of which 15,000 are cruise ship passengers.  Some tourists are disappointed by the litter and feral dogs that are omnipresent on the island.  The government and the National Park are working hard to address these problems.

 

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We devoted our last day in American Samoa to finding the elusive Samoan Flying Fox or Fruit bat.   Ranger Sam told us what to look for and how to find them.  The island has three species of bats and they are the only mammals native to the island.  They were hard to find, but plentiful once we spotted them. Fruit bats roost in trees rather than in caves.  They are nocturnal.  When their sleep is disturbed by another bat, they make quite a racket.  There were several hundred in this tree.

 

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Fruit bats have a wingspan of up to three feet.  We had a much more difficult time capturing them in flight during the day.  Sleepers were easy.  After about ninety minutes we were rewarded with this inspiring view.

 

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Some people have thought our Fruit bat photos were creepy.  We found them fascinating.

 

When you go to American Samoa, be prepared for big portions at meal time.  It is part of the Fa'a Samoa.  We typically would eat as much of our lunch as we could and pack the rest for dinner leftovers.  I ordered spaghetti for lunch one day and jokingly asked if anyone ever finished this dish with the waiter.  He said "yes, Samoan guys".  At another restaurant I ordered Egg Foo Yung.  When the plate came I asked if it always came prepared with a dozen eggs.  She said "no, we use eighteen".

 

Not once in our five nights at American Samoa did we feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.  The Samoan people were warm and inviting.  The island is strikingly beautiful. The National Park has incredible scenery, great hiking and one of the best staffs we have had the privilege of meeting.  Our fifty-sixth National Park was one of the best.  We can't wait to go back.

 

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What an exotic experience!  Hard to believe there's an American National Park that so few people visit. 

 

Thanks for sharing this unique destination with us, @59NationalParks!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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