Samoa’s Pick of the Pics

After spending 10 days shooting the highlights of Samoa, photographer David Kirkland has some tips about the best places to visit and where to grab a great bite to eat.

September 4, 2019
Rebecca Murphy

Rebecca Murphy

September 4, 2019

You sound like you’ve been here before, what would you recommend?” Asked the couple I shared the half hour shuttle ride from the Faleolo International Airport to Apia. 

Although I’d not been to Samoa for five years, this was actually my 10th photo assignment so I felt reasonably well equipped to make at least a few suggestions. 

The best advice I can give any visitor to Samoa is to rent a car and head off to explore the island for yourself. The roads are good, they go to everywhere you’d want to see, navigation’s easy with Google Maps and – setting aside getting caught behind a funeral procession when you’re heading over the cross-island road – it’s definitely the best way to see Samoa at your own pace.

Togitogiga waterfall

If I was staying in Apia, I’d divide Upolu Island into two separate day trips, probably with a few days in between to relax and enjoy wherever I was staying. On the first day, I’d head down to Lalomanu Beach along the coast road and, after a swim, hit a couple of the attractions on the south east coast (maybe To Sua Trench and Togitogiga waterfall) before coming back on the cross-island road. On day two, I’d go back over the cross-island road but turn right at the bottom, stopping in at Sinalei Reef Resort for breakfast to admire its traditional Samoan architecture, before visiting a few of the beaches around that half of the island. 

For those considering Savai’i – and you’d be crazy not to if you have the time – I’d take my hire car across on the ferry and spend a couple of days enjoying “what Upolu used to look like 20 years ago.”

It’s all comfortable driving and, wherever you go, you’re likely to find Samoans happy to chat and help you along the way.

First day of the Photo shoot

It’s Day One and I can’t sleep on planes so, arriving at 6am after a five-hour flight, I’m feeling a bit shattered. As Samoa is three hours ahead of Brisbane, I’m faced with the age-old dilemma of deciding whether to get some sleep on arrival, or persevere until after dinner in a bid to quickly adapt to the different time zone. It’s a perfect day – clear skies and a golden light for photography – so I check in, rent a car and head off with camera in hand, planning for the days ahead. 

Where to start

Apia Fisah Markets

The Samoa visitor’s bureau in Apia was to be my first port of call to find out what’s changed in five years and whether there’s any special events on that might lend themselves to photography. But I arrived too early so I headed down to the nearby fish markets to see what had been caught, and to shoot the colourful old buses that pull in and head out just behind it. If I didn’t have a million other things to photograph, I would have jumped on one of the buses and just gone to wherever it was heading for some sightseeing with the locals, knowing it will eventually make its way back. 

Milani Caffe, Apia

From there, I wandered into town, stopping in at Milani Caffe at the end of the mall for breakfast or a coffee and cake (I mention the latter as cakes, I discovered, are Dora’s specialty. The PM’s favourite, I’m told, is the Hummingbird Cake) which, not-so-remarkably my partner might suggest, it barely sat in front of my camera long enough for me to take a photo. By the time I’d finished breakfast, the visitor’s bureau was open so I dropped in to see if there was any cultural performances being staged in the fale’s out the back. At the same time, I listened out for the flag raising ceremony (which wasn’t too hard as it comes with the police band so it sounds like the circus has come to town), before wandering off to the souvenir markets for a few laughs with the stall owners.

Good time to head to church

By now it was getting close to midday and I was keen to escape the sun so I dropped into the main church in Apia just across from the visitor’s bureau to marvel at what has to be one of the most impressive buildings of worship in the entire South Pacific (more-so during a Sunday service when it fills with soaring Samoan harmonies). Samoa’s Prime Minister recently declared Samoa a “Christian Nation” (a status reflected in the remarkable claim I read that the country has a church every 2.5 kilometres). 

Satisfied I’d put a dent in my short list, I returned to my hotel room to process a few photos and plan for the next nine days, though it was short-lived; I did room service and I was asleep by seven.

The Beaches and the Waterfalls

Traditional Beach Fales in Samoa

Some of my most enjoyable times in Samoa have been spent laying around the simple timber fales (huts) that sprinkle the edges of its white sand beaches. You can rent them for the day or stay in them overnight (in which case, for around $60, you’ll get a mattress and a pillow, some sheets and a mosquito net plus three meals a day). You awake to your reward the next day when you roll out of your fale, take a few steps across the clean white sand and plunge into the tepid waters of the South Pacific. Just Glorious.  

On Upolu, Lalomanu’s the place to go for beach fale’s but I liked what I saw when I dropped in at Materava Beach this visit. On Savaii, head to Manase Beach on the north coast where there’s plenty of options. I can recommend staying at Tanu’s if you’re a family, and Regina’s for something a bit smaller and more intimate. 

In terms of waterfalls, Togitogiga is my favourite because of its two tiers and the refreshing pools you can swim in (it’s also free). Papapaita Falls and Sapo’aga Falls both offer pretty impressive views – but from a distance.  And on Savaii, don’t miss Afu Aau Waterfall. 

Some Tips for Photographing Samoa

There are a lot of beautiful scenery shots to be captured on both Upolu and Savai’i so, when it’s sunny, plan to shoot the beaches around 10 am when the water has colour and the air is clear. If it’s overcast, head for the waterfalls or the fern forests inland. Drone pilots will need a permit (AUD$100) and you’ll have to apply a week in advance but it’s almost worth the money and the hassle because there’s a lot of fun stuff to play with and you’re likely to return with some pretty exceptional images.

Traditional Samoan body tattoo – the Pea

This photo of Nuusafee island did it for me, as much for the fact my drone made it back having flown so far from the mainland. But, a word of warning, no flying on Sundays unless you’re looking to attract the wrath of the gods on prayer day or, worse still, the attention of Samoan’s looking to enjoy their family Umu (food cooked in an earth oven). Beyond scenery, you’ll see many great opportunities to photograph Samoa’s culture and the lifestyle the people lead. Highlights for me have included the fire dancing, the traditional Ava ceremony and the Samoan body tattoo – the Pea on the men and the Malu on the women.

Should I head to Savai’i?

Iridescent Waters on Savai’i

Much as I enjoy Upolu, Savai’i is my favourite island. In my view, it’s one of the prettiest islands in the entire South Pacific, with something appealing or interesting at every turn in the road. The coloured houses and Fales, Afu Aau Waterfall, the amazingly iridescent water in front of Amoa Resort, the whole beach fale experience at Monase, or just standing there at sunset on the island’s most westerly point. And, Savai’i moves at an entirely different pace – slowly, seemingly unaffected by the rest of the world. As some mainlanders lament, it’s what Upolu used to be 20 years ago.

…..Which brings me to the food

Now, let me start by writing my time was short and my priority lay with photographing Samoa’s tourist attractions but, that said, I did manage to squeeze in some great restaurants and cafe’s in and around Apia. 

Paddles Restaurant, Apia

Paddles – on the harbour foreshore – was exceptional for its service and its Italian food, if you can time your visit for Elisio’s hand-made gnocchi, you’re in for a particular treat. Nourish Cafe (behind the church) I loved for its funky, fresh approach to cuisine and particularly its Knockout Smoothie (soursop, spinach, mint, and coconut water), which looked way too healthy to be so enjoyable. I mentioned Cafe Milano earlier for its desserts and coffee, and Giordano’s, just up the hill a bit, is an institution – though, sadly, I didn’t get to try its swordfish and Polusami pizza which was the buzz around town. 

Home Cafe, Apia

Also up that way (a short taxi ride) is the Home Cafe for a cold beer and some fine grilled food – I ran amok shooting all the quirky and wonderful curios that decorated it. And finally – though I didn’t get to photograph it this trip – drop into Scalinis for dinner where I had – get ready for this – the best chicken dish I’ve eaten in my entire life, I think it was the Moroccan chicken with vegetables. Perfect. 

So many amazing food options in Samoa

As I write, there were many other restaurants and cafes on my list I didn’t visit, including those at the resorts, and there were plenty of other attractions I wanted to photograph but I just ran out of time.

I guess I’ll just have to come back to Samoa again to happily finish what I started.

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