National Park of American Samoa became our 50th out of 59 national parks to visit. We always thought it would be number 59 but a family wedding in Hawaii meant we would be halfway there so we added it to that trip. American Samoa is roughly 2600 miles southwest of Hawaii and just east of the International Date Line in the South Pacific. There are only two flights a week from Honolulu so the choice was to go either way on Monday or on Friday. We chose Monday outbound so we would have an extra day there. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay. Even though the national park was our reason for visiting, the people of American Samoa proved to be the real draw. They were very friendly and welcoming. The pace is leisurely and low stress with few tourists.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory south of the equator and consists of seven islands: five rugged, highly eroded volcanic islands and two coral atolls. The national park here is unique in that there is no federally-owned land; parkland and water are leased from native villages and from the American Samoa government. In 1993 Samoan chiefs agreed to sign a 50-year lease that enables the National Park Service, with Samoan help, to manage an area of rainforest, beach and coral reef on three islands.
Tutuila is the largest of the seven islands in American Samoa and Pago Pago Harbor is one of the largest natural harbors in the South Pacific. It cuts deeply into the south-central coast and almost divides the island in two. A steep mountainous spine runs the 20-mile length of the island and it was this portion of the national park on this island that we explored. Much of it is tremendously rugged so our hiking was somewhat limited. The park preserves the only mixed-species paleotropical rainforest in the United States and is the habitat of “flying foxes” (fruit bats). Bats are the only native mammals found in American Samoa and the two species of flying foxes have wingspans close to three feet. They also fly during the day as well as at night, unlike most other bats.
Our introduction to the island was our arrival at Pago Pago airport at roughly 10 p.m. We walked out to the waiting area and the number of people there was truly amazing. It was completely packed. Everyone goes to the airport on “flight night.” We learned later that nearly entire villages turn out to welcome home anyone who has been away. A hint: when you are scheduled to leave the island on the 11:00 pm flight, go to the airport early in the day, get your boarding pass, check in your bags and leave them at that time. Unlike airports elsewhere, they will check your bags in well ahead of time and you will avoid the seemingly disorganized masses that night.
At the National Park Visitor’s Center, we met a young ranger named André who was extremely helpful. He gave us much information on the park and suggested a couple of hikes he thought we would enjoy. (This was early January but since we were in the southern hemisphere, it was summer and very hot and humid.) As we explored and found things we were curious about, we made many trips back to visit André and ask questions. He was very knowledgeable and answered our queries about the national park, the flora and fauna, as well as the Samoan culture and way of life.
We rented a car at the airport so had our own transportation but the local aiga or family buses were everywhere. They are frequent but unscheduled and the fare varies. They originate and terminate at the market in Fagatogo. There are many bus stops but you can get on or off anywhere they can pull off the road.
The Lower Sauma Ridge Trail led us past Samoan archeological sites and spectacular views of the northeast coastline of the island and the Vaiʻava Strait National Natural Landmark. Tall, skinny Pola Island, a nesting area for seabirds, was also visible.
We also hiked the Pola Island Trail which led to a rough and rocky beach with views of the coastline and a closer view of Pola Island. André told us there were “singing rocks” on this beach and sure enough, we discovered them. When the waves came in, they washed up over many of the rocks and when they receded, many small black rocks bounced together and down the beach making “music.” It was lovely and brought a smile.
The Samoan islands have been populated for 3,000 years and many believe this is where all Polynesian people originated. Even though separated by thousands of miles of ocean, there are similarities in the different island languages. Examples: the Samoan “Talofa” is similar to the Hawaiian “Aloha”; Samoan “ʻava” (local drink made from the root of the pepper plant) is “cava” in Tahitian.
Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen sighted Samoa in 1722 and other Europeans followed. The London Missionary Society sent its first representatives to the islands in the 1830’s and from there missionary influence spread. We were totally amazed at the vast number of churches and denominations on the island of Tutuila.
An 1899 agreement between colonial powers divided Samoa into spheres of influence with Germany controlling the western islands and the United States the eastern islands. Formal cession by the local chiefs came later. By 1904 the eastern islands had all been ceded to the United States, although the U.S. Congress did not formally accept the deeds of cession until 1929. In 1951 control of the territory was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior with an appointed governor. In 1977, a Samoan became the territory’s first elected governor. Since then all members of the territory’s Fono have been elected by the citizens. In 1981 American Samoans for the first time elected a nonvoting delegate to serve a two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A strong U.S. military connection existed with American Samoa from the late 1800’s through the mid-1900’s. During World War II, a U.S. Naval base with a Marine contingent operated from Pago Pago as a defense in the South Pacific. Throughout the island there are a number of installations from that time period. We hiked to the Blunts Point naval gun emplacement. These two large guns that could fire six-inch shells nine miles were mounted atop Matautu Ridge, at Tulutulu Point, to defend Pago Pago Harbor from potential Japanese invading naval forces. There were two additional guns mounted on Breakers Point across the bay. Along the coast of Tutuila Island, archaeologists have identified 81 pillboxes which served as an initial line of defense against an amphibious invasion. January 11, 1942 a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired at the U.S. Naval Station. Very little damage was done and this was the only time that the Japanese attacked Tutuila during WWII but Japanese submarines were active in the area.
For some 3,000 years, the people of Polynesia’s oldest culture have been attuned to their island environment. The name Samoa means “sacred earth.” Over the centuries, distinct cultural traits emerged now called faʼasamoa (the Samoan way). Lands, waters, and food sources are managed to sustain them for the future. Samoan culture, customs and traditions emphasize the importance of the extended family, the aiga. Each aiga’s lands are managed by its chief, or matai, for the common good.
We visited Tisa’s Barefoot Bar one afternoon. Tisa sat down with us and was very willing to tell us about American Samoa and the culture. She told us that the chief of each village determined how that land was to be used, such as where someone could build a house, etc. She also said property could not be sold to non-Samoans. The villagers take care of each other and make sure no one goes hungry or homeless.
Throughout the island, we saw what we called pavilions – open-sided buildings which were quite large. We were told they were “welcoming houses” (my terminology) where the high chief would welcome visitors and ceremonies were held. We learned a bit about the ceremonial aspects and the order of high talking chief down to the untitled men. The high talking chief position entails a great deal of responsibility and is not directly hereditary. Even though outside influences are very apparent and a part of their life, the American Samoans have held on to their distinctive culture.
One day we decided to visit ʻAunuʻu Island, the smallest inhabited island. We drove to the village of ʻAuʼasi and took the ferry, a small fishing boat that runs as it has passengers. We spent time on the beach, which we had entirely to ourselves. We had thought to try snorkeling but the waves were just too strong. However, it was very peaceful and beautiful for pictures of the waves and of Tutuila in the distance. Daily we swam in Pago Pago Harbor so we can at least say we swam in the South Pacific. American Samoa is an island paradise with a slow pace and very friendly people.
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