Visiting the National Park of American Samoa: The Ultimate How-To Guide
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Halfway between Hawai’i and New Zealand rests the only U.S. National Park Service site south of the equator.
A tropical forest, a beach where you’ll be the only person you see, and a culture than spans five inhabited islands are what make a visit to the National Park of American Samoa unique. My 9 days on the islands were made possible by the Visitor Bureau and my helpful guides Mike and Paula of TourAmericanSamoa.com, who provided information I’ve never found on the internet—until this blog post.
For all my favorite American Samoa photos, visit my Instagram
Because the logistics of accessing this park are one of the biggest struggles for most travelers, I’m going to describe the intricacies of visiting American Samoa while I take you through my 9 days on the islands. I include the expert guidance of the above locals, then outline your options--and my suggestions--for how to visit.
If you want to talk through a personalized visit plan with a fellow palagi (foreigner—pronounced phonetically “PA-LAH-NG-EE”) to help determine your travels to the National Park of American Samoa, Contact Me here.
But first: The park layout:
- The official park land is spread over 3 islands, Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta’u. 2 other islands, ‘Aunu’u and Olosega, while not technical “park land” according to a map, serve to aid the park’s mission of sharing “Fa’asamoa”: the Samoan culture.
- Of the 3 islands, Ofu* is by far the experience most visitors see online. It’s the most iconic photo, it’s the best snorkeling, and it’s the most in line with what mainlanders imagine when they think of visiting a beach-paradise South Pacific.
However, most visitors never make it there.
Only a few hundred each year (find out why below). Tutuila is the “big island” and is the one where most visitors experience the park.
*Visiting Ofu is a challenge, but one you should consider as you read below and determine if/how you want to experience the National Park of American Samoa. Find out how to reach it below my itinerary, under VISITING OFU.
Day 1 - Monday
Local guides Paula and Mike from TourAmericanSamoa.com picked me up outside the PPG airport, but my checked bag hadn’t arrived (my first encounter with “Island Time”). For weight issues, Samoa Airways will hold a bag until later planes, so mine didn’t arrive till a flight 4 hours later (Samoa Airways was rebranded from Polynesian Airlines in 2017, but still operating as “Polynesian Airlines” when I visited in 2018).
We drove to the far western road of Tutuila island to see some of American Samoa’s 7 National Landmarks. Though not an official Landmark, a highlight was viewing Fatu ma Futi (photo above), the giant rock standing seemingly out in the middle of the sea, and stopping at a road side stand to eat/drink my first coconut (of which there’d be many).
I settled in at Sadie’s by the Sea, a hotel in Pago Pago with its own small beach and pool, air-conditioning (not common in most buildings) and WiFi (though not like mainlanders know internet. It would take 30 seconds to view an Instagram photo, so very slow. If you’re planning on relaxing by the pool watching Netflix, this is not your country/territory! US cell phones do not work here without a Samoan sim card).
Day 2 - Tuesday
A stop at the NPS Visitor Center where I learned all the park’s trails were closed due to Hurricane Gita which had struck the island a week earlier (February is during the rainy season, May/June/July is their dry season).
Because I am a Volunteer In Parks for the NPS, I was able to tag along to help inspect the trails and make sure Closed Trail signs were up. However, general visitors were told trails were officially closed.
There were no Rangers blocking the trails, and indeed, a group of 10 hiked the entire Mount Alava Trail (7 miles) on the previous day. Near Vatia, one of two villages in the park, the Pola Trail that I helped inspect was passable, but required a decent amount of climbing over many branches of large fallen trees and veering off path.
Fortunately, there are no poisonous plants, or venomous spiders and snakes in American Samoa, so hiking off trail felt less dangerous.
You might be lucky enough to be in town during a cultural performance, or perhaps you’ll stumble upon the original superintendent of the park (when it started in the 1980’s), as I did while visiting Pullman National Monument in Chicago. Because of this stroke of good fortune, 18 months later I told an NPS employee “Hello” from this former Superintendent and was treated to a dance performance by the NPS local maintenance crew.
After being taught one of their dances, I shared a similar one from my college days in Memphis (My "most popular video ever" at the top of this blog via YouTube embed, or click here for Facebook Watch video link).
Day 3 - Wednesday
Since the main activity in the park on Tutuila (the big/main island with Pago Pago) is hiking, and official trails were closed, that would leave most visitors with either the option of exploring the other islands or the small beaches around town.
As an alternate, I was fortunate to don my Volunteer credentials again (earned mostly due to my visiting all 417 sites project—so don’t plan on walking in to “volunteer” if there’s a hurricane) and witness the NPS surveying the underwater coral damage from Hurricane Gita.
Our boat left from Fagasa, the village on the west side of the park and traced the entire coastline of Tutuila’s park unit, returning around the east side of the island to Pago Pago. Large swaths of downed trees and leafless sections of forest were evidence of the extreme winds and mudslides, and broken coral pieces showed the toll the violent storm took on underwater life.
Ending the day at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, I took part in a popular tourist experience by eating from the traditional Samoan Umu that families still enjoy as part of relaxing Sundays at home. Watch restaurant owner, Tisa, explain the Umu below.
Shout out to the class of PA students on rotation at the Pago Pago hospital who let me hang out with them at dinner and took me for a “Picture with Charlie!”, the Starkist Tuna at the Starkist cannery.
Day 4 - Thursday
A drive to the easternmost portion of Tutuila allowed for a 15-20 minute boat ride to the National Landmark island of ‘Aunu’u. There I was greeted by longtime resident, Peter, who with his assistant, Mike, took me through husking, cracking, drinking, shaving, and creaming a coconut, followed by an example of creating a basket from a palm frond (those suckers are tough!).
We took that basket on a hike to view the giant crater in the middle of the island, and I heard the local legend of the two rocks/eternal lovers keeping guard of the crater’s overflowing waters. From there, we hacked our way through hurricane damaged trails to view the island’s famous tarot-root fields and then my personal favorite:
We went tilapia hunting!
Using the dull end of a machete, I watched the masters Mike and Peter, then joined-in myself to catch native island food in a traditional way: whacking the suckers to death.
Barring any moral qualms, this was one of the most fun things I did on ‘Aunu’u and the entirety of American Samoa. Watch the video to see Mikah the Tilapia Slayer, and ask Mike and Paula at TourAmericanSamoa.com to connect you with Peter if you’d like a day on ‘Aunu’u as well.
Day 5 - Friday
Up at 5:30am to catch an 8:00am flight to Ta’u, I arrived at the airport to find out the flight was already delayed 2 hours and Samoa Airways had “called everyone the night before,” though my tour operator got no call…
I landed in Ta’u and was greeted by Keith Ahsoon, a former University of Hawaii football player and local resident turned tour guide. The weather that day was so rainy that the beaches were not worthwhile, and the road into the Park land had been washed out by the hurricane. This meant that the park’s one hiking trail was inaccessible. The remaining day was spent observing local fishing customs, snorkeling at the pier, visiting a church Siva (dance), and talking with Keith about Fa’asamoa. I also stayed in his air-conditioned guest room, ala AirBnB, and meals were cooked by Keith in his home.
Day 6 – Saturday
Early morning boat ride from Ta’u to Ofu. I’ve never been seasick, but this $150, 1.5-hour boat ride is not for the faint of stomach. Was I prone to motion sickness, I would not have enjoyed this open-sea passage. However, that deep sea travel allowed me to witness a local fish catch which was amazing to these palagi eyes.
Ofu and the attached-by-bridge Olosega were the two most beautiful islands of the 5 I visited in Americans Samoa (all the inhabited ones). They make up the panoramic photo at the top of the park’s brochure, and Ofu’s beach is the one you’ll likely see plastered over any enticing advertisement. Riding the boat provided a stellar view of each.
Landing at Ofu, I was greeted by Ranger Brian, his wife, and their dog. The remoteness of Ofu and the extremely small number of people on the island provided one of the most intimate Ranger tours of my entire national parks journey. I was the only visitor to the island during my two days, which meant I was the only person on the entirety of this stunning, picturesque beach, with the exception of when Brian and Rebecca joined me to snorkel (once each day). The charming couple of Deb and Ben, who run the Vaoto Lodge, said they only have approx. 300 visitors per year.
So if you want a pristinely beautiful beach where you could (hypothetically) run around naked shouting obscenities and not be within ear/eyeshot to offend anyone:
OFU is THE place.
Seriously, whether snorkeling or strolling the beach, this is the type of place you can go if you want to escape to your own private beach for some solitude, or would make an incredible spot for a time away with a lover/proposal/anniversary.
I cannot express highly enough this being the “pearl” of the National Park of American Samoa, and an experience 20x better than you’d have on any other of the islands. If you’re going to spend $2,000 to get to Pago Pago, it’d be hard to not ante up for the $500 or so to experience Ofu.
That being said, Ofu is not the type of place to go if you’re looking for a “resort experience.” The meals are cooked by Deb and Ben, the duplex style rooms do not have air conditioning, and there’s no cultural shows or shopping to make you “feel” like you’re experiencing the culture. But the truth is, you’ll experience it in the interesting chats with Ranger Brian about living in such remoteness. You’ll appreciate it while sitting with Deb and Ben for their nightly viewing of the sunset (sitting on the airport runway which is literally in the front yard of the lodge, and steps from the beach). And you’ll for a moment not care about the humidity as you look up at a dusk-lit mountain and realize you truly are in a Robinson Crusoe paradise.
PS – Contact Me if you end up going and doing the proposal, lovers’ getaway, or skinny-dipping experiences above! I want to hear if this blog inspired you 😊
Day 7 – Sunday
Officially, all the trails on Ofu and Olosega are closed, as are all the beaches, because Sunday is meant to be a day of rest. However, because Ofu beach is federal, visitors are allowed to recreate there, and provides even greater security for your private beach experience.
I spent lunchtime with a local family, eating the food from their cooked Umu, and learning more about the lives of American Samoans, particularly how they contrast between those on the mainland and those on the islands (Hint: the outlying islanders think Pago Pago is too fast moving/too big of a city. While I could barely handle the slow pace of life and constant delays of Pago Pago).
Followed by some more snorkeling with Ranger Brian, I rode the Lodge bike to get a sunset view of the famous Ofu beach photo I’d seen everywhere.
Pro Tip: If you want “golden hour” photos of this mini-mountain, arrive 3-3.5 hours before actual sunset. The sun goes behind the larger, western mountain at that time, so your remaining photos will have you on the beach in the shade, and the mountain lit by sun, or shady as well. To determine this, it took me two days of failed golden hour attempts (the first day at 6pm for a 6:30pm official sunset, the second at 4:15pm for a 6:30pm official sunset).
Day 8 – Monday
I caught a very early, very choppy boat back to Ta’u (another $150—cash, you basically have to pay with cash everywhere, but it’s USD which is helpful to American travelers) to arrive in time for a 9:45am flight to Pago Pago…which was delayed 2 hours…
I returned to Pago and attempted to hike the Mount Alava trail, however, it had rained heavily that day, and my KEEN shoes were too slippery to tackle the trail which was very muddy due to the earlier rain. My feet were sliding everywhere and made hiking miserable.
If you want to hike the Mount Alava trail, do so on a dry day, and defy your beach/island-life urges and wear shoes with socks!
Day 9 – Tuesday/Wednesday (yes, really)
8:30am flight from Pago Pago to Samoa (FGI), ***which is a day ahead American Samoa, despite the 1-hour plane ride, followed by a taxi ride and 7 hours of airport waiting (my buffer time in case the Samoa Airways flight was cancelled/delayed) for my flight out of Samoa.
Sharing my week on local Pago Pago radio station 93 KHJ
DISCLAIMER: At the time of visiting American Samoa (February 2018), the flights were operated by Polynesian Airlines, even through Samoa Airways had purchased Polynesian Airlines in 2017. At the time of posting this blog, however, Samoa Airways does not advertise flights to Ofu or Ta’u. Manu’a Airways is allegedly beginning service in “Late 2018.” My best advice is to book your local Samoa flights/boats through local travel agency: TourAmericanSamoa.com - ask for Mike or Paula. This blog will be updated as I receive information from the American Samoa Visitor Bureau.
Arguably the best section of the National Park of American Samoa is Ofu Island. However, getting there is a complicated task. There’s only 1 flight per week, on Samoa Airways from PPG (Pago Pago), meaning you either spend 15 minutes on land between the round-trip flight (15 minutes is not worth your time, and the stamp on Ofu Island is also not worth the money. You can get a stamp at the Tutuila Visitor Center), or you have to stay 1 week, or you will need to take a boat to Ta’u Island (1.5 hour and $150 cash boat ride away) for one of their weekday morning flights.
*Flights to/from Ta'u only operate on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Below are three itinerary options that allow you to reach Ofu.
A reminder that Samoa Airways sometimes cancels these flights and that both my flight to/from Ta’u were delayed 2 hours, meaning you are at risk of missing your connecting flight if you don’t have a buffer day or more. There is chatter of new flights being added, so check with Mike and Paula at TourAmericanSamoa.com before booking.
Option 1. One week - First to Ofu
Monday – Land in PPG via Hawaiian Airlines or Samoa Airways. Tuesday – Morning Flight to Ta’u. Overnight in Ta’u, or boat directly to Ofu (book $150 one-way boat with either Deb at the Vaoto Lodge—the main hotel on Ofu, or Mike/Paula at TourAmericanSamoa.com). Wednesday – Boat to Ofu if having spent night on Ta’u, or 2nd day in Ofu if boating from Ta’u the day earlier. Thursday – Morning flight from Ofu to Pago Pago Friday – Tutuila or fly out on Hawaiian/Samoa Airways Saturday – Tutuila or fly out on Samoa Airways Sunday – Tutuila or fly out on Samoa Airways if they’re offering Sunday flights Monday – Fly out on Hawaiian
Option 2. One week - Last to Ofu (more time on Ofu, but slightly riskier)
Monday – Land in PPG via Hawaiian Airlines or Samoa Airways. Tuesday – Tutuila Wednesday – Tutuila Thursday – Morning flight to Ofu. Stay at Vaoto Lodge. Friday – Ofu Saturday – Ofu Sunday – Ofu – Sunday is a Day of Rest for all American Samoa islands, but will make your private beach even more private. Monday – Boat to Ta’u at 6:30am for 9:45am flight to PPG (but big risk if you fly out of Pago that night and the flight gets cancelled--see below for solution. Your boat to Ta'u--book through Deb at Voato Lodge or Mike and Paula at TourAmericanSamoa.com--isn't a commerical operator, but more like locals "out for a day fishing"). Fly out on Hawaiian that night or to FGI if there’s a late enough Samoa Airlines flight, OR stay till the next stay and fly to Samoa, OR stay until Friday on Tutuila for the Hawaiian Airlines flight.
Option 3. Trip longer than 1 week
Mix and match the above flights/boats for a custom schedule of your own. Contact Me for help creating it based on your individual desires.
PARK TRANSPORTATION & LOGISTICS
Getting to American Samoa (fly or boat):
Flying to American Samoa: Two options
1. Direct flight from Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines.
Hawaiian Airlines has a monopoly on flights to Pago Pago (PPG) pronounced PAH-NG-O, PAH-NG-O. This means that round trip from Honolulu (HNL) will be about $1,000 USD, and from the U.S. mainland upwards of $2,000 USD. And they only fly on Mondays and Fridays, meaning your scheduling is limited.
2. Samoa Airways flight from Fagalii Airport in Western/Independent Samoa
Samoa Airways flies 15-seat Twin Otter airplanes for $50-$100 one-way from FGI (Samoa) to PPG. A warning that Samoa Airways is not your normal commercial airline. You don’t go through an X-ray security scan to enter the plane, you don’t have to put your liquids into 3 oz. bottles, and the planes aren’t pressurized, so bring earplugs or noise cancelling headphones (a slight benefit of the plane ride is that it is a brief respite from the heat/humidity of the islands).
None of the 4 flights I took on Samoa Airways left on time. 2 of the flights (from PPG to FTI, the Manu’a Islands) were delayed more than 2 hours. This is because Samoa Airways only operates with 4 planes, so if one is out for maintenance, they delay or cancel flights (fortunately, none of mine were cancelled).
The airline does do the job of getting you from Point A to B. If you are traveling on a time sensitive schedule, with children, or don’t enjoy waiting hours in non-airconditioned/indoor airports, then keep that in mind when deciding.
My itinerary to Pago Pago: (all prices USD unless noted, and all flight prices include one checked bag up to 23 kg/50 pounds)
I booked my February 2018 trip 5 months in advance. At that time, roundtrip flights to PPG from one of the cheapest U.S. mainland cities reaching American Samoa, Phoenix (PHX), on Hawaiian Airlines were $1,800. However, for the same price I was able to add some other destinations in the South Pacific along with stops to visit Hawaii’s 8 parks.
Essentially your choice is 1. Fly convenient, expensive, and only to American Samoa. 2. Fly less convenient, greater competition for price, and allow freedom to visit other places in the region.
I chose the latter.
1. PHX to Auckland, New Zealand (AUK) - $608 on Hawaiian Airlines (I was not impressed with Hawaiian Airlines).
2. AUK to Apia, Samoa (APW) - $220. At the time of booking, Virgin Airlines was advertising the same flight for $190, but they were awaiting governmental approval, so I booked with Air New Zealand (which was better than Hawaiian, but not as good as U.S.-based airlines like Delta, American, Southwest).
3. FGI to PPG - $50 on Samoa Airways (+ $40 for local lodging/transport). Because of flight schedules, I had to do an overnight in Samoa after my flight to Apia (APW). My hostel in Apia city was $30 and the Samoa Scenic shuttle from APW to my hostel was $10, but you must have 25 Western Samoa Tala (WST) cash to pay the driver, not USD, NZD, or AUD. There is a change booth outside APW airport. A taxi to the city would be 70 – 80 WST.
Also note, if you take this route, Apia is on the other side of the international date line. For example, I flew out of FGI (Samoa) at 12:30pm on Tuesday Feb. 20, and landed in PPG (American Samoa) at 12:05pm Monday Feb. 19.
4. PPG to FGI - $50 (+$35 for taxi). Samoa Scenic doesn’t do departing trips from FGI, so you have to hire a taxi, which should be 70 – 80 Tala.
The international dateline applies again, only the opposite as going TO American Samoa. I left PPG (American Samoa) on Feb. 27th at 8:30am and landed at FGI (Samoa) at 10am Feb. 28th (according to the schedule, but we were delayed 2 hours as seemed to be Samoa Airways standard).
My flight out of Samoa was a 30-45 minute taxi ride back to APW airport, and I had a 7-hour wait/buffer time before my flight out that evening.
5. APW to Sydney (SYD) - $350.
6. SYD to HNL - $325
7. HNL to PHX - $250
Total Price for flights, taxis, and hotels associated with crafting that itinerary: $1,928 USD.
So very close to flying direct PHX-PPG-PHX, but it included visits to New Zealand, Australia, (Western) Samoa, and American Samoa.
If wanting to build in a Hawaii visit en route, you could likely get fares for under $1,000 roundtrip from the U.S. Mainland to Honolulu, then take the $1,000 RT Hawaiian flight to American Samoa. This would work well if wanting to visit the 8 NPS sites spread over four Hawaiian islands, or visit Hawaii in general.
Boating to American Samoa: Two ways
Many visitors to the park do so on a day’s excursion from a cruise ship. While you will only be able to access the hikes and Visitor Center on Tutuila, you can technically visit the park land either on your own via taxi, or with a tour group like those Mike and Paula run through TourAmericanSamoa.com. Tutuila has very little when it comes to beaches you might imagine in the South Pacific, but if you're doing a long commerical cruise of the region, you'll likely get that other places.
The Samoa Shipping Corporation operates one weekly ship between Apia and Pago Pago on Thursdays. (Leaving Apia on Thursdays at 12am--aka Wednesday night--arriving in Pago Pago at 8am. And leaving Pago Pago that same day at 4pm to arrive at Apia at 12am Friday--aka Thursday night). Fares are $65 one-way for adults, $40 for children 2-12, and $20 for infants 1 and under.
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The author, Mikah Meyer, captures photos of Fatu ma Futi