I’m pretty sure I was the only person in Samoa who groaned every time I saw the sun rising in a clear blue sky.
And I was possibly the only person in the island nation who cheered any time I woke to gray skies and, even better, the sound of drizzle pattering on a palm-thatch roof.
That’s because I’d traded the usual South Pacific holiday—lounging by a lagoon and that sort of thing—for a week of cycling around Savai’i, the larger of Samoa’s two main islands.
Savai’i is as close to cycling heaven as you can get.
The terrain is gentle, the road is sealed (there’s just one that circles the island), traffic is light and there’s plenty to see along the way.
The only catch is the heat.
Even the gentlest incline feels like a mountain when the humidity is in the high 90s and the mercury is nudging 35C.
Hence my joy every time a new day dawned cool and gray.
‘The other hazard, if you can call it that, is the risk of developing a repetitive strain injury from waving to every child on the island’
I opted for Savai’i rather than Upolu because, although bigger, it’s a lot less populated.
That means less traffic and far fewer of the bike-hating, semi-feral dogs that plague Upolu.
Plus you’re more likely to experience the traditional Samoan way of life—they call it fa’a Samoa—on slower, sleepier Savai’i.
There are only two hazards facing the cyclist on Savai’i.
One is the dogs, as already mentioned, but they can be sent packing with a few well-aimed stones. (Some chiefs on Savai’i have had the foresight to ban dogs from their villages.)
The other hazard, if you can call it that, is the risk of developing a repetitive strain injury from waving to every child on the island.
One of the charms of Samoa is that any child old enough to speak, even when hundreds of meters from the road or deep in a taro plantation, will wave enthusiastically and call out ‘Bye!’ to any tourist passing on a bicycle.
Older kids walking to school will insist on high fives as well.
It would be rude not to respond.
One of the other joys of cycling around Savai’i is the accommodation.
Basic beach resorts are at most 50 kilometers apart, even on the less developed south coast, and usually consist of a row of fale—simple huts with thatched roofs and walls of woven palm fronds, raised on stilts above the beach—with shared toilets and showers.
Campgrounds are rare on Savai’i and freedom camping is complicated.
All land in Samoa is in traditional ownership which means every beach, forest and field is owned by someone.
Before you pitch your tent you need to track down the land owner, ask permission and possibly pay a small fee.
Even strolling on the beach incurs a charge in some places.
The Samoan Way of Life
I opted to cycle clockwise around the island, which got the longest days out of the way first.
I soon learned the only sensible strategy was to get up at dawn, cycle for a few hours, then take a siesta or a dip in a stream before carrying on once the worst of the day’s heat had faded.
Happily, Savai’i gives you plenty of reasons to take a break from pedaling.
The south is sprinkled with waterfalls and blowholes, the western tip has the best beaches and rainforest, the north is dominated by lava fields and volcanic oddities, and the east has the strongest holiday vibe.
Plus much of the coast is ringed by coral reefs, often just a few meters off the beach, where you can cool off among multicolored fish.
‘On a bicycle you travel fast enough to circle the island in five or six days but slow enough to feel the rhythms of village life’
My personal highlight was swimming through a break in a reef with a chilled-out sea turtle in Manase, on the northern coast.
The island’s most curious sight is on the northern coast where the village of Saleaula was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1905.
Lava flowed through the doors of the London Missionary Church like red-hot treacle, leaving only the walls standing and solidifying where worshippers once sat.
It still bears the imprints of roofing iron that dropped onto the molten rock as the rafters exploded into flames.
Another eruption formed the nearby Peapea Caves, where a young villager walked me through kilometers of underground tunnels formed by flowing lava.
The caves are home to thousands of swiftlets, tiny birds which use sonar to navigate bat-like through the darkness.
You can hear their high-pitched peeps as they swoop through the cave to mossy nests built on ledges.
Even better than the sights, however, is the chance to experience fa’a Samoa.
On a bicycle you travel fast enough to circle the island in five or six days but slow enough to feel the rhythms of village life.
You can peek into perfectly kept gardens and homes built without walls to stay cool, dodge the pigs that have the run of every village, hear hymns echoing from oversized churches, talk to farmers hiking to their plantations or children streaming home at lunchtime, weave through crowds walking to church in their Sunday best, or join village volleyball matches in the evenings.
Or you can just do what the locals do when the heat is too much even for them—find a shady spot under a tree and contemplate the Samoan way of life.
HOW TO CYCLE SAMOA
- Outdoor Samoa, on Upolu island (between Faleolo Airport and the Savai’i ferry terminal) has 70 bicycles of varying types.
- A bike plus lock, helmet, toolkit and handlebar bag costs NZ$35 a day or NZ$155 a week; pannier bags cost an extra NZ$5 a day.
- The company also offers group tours and supported rides where a van carries your luggage (and your bike if you need a break from the hills or the heat).
- The ferry from Upolu to Savai’i runs up to four times a day and takes bikes for a small fee.
- It’s polite to dismount and walk through villages on Sundays, the island’s religious day.
DON’T FORGET TO PACK
- Mask, snorkel and flippers (or reef shoes)
- A flashlight to explore the lava caves
- A serious pocketknife for opening coconuts or cutting up fruit sold at roadside stalls
- Modest (but cool) clothing if you want to join a Sunday church service
- Enough cash to last your stay on Savai’i—cash machines are infrequent and credit cards are rarely accepted
Have you cycled Samoa? Let us know your tips with #momentumtravel
Photos: Main image – Alamy; Body images – Peter de Graaf