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When we moved to American Samoa a year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. This South Pacific archipelago consists of 7 islands with Tutuila being the largest and the place where most people live and visit. There’s not much useful information out there about visiting American Samoa. And what is out there doesn’t really prepare you for the practical side of surviving day to day. Whether coming for a visit to this beautiful tropical paradise, or starting a new chapter of your life, I think you will find these 10 tips for visiting American Samoa helpful to keep in mind when you make the journey to the only inhabited US territory below the equator.
10. Carry Cash
You should always carry some cash while in American Samoa. Credit cards can be used many places on the island. Most convenience stores will accept a card (usually with a $10 minimum). However, there are many stores and restaurants that still accept cash only. While there are several ATM’s on the island, they run out of money pretty regularly. Additionally, the 2 on-island banks, ANZ and Bank of Hawaii, both charge hefty fees for non-account holders to use them. ANZ charges a $6 service fee when withdrawing from a non-ANZ card while Bank of Hawaii’s charge is $3.50. Also, there are times when the credit card machines and ATM’s go down island-wide without warning. Carrying cash will prevent you from getting stuck without some spending money.
9. These Aren’t Your Beaches
Don’t assume that you are entitled to swim in the ocean somewhere simply because you can. Many of the beaches around the island belong to the villages in which they are located in. You will find the Samoan people to be some of the most welcoming and hospitable people on the planet. So, if you ask permission to park and utilize a beach area, most of the time, the people who control that property will grant you access. Always make sure you respect that system.
There are plenty of public places to swim particularly close to the harbor. But, some of these places have curfews and most never permit swimming and beach-going on Sundays. Also, there are many areas with dangerous rocky coasts and rip currents that make swimming hazardous. Just because someone who has grown up in these waters is swimming in a particular area doesn’t mean that you are always qualified or permitted to do so.
8. Beware of the Many Dogs
Feisty and boisterous street dogs run rampant on Tutuila. Some are household pets while others just roam the streets looking for their next meal. They can appear from the smallest hiding place, jump over brick retaining walls, or sense you from across an entire property and make a beeline towards you at any time. Its not uncommon to witness a true dog fight over food or territory at any time.
It sounds horrendous, but there is a way to deal with them. Usually in the more populated store areas, they are more tolerant of people, and you won’t have a problem. Generally speaking though, when on foot the best strategy is to carry a stick or rock in case you need to defend yourself. Most of the time, it doesn’t get this far. Usually, you can deter an attack by pretending to pick up and throw a rock in their direction. You can yell “halu” (haw-loo), which means go away or make a hissing sound towards them, and they usually run off. While it can be intimidating when a pack of them come charging at you, they seem to have more bark than bite.
7. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Shopping on the island turned out to be easier and more convenient than I imagined. Although there are distribution companies and warehouses, it all comes down to shipping. Vendors are at the mercy of receiving shipments to stock their stores. For many different reasons, shipments can be delayed, canceled, or held up at customs. Don’t expect to get what you want at the store every single time. For example, Diet Coke sells out fast in the supermarkets. You might walk in and find no 12 packs available. It will trickle down to the other stores and once they’re gone, you have to wait until the next shipment arrives, which might be a week or two.
This also effects restaurants. They may not have everything listed on the menu at all times. So, it’s smart when making your choice at restaurants to ask what they don’t have that day, or what they have already run out of.
6. 25 MPH Speed Limit
Life tends to move at a slower pace here. This starts with the transportation. The speed limit is 25 on all roads and even drops to 20 in a few places. This isn’t a bad thing when you’re driving the gorgeous beach front drive from Nu’uuli to Pago Pago. Just don’t expect to get anywhere quickly. It usually takes 30-40 minutes, depending on traffic, to drive the 8 or 9 miles to my wife’s office. Bad road conditions including flooding and potholes can add to the commute time.
5. No Physical Addresses
Very few streets on Tutuila have names and there are no physical addresses on the island. The only mail option is PO boxes. This causes issues sometimes when moving over, or when trying to ship from companies that claim that they don’t deliver to PO boxes. The lack of addresses makes it challenging to get directions too. You’ll often find that things are explained through proximities or description. For instance, turn left at the red-roofed fale, next to the banana plantation, and then turn right at the blue store.
4. Don’t Expect to Do Much on a Sunday
As mentioned above, the island moves slow on any day. But, on Sundays, you have to watch time lapse video to see movement. Religion remains paramount for many. This means Sunday is a day of worship and rest. Most people spend time with their families after church. A handful of restaurants and the bigger stores are open, but you won’t see many others out. A few beaches that aren’t in villages, like Airport Beach, are accessible. Stores do not sell any alcohol on Sunday by law.
3. It’s Usually Hot
I feel that we were conditioned to the heat before we moved here. But, this is a different kind of heat and humidity. The heat here usually doesn’t get above the low 90’s but the tropical humidity is tough. Being just below the equator also puts you closer to the sun and you can definitely feel it. Sometimes the tradewinds blow in which will you get a short cool front. This means it might drop to the upper 70’s for a couple days. The weather forecast is the same everyday: hot with a chance of scattered showers. The thick air also makes evaporative cooling an impossibility. Most of the time, this leaves you sweaty on even the shortest trips outside. Be prepared to go through multiple shirts in a day until you learn to live with being sweaty.
2. Island Time
I’ve mentioned that things move a little slower here. Oftentimes, a starting time for an event is merely a suggestion. Island time usually means: we’ll start when everybody gets here. For those of us who are anal about sticking to a schedule, this can be straining. I have seen island time operate in the opposite direction too. Sometimes, someone in charge will show up and start early because they feel like it. We’ve showed up 30 minutes early for a kids baseball game which didn’t start until 2 hours later. And we’ve arrived 15 minutes early for a community event to find that it started 45 minutes early. The tip here is to keep an open mind and remain flexible until you kind of get a feel for how it works.
1. This Isn’t Hawaii, Cozumel, or Cancun.
I feel blessed every day that I wake up in the tropical paradise of American Samoa. I can look out my front door and watch waves crashing on the rocky coastline. To the left of my house, the lush green line of mountain tops cut into the cloud-filled Samoan sky. I’ve seen sunrises that take your breath away and double rainbows that belong on screensavers world wide. This beautiful and unique gem in the south Pacific is an island like many popular tourist spots but that’s where the similarities end.
Many people make the mistake of setting their expectations for this island based on a cruise or vacation they took to some other place. They want to compare Samoa to their experiences elsewhere. Because of the cultural nuances, this place is different from any other place you have visited. The tourism industry here is virtually nonexistent and you’re left to figure out where to go and what to see on your own. So, you have to work a little harder here for recreation and sight seeing, but the rewards are much more valuable. Many times, those rewards include having a beach all to yourself.
Moving or visiting a tropical island doesn’t mean that your cares disappear and that you wake up on a beach every day. You have to keep in mind when you arrive here that you still have the challenges of life here. They are just a little different than in other places. There’s plenty to see and do on this small island. I feel blessed daily that I get to live in the middle of it all. Whether visiting for a week or staying for a few years, you will enjoy your time here if you can be patient and don’t expect Margaritaville. For more to do in American Samoa, see the best hikes and things to do with kids. Happy travels!