Let's go to Greece for a family bike holiday! The idea was pitched by our friends Mike and Sandra in mid 2022 while the 'post' covid utopian buzz was still fresh; although such exuberance was soon quashed by the cost of getting our family to Europe and back. Perhaps Samoa? Savai’i is nice. It’s closer, cheaper and no one is going to make you drink retsina.
Our almost-family had cycled around Savai’i once before back in 2011 when Sonja was five months into the nine-month stretch that produced our daughter Olive. This time there would be no hitchhiking for Olive, she would do her own pedalling. Mike and Sandra completed the extended family.
During our first Tour de Savai’i, Sonja and I just rocked up to wherever and asked for a place to sleep. This worked fine. But since then circumnavigating Savai’i by bicycle seems to have become rather more popular. Mix in the looming threat of both NZ and Oz school holidays and the popularity of post lockdown international leg stretching meant we were well advised to book ahead. Easy when you just say it but booking anything in Savai’i from afar covered a range from difficult to impossible, although there are companies that can do that admin stuff for you.
I’d best point out that neither Sonja nor I have spent any meaningful amount of time on Upolu. We know rather well the 4 km stretch from Faleolo International Airport to Mulifanua Wharf Ferry Terminal, but that’s it. Both of our Samoa visits have been all about the big island so I shall draw no comparisons between the two. What I can say for sure is that Savai’i is way nicer than the four kilometres of road between the airport and the ferry terminal.
On the subject of transferring from the airport to ferry terminal, or anywhere else for that matter, there are plentiful taxi operators willing to participate in what NZ regulations would almost certainly deem unsafe vehicle loading practices to get you and your bikes to wherever you need to go. Although I don’t think much was going to happen if we did hit another road user, say a pig or a donkey, especially at the 30 km/h that our taxi travelled.
Skipping through the holiday preamble though: arrive at the ferry terminal; unload three people and three bikes from the taxi; leave two cell phones in the taxi; panic; retrieve two cell phones from the taxi; and knowingly allow myself to be fleeced of 5 tala by a chap who pitched a story about raising money for the school rugby team he coaches – what can I say, he was polite and helpful. Anyone who’s recently caught the ferry from Upolu to Savai’i will likely know who I’m talking about.
We eventually made landfall at Salelologa on Savai’i. Mike and Sandra formed the advance party a few hours before us and were there to help carry our laden bike bags 100 m to our accommodation. That was a hot, sweaty 100 m so it was swim, beer, dinner, build bikes, sleep, in that order.
In case it’s not obvious, we chose to take our own bikes, as we did last time. Again, there are companies that will rent you a bike or even plan your trip and move your luggage, but that’s not really our ticket. I was pretty stoked that Olive did her first proper cycle tour on the very bike that I did my first trip in 2005 (I was a late starter). My Santa Cruz Chameleon with a dodgy old seat post mounted rack. Perfect for carrying all the snorkelling gear. One piece of advice if you do plan to rent a bike, take your own saddle, your bum will thank you.
And finally, the holiday starts. Our plan was to follow much the same clockwise route (let’s call it, the available route) we had in 2011, with a few adjustments. (N.B. The tour operators tend to travel anti-clockwise for mystical reasons that are unknown to me.) The route adjustments looked pretty good on paper but more on that later.
Salelologa to Satuiatua
None of our days in the saddle were ever going to be overly challenging even for our youngest riding buddy but the heat certainly ramped up the enthusiasm to smash out the pedalling before lunch if possible.
Day one was always planned to be the longest. It’s comforting for an 11 year old to know that the hardest day is behind her right from the beginning. The 50 something kilometres of jungle-esque road from Kuki’s by The Harbour in Salelologa to Satuiatua Beach Fales meanders up and down, out to the coast and back inland before returning to the coast again. Highlights would include: Afu Aau Waterfall (one of the outright highlights of the trip from a swimming perspective); Alofaaga Blowholes and the Savai’i traffic light (so named because of its location and function). An immediate shoe failure (12 years in my wardrobe was apparently too stressful for my Tevas) followed by a misdirected false start (have I mentioned my navigation skills yet?), an extended swim at the waterfall and a puncture for Olive (turned out to be a small piece of shifter cable courtesy off my garage floor imported to Samoa to mess with our heads) allowed time to get away from us on the first day. As we had two nights in Satuiatua, we skipped the blowholes with a plan to pedal back the following day. Some cheap plastic sliders that got me through the trip and now hold pride of place on our front door step replaced my dear departed Tevas. Sonja’s pair would soon suffer the same fate but she insisted on the electrical tape repair option.
Our trip in 2011 was fairly rushed with just one night at each destination. Sonja and I agreed that it was too quick and we would have liked to spend an extra night at selected stops. Armed with that memory, two nights were booked at Satuiatua Beach Fales and Vai-i-moana Seaside Lodge.
Satuiatua has a beautiful beach with an interesting rocky shelf that splits most of the beach in two. At high tide, parts of the beach above the rocky shelf flood with sea water which creates some great additional swimming options. Past experience made us pack some reef shoes for this trip which worked a treat for exploring the shorefront. Snorkelling is best done at high tide here although Olive and I seemed to spend our entire rest day in pursuit of tropical fish and turtles, while Sonja and Sandra headed back to the Alofaaga Blow Holes that we skipped the day before, and Mike busied himself with a full day of both sitting and lying down.
Most beach fales in Samoa will include a simple dinner and breakfast with each night's accommodation. Some of them, such as at Satuiatua, allow you to choose from a small selection of meals, others are more of a dice role but will try to accommodate dietary requests as best they can, but it would pay to keep an open mind if you have any specific food fears. All of our meals ranged from pretty good to really very good. The best meals were those that included more traditional Samoan dishes such as palusami, oka and anything else drenched in fresh coconut cream. There was also a plentiful array of fresh local produce for sale at road-side stalls. We enjoyed oranges, limes, pawpaw, cucumbers, pineapple as well as taro crisps and coconuts from the market. All of the produce we purchased was top notch.
The fales themselves are simple and for the most part comfortable. Any discomfort I suffered during slumber was self-inflicted after an ill-advised decision(s) to allow an 11 year old spider monkey enough space to throw down her best starfish manoeuvres. If you prefer modern comforts when travelling then beach fales likely aren’t for you but if you’re a regular in tents or DOC huts then you’ll be right at home and the locations are stunning. Approximately NZ$50 to $80 per night per person including dinner and breakfast for accommodation that is better than beach front.
Satuiatua to Falealupo
In my view the most stunning location that a loop of Savai’i can offer is Falealupo. A mere 36 km pedal from Satuiatua but still a very remote village all the way at the western most point of the island. This was my favourite spot in 2011 and by far my favourite this time. The entire fale complex is a beach, the sunset is utterly bonkers, the snorkelling is great, cold beer available and the lovely proprietors were more than happy to harvest a fresh coconut for Olive on our arrival. If it’s the postcard picture of a white sand tropical island you’re after, this is it.
On the subject of sunsets, if, like me, you are one who enjoys a good sunrise or sunset, you can’t go wrong in Samoa. Late June saw sunrise at 6am and sunset at 6pm. Very social hours, very intense colours and very quick to boot. Not so much a golden hour as a few golden minutes. It’s all rather efficient really. In Falealupo you can view all this from your bed on the beach if you desire. It really is just an astonishingly beautiful spot. Very basic in terms of amenities but that just adds to its Robinson Crusoe appeal.
Falealupo to Auala
After an exceptional layover in Falealupo we now address the route adjustments mentioned earlier. I don’t have a solid history of setting routes that can confidently be relied on to get you where you want to go. But this trip was to be different. Savai’i, according to Google Maps has only one main road round the island with the exception of a coastal detour option from Papauta on the way from Falealupo to Vaisala. Take a look, it’s still there as at the writing of this wee yarn, a big yellow main road down to and along the coast. Why wouldn’t you take that route? Well, as it happens you wouldn’t take that route because it doesn’t exist. I know this for certain as we rolled merrily down to the coast on a road that just got progressively rougher. I thought we were being treated to some of the best riding of the trip so far (we were) and the views were beyond belief. But soon enough my enjoyment was abruptly halted when we ran out of road (very much a dirt track by that stage). After searching around for our missing road and a few carefully curated words about my wayfinding skills we turned about face and pushed our bikes back up the rough path we had just descended. Fortunately, we found a consolation dirt road with plenty of shade that got us back on track without having to climb all the way back to the top of the hill from which we had descended 40 minutes prior. Overall, it was a pleasant deviation despite the frustrating bonus climb that added 4 km and a couple of hundred meters of elevation to our scheduled 23 km day.
On cross referencing other map resources (after the fact of course) Sandra’s version of Google Maps showed the road ending where we turned around but also showed a possible low tide route to carry on. Her map however did not show at all the road we pedalled back up, nor did Apple Maps. The most recent Samoan topo map I could find shows my road as a secondary road but not the road we pedalled up, so I feel slightly vindicated.
In 2011 we unexpectedly spent two nights at Vai-i-moana Seaside Lodge as Sonja was a bit under the weather for 24 hours but we both agreed it would be a good place to hang out while feeling healthy. The most 'resorty' place we stayed, but stops well shy of being an actual resort. Here the nightly rate includes breakfast but not dinner. Kayaks are free to use, the swimming is excellent, easily the best salt water swimming of the trip, although snorkelling not so much. The fales are the cheapest accommodation options but also command, in my view, the best real estate. It’s a lovely spot to spend an extra day and paddle the 1.3 km out to the island that helps protect Asau Harbour from the ravages of the Pacific Ocean. Poor wee island doesn’t seem to have a name on any map I can find. We could call it Hermit Crab Island due to the beaches heaving with the critters as Sandra, Olive and I strolled around. Sadly, it could also be called plastic bottle island, a reflection of a greater issue throughout Savai’i. One cannot help being a little concerned at the amount of rubbish that lay at the roadside right round Savai’i, with the exception of maybe two or three well-groomed villages.
On that subject, we took along our own bottles as well as water purification tablets. While the cold water available in bottles was tempting from time to time we couldn’t bring ourselves to contribute to the obvious issue with plastic bottle waste on the island. Beer bottles on the other hand are collected and reused so I had no issues contributing to the economy in that regard.
Auala to Manase
The next day of riding took us 37 km east to Janes Beach Fales in Manase over the highest point of our trip, a whopping 242 m above sea level which, in the 30 degree heat was more than enough climbing for the day. This was also the furthest point inland of our Tour de Savai’i 2023. The long roll back down to the coast offered up some spectacular views.
We’d heard that Manase was the place to see turtles. Olive and I had been fortunate enough to see one chilling in the coral at Satuiatua but the others had missed out thus far. It took all of about 30 seconds in the water to correct that. Floating around watching these amazing creatures go about their day is quite something special. There were multiple turtle encounters before the day gave way to night via the now standard perfect sunset.
Manase to Lano
Our original plan had us staying two nights at Manase as I couldn’t find accommodation at Lano, the next logical place to stop. But I was keen to shorten the 50 km pedal on the last day. There seemed to be two options for beach fales in Lano. Lauiula Beach Fales, where we had stayed 12 years ago but were also fully booked and Joelan Beach Fale. Unfortunately, the later had been very badly damaged by significant flooding a few weeks prior so it was closed. I did managed to contact the owner who offered us rooms in her house. Seemed like an opportunity for a different experience so off we went.
The road from Manase to Lano crosses over a large lava flow created by Mt Matavanu from 1905 to 1911 and for us included a stop at Saleaula Lava Field which is home to the ruins of a church that succumbed to molten lava during the eruption of Mt Matavanu in 1905. This is also the location of what we all agreed were the nicest toilets on Savai’i. Not that the toilet facilities in general leave anything to be desired but these loos had some character.
One thing that had evaded us thus far was oka (raw fish salad) made with fresh fish. There seemed to be some kind of fresh fish conspiracy happening on Savai’i which was a stark contrast to 2011. But our culinary run of bad luck changed when we arrived in Lano. We enquired at Lauiula Beach Fales about the possibility of lunch but were instead directed back down the road from whence we came to Taefu T. Matafeo Store. The sign definitely caught my eye earlier boasting the “best coffee” and fresh oka for $4. The Oka was great and the coffee was good enough for Mike and Sandra to request a second. I’m not sure if it was the best coffee but for sure it was better than the Indocafe instant that had been leading the awards up to that point.
While earlier seeking food at Lauiula they mentioned an umu happening that night with the promise of fresh fish. A deal was brokered to attend and an extended conversation in broken English lay before me when we 'checked in' to the house that would be our home for the night. The young lady who was charged with our care for the night seemed initially confused then rather pleased that she need not cook for us. Although the promise of fresh coconut and banana custard for breakfast garnered the attention and excitement of Sonja and Olive.
Lauiula Beach Fales has a reputation for good food. It would be fair to say, at least from my perspective, that our evening meal was the best we had on Savai’i. Fresh tuna, fresh coconut cream sauce, palusami and taro that was seemingly sprinkled with fairy dust or at least cooked in way that made it properly tasty. The owners' two 12 year old(ish) daughters put on an impromptu cultural show and a generally good evening was had for our last official night of touring.
Lano to Salelologa
All that remained for our last day of riding was a leisurely 19 km flat cruise back to Kuki’s in Salelologa. Before the day could begin in earnest there was the small matter of pancakes, eggs and the aforementioned coconut banana custard, which earned the seal of approval from Olive, Sandra and Sonja.
The short pedal through the most urban part of our Savai’i adventure was despatched before morning tea so there was time to kill. After a swim, I went in search of beer, which proved harder to find than I had anticipated. Sonja, Sandra and Olive headed to the market in search of pineapple and limes. Mike stayed home in search of the inside of his eyelids. Unlike Bono, we all ended up finding what we were looking for. The girls returned with a tropical feast that fuelled the bike packing (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; bike packing is what you do to get a bike into an aircraft) and marked a fitting end to our island escape.
Our final day in Samoa involved an early ferry back to Upolu and a couple of hours seeking coconuts, oka and refuge from the heat at a resort while we waited for our flight home.
Before checking in for our flight we had one final matter to attend to; a pineapple, purchased at the market a day prior. Sonja hacked away at the spiky fruit on the floor of the airport with her trusty Swiss army knife. Once the pineapple had been shared between us and an envious security guard it was farewell to the tropical heat of Samoa and off to the air-conditioned comfort of the departure lounge.
A cycle trip around Savai’i is about the perfect ratio of effort to reward. If you’re new to the adventures of unsupported cycle touring in exotic destinations but keen to push your comfort zone a little, Savai’i could well be the ideal launch pad for you. Your days can be short or long, there are plenty of accommodation styles from budget to luxury and ultimately there is a bail out option every day if things go pear-shaped, all you need is few tala and an obliging Hilux owner.
It seems most of NZ has been riding bikes around Savai’i this year but if you’re not one of those people then maybe think about giving it a go. It’s fun.
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