This Under-the-radar Island Destination Is Called the 'Cradle of Polynesia' — With Stunning White-sand Beaches, Waterfalls, and Rain Forests

Rich heritage, delicious food, and stunning natural scenery await in the “Cradle of Polynesia.”

Apia, Beach, Samoa

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Most U.S. travelers are familiar with the vacation hot spot of Fiji, famed for its palm-fringed beaches and luxury eco-resorts. Not too far away (708 miles to be exact) sits an under-the-radar gem that’s very much worth the long-haul flight and inevitable switching of planes. Samoa — the “Cradle of Polynesia” — comprises an archipelago of 12 islands. A holiday to this central South Pacific Ocean country promises Polynesian culture, sandy beaches, clear ocean waters, rain forests, and majestic mountains. 

What to Know Before You Go

Vibrant Papapapaitai falls on Upolu island, Samoa

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Of the 12 islands that make up Samoa, four are inhabited. Most of the population — roughly 195,000 people — live on the two largest islands, Savai'i and Upolu. The latter is the most populous and houses the capital city of Apia as well as the international airport and the majority of activities, bars, restaurants, and resorts.

The local currency in Samoa is the Samoan tālā and sene. Most places — especially the open-air markets and virtually all the smaller villages — prefer or only accept cash, so it’s essential to hit the money exchange kiosk at Faleolo International Airport or an ATM before striking out. 

Getting to Samoa

Empty Canoe In Apia Harbor, Samoa

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Samoa is in the central South Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. Getting there does require a bit of legwork and some connections. Most international travelers will fly into Faleolo International Airport, just outside of Apia. Upolu has a seaport for travelers coming by boat. It’s also the spot to catch the ferry to  Savai’i or take a water taxi to the smaller islands of Apolima, Manono, Nu'ulopa, and Namu'a. 

Best Time to Visit Samoa

Alofaaga Blowholes, Samoa

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Samoa’s position near the equator ensures warm temperatures and that tropical humidity that screams vacation throughout the year, making it a great choice no matter when your schedule allows for long-haul international travel. The thing to factor in when it comes to weather is whether you prefer to visit during the more popular dry season (May to October) or don’t mind some precipitation. If that’s the case, just keep in mind that most rainstorms happen between December and March. 

Best Things to Do in Samoa

To Sua Ocean Trench in Samoa

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The natural wonder of Samoa knows no bounds. Most holidaygoers will call Upolu home for the duration of their visit. Staying on the main island offers access to many white-sand beaches along the coast. Warm, clear waters and reefs teeming with marine life are ideal for snorkeling. Meanwhile, the lush inland region is rife with rain forests, waterfalls — including Sopoaga Falls at Lotofaga village and towering Papapapaitai Falls — swimming holes, and peaks.

To Sua Ocean Trench should be on every list. Established in 1978, O le Pupu-Pu'e National Park has the honor of being both the first national park in Samoa and more broadly the South Pacific. It's a beautiful place with much to see and do. At the bare minimum, hike to ancient Pe’ape’a Cave and cool off at the Togitogiga Waterfall. 

Biking is a particularly idyllic way to explore Savai’i. Travelers can book excursions or simply pedal to the various roadside fruit stands and beaches. Looking for more of a cycling challenge? Mountain biking paths wind through forested hillsides and over lava tube caves. You won’t want to miss Mu Pagoa Waterfall, which tumbles into the ocean. It’s worth checking out Afu Aau Waterfalls and Saleaula Lava Field, too. The Alofaaga Blowholes are yet another spectacular natural attraction.

While Samoa may not have the notoriety of destinations like Hawaii, Australia, and French Polynesia, it does deserve some surf cred. With waves of all sizes, the shores of Upolu and Savai’i are great for novices and pros to paddle out.  

Locals love sharing their culture with visitors. Fiafia nights celebrate this rich heritage with traditional music, fire dancing, and food. There’s no better way to experience daily life in Samoa than by browsing the bustling open-air markets. Open every day, Fugalei Fresh Produce Market in Apia stocks a wide selection of native fruits and vegetables, plus cooked staples like keke pua'a, a Samoan version of bao. It’s also located near the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum and sports complex that hosts rugby matches. An early-morning trip to Apia Fish Market is nonnegotiable for first-timers, too. Keen to stock up on souvenirs your friends and family back home will adore? Salelologa Market on Savai’i sells an array of traditional Samoan crafts, from tanoa bowls to coconut leaf fans, as well as clothing and handmade beauty products. 

Best Places to Stay in Samoa

savaii lagoon

When visiting a tropical paradise like Samoa, most visitors probably envision an equally Elysian stay steps from the sand. That’s definitely in the cards at Savai’i Lagoon Resort. It’s also surprisingly affordable given its beachfront perch, airy accommodations, and snorkeling. Amoa Resort, meanwhile, invites guests to splash in a sparkling turquoise lagoon, sip cocktails at the swim-up pool bar, and snooze in cozy bungalows. 

Connected to the mainland by a causeway, family-friendly Taumeasina Island Resort is a dreamy home base with warm hospitality, spa treatments, and an abundance of activities for all ages — among them Samoan cooking classes, fire dancing performances, and water sports — just outside Apia. Nestled on the southeast coast of Upolu, Aga Reef Resort puts an emphasis on natural beauty and relaxation. And adults-only Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa caters to couples seeking the romance and serenity of a breezy villa overlooking Vaiala Beach.

Best Places to Eat and Drink in Samoa

Fish with caponata and salsa verde at Bistro Tatau, Samoa

Courtesy of Bistro Tatau

Food is a big part of Samoan culture. Like seafood? You’ve come to the right place. The local cuisine packs a flavorful punch and spotlights ingredients grown on the islands and caught by fishermen just off the coast.

Hungry to eat your way through the food scene and learn about the heritage of cooking traditional dishes like palusami in an umu, an earth oven of heated volcanic rocks? Consider a culinary tour. If an organized gastronomic activity isn’t your thing, patronizing locally owned establishments will provide a tasty sampling of what’s on the menu in Samoa. Naturally, there’s no shortage of casual seaside haunts. Ocean Club Maninoa and Taumeasina Restaurant & Bar are top picks in that department. In Apia, you’ll find some highly regarded international eateries such as Bistro Tatau and Paddles Restaurant, a family-run favorite with delicious seafood risotto and lasagna made from scratch. Nourish Cafe is a vibrant fusion outpost for smoothies, Instagram-worthy waffles, and bountiful sesame-crusted tuna salads

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