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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003

Going Local in Polynesia

Travel Inexpensively with the Island People

Travelers who are reasonably flexible will find inexpensive facilities for transient island people all over Polynesia. To join the locals, just pick an island group and fly to its capital: Papeete for French Polynesia, Rarotonga for the Cooks, Pago Pago for American Samoa, Apia for Western Samoa, and Nuku’alofa for Tonga.

Once there and oriented, you can move off, via inter-island ships or by domestic air services to your choice of “back of beyond” destinations where you will find beauty, authentic lifestyles, and the possibility of adventures ranging from mild to daunting.

French Polynesia

Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, on the island of Tahiti, has the most magical name in the South Pacific—and for good reason. It’s a busy, tropically attractive town that’s surrounded by the beauty of green mountains and an azure sea. Its abundance of amenities are spiced with all the elements of Parisian chic. Consequently, it can be a very pricey place to stay. I put up at the modestly priced, old style, and congenial Royal Papeete Hotel, right on the waterfront.

In almost any direction from Papeete travelers can find simple inns and pensions with a genuine Polynesian environment where you can settle in for from $40 to $80 a double, sometimes with food included, and become part of the community.

The same opportunities exist on the 69 gem-like low islands (atolls) of the Tuamotus where you can book into a private home and enter atoll life. Here you’ll wander among nesting birds, stroll palm-fringed beaches, swim in translucent water, and eat what the sea and thin soil provides with people who enjoy nothing more than a lively party. Lodging prices vary—from $30 to $120 with all meals.

The Cook Islands

The natural beauty of Rarotonga, with its forest-covered mountains, verdant coastal plain, and fringing reef is profound. There’s no TV, no buildings taller than the highest palm, no traffic lights. The people who speak English with a New Zealand accent are friendly, and the American dollar goes much further than in French Polynesia.

Everything seems to work here: you can drink the water and eat the vegetables, there’s no tipping, and it’s easy to settle in for a long stay. You can put up at the Are Renga Hotel for $20, which includes cooking facilities. Or for between $30 and $80 there are pleasant condo-type accommodations near the beach.

For a deeper exposure to Cook Island life fly out the 130 miles or so to the islands of Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, Mangaia, and to the jewel of Aitutaki. Except for Aitutaki, visitors seldom come. Those who do will find plenty of raw beauty, hospitable people, and family-type accommodations that run between $20 and $30 food included.

On Aitutaki, where diving in the turquoise lagoon is excellent, there is one expensive resort hotel, the Aitutaki Resort, and several comfortable inns with cooking facilities that run about $30 to $60 a double. For a spirited evening out, don’t neglect Ralphie’s Bar and Grill.

The Kingdom of Tonga

Most of the 65,000 Tongans live on Tongatapu, the main island, and so do numbers of Indians, Chinese, a few New Zealanders, Australians, and Americans. Nuku’alofa, a town with a population of 25,000, is where it all happens. Here places to stay range in price from $16 to $60 a double. At a distance, easily accessible by air or ship, are the atolls of the Ha’apai Group and the high island of Vavau. In the Ha’apai Group visitors will find small inns and profound hospitality where there are no distractions. The undisturbed palm-clad beauty will either appeal to you or drive you crazy. The cost of living is very modest.

Vavau, on the other hand, is more animated and extremely beautiful. Fleets of yachtsmen from all over the world know a good thing when they see it. Soon the tourists will too. Meanwhile, good accommodations run from $18 to $60.

American Samoa

On American Samoa you’re back under the American flag. There are American magazines and newspapers and TV, American coffee and beer and hamburgers, and you pay for them with American currency. You’re also back to higher prices and a top-down bureaucracy. Still, people who get jobs here—mostly teaching and technical positions—all report satisfaction and happiness. It’s a tropically beautiful high island, but one or two days there are enough for me and I hurry to the nearby jewel-like islands of the Manua Group, where Polynesian life is more traditional and where Margaret Mead once lived and worked. Beaches are pristine. Adequate accommodations are available for between $30 and $45.

Western Samoa

Flying between the Samoas, 60 miles from Pago Pago in American Samoa to Apia in Western Samoa, takes only 20 minutes, but the change is profound. Unlike on American Samoa, thatched-roof fales are everywhere, and in this land of luxuriant greenness visitors see Samoan life at its traditional best. It’s the sort of tradition that exists when a family has plenty of children, one fale for living and one for cooking, some coconut trees, bananas, taro, a canoe, a few pigs, and a church to attend. Apia is a town where you can eat well, live well, and have a spot of fun in the evening. The best place to stay is at Aggie Grey’s. It’s on the pricey side, about $100 a double, but there’s nothing quite like it anywhere for family-style warmth. Aggie Grey, now gone, created this special place during World War II when she provided hamburgers, coffee, beer, and hospitality to the American troops.

There are other, much less expensive but comfortable places to stay in Apia. But it’s at a distance from Apia that traditional life is now to be found. Rent a car and set off into the jungly verdance of Upolu, one of the two main islands, and in five minutes you’ll be surrounded by the essence of classical Polynesia.

If you’ve come to Western Samoa because of second-hand nostalgia, based perhaps on the works of the man who wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, and one of the best books on the Pacific, The South Seas, you’ll want to take the substantial hike up the dense slopes of Mt. Vaea to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tomb. It was here in 1894 that devoted Samoans bore his body to the summit; and it’s here on his tomb, far above Apia, that one reads his epitaph: “Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie / Home is the sailor, home from the sea / And the hunter home from the hill.”

Polynesia’s Birthplace: Savai’i

Then, do not miss Western Samoa’s biggest but less developed other island, Savai’i. It has dozens of fine secluded beaches and a road of sorts that circles the island and connects the villages—villages that are said to be the soul of Samoa and of Polynesia itself.

Savai’i is said to be the birthplace of Polynesia. Here there are waterfalls, jungle, pristine beaches, and prehistoric ruins. While an essential sameness characterizes the neat villages, each with an imposing church, this is what Polynesia is all about. Here one can settle in and soak it up.

Just remember that when you walk into a village all eyes will be upon you, so follow the villagers’ simple rules of courtesy:

  1. Always ask permission to enter a village or use a beach.
  2. Don’t eat or talk in a fale while standing; sit cross-legged.
  3. If you are offered something to drink, probably kava, tip a little out before drinking.
  4. Be particularly respectful on Sundays.

There are several guesthouses on Savai’i. The Savaiian Guest Fale near the ferry landing is for the hardy, but it’s cheap. A good step up is the family-style Safua Hotel, where $60 provides a room with all conveniences and meals. The Vaisala Hotel at the far end of the island is excellent. It has a fine beach, good food, a small band, and offers good fun. Rates there, meals included, are about $60 a double. On Savai’i you’ve got to have wheels. Car rentals run about $50 a day.

Beyond Polynesia, to the west, the world of Melanesia begins. And a very good world it is. There are The Solomons, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and New Guinea. Adventure and beauty awaits. But that’s another story.

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Budget Travel
More by Tom Booth
Take Cargo Ships to Remote Pacific Islands
Voyage on a Ship with the Inuit Along the Coast of Labrador, Canada

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