Last updated on March 9th, 2022
Upolu may not be the largest island in Samoa, but it packs an endless supply of highlights for the curious visitor. The island is blessed with waterfalls, vibrant markets, natural wonders and tropical beaches – just to name a few. I spent almost a month in Samoa while backpacking across the South Pacific Islands and here’s my personal list of the top things to do in Upolu.
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Who needs a Gymboree when nature provides natural slides in Samoa? In the outskirts of Apia, Samoans can’t seem to get enough of the Papaseea Sliding Rocks. Brave souls will slide down this smooth volcanic rock and splash in a refreshing swimming hole, a perfect escape from the humidity. The only catch? You might want to check the water level before sliding down, especially in the dry season, as it can be a very bumpy landing if it hasn’t rained in a while… if you know what I mean.
Samoa’s most beloved ex-pat is no doubt the Scottish author of Treasure Island. Stevenson came to Samoa with his family in 1889, hoping its tropical climate would alleviate some of the pain from his tuberculosis. He immediately fell in love with Samoa and its people, eventually constructing the Vailima mansion. Stevenson became very involved in local life, assisting Samoans and advocating on their behalf to gain independence. He passed away in 1894, mourned by the entire country and buried at his request atop Mount Vaea just above the mansion. A visit to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is a great way to learn about the author and about life in Samoa during that period. A short hike from the mansion leads to his grave and panoramic views of Apia.
The best way to explore a new town is by checking out its local market. In Apia, this means paying a visit to three markets. Start off bright and early at the fish market down by the waterfront. Watch as fishermen unload huge yellowtail tuna and enough lobsters to cater for a royal wedding. The next stop is the Maketi Fou, a huge covered market where families sell the island’s fresh tropical produce and traditional food like taro and breadfruit. It ranks high in the list of best markets in the South Pacific, alongside the Papeete market in French Polynesia and the Punanga Nui Market in the Cook Islands. Lastly, visit the flea market during the afternoon for some Samoan souvenirs and island fashions. Do a bit of people watching as children finish school and grab a greasy bite to eat before the bus ride back to their village.
If you arrive at the Piula Cave Pool early on a weekday morning, you might get the chance to float like an astronaut in outer space. The pool is hidden on the grounds of a Methodist college and will be completely yours in the morning hours before the masses arrive. Fed by the freshest of water trickling down from the highlands, I guess it’s the long journey through the volcanic rock that is the secret to the pool’s incredible clarity. Put on your snorkeling gear and go for a swim with silverfish, eels and a strange sense of floating in a vacuum.
Here’s what it felt like to swim in the Piula Cave Pool.
This authentic two-hour experience is not only free, but it will put the rest of your visit to this unique country in the right context. The tour of the Samoan Cultural Village will take you through various stations, guided by Samoans that are as real as they come. You’ll learn how to fashion island essentials from the branches of a palm tree, prepare Samoan food in an underground oven, see an amazing dance show, meet local artists and much more. Throughout the tour, you’ll learn about fa’a Samoa – the Samoan Way. This ancient code of behavior still runs the show around here and you must understand its basics. Do not miss this tour!
This tiny island is just a quick boat ride from Upolu, yet it feels like a world away. You can visit on a day trip and enjoy the swimming, snorkeling and views from the top of the island. But why not just spend the night? The family that runs Namua Island Beach Fales will take excellent care of you, and your little beach hut (fale) will be serenaded by the sweet sounds of songbirds and gentle waves meeting the white sand (see and listen for yourself). With no electricity but a few solar lights, nightly entertainment involves counting the stars. That’s OK though, as you’ll want to get up early to hike to the top of the island and welcome the sun for another gorgeous day in paradise!
The western end of Upolu’s south coast is blessed with a series of dreamy tropical beaches. Doable by car or even on a bicycle, you can spend the day going from one tropical beach to another. Start in Salamumu Beach, where an empty stretch frequented only by fishermen becomes even more impressive on the grounds of the Sa’Moana Resort. Hop over to Matareva Beach where you’ll surely find your own spot for a few hours and thankfully some shade inside a deserted beach hut. Move along to Return To Paradise Beach, the filming location for the 1953 hit movie of the same name. Finish off in Savaia Village at the Giant Clam Sanctuary and swim with colorful clams in all colors of the rainbow.
Though it does rain a lot in Upolu, it’s also the prime reason why the island is so green. And all that water has to somehow get to the ocean, which means… you guessed it! Some of the prettiest waterfalls in the South Pacific are found right here, and you can spend the day road tripping around the island in search of them. The tallest waterfall in Samoa is the Papapapaitai Falls, but my favorite ones are Fuipisia Waterfall, where you admire it right from its very top, and Sopoaga Waterfall, which really can’t get more perfect than this.
You can’t really say you’ve been to Samoa until you’ve managed to step down the ladder and dip in one of the most magical swimming holes in the entire world. The To Sua Ocean Trench is formed by two sinkholes connected by a lava tube and fed by water coming in from the nearby ocean. It’s an absolute mirage from the top and just as dreamy down below. So float on your back, close your eyes and let your mind do the rest of the work from here.
The sand just melts between your toes, the water cannot seriously be this clear and the palm trees somehow manage to bend like an Olympic gymnast. Welcome to Lalomanu Beach, Samoa’s most famous beach that is consistently voted as one of the best beaches in the world. Badly hit by the 2009 tsunami, there’s unfortunately not much left of the reef, but the beach itself is simply stunning. You can come here and just crash for the day but a couple of excellent beach fale accommodations will surely cause you to stay. A mecca for backpackers in Samoa, Lalomanu Beach is the stuff tropical dreams are made of!
I hope this list of the top things to do in Upolu has whetted your appetite. There are plenty of other highlights which didn’t make this list but it only means they are waiting for you to discover them. If you’re visiting Samoa, start planning your holiday with the Samoa travel guide collection, filled with essential planning tips and in-depth information about Samoa.