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As any American football fan knows, American Samoans dominate the NFL, which has earned American Samoa the moniker of “FootballIsland.”  Less known, yet historically significant, especially with the commemoration of the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, is American Samoa’s brush with prior NASA missions.

On May 26, 1969, Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” for Apollo 11’s lunar landing, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, near American Samoa, and several astronauts visited American Samoa after returning to terra firma.  The Jean P. Haydon Museum’s collection in Pago Pago includes lunar rocks and the American Samoan flag that travelled to the moon in Apollo 11. With an extraordinary history as Polynesia’s oldest culture and year round temperatures in the 80°, how was it that I had yet to visit? As a leader for the New York City chapter of Travel Massive, a travel group that provides a networking forum that connects tourism operators and travel media with destinations, I often interact with tourism boards, however, I was unprepared for the level of hospitality the American Samoa Visitors Bureau showed me.

The American Samoa Visitors Bureau answered my simple email request, which asked for a suggested day trip itinerary and vegan friendly lunch options, with an offer of a customized personal tour. It is not every day the current Miss American Samoa curates my itinerary and a former Miss American Samoa serves as my guide, but such was the serendipitous situation I found myself. After she is crowned Miss American Samoa, the reigning Miss American Samoa spends the following year representing her country at home and abroad while working for the Visitor’s Bureau.

The (at the time) reigning Miss American Samoa, Magalita Johnson, was off island tending to official duties at the South Pacific Games in Apia.  As a result, I had the good fortune of meeting Antonina Lilomaiava, who was the first Miss American Samoa fluent in Samoan (to work at the Visitor’s Bureau), and who reigned from 2016-2017.

American Samoa, an island chain comprised of five islands (Tutuila, Aunu’u, Ofu, Olosega and Ta’u) and two coral atolls (Rose and Swains), is an archipelagic oasis in the South Pacific. As one of the United States’ five inhabited territories, American passport holders can visit visa free.

Accessible from Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga, American Samoa is a destination in its own right and can serve as a jumping off point for an onward exploration of the South Pacific. As I would soon learn, American Samoa is steep in folklore.  After touching down at the Tafuna Airport from Apia, Samoa, we visited the Turtle & Shark Gift Shop, a nod to the local legend, which tells a tale of a mother and daughter, whose family refused to feed them during a famine, decided to jump into the sea where the water turned them into a turtle and a shark.

They swam until the friendly residents of Vaitogi Village welcomed them ashore to dine with them. Locals say the turtle and shark will visit when villagers sing a special song.

Although no amphibious creatures appeared while on site, we browsed locally made products such as artwork, jewelry, and Polynesian themed attire including the popular lavalava.  There is also a full service in house coffee bar, which serves refreshing-iced coffee, a necessity on a humid day.

With souvenir shopping complete, we began our island tour and drove along the single one lane ring road that hugs Tutuila’s coastline, passing villages, each with its own chief, to our left, and strips of white sandy beaches with tempting crystalline waters to our right.  We stopped at Flowerpot Rock, a duo rock formation that springs up from the water. According to oral narratives, Fatu and Futi were two lovers who sailed from Samoa to Tutuila when rough seas capsized their canoe and plunged them into the ocean. They swam for days before succumbing to the sea just off Tutuila’s coast.  Their spirits lived on as they transformed into two tree top rocks where they could watch over each other for eternity.

A lush, verdant rainforest covers the majority of Tutuila, and much of it has been incorporated into the National Park system.  Spanning three islands, the National Park of American Samoa, is the only US National Park in the South Pacific and south of the Equator.  A unique aspect of Polynesian culture is that land ownership is often communal. Unlike other National Parks, the US government does not own all of the land that comprises the Park, but rather leases part of the land from eight villages.  The Park is a hiker’s paradise and is home to the famous Samoan Flying Fox, a fruit bat, whose wingspan can reach 3 feet.

Due to a brief, but heavy downpour, certain hikes we had scheduled were inaccessible.  Thankfully, the weather did not prevent us from hiking to Blunt’s Point Battery, located on the Matautu Ridge.  With the capture of Guam and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American Samoa was the United States’ only remaining base in the Western Pacific from which the American military could resupply and train her troops. Blunt’s Point Battery, which once protected Pago Pago, is now a National Landmark and offers expansive views of Pago Pago Harbor to the South and Fagasa Bay to the North.

The National Park also includes 4,000 subaquatic acres devoted to protecting the underwater marine environment.  American Samoa is the largest marine conservation area in the United States. As a Scuba diver, the ocean calls to me like a siren’s song and I always try to dive whenever I am in tropical destinations.  As I was short on time and unable to explore the coral reefs, the National Marine Sanctuary was the obvious choice for a virtual dive into the deep blue. The marine biodiversity here is unparalleled to anywhere else in the United States. American Samoa’s remote location makes it an excellent diving destination with pristine reefs, which are home to 950 types of reef fish and 250 species of coral. The Valley of Giants further afield, located off the shores of Ta’u Island, is where vibrant fringing reefs and Porites coral tower thrive. The most famous coral, Big Momma, estimated to be 550 years old, soars 20 feet high from the ocean floor and has a circumference of 130 feet.

Traveling as a vegan in certainparts of the world can be challenging, and when a vegan option is available, it is often bland and high in carbohydrates. Ruby Red Café, an eco-conscious business that incorporates plant based food options on its menu, was a special culinary treat.  We refueled over smoothies and veggie wraps made with fresh ingredients sourced from local farmers markets. Local travel agent, Levi Reese, who stopped by to say hello, tipped me off to HealthyEats 684, another spot with vegan friendly fare.

Rested and recharged, we continued onto the Tramway Lookout where a cable car once spanned the Pago Pago Harbor from Solo Hill to the top of Mount Alava.

Each year, on April 17, American Samoans celebrate Flag Day, which marks the day the island officially became a US territory in 1900.  On April 17, 1980, as part of the celebration, six paratroopers were to parachute out of a plane. Tragically, the plane carrying the paratroopers clipped the tramway’s cable and crashed next to the Rainmaker Hotel.  The plane exploded and destroyed a small part of the Rainmaker Hotel, the first hotel built in American Samoa. Broken cables and a rusted cable car, remain perched above the bay. A nearby memorial stand as a testament to the eight people who lost their lives.

American Samoa sees 200 inches of rain every year, but such is the price of a verdant mountainous range in the tropics.  In his short story, Rain, W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “Pago-Pago is about the rainiest place in the Pacific. You see, the hills, and that bay, they attract the water, and one expects rain at this time of year anyway.”  The clouds, which cling to the top of Mount Poia, one of the highest mountains on Tutulia, trap precipitation, which results in the Pago Pago harbor seeing more rainfall than any other harbor in the world. Islanders have bestowed upon Mount Poia the sobriquet of Rainmaker Mountain. Rainmaker Pass offers a close up view of its namesake and a panoramic view of the harbor below.

The Afono Pass offers many postcard worthy photo stops, including Pola Island.  Traditionally, young men who were intent on proving their courage and strength would climb this petite sliver of land as a rite of passage.  Today, the island enjoys protected status as a bird nesting area.

Despite influences from the mainland, the most obvious of which is the seaside McDonald’s outpost, Samoan culture is visibly displayed from large outdoor fales where village chiefs lead Kava ceremonies before council meetings to more subtle ways, such as in a person’s tattoos.  As Antonina explained, a tattoo, or tatau, is more than an adornment of body art. In Samoan culture, it depicts a person’s history; it is a unique visual, autobiographical representation of his or her life and ancestry. Due to the artistry involved, complexity, surface area, and use of traditional handmade tools in which ink patterns are transferred to the skin via a mallet and tattoo comb, a tatau can take years to complete.

Just past the sleepy Vatia Village, which feels as if it is located at the end of the world, is where the Pola Island Trail begins.  This easily accessible path leads to a secluded rocky beach whose stones seem to have fused into a cobblestoned coastal path which dead ends into a volcanic archway. Driftwood that had washed ashore made for a tempting makeshift bench from which to sit and listen to the symphony of crashing waves or meditate in solitude.

With my return flight looming, we retraced out path along Route 1 back to the airport, passing church after church. For a small island, Tutuila is big on faith.  Samoa means “sacred earth”, which is fitting for an island where religion is incorporated in daily life, and villages observe a “sa” or short 30-60 minute curfew for evening prayer.  Samoans are devote Christians and spirituality is apparent throughout the island, which translates into a friendliness, love of family and community, and genuine thankfulness for all experiences in life.  In a world where we are all too often disconnected, I found myself envious of Fa’asamoa, the Samoan way of life, and thankful for having experienced it, if only for the day.