Story & Photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Want to get away? If there ever was a remote, far-flung location, it is the National Park of American Samoa. This tiny archipelago of a few small dots is deep in the far reaches of the vast Pacific Ocean between Tahiti and Fiji. By air, it is about five hours past Honolulu and about 4 hours north of New Zealand.
A heck of a trip for a photo outing: more like a pilgrimage than a vacation!
Like the rest of the islands in the South Pacific, these are volcanic, having been formed by undersea lava flows long ago. Many, such as tiny Ofu, also feature brilliantly colored coral reefs encircling sparkling lagoons. About 13,500 acres are protected in the national park.
The raw beauty of these islands is simply spectacular! As a bonus, the laid-back atmosphere of Polynesia makes a visit here a complete tropical experience right out of Defoe or Michener.
Good things to know
As you might expect, the best light generally happens in the early morning and again late in the day through sunset. However, here in the tropics, rain showers can occur at any time and, where there are showers, there are often rainbows. So, keep the sun at your back and your eyes open for a variety of special atmospherics.
Samoa has a rainy climate, but the rains substantially abate during the dry season, roughly from June through September, making that the best time of year to go. Be sure to bring your wicking apparel and insect repellent. You’re in the tropics, after all.
These hilly little islands feature lots of sharply sculpted mountains, lush tropical forests, glowing sand beaches and dramatic surf. These natural features can help make winning images and can be the most important elements of many of your compositions.
The best photo locations in this remote park are in relatively small areas on all three islands.
- Tutuila – Drive north from Pago Pago, turn north at Aua and go over Maugaloa Ridge toward the tiny village of Vatia.
Stop at the well-placed overlook for a high view of the grand scene before you. Then drive down the hill and around Vatia Bay toward Pola Island. Park at the beach and explore. Be very careful! The surf and tides here can be strong.
- T’au – A single unpaved, but very passable track penetrates the park area of T’au.
Along the way are beachy spots such as the Saua site. Continue south to the end of the little road and walk out to the beach. Walking west on the beach will bring you to Si’u Point. Stay alert for the waterfall off to your right.
- Ofu – Perhaps the best views of tiny Ofu can be had by driving east over the bridge to neighboring Olosega Island and looking back to the west from along the beach. Volcanic Tumu Mountain makes a good composition from here.
A visit to the National Park of American Samoa is a natural stopover when traveling to or from New Zealand. Another good option is to simply add this beautiful place on to a trip to Hawaii.
Let’s talk logistics, because there are some important wrinkles.
Hawaiian Air offers great service between Honolulu and American Samoa. Your flight will arrive at Pago Pago airport on the main island of Tutuila. The two other main islands, T’au and Ofu, are collectively called Manu’a.
There is some air service between Tutuila and T’au, but not every day. Check locally and hope that the plane actually runs as advertised. Some days it does; others, not so much.
Lovely Ofu has no commercial airport. The small landing strip there is reserved for government use. Traveling between T’au and Ofu is strictly via small boat.
It’s a pretty informal system: be sure to make arrangements in advance. These boats do not run on Saturdays. On T’au the tiny airport and the boat dock are on opposite sides of the island. It’s an adventure.
Lodging will require some advance planning. If you are open to operating outside of your traditional comfort zone, all should be well. Tutuila has some good accommodations, but these are not near the national park itself. Actually, staying within the park boundary requires living with a local family in the villages of Vatia or Fagasa. See the park website at www.nps.gov/npsa for a list of the families who have signed up to accept visitors as paying guests.
Car rental agencies are plentiful in Pago Pago.
The little family-operated Va’oto Lodge on Ofu is an excellent and charming place to stay. The small cottages are basic, but clean and comfortable and the food is really excellent. You could not ask for more. The folks there may also be able to supply you with a vehicle.
T’au is even more unique. Your best bet there is to contact part-time National Park ranger Mauga Nofoaiga to discuss the specifics of your lodging and transportation needs.
Exploring the National Park of American Samoa, and the rest of this lovely territory, is a photographer’s, and an adventurous traveler’s dream.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.