Manu’a is the kind of place most people only dream of traveling to. Few people actually take the chance to go. Our family talked about going for over two years, but anytime we asked others about the process of arranging the trip, it seemed so complicated and every time we put it off.
As I got close to finishing the American Samoa travel guidebook, I knew it was time to take on the challenge and arrange a trip for our family to Manu’a.
This is what we learned from our experience.
Getting to Manu’a
There are two options for getting to Manu’a from Tutuila (the main island of American Samoa): Plane or Boat
Samoa Airways is the only commercial airline that currently flies to and from Manu’a. There are flights on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday to Ta’u and Tuesday and Thursday to Ofu. Roundtrip flights range in price from $165-$195/person and one-way tickets are from $85-$105, depending on seat availability. Each passenger is allowed 20 kg (44 lb) checked-bag and a 5 kg (11 lb) carry-on. The exception to this rule is the flight from Pago to Ofu on Tuesdays- passengers are only allowed one 5 kg carry-on.
The planes are small, twin-props with a pilot and co-pilot. There are three seats per row, two seats on one side and a single seat on the other, with a narrow aisle running between them. Be prepared to get cozy with your neighbors.
The flight can be nerve-wracking or at least is can be for me. You feel every little bit of turbulence. But let me ease your mind by telling you that you’re safe. These pilots are trained and fly these exact flights day in and day out, in all kinds of weather. You couldn’t be in better, more capable hands.
The government-run Manu’atele makes a bi-weekly trip to Ofu and Ta’u, carrying passengers and cargo. It takes about eight hours (depending on weather conditions). To find out it’s exact schedule and pricing, contact the Pago Pago Port Authority by phone at #684-633-4251 or by filling out an on-line form (response to the online form can be slow, so I’d suggest not waiting until the last minute).
The Manu’atele is kept clean with rows of comfortable, reclining seats below deck. You can also choose to spend the journey above deck, although there is limited seating. The voyage from Tutuila to Manu’a is usually overnight and the seating is first come first served, so make sure to get there well before departure time for best seat options.
I’d suggest also bringing Dramamine or other motion-sickness pills, even if you don’t normally get sea sick. Just in case. It’s a long way to be miserable.
Getting Between Ofu-Olosega and Ta’u
You could opt to visit one or the other, but if you’re making the journey all the way there, you might as well experience the islands fully. There are no flights between the islands, though, so going by boat is the only way. There are two sea-worthy options: alia or Manu’atele.
Alia (water taxi) can be hired from local fishermen, who are usually happy to take passengers at a moment’s notice. Though it’s best to arrange ahead of time, if for no other reason, for your own peace of mind. Your B&B or home-stay hosts will gladly help arrange your crossing.
This mode of crossing can be costly, anywhere from $200-$300 charged per trip (as opposed to per person), but they are almost always available and very accommodating.
For a more budget-friendly option, you can catch a ride on the Manu’atele’s bi-weekly trip between the islands, if you time it right. The cost for this short inter-island trip is free, making it very affordable. However, you have to work your trip around its schedule and there are often delays.
When we went, we sat at harbor for four hours, because the motor wasn’t charged for the crane to unload the cargo. Still, we had the advantage of comfortable, dry seating and top-deck views for the voyage.
For schedules and contact info, call or visit the Port Authority’s website.
You can also hire alia boats to tour around the islands, for similar costs.
When to Go to Manu’a
All of American Samoa enjoys temperate equatorial climate, meaning you get to enjoy summer temperatures all year long, perfect for island vacations. Instead of four seasons, to plan for, there’s a hurricane season you may want to be aware of, from October-March. This also happens to be the time of year when the Tradewinds die down, making it hot, with little breeze to cool you down. Although, if you plan on spending most of your time on the beach or snorkeling the coral reef, this might not be a problem.
There is a tradition in Manu’a, between Christmas and New Year’s, where the islands come to life. There are nightly celebrations, where the locals make music, dance, and play sports. The spirit is one of fun and excitement. As a visitor, you’ll be welcomed to join in.
The annual celebration of Manu’a Day happens on July 16. The holiday is observed territory-wide, but the real fun is on Ta’u. There’s a parade, speeches, traditional entertainment, and a general spirit of celebration and merriment.
Where to Eat In Manu’a
This is where it gets a little trickier. There are no restaurants on any of the Manu’a Islands. Because of this, the B&Bs and home-stays offers home-cooked meals. Most of them charge an additional price for meals, ranging from $10-$25 per person.
For a more budget-friendly option, many of the these places offer use of their kitchens to prepare your own meals. You’ll need to plan ahead and pack whatever food you plan on eating during your stay. As, there are also no grocery stores and the local mini-marts offer limited food supplies.
Just make sure to discuss the available options, pricing, and logistics with your hosts ahead of time.
Where to Stay In Manu’a
In addition to no restaurants, there are also no resorts or hotels. So, if you’re looking for a full spa, golf course, or cabana boys, you’ll need to either adjust your expectation or look elsewhere. The good news is that there definitely are places to stay.
There are two B&B-type accommodations: Vaoto Lodge and Asaga Inn.
When we went to Ofu, we stayed at Vaoto Lodge and had a great time. The lodge is clean and homey. The grounds seem to be from a Hollywood movie set from the 1960’s classic South Pacific. No worries about getting to or from the airport, as the lodge is literally right on the airstrip. Stay tuned for a full review on Vaoto Lodge.
Asaga Inn is located right by the bridge that leads to Olosega. While I can’t speak directly about the cleanliness or shape of the inn, the location seemed great for bridge jumping, exploring Olosega, or beach play.
There are currently no accommodations on Olosega.
On Ofu and Ta’u, there are available home-stays. Local residents have outfitted their private homes to accommodate visitors in a more authentic setting.
While on Ta’u, we stayed at Eseta’s Place. Eseta and her sister, Ann, were the sweetest, most accommodating hosts. They were great with our kids, knowledgeable about things to do, as well as history and life on the islands. Eseta even arranges trips for people who find themselves overwhelmed by the process. Of all the people we met through our trip, she and Ann were the greatest founts of knowledge. Review coming soon.
What To Do In Manu’a
The national park is the main attraction of the islands and for good reason! The beaches and hiking trails seem to be from a dream (if you happen to dream about that kind of thing).
The must-do activities are snorkeling the reef off of Ofu Beach, biking the road through the park, and hiking Tumu Mountain Trail.
To get a good look at some of the healthiest coral in the world is seriously as simple as taking three steps into the gentle waters of Ofu Beach and putting your face under the water. Of course, it’s beautiful to look at from the shore, but once you put your mask and snorkel on and lower yourself into the water, you become a part of a magical, underwater world that few ever experience.
Although Tumu Mountain Trail isn’t technically part of the National Park, the park rangers work together with the village of Ofu to maintain the trail and keep updated info on their website. The trail is challenging. I did take our two boys to hike the nearly seven miles roundtrip, but they’re used to hiking with me and are good sports. The trail steep in some sections, but generally well-maintained. A new section was added to the end recently, that takes you to the top of the ridge. Here you can look out and see Ofu Beach reef and all three Manu’a islands in one glorious sweeping view.
No joke, this views were some of the most spectacular of my life! Definitely the best in all of American Samoa (in my humble opinion).
We didn’t actually end up spending much time on Olosega, but some of the other people staying at Vaoto Lodge told us about their adventures.
You can hike all along the southern coast, that leads out to a rocky point, looking out over the ocean to Ta’u. The hike takes you over pebble beaches and large boulders and can be quite slippery and wet from the waves crashing against the cliffs nearby. I’ve heard that it’s an incredible place for bird-watching, as some of the rarer species of seabirds are seen from there.
On the north side of Olosega, off the Simi shore, is a drop-off that opens a whole new world to daring snorkelers brave enough to go to the deep blue.
In between Ofu and Olosega in the single-lane bridge where dare devils jump into the Asaga Strait. At low tide, the receding waters expose a sand bar that connects the two islands, but at high tide, the ocean flows back through, creating enough depth to safely jump from the bridge above. The jump is around 20-25 ft high, enough to be intimidating but not so high to be unsafe.
Nate, Holden, and I each jumped twice. We were all terrified to try it the first time (okay, maybe I was the only terrified one, but they were definitely nervous), but had such a blast that we had to go again. Hadley and Kip had the trill of standing on the edge, looking down at the water below, but opted to save this adventure for another time.
Ta’u is the biggest of the three volcanic islands and almost half of it is National Park. We only had time to do part of the Si’u Point Trail. The trail takes you from the edge of Fitiuta all the way to the south side of the island. You follow a wide trail through ulu (breadfruit) and banana plantations, past the Saua Site (oldest settlement in Samoa), and past marvelous pebble beaches. The waves were pretty rough, so we stayed very close to shore and still got a little banged up.
Further along the hike, the trail leads to Si’u Point, where you’ll stand atop the black cliffs, watching the waves crash below. The trail continues past the point, to a waterfall, although I’m told it’s not maintained.
Ta’u also has the tallest peak in all of American Samoa, Late Mountain, rising to 3,159 ft (963 m).
The trail is also not maintained as it is outside of the Park, and local matai (chiefs) have opted not to have it improved for tourism. You can, however, hire a local guide to take you to the mountain peak, where you can sign your name to a short list of people who have reached the summit. There are numerous other hikes to craters and hidden beaches for which you can hire a guide to take you.
The last experience is one for people of all physical abilities. The grave of the last King of Manu’a, Tui Manu’a Elisala, can be found just outside of the village of Ta’u. His grave and those of the previous two tui (kings) are a sacred place for Manu’ans, as Tui Manu’a was believed to have been descended directly from the God’s and his title given to be a ruler over all living things.
The people of Manu’a are very traditional and conservative. Christianity is followed very closely and they expect visitors to respect that. On Sundays, everything shuts down. Swimming and hiking are off-limits except along Ofu Beach. Even the National Park on Ta’u is off-limits. If you’re looking for a place you can still get out and enjoy, Vaoto Lodge is your best bet, as hosts, Deb and Ben, allow you to continue as usual.
They are also very conservative in their dress and appearance. Shorts and tank tops are okay for hiking the trails, but beach wear usually means at least that, or more. At Ofu Beach, you should be fine in your bikinis or speedos, but you will want to consider throwing on at least a top if you’re going to be swimming anywhere else and still want to be sensitive to their culture and standards.
Whether you’re looking to hike trails that lead to breath-taking views, snorkel to other worlds, or spend long days relaxing on pristine beaches, the nature lover in you will never want to leave these paradisiacal islands. Traveling to Manu’a does not have to be the logistical nightmare that kept us away for so long. Through this and other on-line resources, you should be able to have the stress-free island holiday you’re looking for. And if all else fails, call or email Eseta and let her arrange it all for you.
Don’t wait any longer, schedule a trip to see paradise for yourself.
Is this heaven?!
Yes, it is! Come see it for yourself.
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What an awesome read Mel! Like you & family, I’ve been reluctant to plan a Manu’a trip too and a lot of it was planning and going with a willing travel buddy. However, thanks to your review I intend to do a solo trip to Taū. My father is a direct descendant of the late Tui Manu’a Elisala so would love to talk with village locals about my father’s lineage and roots.
That’s awesome Julia! I’m sure the locals would be happy to chat with you about your lineage, everyone we met were super helpful and friendly. Glad this could help. I can’t wait to hear all about it when you get back.