10 Unique Homestay Experiences at the National Park of American Samoa
The National Park of American Samoa is nothing if not unique.
The park, located on the U.S. territory of American Samoa, is the furthest we will travel this year. It’s the only park that you’ll need a passport to access. It’s home to several plant species found nowhere else. And, fortunately for us and other park visitors, it boasts an immersive homestay program.
Visiting the National Park of American Samoa presents two lodging choices: hotel or homestay. There is no camping available anywhere on the island. Upon learning this, Cole and I discovered that the homestay was the best option. After just a few hours into our trip, we were happy to realize we made the right choice.
Our homestay experience closely matched the NPS description of what it would be like. We stayed with a family in Vatia, a small remote (even on the remote island of American Samoa) village smack dab in the middle of the National Park, were served traditional and modern Samoan fare, were shown around the island, and guided in our stay.
More specifically, during the days, we hiked (5.2-mile Mount Alava Adventure Trail, .1-mile Pola Island Trail, .6-mile Blunts Trail, 2.2-mile Tuafonua Trail, .4-mile Lower Sauma Ridge Trail), toured the visitor center exhibits, and visited a couple out-of-park museums (Jean P. Hayden Museum, National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Center). Evenings were filled with playing sports with the kids, dancing, and chatting with our family.
The only downsides we encountered were difficulty in communication, as we tried to coordinate the stay over the phone, slight confusion over cost, and a feeling of discomfort (which we appreciated by the end, as you’ll read below).
For our 24th park on our year-long tour, it felt like a great break from the typical way we do travel. It was admittedly intimidating to coordinate plans with a random family before a trip to a foreign country. Communication over the phone was spotty, and we weren’t sure if someone would even be there to pick us up from the airport.
But the family was there.
Ahead of us, we had a bed and were served plenty of food. We had more entertainment and cultural opportunities than most people would try to squeeze into a week.
Ten Experiences You Only Get with a National Park of American Samoa Homestay
- Traditional family eatin’ & meal prep: Certainly you can buy Samoan food at a number of restaurants and grocery stores throughout the island, but we can’t imagine an experience like being served breadfruit, guava, cocoa rice, taro leaves, papaya, or straight-from-the-coconut water in the place where you’re staying. It was clear from the start that much of what Samoan families in our village eat grows close to the home. In addition to eating, the intimacy of the homestay program allowed for us to accompany the family out to their personal plantation and watch as they retrieved coconuts for part of dinner that night. We were rewarded with even more fresh coconut water.
- Dancing: After an evening of preparing, serving and eating dinner, our Samoan family, we were told like many other families, like to enjoy a healthy dose of music and dancing. The entire family participated in this fun ritual, busting a move to a mix of American pop (pretty sure the Whip & Nae Nae is a universal language) and Samoan favorites. The kids weren’t shy in inviting us to dance with them, and we went to bed tired but happy each night.’
- Community: In our experience, Samoan villages were very close-knit. Neighbors we never even met greeted us as we arrived home each evening, and wished us safe travels when we left. Kids gathered from houses all around to play football or rugby or I Spy in the evening, and our family gladly served ice cream to neighbor kids during our farewell celebration. All through the village was a strong sense of community, and it was refreshing, after living on the road for half a year, to witness this closeness.
- Natural backyard wonders: Prior to coming, we read that flying foxes (fruit bats) are a huge reason the national park protects land on American Samoa. We also heard that there are only a few places where seeing these bats is possible. However, at our Vatia home, we got to see dozens of these three-foot-wingspan “pe’a” swooping around every evening, and roosting in nearby trees by day.
- Spiritual traditions: We had no idea what a strong role religion played in the lives of American Samoans, but we quickly saw the importance. We spent our Sunday morning attending church and Sunday School, and afternoon observing intentional rest. In addition, we participated in the nightly village-wide moment of prayer. From wherever you stay on the island, it’ll be clear that religion is important. But staying with a family adds a whole different insider’s view into the spiritual life of an average Samoan.
- Personal tour guides: In addition to being guided to and from the family’s fruit plantation, kids in the family also showed us around their village: where they go to school, go to church, buy groceries, and fish. They taught us helpful Samoan phrases like “hello,” (talofa) “thank you,” (fa’afetai) and “I’m full” (maona). They also led us along the Pola Island Trail, an easy .1-mile path to a gorgeous view of both Vatia village and Pola Island. We were being led around by people who literally walk those roads every day. Can’t beat that.
- Secrets: Besides just the general logistical village tours, the kids were more than happy to show us a few off-the-beaten-path secret spots they frequent. They showed us a waterfall in the back of the village they jump around in. This was a spot we had to cross backyards and several properties to access, and we never would have gotten here if it weren’t for our personal guides. One evening, a family member led us to one of our favorites spots of the trip: a freshwater tank high up a stream that Samoans go to rinse off after a sweaty day of work. It was heavenly.
- Transportation: When we first drove out with the family from the airport to the village of Vatia, we were second-guessing our decision not to rent a car. But the location of the village relative to most of the hiking trails, combined with the simple bus system, made it very uncomplicated to get around. Our family was helpful in providing info about the public transportation, and it was an easy system to manage. Because we were in such a close-knit village, many people offered a ride when we didn’t even need one.
- Tested comfort zones: In all international travel (and much domestic travel, too), there is a degree of discomfort that happens. In American Samoa, for us, this feeling was heightened by the fact that we didn’t know where exactly we’d be staying and were intimidated by the distance we were traveling. We felt a lot better once we settled in with the family, but the feeling never totally disappeared. We didn’t know the primary language. We were racial minorities for the week. Most of the customs — like the nightly village curfew, in which the whole island shuts down for 15 minutes of prayer — were foreign. Other traditions too, like not sitting on the floor with your legs straight out, had to be learned. But the homestay made this learning process not only more comfortable but extremely interesting and enjoyable. The family seemed to cherish the opportunity to teach outsiders their deeply meaningful customs.
- Deep connections: As we packed our bags and said our goodbyes, things got emotional. It seemed like we had been there longer than a week. For a week, the hospitality was incredible. We were served delicious food we’d never tasted, guided to places like we’d never seen before, and introduced to people we’ll never forget. The experiences we made with our Samoan family are ones we’ll keep very close to our hearts.