Destinations, April 1997
Seumanutafa Gisa Tiitii fondly calls his fale in the tiny Samoan village of Falealupo a "resort," but that's an expansive definition of the term. This hut has no walls and a casually communal attitude. Every night, Gisa and his wife, children, grandchildren, second cousins, and several stray friends snore away on mats just a few feet from their paying guests' mosquito nets. Though cozier than some travelers might desire, this take on "resort" living has undeniable charms: During the night, sea breezes mimic air conditioning, and come dawn, your hosts will eagerly direct you to follow the tattooed spearfishermen striding off toward a deserted white-sand beach and a private offshore coral reef.
Fales (pronounced "FAH-lays"), a uniquely Samoan creation, have been operating as a commercial venture since the 1960s, when budget-minded paradise-seekers first descended on the Western Samoan islands in large numbers. They asked to spend the night with villagers, and the villagers, most of whom lived in the ramshackle, open-air bungalows, obliged. Not until 1995, though, did the fale circuit become an official institution. It was then that about 30 Western Samoan villages united under the banner of the government-sponsored National Ecotourism Program. Participating villages now charge a standard rate for overnight use of a fale (currently $20 per person per night), which includes a foam mattress, clean sheets, mosquito netting, guide, and meals--typically fresh fish, roasted breadfruit, and papaya. Host families usually have at least one English-speaker, plus a cook who understands that foreigners don't always share the Polynesian passion for Spam.
In return, the families get publicity for their fale in a government-printed brochure and are encouraged to put their profits to "ecologically beneficial uses," such as building gutters to collect rainwater. The fale system thus has become not only the most colorful way for foreigners to see remotest Samoa, but also among the most conscionable.
To create your own fale-a-day tour, start in the Maughamesque capital of Apia, on Upolu, the smaller of the nation's two main islands. There you can purchase a copy of the government-issued handbook, Eco-Tour Samoa ($10), which lists all available fales. You can also get the names of local hosts from the Visitor's Bureau, on Beach Road (011-685-20180). Don't worry about reservations: They're virtually impossible to attain and rarely necessary. Instead, rent a four-wheel-drive Suzuki ($300 per week from Funway Rentals, 685-22045) and just cruise from one village to the next. In the unlikely event that a fale is full, the host family will gladly point you to another nearby.
One typically paradisiacal route leads from Apia to the secluded village of Uafato. Here Fagaloa Bay laps at the doorsteps of the village's participating fales, and waterfalls gurgle from a nearby mountainside. Uafato is also trailhead for a tough four-mile hike through rainforest and along rugged, serrated beaches to the village of Tiavea.
Should such activity induce the need for beachbound sloth, consider catching the car ferry from Mulifanua, on Upolu, to the larger, more sparsely populated island of Savai'i. Here the relaxed ethos of fa'a Samoa--loosely translated, "the Samoan way"--is even more pronounced. There may be nowhere else on earth quite so soporific as Falealupo, on the
island's westernmost tip. But before drifting off in Gisa Tiitii's fale there, as the pigs grunt in their sleep nearby and baby chickens scramble over your chest, be sure to check the position of your feet. There are few rules of etiquette for fale visitors. The most important: Don't point your feet at your Samoan host--it's a dreadful insult. And never raise an umbrella when
walking past a chief. The fine for such an infraction can be as high as two live chickens, not a currency that most visitors to Samoa have in ready supply.