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What Should I Know About Samoa?

There are goldfish galore in Samoa's Goldfish Lake.
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Samoa is a cluster of islands in the South Pacific. The islands together cover about 1,100 square miles (2,800 sq. km), making the nation just a bit smaller than Rhode Island. The islands are located midway between New Zealand and Hawaii, and are politically separate from American Samoa, which is within the same archipelago group.

Samoa was first settled about 3,500 years ago by people from Tonga and Fiji. This settlement continued for millennia, and Samoa acted as a jumping off point for much of the further Polynesian settlement. Europeans made contact with the Samoans sometime in the beginning of the 18th century, trading with them sporadically for the next century. Beginning in the early 19th century missionaries began converting the Samoans to Christianity, and the European powers began taking an interest in the islands.

Britain, the United States, and Germany all took a fairly active interest in the islands of Samoa, hoping to acquire them for their own and laying claim to different parts of the islands. All three nations began supplying different tribes with weapons to fight against other tribes, essentially fighting a war by proxy, although this eventually escalated to sending in their own troops and ships. At the beginning of the 20th century the archipelago was separated into two parts: the eastern half was ceded to the United States, and the western half eventually went to the Germans in exchange for British rights to Fiji.

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In 1914, New Zealand took over the western half of the archipelago, what is now Samoa. Although the New Zealand authorities were relatively benevolent, there was nonetheless a strong independence movement in Samoa, which had begun in 1908 and continued through the transfer of power. This movement, the Mau, was differentiated from many other independence movements of the era by being resolutely non-violence. This non-violence continued even in the face of Black Saturday, when the New Zealand authorities dispersed a peaceful protest by the Samoans with machine gun fire, killing eleven people, including High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi.

The independence movement continued for the next four decades, eventually achieving its goal of full independence in 1962. This early date made it the first nation in Polynesia to reassert its independence in the modern era. The nation was originally styled Western Samoa, to differentiate it from Eastern, or American, Samoa. In 1992, however, the name was officially changed to Samoa, despite some protest from citizens of American Samoa, who felt the change minimized their own identity as Samoans.

Samoa is one of those picture-perfect Polynesian islands that are an irresistible lure to many travelers. For those looking for idyllic beaches, crystal clear waters, and a laid-back pace of life that borders on the comatose, Samoa is the ideal tourist destination. Goldfish Lake is one of the country’s most interesting, albeit off the beaten path, destinations. This lake, Lake Lanoto, is a crater lake that is absolutely full of goldfish. Alternating warm and cold currents, and a lack of a reachable bottom, make it somewhat surreal to swim in. Waterfalls also abound on the islands, with Papasee’a Sliding Rock being perhaps the most popular. This waterfall features an absolutely smooth rock face leading to a deep pool, making one of the world’s best natural water slides.

Flights come in daily to ‘Upolu from a number of other Polynesian islands, as well as from New Zealand. For travelers from the United States, the easiest way to get to Samoa is to fly first into American Samoa, and then take a short island-hopping flight to Samoa itself.

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