The natural landscapes of Samoa are similar to other Polynesian islands: thin strips of coastal lowlands and rugged interior highlands. It is the Samoan islands’ surfable waves and sandy beaches that have made them viable alternatives to other Pacific vacation destinations.

However, Samoa’s tourism numbers are still modest compared to the region’s big shots, Hawaii and Tahiti. Samoa’s infrastructure is not nearly as modern as these more-visited islands, so most of the 75,000 people who travel annually are not part of the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, all-inclusive-resort-going demographic. Most visitors to Samoa are seeking to avoid mainstream tourism.

The nation of Samoa is made up of two main islands. Most eco-tourists focus on Savaii, an island with little infrastructure and few inhabitants. There are only a handful of villages where people live a subsistence level lifestyle. Upolu, which is home to a majority of Samoans, is a much more crowded and modernized island, but it is nowhere near as touristy as Oahu or Bora Bora. American Samoa is an unincorporated part of the United States, not a part of the nation of Samoa. It consists of five small islands and shares a similar topography with its independent cousin.

The islands of Samoa and American Samoa are probably not the most convenient tourist destinations, but they are good places to experience the real culture and natural landscapes of Polynesia.

Sleep green

Many of the resorts and hotels in Samoa are basic. Small scale sleeping options are the only choice on eco-touristy Savaii. The Savaii Lagoon Resort is an eco-friendly spot located on a choice piece of oceanfront. The accommodations consist of a handful of bungalows. The resort filters its own water and also has an onsite waste treatment system so that sewage does not flow into the lagoon. This is typical of the simple, beach bungalow resorts of Samoa. Many of these accommodations are owned by local families or villages and are known as fales .

Eat green

Traditionally, locally sourced ingredients are used to make all the food eaten on the islands. Vegetarians will have a few choices, but most meals are centered around meat or fish. There are plenty of places to purchase local food (as well as an abundance of fast-food outlets, especially in the capital city of Apia). Marketi Fou is the main market in Apia. Here visitors can find fresh produce and foods and other anti-McDonalds eating options. Taro, coconut, fruit and seaweed are popular non-meat ingredients in Samoan cuisine .

See green

The island of Savaii is one of the least developed islands in the South Pacific. There is little tourism infrastructure but plenty of accessible natural attractions. One of the most popular and publicized attractions is the Satoalepai Turtle Preserve , a place where tourists can swim with and feed sea turtles rescued from the nets of local fishermen, who sometimes snare them accidentally. The turtles are held in brackish water ponds and cared for by locals before being released back into the wild when they are ready to mate. There is a $10 fee to enter the preserve.

Another attraction is the Falealupo Rain Forest Reserve . This area was saved from logging and is now one of the nation’s premiere natural areas. The most popular feature of Falealupo is a canopy walk (a walkway/bridge suspended above the forest). This is a major draw and helps preserve the nature in the area as it brings tourist dollars into the local economy and keeps the lush forests from being trampled upon. The park also has wetlands, jungle trails and isolated beaches.

Upolu is more crowded and developed than Savaii, but still boasts plenty of eco-tourism opportunities. One of the most convenient is Uafato Rainforest Reserve . It is located only a short distance from the capital city of Apia. This is an area like Falealupo that seeks to preserve the hardwood forests of the islands. Trails wind past waterfalls and the habitats of jungle mammals and native bird species. The local economy is based on woodcarving (and tourism, of course). Villagers in and adjacent to Uafato make a living by selling wood carvings to visitors.

The National Park of American Samoa is the biggest reason for green-minded travelers to visit the U.S.-controlled portion of Samoa. Actually, several park areas span parts of four of the five major islands of American Samoa. This is a unique park because it is in the early stages of development, meaning that the landscapes are natural and have not (yet) been overused or overcrowded. The American Samoan island of Ofu is a standout among the five islands. It is known for its secluded beaches and also for archeological sites that have evidence of human habitation dating back over 2,500 years.

The lack of infrastructure in Samoa might turn off travelers desiring vacations in mainstream destinations. But even mildly enthusiastic eco-tourists will appreciate the fact that Samoa’s tourism industry is built on locally owned resorts and small scale tour operators. With a majority of the land on Samoa undeveloped, there are plenty of places for land-based adventures and also world class water sports as well.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Destination of the week: Samoa
Get back to the basics with these South Pacific islands' unspoiled scenery.