Pago Pago Harbor and Rainmaker Mountain, AmericanS amoaStopping for water along a mountain trail on the South Pacific island of Tutuila, I listened to a cheerful birdcall pierce the leafy tangle of rain forest surrounding me.

"That's the tiotala," said Pua Tuaua, a ranger working for the National Park of American Samoa and my guide for the morning. "When a group of them come together and give a certain cry, rain is coming."

Tuaua said this small, blue and white kingfisher was just one of many native birds vital to the Samoan people, who first traveled by sea to the volcanic archipelago 3,000 years ago.

"Even today, we still listen for the tiotala to tell us what kind of day it's going to be," he said.

Home to a population of about 65,000, American Samoa is the only U.S. territory south of the equator and consists of the large island of Tutuila, site of the capital Pago Pago, and four smaller islands, including the visitor-friendly destinations of Ofu and Tau and the uninhabited wildlife sanctuary of Rose Atoll.

Although still in its infancy, American Samoa tourism is growing, welcoming more than 15,000 travelers from the 50 U.S. states in 2012, 4.5% more than in 2011, according to the territory's tourism bureau. One of the main attractions is certainly the national park land that travelers can explore across three islands.

My hike with Tuaua over the saddle of one of Tutuila's verdant mountain ranges was relatively short and passed first through pristine rain forest before reaching a remote beach on the park's northern boundary, occupied only by seabirds; warm, blue water; and jaw-dropping vistas of the rocky coastline.

"It's that untouched quality, I think, that makes this place so appealing from a tourism standpoint," Russ Cox, a boat captain working for Pago Pago Marine Charters, told me the next day. "Hiking, fishing, diving, snorkeling, there's just so much to do and see."

Cox took a small group of travel agents and me on a half-day ocean excursion to Fagatele Bay, a national marine sanctuary just over an hour's boat ride southwest of Pago Pago Harbor.

Fishing for wahoo; masi masi, known as dorado or mahi mahi on the U.S. mainland; and yellowfin tuna, we saw all sorts of seabirds and several humpback whale spouts and flukes on the way to the preserve.

Once there, we snorkeled in some of the clearest tropical water I've ever seen over a vibrant coral reef ecosystem for a great look at all kinds of colorful fish and even some spotted eagle rays.

"The table corals in Fagatele Bay are just gorgeous," Cox said. "Plus the fish there are used to not being molested, so they're quite friendly and will actually approach you."

For Loretta Slyh, a home-based agent working with the Travel Store in Sacramento, Calif., the natural beauty of American Samoa was extraordinary but was only a portion of the destination's overall appeal.

"I think the most impressive part is they've really retained their culture," she said.

Pago Pago, American SamoaSlyh, who was one of the small group of agents I traveled with in American Samoa and Samoa, said selling vacations with stops in both destinations made the most sense for her clientele. Independent Samoa is a collection of 10 islands immediately west of the U.S. territory and home to nearly 200,000 people.

Samoa 'surprisingly different'

The Samoas "are surprisingly different," Slyh said, noting that Samoa, which welcomes many visitors from Australia and New Zealand each year, had a more European feel and a far more established tourism infrastructure.

"Still, I think together Samoa and American Samoa were truly the most unspoiled places I've seen in the South Pacific, [and] they're a good fit for people who have already been to Hawaii, been to Tahiti or maybe to Fiji and just want to try something a little different."

Although it's only a 30-minute flight from Pago Pago, traveling from American Samoa to Samoa's capital of Apia, on the island of Upolu, involves a trip across the international dateline and into a new time zone, thus propelling visitors a full 25 hours into the future upon arrival.

Other differences in Samoa are vehicles traveling on the left side of the road; a different currency, the tala; and English with a bit of a British, or perhaps Aussie, flair.

Samoa is also home to more full-service resorts than American Samoa has, and some terrific beachfront properties on the southern coast of Upolu, where I squeezed in an incredible surf session with Neil Lumsden, owner of Manoa Tours.

"Our learn-to-surf program has really taken off," Lumsden said. "In the past, not as many people were coming here looking for activities, [but] now you have a lot more families traveling here, and they are keen to get out and do something."

Also offering products for more experienced surfers, Manoa Tours regularly takes clients snorkeling, kayaking, stand-up paddling, bird-watching and hiking in the Samoan rain forest, offering visitors both the staggering beauty of Upolu's ocean and its inland region.

American visitors "love the fact that [Samoa's] still pretty raw, it's still pretty traditional and it really has a lot less tourist infrastructure," Lumsden said. "A lot of people who've been to Fiji or been to Bali come here and tell me, 'Wow, it's so refreshing to be somewhere with a frontier feel.'"

Visit www.americansamoa.travel and www.samoa.travel.  
 

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