Aggie Grey’s a fabled inn

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Robert Turnbull

Retired New York Times correspondent 

Published: May 9, 1982

Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia, the capital of the independent Polynesian state of Western Samoa, has been a legend among generations of South Pacific travelers for its fabulous informality and friendliness, not to mention the variety of guests, who may range from a visiting ambassador to a tattooed - but university educated - Samoan chief in town on business or holiday.

No less a legend is the octogenarian Mrs. Grey herself, who is believed to be the only woman innkeeper ever honored with a postage stamp and is known to have been one of the several island businesswomen who inspired the composite character of Bloody Mary in the Broadway musical and movie adapted from James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.”

The famed stamp.

The famed stamp.

About a decade ago the Western Samoan Government issued a stamp, one of a series promoting tourism, bearing a picture of Mrs. Grey and her picturesque, old-fashioned hotel’s central building, a landmark at the eastern end of the curving Apia waterfront. The stamp gave the establishment, already famous in the South Seas, worldwide free advertising.

There are newer hotels in Apia now, but many cruise passengers landing at the port’s main pier still make a beeline for Aggie’s, which is just a few steps away. So do knowledgeable island officials, diplomats, scientists, writers, businessmen and others arriving at Faleolo Airport, 26 miles away near the western end of Upolu, one of western Samoa’s two main islands.

Instant camaraderie is part of the charm that has drawn generations of South Pacific travelers back to Aggie Grey’s Hotel. “It is hard to be lonely there,” explains a frequent guest.

When the rat-a-tat of a Samoan wooden drum calls patrons to meals, you never know where or with whom you will be eating, for the breezy Samoan waiters seat the guests according to their own inclination. 

There are no reserved tables. Waiters serve the food from trays that contain a selection of Polynesian and Chinese as well as Western fare, and guests are urged to sample all three.

In the downstairs bar, open on three sides to the fresh breezes off the ocean just across Beach Road, the rambling town’s potholed main street, all Apia gathers in the evening. The cheery Samoan waitresses, who mix the drinks as well as serve them, soon get to know a newcomer’s nickname and may even greet a new arrival with a playful slap on the back.

Aggie Grey herself, who often surveys the scene from a stool at the tiny serving counter, turned the actual management of the establishment over to her son, Alan, a few years ago. The hostelry she developed is the quintessential South Seas inn of a bygone era, preserving the aura of the past but with such modern amenities as airconditioning.

The famed stamp.
The famed stamp.

Mrs. Grey, the daughter of a British settler who married a Samoan, developed the hotel from a sandwich stand catering to American servicemen stationed in Western Samoa during World War II. 

The decor is pure South Pacific Art Deco. The wood carvings and arrangements of seashells on exterior walls and pillars are a mishmash of Polynesian and Melanesian themes unidentifiable with any particular island.

The rooms are plain, but each has its own refrigerator and an ironing board that lets down from the wall, plus a telephone. More elaborate accommodations are contained in the nearby cluster of separate cottages with thatched roofs, modeled after the traditional Samoan village house, or fale (sounds like folly).

Most rooms are in the two-story wings that form a quadrangle enclosing the large swimming pool and one giant fale that is used for the hotel’s regular feasts and entertainments. 

The wings are new additions to the venerable main building, a white-painted wooden structure that resembles an old-time plantation owner’s mansion.

From the dining room in the old building, which also contains the lobby, there are views of Apia Harbor on one side and a tangle of tropical vegetation in other directions. The plantation atmosphere is enhanced by the daily pouring of afternoon tea, served free with cookies, on the broad veranda overlooking the luxuriant, garden and pool.

Another gracious touch are the wicker tables outside each room, on which a maid places a spray of freshly picked hibiscus every morning, along with a pot of steaming hot “morning tea” and a banana or two to tide one over until breakfast is served in the dining room. The hotel is not geared for room service.

The rates at Aggie Grey’s are a bargain. Rooms are $46 single, or $69 double, including all meals, and this plan is recommended since Apia is not noted for fine restaurants. 

Without meals the single rate is $35 and the double rate $43. Tipping is discouraged, being considered contrary to the Samoan tradition of hospitality.

The huge festival fale mentioned above consists of a high thatched roof supported on poles of polished native hardwood in the traditional Samoan manner, without walls. It is described in hotel folders as “the biggest Samoan-style building in the South Pacific,” and, for good measure, “the biggest nail-less building in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Inside is a bar and long buffet tables for the almost nightly fiafia, or Samoan feast. The bounteous food laid out for self-service includes the favorite Samoan dish called palusami, consisting of finely chopped green tops of young taro and creamed coconut baked inside a section of banana leaf. 

Other native dishes include suckling pig roasted in an underground oven called an umu, succulent local crab, baked fresh fish, baked taro - the tuberous Polynesian staple - baked breadfruit and a profusion of exotic tropical fruit.

There are wooden chairs for visitors who find it uncomfortable to sit cross-legged on woven mats in the native fashion. The evening entertainment is furnished by a troupe of young male and female singers and dancers recruited by Aggie from the village just outside the hotel’s grounds.

If Aggie is in town, she invariably turns up at the show in her customary flowered puletasi, the Samoan long gown, and joins the girl dancers for a few steps of the lively siva-siva, the provocative local version of the Hawaiian hula. At 84, she is still a handsome woman - and remembered by old-timers in the South Pacific as the reigning belle of Apia in her youth. If you go to Western Samoa R.L. Stevenson Pilgrimage Western Samoa, which gained independence from New Zealand in 1962, is best known as the last home and resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island.” The Samoans called him Tusitala, or Teller of Tales. His grave is a place of pilgrimage for visitors hardy enough to make the 500-foot climb. The new Stevenson Museum and Stevenson’s house, Vailima (now the official residence of Western Samoa’s head of state), are a short drive from Apia. Beaches and Excursions: Upolu, the island on which Apia is situated, abounds in beautiful beaches, some of white sand and some coal black. Check them out for safety before swimming alone, as some have treacherous currents. When to Go: The best time is from May through October, when the average rainfall is far less than that in other months. The daytime temperature hovers around the mid-80’s year round, dropping to the low or mid-70’s at night. 

How to Go: Access to Western Samoa from Honolulu, 2,200 miles to the north, is by South Pacific Island Airways (telephone 800-367-5396), which flies on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday to Pago-Pago in American Samoa, about 100 miles away. There are connecting flights to Apia in Western Samoa at frequent intervals all day. From Hawaii, the airline’s round-trip, 30-day excursion fare to Apia is $594, with free drinks and movies. R.T.

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