Even after a full day of travel, you’ll find it’s impossible to feel tired in the Pacific paradise of Palau. Fleeting thoughts of a jet lag–induced nap quickly evaporate in the face of such exotic adventures as cliff jumping, diving with sharks, and snorkeling amid colorful coral gardens and exploring World War II wreckage. In fact, it might be a good idea to skip your morning coffee, because an adrenaline rush of epic proportions awaits at every twist and turn; behind every coral reef; and atop every cliff.
It is easy to forget that time even exists in Palau, which natives call Belau — tucked away in western Micronesia, it is multiple time zones away from “real” life. Visitors leave behind the harried business world to revel in nature in its most pristine form. In fact, the untouched natural and historic wonders of Palau are truly this island nation’s greatest resource. More than 500 islands — only nine of which are inhabited — create the Palau archipelago. The smallest island is home to just two adults.
Some of the world’s most diverse marine life thrives in the islands’ sapphire waters. Palau boasts some 1,400 fish species and close to 500 hard coral species, creating a nirvana for divers and snorkelers. Divers of all levels can find challenge and beauty in the more than 70 registered dive sites. Ocean pioneer Jacques Cousteau bestowed the title of “best dive wall in the world” to the Ngemelis Wall, better known as the “Big Drop-off.” Native divers also recommend the world-famous Blue Corner, filled with gray reef sharks and a spectrum of other marine species.
Those who prefer to swim closer to the surface have ample opportunity to explore the underwater world of Palau through snorkeling. An all-day boat excursion ferries visitors to the more popular sites among the Rock Islands. A must-see stop is Jellyfish Lake, where nearly 11 million jellyfish follow the sun around this landlocked body of salt water. The translucent, peach-colored Mastigias jellyfish have lost their ability to sting since they have no natural predators, which offers travelers the unique opportunity to swim among them. A snorkeler can find himself surrounded by so many jellyfish that the creatures bounce off every part of his body.
Giant clams put on a Technicolor show at Clam City, a lagoon where seven of the world’s nine species grow. Skip the spa and experience a natural mud mask in the waters of the Milky Way, a cove famous for its foam-green waters and creamy mud that softens and exfoliates skin. In another cove, the remains of a Japanese Zero warplane, including its fuselage, wings and propeller, still lie along the shallow reef where it crashed in World War II.
While snorkeling may be the purpose of a Rock Islands outing, the boat ride itself is a worthwhile fringe benefit. The open-air boat zips through the labyrinth of emerald-colored, mushroom-shaped islands that were formed by millions of years of coral growth. Waves continually undercut the base of the islands, breaking away the limestone, so that the lush, green islands appear to hover over the ocean.
While a boat tour showcases a medley of sites, kayaking offers a more intimate approach to exploring the islands. One full-day excursion takes visitors to Nikko Bay, a maze of 30 islands with tricky tides and currents. However, the still waters of Rembrandt’s Cove are ideal for exploring a 3,000-year-old coral garden, a spectacular kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Shades of blue, green, pink, purple, burgundy, brown, white and orange intertwine as coral growth overlaps. This area is home to a variety of coral species, and a knowledgeable guide is helpful here.
Stalactite-riddled Cathedral Cave is the ideal backdrop for a picture stop. For the adventurous, a small path leads to a perch for cliff jumping into the dark waters of the limestone cave. Low tide reveals a hidden tunnel that leads to the solitude of Disney Lake, though kayakers must lie back and use their hands to “walk” their boat through the tunnel. Observant snorkelers can find baby white-tip sharks in the tunnel, which serves as a nursery for the animals.
Travelers step 60 years back in time on the next Rock Islands stop, which is a Japanese “pillbox”-style bunker from World War II. Marine biologist Ron Leidich, who runs Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours, discovered the site 10 years ago while searching for a cliff-diving spot. (The small island had remained untouched since the Japanese abandoned their post after the war.) He found numerous artifacts, including helmets, sake and medicine bottles, and gun casings. Although the Palauan government took most of the artifacts, plenty remain, and the forgotten pillbox and supply room are open for exploration.
It’s easy to get lost in the simple beauty of Palau while on a kayak, whose unobtrusive nature allows travelers to experience the islands away from the crowds. But adventures on land should not be missed, either. For instance, visitors can explore Palau’s ancient history and culture on the big island of Babeldaob, which is the second largest land mass in Micronesia after Guam.
Traditionally, Palau was a matrilineal society — where lineage is traced through the mother’s side — with distinct roles for the sexes. Women managed money, education and farming, while men were responsible for fishing and inter-village war. Also, women elected men to the council of chiefs that governed the villages. To conduct business, men met in wooden meetinghouses, known as bai, which were covered with colorfully painted carvings depicting Palauan history and legends. The only original meetinghouse left, built in 1890, stands in Babeldaob.
Babeldaob also boasts ancient stone monoliths that tempt the imagination to wonder at their origin and purpose. The formation is a blend of Easter Island and Stonehenge, with giant pillars interspersed with stone faces.
The big island also features mountain biking and several hiking paths, such as the one to Ngardmau Waterfalls. The trail snakes through a lush, tropical jungle, along remnants of a Japanese mining railroad. The crashing waterfalls provide a relaxing cooldown from the day’s heat.
World War II buffs will find no shortage of historical sites, since Palau was the stage for the Battles of Peleliu and Angaur, and the remnants of bombers, fighter planes and landing vehicles still lie in the jungle and on the beaches of both islands. On Angaur, for example, highlights include a Japanese lighthouse and airplane cemetery. At Red Beach, a wartime landing area, the sands come alive with thousands of hermit crabs scurrying over broken coral. Macaques play in the trees, while white egrets grace the skies.
Belau Air offers flights from the capital, Koror, to Peleliu and Angaur, and its bird’s-eye view proves to be just as spectacular as that from a boat or kayak. (The best seat during the scenic flight is the copilot position, as the pilot points out the top sights.)
Most of Palau’s infrastructure and businesses are in Koror, where 62 percent of the country’s 20,000 citizens reside. Here, the Belau National Museum and the Etpison Museum give educational overviews of the culture and history of Palau. The national museum details the influence of German, Japanese and American occupations, until the country gained its independence on Oct. 1, 1994, and entered into a contract of free association with the United States. Both museums feature collections of authentic Palauan money beads — exchanged between clans during events such as marriage, childbirth and funerals — and turtle shells. There is also the Palau International Coral Reef Center, which has an aquarium where visitors can learn about marine biology.
For those seeking an unusual souvenir, wooden storyboards can be bought in Koror. These hand-carved pieces, which portray Palauan folklore, have been made for thousands of years. (Be sure to purchase mahogany boards, though, as other kinds of wood are more prone to cracking in colder, drier climates.)
Visitors are welcome to soak in the sun on any one of Palau’s tranquil white sand beaches, but they miss the country’s true beauty if they never venture from their chaise longue. The allure of Palau is the adventure it offers to every visitor, and any stone left unturned is just one more reason to return to this place nicknamed the “Rainbow’s End.”
PALAU PACIFIC RESORT
Nestled among 64 acres of exotic jungle, the Palau Pacific Resort entices guests to unwind in its serene surroundings after a day’s adventure. All 160 guestrooms feature tropical decor, private patios or balconies, and air conditioning. Nearly 100 rooms, including all eight suites, offer a breathtaking ocean view — the ideal spot for catching an early morning sunrise or evening sunset over the Philippine Sea. Exploring the underwater wonders of Palau can begin right in the resort’s private lagoon, which is filled with tropical fish, a rainbow of coral and giant clams. Other amenities include a beach, swimming pool, nature trail, tennis courts, fitness center, dive shop, photo shop, gift shop and beauty salon. The Coconut Terrace offers casual alfresco dining with ocean views, and its lavish breakfast buffet is a delicious start to the day. The Palau Pacific Resort sits on the western shore of the hamlet of Arakabesang, just 25 minutes from Palau International Airport (ROR) and 10 minutes from downtown Koror. $$$$
PALAU PACIFIC RESORT
tel 011 680 488 2600, fax 011 680 488 1606
NORTH BEACH COTTAGES
Tucked away on Babeldaob, this secluded property boasts only four cottages, offering guests the ultimate private getaway. The cottages, fashioned out of mahogany, are draped in trees and just steps away from a picturesque white sand beach. Isolation doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort, though — all cottages have air conditioning and fans. A full-service restaurant and bar serves Palauan cuisine cooked with fresh, local ingredients. (And with meal prices ranging from $6 to $12, travelers won’t find a better deal on the islands.) On a lazy afternoon, lounge in one of the hammocks on the beach while sipping chilled coconut juice right out of the shell. A variety of activities are also within reach, as the resort can help guests arrange snorkeling, diving, hiking, kayaking, fishing or village tours. $$
NORTH BEACH COTTAGES
Choll Ngaraard, Koror
tel 011 680 488 8232, fax 011 680 488 5502
PALAU ROYAL RESORT
Luxury amid paradise defines this upscale resort hotel, which opened last June on the east coast of Malakal Island. Its 157 rooms and suites offer amenities including LCD televisions and balconies, and views of the ocean or harbor. Guests can indulge themselves at the Mandara Spa, which draws on Asian and Western health and beauty treatments, or pay a visit to the Internet library, children’s playroom, gym, gift shop, badminton and tennis courts, or outdoor pool.The hotel also is home to the Batutii Art Gallery, Palau’s first fine-art gallery, and a restaurant that offers Chinese, Japanese and Western cuisine. The Palau Royal Resort is located just minutes from Koror and 25 minutes from Palau International Airport. $$$$
PALAU ROYAL RESORT
tel 011 680 488 2000, fax 011 680 488 6688
Hailed as the best Japanese restaurant on the islands, Dragon Tei serves Okinawa-style dishes with a Palauan flair. This quaint establishment offers both Japanese- and Western-style seating. The food is served family-style, so patrons can enjoy sharing both conversation and a variety of good food. Be sure to sample the red snapper sashimi. $$$
tel 011 680 488 2271, fax 011 680 488 1260
JIVE CAFE AND RESTAURANT
Kick back and enjoy the sunset at this dockside restaurant featuring Palauan, Japanese and Filipino cooking. Food from the grill is delivered straight to your table, just steps from the water. A selection of sorbets is a delightful finale. $$
JIVE CAFE AND RESTAURANT
tel 011 680 488 5483, fax 011 680 488 5777
THE DROP-OFF BAR AND GRILL
Whether you’ve been diving, snorkeling or swimming with dolphins, the Drop-Off’s alfresco dining is ideal for grabbing a bite after an island adventure. The restaurant, at the Neco Marine dive shop, features a succulent selection of sashimi. $$
THE DROP-OFF BAR AND GRILL
tel 011 680 488 1755, fax 011 680 488 5245
INFO TO GO
Palau International Airport (ROR), on the island of Babeldaob, is the only international airport in the country. Most U.S. visitors fly Continental Micronesia (www.continental.com) via Hawaii and Guam before landing in Palau. Far Eastern Air Transport (www.fat.com.tw) offers service between Palau and Taipei (TPE) four times weekly; from Taipei, travelers can connect to several major airlines. Upon departing Palau, guests should be prepared to pay a $20 tax at the airport.
From the airport, a taxi typically charges about $20 to take travelers to Koror.
Belau Air (www.gecpalau.com/belauair.htm) offers inter-island transportation among the international airport, Peleliu and Angaur, as well as sightseeing charters over the islands.
The Palau Visitors Authority has a booth at the airport, and can assist guests with hotel, rental car, taxi and other tourist information. Several dive shops, including Sam’s Tours and Fish ’N Fins, provide hotel pickup service for their clients. For more information on booking tours or island transportation, contact the Palau Visitors Authority (www.visit-palau.com).
English is spoken and U.S. currency is used throughout Palau, making travel a breeze for Americans.
TOURS ’R’ US
Several tour operators provide comprehensive packages, including:
SAM’S TOURS AND PLANET BLUE SEA KAYAK TOURS
tel 011 680 488 1062
FISH ’N FINS
tel 011 680 488 2637
tel 011 680 488 1755
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