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Photography by Yuri Krasov

The islands of Palau, all five hundred of them, big and small, oblong and round, belong to the largest archipelago in Micronesia and mostly look like Chia pets. Their bottoms are neatly undercut with a double razor of steady lapping waves and gluttonous snails that live underneath and eat algae while boring deeper and deeper into the limestone. Most of the islands are tiny and unpopulated, and seem to float atop the opalescent waters.
Any way you look, everything is so incredibly beautiful here that the scenic views seem unreal. With about 20,000 permanent residents and only 30,000 visitors a year, Palau is a dream come true – for divers and eco-adventure seekers as well as for honeymooners and spa junkies. Tourist accommodations in the Republic of Palau usually provide vacation packages that include room and board, water activities, and sheer relaxation.
Palau Pacific Resort in the capital city of Koror on Arkabesang Island has neat two-story cottages surrounded by tropical gardens, a secluded sandy beach, an open-air restaurant with freshly prepared island fare, a spa, and Splash Dive Center on premises. On our diving tour with the Splash, we visited a couple of the many famous diving sites of Palau – Big Drop Off and Blue Corner.
The underwater world of Palau with 1,400 species of fish and more than 700 species of coral is nothing short of a miracle. Snorkeling by the Big Drop-Off, I found myself surrounded by myriads of sparkly fish gliding over the multi-layers and multi-colored coral floor. Giant clams were waiting, agape, for their prey among the fuzzy seaweed-covered rocks. They were doing a great job camouflaging with dazzling colors – midnight blue, deep purple, and even spotty green-and-brown, looking much like army camo.
Palau is also home to a unique underwater wonder – Jellyfish Lake, the only place in the world where people safely swim and snorkel among the Golden jellies, harmless and beautiful to behold. Mastigias papua etpisoni lives in glorious isolation here, in the secluded marine lake surrounded by jungle-covered rocks – far removed from predators and, therefore, stingless. Slow moving jellies, whose size measure from the size of a golf ball to that of a basketball, ascend and descend around enchanted snorkelers, graceful and enviably serene. There is also some muddy business going on in the ecologically clean and otherwise pure-water Palau. What locals call Milky Way is a pristine cove with silky white clay bottom. This clay is made of organic deposits of the local snails that consume and digest limestone while feeding on algae.
Applied as a facial mask, this clay is said to smooth out wrinkles, clean and reduce pores, and lend its silkiness to the skin. In a big hotel spa it’ll definitely cost you, but here, at the cove, boat operators just bring up a bucket of white cosmetic gold and let their passengers slather it all over their pasty touristy bodies. On a tour with Carp Island Resort & Palau Diving Center, we had plenty of time to indulge in Mother Nature’s own spa offerings – white mud and warm milky water of the cove to wash it off. And then there was time for dry land and red mud adventures. Fish ‘N Fins Dive Shop is one of the most famous local tour operators, offering diving, snorkeling, boating, and fishing tours. We embarked on their most exciting land activity – ATV (all-terrain vehicle) Off-Road Tour across the Martian-red hillsides of Koror.
Don’t know why, but I was somehow persuaded that an ATV cannot overturn in any circumstances, so I boldly drove over the ditches as deep as a vehicle’s wheel and narrow slippery ridges between them. Puddles, turns, steep downhill inclines – bring it all in, I thought. Even when tropical rain started to pour into the open vehicle, inexplicably enhanced by still shining sunlight, I didn’t lose my determination. Later I learned that things happen, but nothing had happened to us!
We could even see the rainbow at the end of our trip.

More information at: www.visit-palau.com, www.palauppr.com, www.carpislandpalau.com, www.fishnfins.com

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“The taro plant is important to the Palauan people,” explained Ann Singeo, our guide, and owner of Sense of Wonder eco tours. ” The legend of Palau is based on food. A simple version of the legend has it that a giant by the name of Uab was consuming all the food so the rest of the people were starving. The villagers placed him on a fire, he exploded, creating the islands of Palau.” Palau is an amazing group of islands and one of the most eco of all locations we have visited.
Before we set out on our kayak tour of the mangrove, Spis, our other guide picked a sprouting coconut off the ground and split it. The white part had become spongy and Ann suggested we slather it on our exposed body parts, “It will keep away the mosquitoes and prevent sunburn.” Deep in the mangrove we pulled our kayaks up on land and a short hike took us to a where Ann explained another Palauan legend. The taro goddess brought back samples from the taro patches she had created on the various islands. Pointing to upright stones, Ann said that they were the taro plants planted by the goddess, which had turned to stone. We were totally unfamiliar with taro, a root that is an important source of food for Palauns. The taro patches are the exclusive domain of women probably because they have to wade in deep mud, sometime above their waist, to harvest the plants so they often work nude. At the end of the tour Ann had prepared a lunch that included taro soup and taro salad.
The Rock Islands of Palau is a paradise for divers and snorkelers. John and I were dazzled by the brilliant blue starfish ad the giant clams but the most amazing experience was swimming with thousands of jellyfish, which are virtually stingless. On our return from a snorkeling tour with Fish ‘n Fins the talk turned to food. Tova Harel, the owner of Fish n’ Fins, said if we returned for dinner she and Cesar, her chef, would show us how to prepare fish and some taro recipes. It was an offer we could not refuse.

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Few places on earth can match the astonishing natural beauty of Palau. With a population of 20,000, it is a paradise with over 500 densely tree-covered islands of which only nine are inhabited. Once the scene of horrific battles during World War II, nature was the ultimate the winner. Dense vegetation has covered the war scars on land and the sea is slowly wearing away the downed WWII planes including the “George Bush Wreak,” the first President Bush’s plane. Today pristine Palau looks like the “Land Before the Hand of Man.”

Palau’s Rock Islands, relics of ancient coral reefs, are one of the world’s most unique phenomena. The largely uninhabited, mushroom-shaped islets are located in a vast lagoon that is a habitat for one of the world’s greatest concentrations of coral and marine life. The islands may be “green”, but the waters around the islands are so many beautiful shades of blue it is breathtaking. The blue starfish and the blue Napoleon wrasse share the waters with other colorful tropical fish, black-tip reef sharks, sea turtles, giant clams and coral of all colors.

Most unique among the wonders of Palau is Jellyfish Lake. After a boat ride to an island there is a short but steep climb up then down the ridge that isolates the hidden lake. In this intriguing lake the jellyfish have flourished and lost their sting because they have not had to fight off predators. Snorkeling with the translucent, pale pink jellyfish is like being part of an underwater ballet. On the way the tourist boats usually stops at the Milky Way, a narrow stretch of water between two rock islands. The guide dives in, scoops up a handful of the white sand that is as soft as cold cream and encourages people to slather it all over their body claiming it has rejuvenating qualities. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing are all over-the-top activities with more than 1,400 species of fish and 500 species of coral. It is easy to understand why Palau is often referred to as the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World” and “One of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.”
Land-based tours explore remote waterways that have been changed little by the hand of man. The Sense of Wonder Eco Tour is an environmental and educational program that includes kayaking through the mangrove forests that serve as a nursery for a plethora of land and sea creatures. At the start of the tour a sprouted coconut found laying on the ground is split open and the coconut meat, which has turned spongy, is applied to exposed body parts. It is the time-honored traditional method to prevent sunburns and keep the mosquitoes at bay. Quietly kayaking through the primeval-looking mangrove it is possible to hear a bird that imitates the call of a monkey and spot the large fruit bat hanging out waiting for nighttime.

A short trail in the mangrove leads to a place where, according to Palauan legend, the taro goddess brought back samples from the taro patches she created on the various islands. She placed them in the area where she got married where they turned to stone. The tour includes an expansive lunch featuring a variety of delicious items made from the taro plant.

The Jungle River Boat Cruise is another eco-friendly tour that starts with a nature walk through the jungle stopping to see the Gorilla Arm Tree and learn about the Noni Tree, the fruit of which is said to cure just about everything. There are carnivorous picture plants, 23 varieties of orchids, and ancient fern trees. As the riverboat plies the Ngerdorch River crocodiles sunning themselves on a spit of land slip into the water and kingfishers burst up out of the vegetation. Other jungle treks explore more of the wonders of Palau including beautiful Ngardmau Waterfall, one of the republic’s largest. For a taste of culture there are traditional men’s houses, mysterious stone monoliths, Yap stone money, cultural shows, and local crafts.
Palau was “green” long before “green” became fashionable. Realizing the environment is their greatest asset, they continue to preserve and protect their Eden. To increase awareness of the environment’s fragility the Palau International Coral Reef Center celebrates Palau’s environment with exhibits that recreate the various ecosystems. It, along with the Palau Conservation Society, partners with scores of other organizations in developing sustainable tourism strategies. A good example is Carp Island Resort where they have started their own farm. The pigs, chickens, tomatoes, egg plants, along with the fruit trees will provide guests with fresh food. Filtered water from the mangrove is used for shower and toilets. They are looking into the feasibility of wind or solor power.

Palau’s former President, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., developed the Micronesia Challenge, a regional inter-governmental initiative in the western Pacific region that called on other countries in Micronesia to join Palau in conserving 30 perecent of shore coastal waters and 20 percent of forest land by 2020. The Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, the U.S. territories of Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands accepted the challenge. For his efforts, ex-President Remengesau, Jr. received an award from TIME magazine as one of the Heroes of the Environment in 2007.

Palua is an iconic tropical Pacific island unspoiled by rampant commercialization. It truly looks like a “land before the hand of man.”

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Palau–we had been here before and jumped at the chance to return. We booked on a cruise from Papua New Guinea which ended in Palau. This was a big attraction, and we decided to stay over for three days.

Not a lot of American travelers know about this unspoiled tourist destination, but just ask avid divers or snorkelers. If they haven’t already been there, they will tell you Palau is at the top of their list of “must go” spots.
Considered a part of Micronesia, Palau is an archipelago of 586 islands in the South Pacific, a country with less than 20,000 citizens. About 90 percent live in Koror state, where tourists usually stay.

Off Koror, the main attraction here is the Rock Islands, approximately 300 islets, protected by a huge barrier reef. An underwater paradise. Fans of the TV show. “Survivor” will recognize this spot as it has been used twice as a location, most recently 2008.

Upon disembarking from our cruise, we arranged for a day tour in order to see spots we might have missed before. The itinerary included a visit to Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob, across a causeway from Koror. With a wide new road and little traffic, the Palau Visitors Authority hopes to increase tourism to this lush green part of the country.

First in Koror, we visited the unique aquarium where the exact environments for marine life have been recreated. This has become one of the country’s most popular land-based attractions for tourists and Palauans alike. We observed exhibits with green sea turtles, nurse sharks, white-tip sharks and groupers. In addition to coral reef inhabitants, the aquarium also exhibits animals and plants found in mangrove and sea grass ecosystems, foremost seahorses .

Next, on Babeldoab, we first took the Jungle River Boat Cruise on the Schimizu River. We set out down the calm water way to our destination, an ancient Palauan Village historical site. We cruised through the lush green rain forest foliage, spotting a variety of birds along the way. We were told there were crocodiles here, and suddenly we saw a big one. We knew the croc was expecting us when the boatman held a piece of meat on a pole, and the animal jumped some five feet out of the air to grab it.

After our river cruise, we sauntered along the pathway admiring the interesting collection of tropical plants before stopping for a typical Palauan Bento Box picnic in one of the two open air “summer houses.” The
Bento comes from the Japanese tradition and usually features a combination of teriyaki beef and chicken, white rice, pickled vegetables, a piece or two of vegetarian sushi, and a chocolate brownie for dessert. Often there’s a fried shrimp and/or fried fish.
Next,, we went on to see the highly publicized, imposing capitol building, sitting by itself on a rise with nothing around it but rolling green hills. The architect wanted to make something unique to Palau; however, the Palauans wanted it to look like the U.S. capitol. So there it was, its large Corinthian columns with Palauan designs etched on its stone front. Odd, but unique and lovely.

Then we went on the Wonderpool Waterfall where we were scheduled for a 40 minute hike to a spectacular view. Unfortunately, the road was full of mud holes from a recent rain. After getting stuck and having to work our way out, the driver turned around, and a change in plans took us to nearby Tabecheding Waterfall, a lovely spot, easily accessed.

Late afternoon we were back in Koror and checked into the highly-rated Palau Pacific Resort. We took a dip off the wide, sand beach before viewing the beautiful sunset from our balcony.
The following day proved to be the highlight of our stay–we snorkeled until we dropped on Sam’s Tours snorkeling trip through the Rock Islands. Sam’s picked us up early in the morning at the resort’s dock
and we headed out. These islands are a collection of rounded limestone, foliage-covered formations. Undercut by wave action, many seem to float on the water’s surface. Channels wend their way among them; tunnels lead to secluded lagoons; paths lead to land-locked lakes, fed subterraneanly by the sea.

In a short time, we were in the water overwhelmed by dazzling corals, an artist’s pallette of color–over 500 types of hard and soft varieties thrive here. All in all, we saw fish in almost staggering numbers,
large, medium and small, coming in an array of rainbow hues. With over 1,400 species of fish, Palau was recently named Number One Underwater Wonder of the World by CEDAM–a group of marine scientists and conservationists

Most of the snorkeling spots are given colorful descriptive names–Giant Clam Beach, Lolita’s Coral Gardens and Mandarin Fish Lake, one of the few places the exquisitely beautiful Mandarin is found, decorated in an oriental design of green, blues and oranges.
A highlight was our stop at Shark Alley which is full of black tip sharks. We saw many four to six-footers, which, thankfully, don’t attack people. Pilot fish swam in front of them and remora fish swam attached underneath with their suction-cup backs–really a sight to see. Also, we saw some cute little damselfish. The sharks did stay away, but my wife was nipped on her ankle by a damsel.

Most snorkel excpeditions take in Jellyfish Lake as we did. Closed off from the ocean, the lake has formed its own environment where jellyfish have no enemies and no need to sting. Swimming among the graceful jellies was like gliding through a porous pinkish-gold curtain. From there we went to Giant Clam Beach where about a dozen up to three-foot clams in various colorful shades are lined up along the bottom of the sea.
Archaeology is also part of most excursions. At one point we got off the boat and hiked up to a quarry site used where the people of nearby Yap quarried stone to make their unique money known as Rai. Used since ancient times for barter, these large donut-shaped, carved disks, usually of calcite, run up to 12 feet in diameter.

Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap via rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to obtain them, made them valuable to the Yapese. At the site we saw a five foot coin on display. The large hole in the center was used to insert a tree trunk to roll it down the hill. By the way, these discs are still used for Yapese transactions.
There were numerous relics from WWII to see on the islands. During the war, the Japanese thought that Palau would be a prime target for an allied invasion. Consequently, the islands were heavily fortified. Our captain from Sam’s had been working this area for some 30 years, so he knew all the places. He showed us bunkers and gun emplacements on the shore, and we snorkeled over sunken landing crafts and Zero airplanes. This is the perfect place for WWII history buffs.

On our final day, tired from the previous day’s strenuous activities, we decided to stay at the resort, lie around and snorkel off the beach which we thought should be good. We were correct. Right away, we encountered a good-size octopus out and about and followed him for a half-hour, watching as he changed colors from coral red to rock grey. Among an array of fish, we also came on a six-foot sea snake making his way into a rock crevice.

We spent some time exploring this deluxe international resort.with an international cast of visitors, many from Taiwan and Japan which are only a few hours away. Besides underwater sports, wind surfing,, sailing and kayaking are available to guests. A large swimming pool overlooks the ocean. As well, there are two outdoor lighted tennis courts and a well-equipped fitness center. The resort also has its own PADI five-star dive center.

The resort’s two restaurants feature Pacific Rim cuisine, local fresh seafood, US prime beef and Micronesian food specialties. The casual Coconut Terrace restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests have a choice of menu service or helping themselves to the buffet. Evening buffets have a theme such as Palauan, Italian and seafood, while the breakfast buffet includes traditional Japanese, American and international selections.

Practically all Palauans speak English in addition to their own unique language. They went out of their way to be helpful. We took their advice and found excellent Japanese and Indian restaurants in town. The dollar goes far here with taxis and meals a bargain. Tourism is increasing rapidly, so look to Palau while it’s still laid back and peaceful.