Palau: Pristine South Pacific Country Beckons by Larry and Gail Taylor

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.