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.”