Micronesian Paradise of Palau
When you first step foot into this remote Micronesian island, of course you immediately sense that you're in a tropical, smaller destination with the warm, outdoor jet bridge and single terminal. Customs doesn't take long and you're out with your bags to your ride shortly. Since you most likely landed after midnight, you didn't see much on arrival and you're probably exhausted from a long trip. But it's actually all perfectly timed... because once you see Palau in the sunlight and breathe the practically unpolluted air is when you start to realize you've woken up on a piece of paradise.
Palau is a small island country and Trusted Territory of Free Trade Association with the U.S. (uses U.S. Dollar) located a few hours by flight east of the Philippines, just north of the equator. Its history is interestingly dynamic between the comparatively recent original "discovery" and different exchanges through the hands of power in the last few hundred years between Spain, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. Known largely for some of the best diving in the world, and a jellyfish lake you can swim inside of a volcanic crater, this archipelago is being slowly discovered more and more by the rest of the world.
*Note* Let’s be real - no one is coming all the way out here for 24 hours (except maybe our neighbors in Guam), so most of the suggestions here would take at least a day, though there are plenty of ideas if you’re planning on only being in town a few days. Oh and definitely stay at Palau Central Boutique Hotel (www.palaucentral.com) - it’s the best and newest hotel in town. This spot is closer to town than some of the other high end resorts (and it’s better priced), not to mention their top notch amenities like cook-to-order breakfast, laundry services, Canoe House bar, and pool. All this plus an incredibly friendly staff will easily make it your new home away from home.
If you have met someone who has heard of, or even actually been to Palau, they most likely heard of it as a top scuba diving destination. Some of the most biodiverse marine life is found in this tiny spot in-between the Philippine Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, so anyone who has had the privilege to dive in these waters knows that it is practically incomparable to anywhere else in the world. I highly recommend Sam’s Tours for your diving and other recreational needs - their staff is top notch and the crew is a melting pot of the absolute best marine biologists and dive guides from around the world.
The archipelago of Palau is made up of over 170 small islands. Toward the bottom of the stretch are a chain called the Rock Islands. Find a boat to charter (or make friends with some amazing locals with boats): you won't want to miss them. Whether you're into diving, snorkeling, or just laying on a beach, you'll be sailing through some of the most beautiful views known to man. There are countless ways to plan your stops, but to find out which are the best times are to be at the best spots for the best views with the least amount of tour groups at them, I ask the locals. You'll find they're helpful in sharing their knowledge of the islands and the tides, welcoming tourists far and wide. Here is one such itinerary:
Stop inside the cove and check out the milky mud bath water. From the sky, the water actually looks white; not because of any white sand beach but from the sulfuric mud found in this area. Jump in with a mask and see how thick it is, you'll hardly see your hand in front of your face. Grab a bucket and fill it up with the mud so you can give yourself a proper spa treatment on board. Let it dry for a few minutes while you have a drink then jump back in to rinse it off (keep your eyes closed, and maybe your nose too!). Insta-smooth!
Throw in some rice or pieces of bead and watch the yellow fins swarm up to the surface. Jump in for some of the coolest snorkeling you'll experience with swarms of small fish all around you. You might even spot some Napoleons and trivalies. The coral is gorgeous and it's deep enough in most areas not to easily hit it, but pay attention to make sure your feet or fins stay off, please (Remember, you had to sign a “Responsible Tourist Pledge” visa in your passport upon arrival!).
Another of several spots to stop and see some beautiful marine life for a swim or if you have marine biologist and research friends with cameras prepared for shooting a commercial (Palau happens to be where they filmed the first original Survivor TV series).
This is where you want to stop and have lunch. If you're with serious boaters who bring meat to grill and food for a few dozen hungry swimmers - or you have some skill with spearfishing - there are BBQs and picnic tables right in front of the beach. Take a walk wading through the small lagoon off to the side of the tables. You can walk right out to the other side of the rock island for some more incredibly amazing views. Palau is home to some of the most pristine waters and clean beaches I've seen anywhere in the world. Please help keep it this way: be mindful of taking everything with you that you brought and nothing more (but photos, of course).
If you don't end up stopping at Long Beach on your way home, (perhaps trying to outrun some tropical rain), the afternoon current is usually running through Ulong to make for an easy drift dive along Micronesia's largest coral garden (also highly recommended dive site; one of the biggest population of giant clams and amazing reef life). Even out here the water is clear enough to see 20 meters down to the sandy bottom. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll likely see a reef shark or two, perhaps even sleeping on the bottom. Don't worry, they're very deep below you and have no interest in chasing after swimmers.
This is another great spot to jump in and check out whatever may be swimming around for the season. Don’t let the name freak you out too much, it’s actually lovely.
North Island Drive.
It's a nice day trip to hop in a car and drive around the north loop of the island. You can go up either side but I prefer starting on the west side of the island to see more on the way down, making the ride back seem a little shorter than the ride up. And if you find a friend who's willing to drive you around in nice ride with a/c, even better.
From the main state of Koror up to the north part of Palau will only take you a few hours to drive (non-stop) around the whole country. There isn't much of anything in ways of shops, cell service, or even radio signal up north so make sure you're prepared for a day's journey. It is, however, some of the most beautifully untouched landscape you've probably ever seen.
There is probably an un-tapped WWII museum scattered through Palau. Once the war was over, they didn’t really have the infrastructure to remove these canons, or anywhere to put them, so they just left them there. Pretty spectacular to think about how these massive cannon fired way out into the distance of the sea. Don’t ask me how they got them up there.
Japanese Lighthouse Lookout
There’s a small fee for tourists to stop way up here at the very north point of the island, but it’s well worth the $5. The remnants of the old Japanese lighthouse are scattered throughout the small peak. You can rest with a picnic for some pretty pristine views or climb up to the top for more envy-worthy photos. Please make sure you take everything you brought with you, and leave nothing behind.
This sleepy, small northern town is a another one-road small city with a school, a few places to eat, and some smaller local beaches. Stop to stretch your legs, grab a beer, and take more photos along the shore.
If you weren’t very aware of the environmental impact on marine life before you visit Palau, you’re sure to get an education while you’re there. Biota is a great place to start. Tom and his family, the owners, have opened up shop in Palau and are working hard to regenerate previously decimated populations of different species of fish, coral, marine and plant life in their aquariums and in the wild. Their coral garden has made some impressive growth and they’re the only group in the world to successfully habitat and breed the rare deep sea medusa. By learning about the world around us and supporting those who make an effort to sustain it, we can all do our part. Check out more about their mission at www.biotapalau.com.
Ever want to swim with the jellyfish? If you knew of Palau but not from diving, it may have been from the famous Jellyfish Lake on Eli Malk island. Here you’ll find tourists swimming with blobs of golden and moon jellyfish floating toward the light. They are growing and living inside of a volcanic crater linked to a nearby lagoon, and since their stinging cells (nematocytes) aren't very powerful, they actually don't really cause harm to humans. It’s pretty nuts and worth the $100 tourist permit. Take advantage of it when you can: the lake population was nearly wiped out for the third time in 2017, likely from overheating and pollution, but thankfully has regenerated once again. Check back for photos when I finally get to jump in on my next trip!
If you’re not afraid of getting a little wet on a hike through the Taki Nature Reserve, it’s totally worth it to drive to the north part of the island to check out the island’s biggest and highest waterfall. Bring some cash to buy a fresh coconut on the way out. There are a few other waterfalls to check out on the island, but this is likely the biggest one to hike.
This rock island at the bottom of Palau’s archipelago is the historical locale of the very WWII Battle of Peleliu between the US and Japan in 1944. This island trips is a whole journey on its own worth a few days and still on our list… check back for when I can make it down there and check it off my diving list!
Food and Drink.
Elilai is the nicest restaurant on the island. Run by Head Chef Roy, the seasonal menu has something for everyone and the quality is well worth the price. The service is wonderful and if you have the chance to come for Sunday brunch, you won’t want to miss the breathtaking view to go along with a great bloody Mary.
Kramer’s is a fun restaurant and bar located across the main street from Sam’s Tours. It’s right on the water and sits high above the dock with a great menu and friendly owners. If you’re craving a fish salad, order the “Leboo;” it’s the best on the island. Every few weeks they have a super fun trivia night where you’ll likely find visitors of any age from any country.
The Taj has the best Indian food on the island. Their lunch buffet is a great value and the menu is extensive. Come back on Friday and Saturday nights for live music before it turns into the local dance club, complete with a DJ.
(Local refs: Johnson Iechad, Jeff Barabe, Scott Slagel, Yoko Tomita)
photo #2 & #3 cred: Brittany Maguire