SEA AND TELL
Graham Fricke discovers gentle pleasures above and below the water in Palau
WHERE to go to celebrate a February birthday by snorkelling in the tropics? The Great Barrier Reef is fabulous, but we fancy the opportunity to explore a different environment. My wife and I opt for Palau in Micronesia, a few hundred kilometres north of Darwin (but accessible only from Australia via Cairns and Guam). We know little about this tiny self-governing nation, but the holiday turns out to be one of our best.
The snorkelling is superb. The opportunity to view coral, tropical fish, moray eels, pink jellyfish, nautilus shells and clams more than 1m wide with multicoloured mantles (the undulating curves that look like lips) is the main reason for our visit. As a bonus, we find the people — who number only 20,000, including 5000 Filipino guest workers — are friendly, cheerful and polite.
Palau is an archipelago of hundreds of islands, running in a roughly northsouth direction for a couple of hundred kilometres. Most are within a barrier reef; they include the exquisite but uninhabited Rock Islands, which are steep and densely vegetated. Their limestone bases have been eroded by the sea so that many resemble emerald mushrooms — dome-shaped on top, with shallow stems at the bottom — when approached from the sea.
This is where some of the best diving and snorkelling can be enjoyed. One day, we hire a boatman for $US150 ($160) to take us in his powerboat around these formations, stopping off at various islands to view fish, coral and attractive but harmless jellyfish. At one island, he cooks us a splendid beach lunch over a wood fire of snapper he has speared the night before.
The inhabited islands include the capital, Koror, where we stay for most of our visit. It is home to about 70 per cent of the nation’s people and is the main business centre. We have some superb meals, including grilled fish for about $US8; steaks are about double that price. On my wife’s birthday we visit Teppan Dragon, an excellent Japanese restaurant, where the staff appear with a candle-lit cake and sing to her.
From Koror, other islands are linked by bridge or causeway, such as Babeldaob, the largest in the group. We hire our favourite taxi driver to spend all day driving around the island. Babeldaob used to have decrepit, potholed roads, but the US has recently spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a quality road system. Even so, we have been warned, it is easy for outsiders to get lost, so we defer hiring a self-drive car until we revisit Guam on our way back to Australia.
Arakabesang is connected to Koror by a causeway and has a couple of fivestar hotels, including Palau Pacific Hotel, which caters for wealthy Japanese and American tourists. Since it has its own beach with excellent snorkelling facilities, we decide to visit and for $US25 we spend the day there. But most of the time we are able to find quality snorkelling by catching a taxi for about 5km to the island of Malakal, also linked to Koror by causeway. There is a small charge for using the beach outside the restaurant at Rip Tide but the fee is waived if you notify the staff you are having lunch there. Farther along the road is Ice Box Park, where snorkelling is free, and and it is here we view dozens of big, colourful clams.
We are fortunate with our accommo- dation at the two-star Tree-D Hotel, at what is known as the Top Side, about 1km out of the main shopping area of Koror. Because the three-storey hotel, which is clean and basic with airconditioned rooms, is under receivership and the receiver wants to boost the occupancy rate, he drops the tariff to a level below the prices listed in our 14-year-old Lonely Planet guidebook.
During our stay in Palau we also visit the southern island of Peleliu, a fourhour voyage, where we stay in a quaint tropical cottage on the waterfront; the Filipino management couple cook us fine meals each evening. We hire bicycles to tour the island and it’s hard to believe this was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. There were more than 20,000 casualties on an island that now has just a few hundred inhabitants. There are many relics, such as Japanese tanks and planes.
After a couple of weeks in Koror, we fly back to Guam and spend a few days exploring this US territory with its huge military presence.
It’s the largest island in Micronesia, about 50km long and 12km wide. Away from the high-rise areas of Tamuning, Tumon and Agana, there is little traffic and the villages on the south coast are delightful. It makes for a tranquil and scenic end to an unexpectedly enjoyable Micronesian holiday.
Continental Airlines flies between Cairns and Guam twice weekly and daily from Guam to Palau. More: 1300 737 640; www.continental.com.
Big little nation: The densely vegetated Rock Islands, left; there’s superb snorkelling in the clear, shallow water among Palau’s small islands