Gra­ham Fricke dis­cov­ers gen­tle plea­sures above and be­low the wa­ter in Palau

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.con­ti­nen­

Big lit­tle na­tion: The densely veg­e­tated Rock Is­lands, left; there’s su­perb snorkelling in the clear, shal­low wa­ter among Palau’s small is­lands

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