–An ancient island culture survives and thrives in the midst of Micronesia.
Text & Photos by Thomas Wilmer
People frequently ask me, “Where’s your favorite place in the world?”
After 25 years of exploring the world–from the Arctic to Malaysia, Palau is definitely one of my treasured favorites. Naturally, the next question is inevitably, “Why?”
Visualize vividly blue and green gin-clear water, accented with towering vibrant-green jungles. Add to the mix a Scuba divers paradise, amidst a culture with intact ancient morays and customs, accented with welcoming smiles and laughter.
Meld in mind-blowing kayak adventures around gumdrop shaped islets. Then garnish with a hike to a remote lake where you can swim amongst a million sting-free jellyfish. Equally enticing is the gentle and gracious spirit of the Palauan islanders—an essential reason why this slice of paradise was long ago lovingly dubbed, “Where the Rainbow Ends”.
It’s a long haul from Kansas, Toto!
Situated in the midst of Micronesia, 700 miles east of the Philippines, four hundred miles north of the equator, Palau is a far way from anywhere—an integral reason why the place remains as an unspoiled treasure.
Just how long is the journey?
I met a Floridian couple vacationing on Palau, and they recounted their route. Departing Miami with United/Continental they flew to Dulles and then on to Narita in Japan with a connecting flight from Guam to Palau.The couple said they turned their journey in to an adventure with a three-day sojourn in Japan and two days exploring Guam before landing in Palau. Once you arrive and settle in your Palauan accommodation, a wave of tranquility will envelope your soul and you’ll quickly realize that the “long-haul” was so worth the time in the air. Follow the lead of the Saint Augustine, Florida couple and transform the journey in to an adventure.
Palau has long been revered as one of the “Seven Diving Wonders of the World”. Divers savor the copious blue holes, marine lakes, shipwrecks, caves and seemingly bottomless-walls. Jacques Cousteau named Palau’s Ngemelis Wall as the world’s best wall-dive.
Marine life is encyclopedic with rare, gigantic Tridacna gigas clams (visualize 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea monster-size clams), dugong, Hawksbill sea turtles, manta rays, schools of shark, riparian crocodiles, 1,500 species of tropical fish, accented with more than 700 vibrantly colored soft and stony coral species.
The independent nation of Palau encompasses 586 lushly foliated islets and islands (only eight are inhabited) enveloped by crystalline blue and turquoise water. How warm is the water? Oh, just a dreamy 82 to 84 degrees.
It’s also fascinating to experience an intact matrilineal society that retains most of its ancient oral-customs and traditions. In spite of a deeply engrained Catholic culture, locals will consult with their local shaman in addition to their priest.
Palauans continue to pass along, from generation to generation, vital myths, legends and lore through oral and visual means. For example, one woman from each clan is charged with knowing where every body is buried in the village cemetery.
There are no gravestones or markers, so the exact location and ancestry must be memorized. As the woman grows old she imparts her knowledge to a fledgling, and so it goes from generation to generation.
A Palauan mentioned in passing, “In Western culture, one might say, ‘My father was born in so and so town’. Here we define our ancestry by where our mother or grandmother came from.”
There are men’s councils along with parallel women’s councils, but generally no important decisions are made without approval from the women. My Palauan friend noted, “Most Palauan men would not make any serious life-decisions without first checking with their mother or family matriarch.”
Storyboards–intricately detailed woodcarvings visually depict ancient Palauan myths and legends. Storyboards are still produced and virtually every Palauan can readily translate and interpret them. Storyboards are cherished keepsakes that are available for purchase in local craft shops and directly from the wood carvers.
The Rock Islands are one of Palau’s most splendid natural experiences. Clusters of vibrant-green gumdrop islets and islands, some no larger than a house, are dreamy and mystical. The Rock Islands, visually synonymous with Palau, are regularly showcased in Palauan tourist brochures, travel posters and international travel magazines.
Wherever you navigate throughout this colorful cobalt-blue water-wonderland, whether aboard a boat, kayak or snorkeling—a mere glance below the surface reveals schools of vibrant tropical fish and exotic coral gardens.
The water is so crispy-clear you can readily see more than 200-feet underwater. Inhaling the topside vistas you will often be amidst gnarly mangroves, dangling ficus roots with nearby eerie caves. The strangely shaped deep-undercuts from eons of wave action at water’s edge add to the allure and mystique of the wondrous Rock Islands.
In the company of fellow adventurers, we spent a day kayaking through the ethereal aquatic wonderland with Sam’s Tours. After an hour or so of paddling and cave exploring, we slid off the side of the kayaks and snorkeled amidst zillions of brilliant tropical fish zipping around staghorn and brain corals.
Back in the kayaks, maneuvering through a narrow passage our guide pointed up at the densely foliated sheer-cliffs looming close on either side. As he pointed he said, “Look up there. What do you see?”
“Just jungle,” my friend responded. Our guide corrected, “Look really close, through the foliage, and you will see two concrete Japanese machine-gun emplacements. They are no more than twenty feet away. If we were back in W.W. II, you’d all be dead by now.”
Relics from W.W. II
There was major fighting on the Palauan islands of Peleliu and Angaur. The Japanese heavily fortified the entire 320 mile-long archipelago. Extensive networks of caves can still be explored, some with supplies still intact.
One day as we traipsed around a remote islet, two women went off to explore a cave and returned wide-eyed explaining they just discovered a gun laying there right where someone dropped it six decades ago.
Today, tanks, Allied landing craft, ships, Japanese Zeros and more litter the sea floor and jungles of Palau, making the waters a premier destination for wreck-divers.
As we leisurely snorkeled around a sunken Japanese Zero resting on a coral bed six-feet underwater we would clearly see the intact prop, cockpit, tail and wings. Another afternoon we floated above a sunken Japanese seaplane corroding away just inches below the surface.
Three exotic Palauan hideaways
Ngellil Nature Island Resort
In the mood for a real Robinson Caruso flavored escape? Then Palau’s newest resort, the intimate Ngellil Nature Island Resort is the place for you. The rustic, Palauan style eight-room lodge was constructed utilizing native woods harvested on the island.
Barbequed meals are a house luncheon specialty at this ultra romantic, lovebirds’ hideaway that’s equally suited for families. With a private beach, just steps from the rooms, popular activities include snorkeling, sea kayaking, scuba expeditions, and jungle hikes.
When I stopped by for lunch and a short visit, I was instantly enchanted. Now, whenever I dream of my next visit to Palau, a three or four day stay at Ngellil is number one on my list.
Palau Plantation Resort
Palau offers a wide variety of resorts, inns, as well as home-stays from around $25 per person per night. The Palau Pacific Resort encompasses 64-acres of densely foliated seaside paradise. Situated on a stunningly beautiful, quarter-mile-long palm fringed beach, PPR offers every conceivable amenity such as plush towels, in room movies, spacious baths, room service, and air conditioning. PPR’s palm-tree shaded exotic oasis with its large pool, superb beach, outdoor bar and candle-lit terrace dining will tempt you to lounge around the resort for an embarrassing long time.
The Carolines Resort
An equally alluring hideaway is the intimate, Carolines Resort, nestled among the treetops on a steep mountainside above the PPR. Guests are offered breakfast in your cottage or on the lobby deck. For lunch and dinner you’ll have to head down the hill, but that’s all part of the adventure.
The Carolines’ traditional Palauan-style bungalows are luminous with rich-red native wood paneling and seductive verandahs. The Carolines is highly recommended for honeymooners and romantic getaways.
Colonial history in the Western Carolines
Palau was claimed by Spain in the latter 1800s but colonial ownership was purchased by Germany in 1899. Following WW I, The League of Nations transferred domination of Palau to the Japanese in 1919.
Japanese values soon permeated the local culture, through example and indoctrination. At the peak of colonial occupation, when Palau served as Japan’s administrative headquarters for its South Pacific possessions, more than 40,000 Japanese lived in the main town of Koror (fewer than 4,000 residents were native Palauans).
In the dawning days of W.W. II, many Palauans supported the Japanese (some had been sent away to boarding schools in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese). But as the war dragged on, Palauans became disillusioned with their overlords and many eventually actively aided the Allies.
At the conclusion of hostilities, Palau, along with the rest of the Carolines, Marianas and Marshall islands became a United Nations Trust Territory under United States administration. In 1994 Palau became an independent republic and the 185th member of the United Nations.
If You Go:
Palau offers accommodations for every budget and sensibility–from $25 per-night per-person home stays to more than $1,000 a night for unfettered indulgence.
One stop-shopping for accommodations, packages, dive operators, and more—
Palau Visitors Authority: www.visit-palau.com
Listen to Darrin DeLeon with the Palau Visitors Authority talk about cool things to do and see: