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A Micronesian Paradise

Take Air Mike to Yap and Palau

Yap and Palau
A men's meeting house and stone money in Yap.

Yap and Palau are the two last stops for Continental's Air Micronesia (Air Mike, as it's affectionately known). The stepping-stone flight originates in Honolulu and in order of appearance approaches the two islands via Johnston atoll, Majuro, Kwajelein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Truk, and Guam. Except for military restrictions at Johnston and Kwajelein, these are destinations not to be missed.

For two islands so close together Yap and Palau are worlds apart. Yap clings to traditional ways, and in a firm but kindly way holds the 21st century at bay. Palau, only 300 miles to the south, welcomes the future with enthusiasm, and, while not abandoning traditional values, looks to the technologically advancing world. Palau's even gone a step further—that of independence—and is now the Republic of Belau.

A Quiet Yap

The customs official at the airport had a lump of betel tucked behind red-stained teeth, and on the way into the town of Colonia we passed a pair of bare-breasted girls, their grass skirts aswing. Before delivering us to his hotel, Sylbester Alonso detoured down a palm fringed lane where 6-feet slabs of doughnut-shaped stone "money"—found there when the island was discovered in the 16th century—lined the way.

Sylbestor's small hotel, the E.S.A., is no resort, but for $45 for a double it provides air-conditioned rooms, reasonable food, and generous measures of hospitality, but no alcohol. The Pathways Hotel, where we would have stayed had it not been for nostalgia for the past, does have a bar, and that’s where the action is after dark. For $95 for a double it has cottages with a nice view of the harbor.

In Colonia we strolled under the palms along a betel-stained main street (spitting is a necessary part of betel chewing) toward the harbor dock past mom-and-pop stores and an incredible market filled with the bounty of sea and land.

We hoped that one of the Government Field Service ships would be at the dock, perhaps poised to carry us off to such "back of beyond" places as Ulithi, Mog Mog, or Satawal. We were out of luck. A ship had sailed the week before, the next was two weeks away. If you lust for a measure of warts and all island life, you may be lucky and find one of those vessels. Fares with cabin are 20 cents a mile plus $12 a day for meals.

It's thirsty work looking for ships, so we climbed the hill behind town to the Pathways Hotel. Over a cold beer, we pronounced Colonia a happy place. The term "laid back" came to mind, but a local we'd fallen in with disagreed.

"Yap is quiet," he said. But it's conservative, not laid back, and certainly no place for modern-day beachcombers. The 6,000 Yapese who live here would not tolerate that. "Rent a car," he continued, " and see for yourself."

The next morning, with lunch hamper, map, and reminders to ask permission to enter villages, to use beaches, and to avoid photographing bare-breasted women, we set off. At the edge of town the pavement ended, and we were in a gentle, green, and jungly land.

A Gentle, Jungly Land

The lane we were on led to a high-peaked thatched men’s meeting house around which stood stone money. It bore the look of a place not to be boldly photographed. The stone money, we were told, indicates prestige, and wealth; it can be used as collateral against loans.

Rattling our way through the jungle, we found ourselves between ranks of more stone money. There was a village, too, and through it ran a pathway to the lagoon. Village agriculture combined with nature's beauty along a path bordered by bananas and papaya and shaded by breadfruit trees and palms.

With manners in mind, we walked toward a patch of taro where several people were working, and we asked their permission to enter the village. We received a friendly but somewhat tentative reception. Among the Yapese unbridled hospitality has to be earned.

Still, someone offered us a welcome pair of drinking coconuts. We then sat on the neighboring beach, the most stereotypical tropical beach I’d ever seen. On the white sand before us stood several canoes abandoned by the tide; to the left and right coconut palms arched over us.

With drinking coconut in one hand and a sandwich in the other we well understood why these people who’ve retained genuine links to their past continue to regard the advancing world with kindly suspicion.

Modern Palau

Palau, the last stop for Air Mike's Island Hopper, is a composite of all Pacific islands. Within its reef-fringed 45-mile length there are jungle-clad mountains with lacy waterfalls, picture-perfect atolls, and, best of all, set in crystalline water are the gem-like, 350-odd green and verdant Rock Islands.

The handsome, animated people who live on Palau resemble a mixture of Polynesian, Malaysian, and Filipino. Koror, the capital and main town, is on an island just across a bridge from the airport. It's bigger than I expected, busier too, and along its leafy main stem are substantial stores, restaurants, schools, government buildings, and a number of after-dark watering spots.

Despite its relative modernity, Koror, with its 8,000, is only a fraction of its pre-war size. The Japanese made it a military fortress, a fortress that fell violently to U.S. forces in 1944.

Remnants of Japanese days remain, and Japanese food is still consumed. The Palauans who live here honor a traditional past, but they dress Western-style and enthusiastically champion the benefits of progress. As a result they have—other than Guam—the highest standard of living in Micronesia. They're also heavily dependent on Uncle Sam, and about half the population works for the Palauan government.

The Palau Visitors Authority will direct you to car rentals for moving about Koror (about $30 a day), restaurants (Philippine, Japanese, Korean, and Western), and hotels ranging from austere to luxurious. For budget quarters try the D.W. Motel in Koror; rates are $45 a double. At the other end of the spectrum check out the Palau Pacific Resort, the most luxurious hotel in Micronesia. Rates there begin at about $190. Beyond Koror there’s something for everyone: divers, hikers, boaters, and World War II history buffs. For a spectacular start go to the Rock Islands, which lie south of Koror stretching a good 18 miles into the translucent sea. The 340 or so verdant limestone knobs of land poking out of the water will cause gasps of wonder.

The best way to see this area is by boat and boatman. Wandering through the channels on your own could be confusing. Try Fish 'n Fins in Koror, which will run about $40 per person. Bring a picnic lunch, snorkeling gear, and plan a day of wonder among gem-like islets, crystal clear waters filled with fish, and vibrant coral formations.

Another day consider the big island to the north, Babeldaop. This island is jungly, mountainous, and broodingly beautiful. You could hire a boat to share with three or four other people from Fish n’Fins at about $160 a day. Or you can take the public speedboat for $10 one way. But you have to get back, so work out details before leaving. For an exotic day on Babeldaop take a boat to Okluacagchelid, get a guide and take the 6-mile trek to Ngardmau Falls. Deep in the jungle you can bathe in the pool of perhaps the most beautiful waterfall in the Pacific.

At the very northern extremity of Palau, 18 miles beyond Babeldaop, is a picture-perfect atoll called Kayangel.

This island first came to my attention during World War II when my ship was anchored nearby and has lingered in my memory ever since. Unfortunately this magnificent island—where 150 people live without running water, electricity, or wheeled vehicles—is hard to reach. It has no airstrip, and the one scheduled boat trip happens every week and a half. A hired boat costs $450.

Peleliu and Angaur, 20 miles south of Koror, are both worthwhile destinations. Six hundred people live on Peleliu, but other than a couple of simple but hospitable guest houses there are no hotels or restaurants.

Anguar, roughly the same small size and populated by 225 people, is a densely verdant, extremely pretty island and, oddly, is home to the only monkeys in Micronesia.

To get to these islands, domestic plane service is best. Fares are about $42 round trip from Koror. Guesthouse accommodations run about $15 a person and meals about $18 a day.

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