July 31, 2016
It’s Palau or Never!
Everyone remembers their first… mine was in Palau.
Not in a million years would I have ever imagined I’d end up rosy-cheeked and enervated, captive in my suite for the final days of an innocent family vacation.
As if it happened only yesterday, I clearly recall him snickering, “is this your first?”
“Everyone gets burned by the sun sometime, even us locals,” he confessed. “Be proud you got your first on our beautiful island!”
The snicker erupted into a billowing belly-laugh as the resort’s on-call doctor pulled out a cartoonishly over-sized vat of aloe, and rhythmically tapped the top of the container, as if to mock my sun-drenched misery.
Against the better judgement of everyone on the island, I, in all my caramel-colored confidence, opted for tanning lotion instead of sunscreen… I showed them…
“Aloe, rest, and plenty of water” were the doctor’s orders. I had already been snorkeling, hiking, fishing, exploring the jungle, windsurfing, kayaking, and diving (at least three times). I‘d survive a little forced R&R at this point, and the resort’s room service was to-die-for.
Even having missed the Mandatory Sunscreen memo, somewhere between the alluring Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake I began my mental negotiation, “if these were the only sunsets I saw for the rest of my years, I’d die a happy woman”… sun-charred, sandy, and undeniably at peace in this equatorial paradise.
With a reputation for being the gal who could never commit to the same zip code twice, it’s with great distinction that Palau stands out among other island destinations, time and time again. At the risk of sounding cliché, crystal-clear waters – bustling with the most exciting under sea life, private tropical beaches aplenty, picture-perfect sunsets, and simply the most warm, loveable people… a craving for this heaven-on-earth type setting can only be satisfied by a visit to this Micronesian gem. While you’re there, do yourself a favor and set aside an afternoon to take a canoe from wherever you’re staying and simply paddle away to one of Palau’s 250-something nearby deserted islets (neighboring the eight larger islands of which Palau is comprised).
Though Palau is extremely safe and the Palauans are ever-so-kind and friendly, some of the locals were ironically on the rowdier side – in only the best of ways; barefoot street brawls (for fun and sport) are common amongst these restless natives and often break out in the middle of the afternoon in the more rural villages. Chewing beetlenut and drinking taro leaf shochu (a vodka-like grain alcohol native to the island) is a common past-time which may play a minor role in the aforementioned rambunctiousness. These fights are all in good fun, of course, and islanders often bet on their neighbors or friends during a fight, adding fuel to the tropical fire.
In Koror, where most Palauans reside, there is a relaxed curfew enforced “in the public interest” from 2:30am-6:00am Monday-Thursday and 4:00am-6:00am Friday-Sunday. Don’t let this tidbit of local info scare you away- this curfew ensures a secure, mellow island atmosphere for locals and travelers alike. Just know that if you do happen to catch a little street fight, it’s a sight to see and certainly worth watching, especially if you’re somewhere air conditioned.
Palau stands out in my mind for a plethora of memorable scenic reasons, but does not go unnoticed by the rest of the globe either; their noble environmental and conservatory efforts are world-renowned, so much so that Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., was recently awarded the UN’s top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth award. In 2014, Palau officially announced itself as the world’s first Nation-wide Marine Sanctuary, fully protecting over 80% of its coastline. The Sanctuary, which establishes a local fishing zone for domestic use only, bans foreign and industrial fishing as well as exports.
Palauan officials and environmentalists alike hope this bold environmental move serves as an inspiration to other wildlife-rich nations. We can all learn some valuable lessons from Palau and its undeniable simplicity; the nation would probably still rely on sea shell currency if it had not been for the WWII activity there many years ago. Although price tags now bare dollar signs (USD is the major currency),
Palau has somehow managed to evade the trappings of modern technology and has maintained a tight grip on its traditional values, customs and beliefs.
Cheers, to that! Tribal handy-crafts, woven textiles, wood carvings, and small trinkets or souvenirs made of local sea materials are the main points of shopping interest and are available for purchase throughout the islands. Upon leaving the island, expect a Departure Tax related to these progressive movements (all visitors are required to pay a $20 departure tax plus a $30 “green fee”); another smart move by Palau.
Even though, by the end of this trip, my skin felt like it was running away from my face, absolutely everything ached, and I was certain I’d never turn from that lobster-esque hue back to my usual caramel tan again, I secretly was a little proud to have had my first in Palau.
What to do? Diving, snorkeling, fishing, diving, hiking, sailing, diving, sun-bathing, water skiing, and did I mention DIVING? Palau has some of the most incredible reefs- hands down; here you have the opportunity to dive WWII wrecks, experience the awe that is Jellyfish Lake, witness the majestic giant clams before they become extinct, and explore the depths around the Rock Islands and all their exotic sea life. Even if you’re not a diver, yacht charters, spa retreats, hammock-napping, and sipping fresh coconut milk with your toes in the sand is sure to be enough excitement for any traveler seeking some serious R & R. I’ve had tremendous luck with Sam’s Tours in terms of booking dives, tours, and charters; visit Sam’s Tours for info and activity ideas. Their personalized service is on-point and they have a notoriously trustworthy rapport with both locals and tourists from around the globe, which speaks volumes when it comes to who’s in charge of filling your tank before a dive. Feeling really adventurous? Check into a dive at Hammerhead Shark Point and venture on a group dive into Hammerhead Shark territory, if you dare. Sam’s may not take you there, it’s best to find a local group going or search for a company that specializes in this transformational excursion.
Where to Stay? Having visited on five separate occasions now, I can’t stress enough how fantastic the staff and accommodations are at Palau Pacific Resort. The website and photos simply do not do it justice; this property is lavish and plush with a warm, care-free island vibe like only Palau can offer. Check out Palau Pacific Resort for reservations and rates (typically ranging from $290-$400 per night). While you’re there, order the Palauan Steamboat from room service for a to-die-for seafood experience. Take advantage of the exquisite spa services. And, don’t miss the deadly Shark Attack; a killer PPR specialty cocktail perfected by the cheery staff at the poolside bar.
Notable Layovers: Almost every route to Palau by air requires a stop in Guam or Yap, sometimes both. As an avid diver and lover of all thing aquatic, “crystal-clear” wouldn’t begin to describe how pristine the waters of Guam really are. Yap is another experience in itself, still having its own incredible oceanography, but also a very traditional, unique Micronesian culture. Yap has yet to succumb to the pressures of the Gold Standard and proves to be a seemingly primitive but exponentially intriguing destination, especially if you manage to link it onto a trip to Palay. While Guam is more modern with a bustling island-themed nightlife (thanks to the US military activity on the island), Yap remains quiet and caters more the adventure-seeker in us all.
Despite the notoriety gained from being the backdrop for 2005’s “Survivor: Palau” – this lesser-known getaway remains relatively undeveloped and fairly quiet with minimal tourist activity. There is not much in the way of “nightlife” which eliminates the party-goer crowd and a portion of travelers looking for a livelier time. That factor makes Palau a marvelous romantic escape as well as a perfect family retreat. With seven billion people, running around this mad mad world, there’s something to be said about the option for complete and total privacy which truly exists in Palau. Go there now before it gets crowded, while the reefs remain untouched, and while those private beaches remain condo-less… it’s Palau or never, baby!