Palau A group of Rock Islands from the air

Palau - The Last Paradise and Its Floating Garden Islands - The Northern Pacific 7

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 5th January 2018

Arriving in Koror

I'm coming from Micronesia to visit Palau and this is another of those instances where I’ve been teleported to a completely different world. As far as I can make out in the dark, as I arrive, Koror, the former capital of Palau, inclines more to Honolulu than Yap. I can see illuminated signs, glass fronted shops and petrol filling stations. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Names are confusing. There's Koror City, Koror Island and Koror State, which consists of several islands to grapple with straightaway.

I’m not sure if I didn’t read the small print properly, or if I was feeling particularly gung-ho when I booked my hotel, but this place is eye wateringly expensive. I recall that the mid-range places were booked out and the remaining options weren’t scoring much above 7 on booking.com which basically means really don’t bother. Anyway, my room has an ocean view to the front and a lagoon view to the back – so double water aspect in estate agents’ terms. It’s luxurious, pleasing to the eye and comfortable (it ought to be), though there is some sort of weird wet room arrangement in the bathroom where the shower is sited next to the bath, so you fill the tub up while you’re showering. It’s also got one of those fancy Japanese toilets. Only maybe not so fancy, as the seat has come away from its fixings.

I’m desperate to see the fabled Rock Islands. Both scenery (UNESCO) and snorkelling are touted as world class. The resort is, unsurprisingly busy, mainly with Japanese guests and I’ve already been informed by email that the dive shop isn’t doing any snorkelling this week as it’s booked up with divers. I emailed the hotel direct for alternatives, but didn’t get an answer and now they’re telling me there isn’t any availability today.

Chomping Parrotfish Off The Beach

So I’m on the resort private beach, which I have to own, since I’ve stopped being grumpy, is actually very nice, especially as there aren’t many beaches in this part of Palau. It’s quiet, with powdery white sand and I have one of those little blue cabana things to hide under. What’s more the snorkelling directly off shore is entertaining. There’s a spread of coral that’s seen better days, but the marine life doesn’t seem to mind, there are plenty of giant clams and the fish here are seemingly unfazed by human company. The reef echoes to the chomping of huge parrotfish, who are quite happy to hover just below me as they chew. So I spend most of the day out there chasing photographs.

New Year in Palau

There are a couple of gala dinners going on here, but they’ve sold out of tickets. Nobody pointed out that they were happening, but I’m not too disappointed when it transpires that tickets are 150 dollars a pop. The beach bar is still open (only till ten as they have to do an inventory - on New Year’s Eve?) and I eat fish and chips with an American pilot called Bob until we are ejected. His co-pilot joins in our chat. Their ignorance of geography (and other airlines) is a little worrying. I’m asleep well before midnight, though there aren’t any fireworks to miss. They’re banned in Palau (along with firearms).

Snorkelling the Rock Islands

The only snorkelling tour with any space available is run by a Japanese company. The concierge who booked it told me that there would be 8 to 10 people on the boat. There are 16. And at least three other boats (all chock full) converge at every stopping place, so this is definitely mass tourism with a vengeance. The snorkelling is especially frustrating. The fish must think there’s a huge school of some  type of whale passing above them. In the end I swim to the tail-end and wait for the thrashing melee to progress ahead of me. The Japanese, as usual, take every opportunity to pose for photographs, leaping up and down on sand bars and even pushing me out of the way in the water, flailing their Go Pros and frightening away the striped trigger fish I’m trying to capture with my own camera.

Our Japanese whale school drifts along an impressive reef that’s 300 metres deep, unsurprisingly named The Big Drop Off. I’m less enthusiastic about the stop in a small bay known as The Milky Way. The bottom is very runny white clay and everyone smears themselves and each other with it – and takes pictures, of course. I notice a statuesque totally mud covered figure posing on one of the other boats. It’s the Russian guy from Micronesia. His little boy, like me, has abjured the clay and his wife/girl friend and I exchange New Years’ greetings.

The Floating Gardens of Palau

On-board are upright seats with backs and nobody moves around; they are not interested in photos of scenery and some of them have their eyes shut as we speed along, bumping over the waves. This is a little trying, when the backdrop is so fabulous and my view is obstructed. The lift up seats to store your gear in the dry seem like a good idea until you’ve had to disturb the guy next you more times than he is comfortable with. But he’s Japanese, so he just smiles in a pained way. The refreshment bucket contains oolong, apple and green teas rather than coca cola and every time we arrive at a new destination the tour leader proclaims the name of the place twice like a herald’s announcement and everyone cheers. It’s both annoying and entertaining.

The scenery though is worth all the discomfort. The limestone Rock Islands are the granddaddy of (aptly named) Floating Garden Islands, like Halong Bay in Vietnam, El Nido in the Philippines and Kabira and Matsushima Bays in Japan. They spread over a huge area in the lagoon round Koror and are utterly gorgeous, covered in bright emerald foliage, featuring the odd white sand beach and surrounded by turquoise, sapphire and cerulean seas. A huge number of turtles, dolphins, sharks and many species of fish which are not found anywhere in the world gather at this crossroads of three of the world’s main ocean currents. This is why there’s a saying in Japanese: ‘Palau is the last paradise.’

Super Snorkelling in Palau

I’m booked on a ‘super snorkelling tour’ of four sites with the same Japanese company, but they called at six last night to cancel. I wasn’t amused - it was too late to re-book and most of the tours, as I’ve reported, are full this week anyway. The concierge says he can get me a private boat for the day. I know these don’t come cheap so I’m hesitant, but he says he can get me a good price, considering I will need a sandwich lunch and a snorkel guide. He checks to find out where the tour company was going to take me and says he will find a boatman who will do the same.

Carter the boatman has turned up as arranged this morning. The good news is he has a very smart little vessel. The bad news is that he says the price agreed will only cover half a day, the sites mentioned are all too far away and the only person he’s brought along is his petulant eight year old son. So my snorkelling outing is a mixed bag.

Nothing as spectacular as yesterday’s Big Drop Off with its sharks and turtles, but it’s a pleasant morning and I get a much better view of the islands having a boat to myself. In addition, the weather has continued to defy the pessimism of the forecast. It’s been perfect blue skies with puffy white clouds for the last three days. I try not to think about the mounting cost of this sojourn in Palau.. It probably equals the last three weeks in FSM combined.

I had optimistically expected that my room cleaner would report the broken toilet seat, but as it’s Day 3 and he hasn’t I instruct him to do it when he finally arrives, in the middle of the afternoon. Now, they’ve replaced the whole ‘Washlet’ unit and it has a blue permanent light while the bowl illuminates whenever I approach. The seat is much too warm for my liking. It’s like leaning against an electric fire., which is just what you need when it’s constantly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Fabled Rock Islands of Palau From the Air

This morning I’m blowing the rest of my budget on a flight over the Floating Garden Islands. It’s worth it. For an extra ten dollars they’ve removed the side of the Cessna (to pay for insurance I’m told). There is an amazing clear view of these strings of islands and the swirling iridescent water. We track all the channels and swoop over the renowned Diver's Blue Hole. My fellow passenger is an American student who’s also a qualified pilot, so I have a backup if necessary. It’s a truly wonderful 40 minutes. It has to be one of the best views in the world.

Beach Bungalows at Chol

Then I travel north, away from the Honolulu like Koror, through jungle covered mountains that are much more reminiscent of the wild FSM. This island is called Babeldoep (it’s like being in Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and the highest point is Mount Ngerchelchuus (242 metres).

The accommodation is also a huge contrast. I’m in a small darkish bungalow, just behind another stunning beach with shallow sand banks out to the distant edge of the lagoon. There are hammocks, slung between the palm trees, which are amusing for a while. Then I drag a sunbed into the shallow water and spend the afternoon there. It’s difficult to concentrate on a book, when the views are so dazzling and constantly changing in the light. And the Russian trio have turned up yet again. I’ve been taking their pictures frolicking in the water and making sand castles. (Female Russian appears to enjoy this as much as, if not more than her son.) The father has asked me to send the pictures on, so I’ve discovered his name is Anatoly.

Dinner is a solitary affair, but a delicious one. Coconut fish curry with accompaniments in curled leaf baskets. One of these is koroke – a fried vegetable fritter. If anyone else is eating then they’re doing it in their bungalows. There are lights strung all around the walkways. It would probably be very pretty if someone turned them on.

Kayangel Atoll

I’m risking another Japanese tour today, to Kayangel Atoll at the very north of Palau. It’s a bumpy ride, as the swell is almost bad enough for the trip to have been cancelled. This time there’s one dry box and it’s under the captain’s seat. He’s Palauan and not nearly as amenable about being disturbed as my previous Japanese neighbour. Maybe that’s why my belongings are all soaked when I finally remove them. There are no Japanese proclamations today, but there is a lot of leaping up and down for photographs again. And our male guide seems to feel the need to add showers of seawater as an additional effect. I’m not very amused.

There is fishing - the snapper seem to be queuing up to be caught. But I’m much more impressed by the very tasty sashimi and tempura the guide subsequently produces. The beach is literally heaving with hermit crabs. These have congregated, in what looks like a mass of crawling pebbles, all attempting to snaffle the barbecue remains. We are taken on a mini tour of the main island - 57 inhabitants. Our guide is explaining about the uses of the tropical plants. ‘The underside of the banana leaf is exceptionally soft’, he says. ‘You can use it for toilet paper’.

Palau - The Last Paradise

The atoll itself is exquisite. The most turquoise of water, the most striking of sand bars. The bay is dotted with young turtles, swimming on each side of the boat as we glide in. More time to sit and wonder at the horizon. In these lagoons it melds with the reef edge and is an extraordinary solid indigo line laced with surf. The lagoon is a dappled stretch out to the reef and the skies are astonishing. They are huge, with amazing snowy cloud patterns laid on an azure background.

In hindsight, it would have been better to stay admiring the view, but I’m keen to try and get a better photo of the turtles. So I’m off, clambering over the rocks on the beach. Until I slip on a seaweed covered slab and land heavily on my coccyx. It’s still hurting - I’ve commandeered a bag of ice and I’m sitting on that. My trusty Nikon camera hasn’t come out of things too well either. Parts of the lens went flying. I’m hoping it will last the course.

Life at the Riverside Beach Bungalows

While I’m trying to balance on my ice I’m savouring another solitary dinner, sweet and sour parrot fish. Yet again its’s incredibly good. I might have made yet another bad decision though, as I’ve chosen to eat outdoors. There are hordes of night insects. My banana in coconut milk is covered in a great deal of additional protein by the time I get to it. The bungalow area is teeming with other wild life. There are enormous toads hopping around the path and the wall and roof are festooned with lizards. Both are fine by me - they will help to keep the insects off my food. I'm glad I've got my room refresher with me. They definitely help to keep the mosquitoes away from the bed.

A honey moon couple, Professor Dan and his new Japanese wife, are staying in an adjacent bungalow. They’ve just come by and given me some champagne. It will help to anesthetize the pain.

I’m walking wounded today, so I’m sitting on ice as much as possible. It doesn’t help that I’ve also got a gaping hole underneath my toes, where my replacement flip flops have disagreed with my feet.

Perfection in Palau

It’s my last United flight this evening, on to Manila and I’m consolidating my bags and trying to offload the excess before I’m back on a one piece of luggage limit. I’ve sold the Filipina cook my bought in Guam bag (when the airline lost my luggage) at a knock down price. I've also given her and the Girl Friday who manages the bungalows some of my now surplus clothes. And the offending flip flops. Now I’m savouring the lagoon for the last time, trying to commit its perfection to memory. Honeymooner Dan has designated himself my barman. He has set up his table on the sandbar and is concocting cocktails for us from soju and oolong tea. Amazingly, magician-like he produces all the ingredients, including ice, from a cool bag. Ah perfect…….

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