Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Completing the circle in London

Closing the circle with our final destination, London, required our longest flight of the trip. Flying from San Francisco to London took about 9½ hours with a good tail wind. Question: Why does United/Continental charge for drinks on international flights when every other airline offers them for free?

One of the best reasons to visit London

Oh well, we would have plenty of opportunity for drinks in London, since one of the nicest parts about visiting that city is access to the wonderful English pubs and their tasty cask ales, which we’ve both developed a fondness for. Lucky us—we found a really good Indian restaurant and a particularly nice Fuller’s pub just a couple blocks from our hotel (the Royal Park Hotel on the edge of Hyde Park). The Victoria is delightful, especially in winter: warm fires burning in the fireplaces, beautiful wood panels lined with pictures of Queen Victoria, a mixed local clientele both young and old, delicious pub food, and a full range of excellent beers (ESB, London Pride, seasonal bitter). We popped into a few other pubs during our 2½ days in the city (the Swan, Monkey Pod, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese), but the Victoria was definitely the best.

Our time in the city was made special by the presence of good friends Alan and Cherry, who had allowed us to spend the month in their villa in Kas, Turkey, back in October (same trip, but seems so long ago!). They came up to London by train from their home in East Sussex and spent a couple of nights with us. For culture we took in the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, which we had also visited on past trips. We rode the buses (bought an oyster card for the first time) and took a bracing walk across the Millennium Bridge over the Thames to get to the Tate Modern. One night we bought discount day-of-the-show tickets (39 pounds each) for a performance of the Queen musical, We Will Rock You. That turned out to be surprisingly fun, especially for a Queen fan. The story was simple and a bit silly, but it effectively wove the Queen songbook into the show.

St Paul's, the Millennium Bridge, and a watercolor sky

Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern
The London weather was actually surprisingly nice (high in the 40s, with some weak sunshine), so we lucked out on that front. But it was quite shocking after months in the 80s! And of course we weren’t really properly dressed since we didn’t want to drag heavy winter clothes around with us for 134 days just so we could have them for 3 days at the end of the trip. So we shivered a bit, especially when the sun went down at 4 in the afternoon as we strolled through Hyde Park. Good excuse to head to the pub for another pint. Which we did.

So long, London
So our trip around the world is now complete—32,000 miles, 137 days, 29 flights, 8 countries, countless wonderful adventures.  We flew back from London to New York, rented a car, and drove home to Pennington, New Jersey. Hard to come home in the middle of winter! My allergies to New Jersey immediately set in. Darn! But it was great to catch up with Owen and Roque and the grand-dogs again—it’s been too long since we saw them!

And what were my favorite places? One of the nicest features of the trip was that every place we visited was different and had something special to offer. We never got bored, which is pretty amazing. Four and a half months was not too long—we could have kept going, for sure (though I did miss our family and friends). And despite flying around the world, the only time we got jet lag was during our three days in London—I guess flying 9 hours through several time zones was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (Or maybe all the hours we spent in the pub had something to do with it?)

I'll end with a little list of just some of the highlights:

Favorite places—Panarea, Salina, Cappadoccia, Kas, Hanoi, Siem Reap, Kampot, Palau

Favorite accommodations—Casa di 100 Scaleri (Panarea), Casa Babilonia (Salina), Villa Maisie (Kas), Esbelli Evi (Urgup, Cappadoccia), stilt house (Mai Chau, Vietnam), Golden Temple Hotel (Siem Reap), La Java Bleue (Kampot, Cambodia), Dolphin Bay Resort (Peleliu, Palau), The Village (Pohnpei)

Favorite activities—boat trips/swimming in the Aeolian Islands; kayaking/swimming in Kekova, Turkey; ballooning in Cappadoccia; seeing the rice culture in Vietnam; visiting the temples by tuk-tuk in Siem Reap, Cambodia; kayaking and snorkeling in Palau with Planet Blue/Sam’s Tours

Best shopping—Turkey (pashminas, rugs), Cambodia (silk scarves)

Best food—Cambodia and Vietnam

Next up: ???? 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Painting the town Scarlett

Our route from Honolulu to San Francisco was via Phoenix on U.S. Airways--certainly not the most direct route, and definitely the worst airline we have flown on this trip. Nonetheless, the overnight flight was uneventful except for the Very Large Person who sat next to me and dominated the small amount of available space. We were glad when we finally reached San Francisco!

As always, the city looked beautiful in the crisp sunshine as we landed. We rode on BART from the airport to the Mission district, where, lucky us, we got to spend 5 days with tiny Scarlett Sophia O'Brien and her parents, Tyler and Kelly. What a treat!

A bench we encountered in Hyde Park, London

Next: London, our final stop

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hawaii used to seem so exotic

The trouble with world travel is that you keep getting introduced to new and amazing places, so the places you've frequented in the past start looking a little staid. We've been to Hawaii half a dozen times, so we weren't expecting the same magical reaction we had the first time or two, and sure enough there were no real surprises once we got there, especially given that we decided to save some money and stay put on the most touristed island, Oahu. Yet for all the crowds in Honolulu--we were, after all, there at the busiest time of the year, during the Christmas holidays--the island is still stunningly beautiful and a pleasure to visit.

Leaving Pohnpei we almost took along some stow-aways. At the security check at Pohnpei airport John was asked to open his carry-on bag, a small backpack, and out walked 2 inch-long tropical cockroaches (they grow them extra big in the tropics). On further inspection, 6 or 8 more crawled out and scattered this way and that as we crushed them with our shoes. We did NOT want to take those guys with us! They may have been inside my spare pair of shoes, which had been sitting on the floor in the room of our bungalow for a couple of days. John had kindly offered to carry in his backpack. Never again, I'm sure.

Continental Airlines flies from Pohnpei to Hawaii, but the flight isn't direct: it stops at Kwajalein (base for a US military installation) and then at Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, before getting to Honolulu. Lots of local families were flying to visit relatives for the holidays, so many people on the plane knew each other, making the ride quite festive. The flights are quick but the stops take some time---it was 3:30 a.m. when we finally landed in Hawaii.

That's when I realized that I'd forgotten to factor in our crossing of the international dateline, so our hotel reservation didn't actually start until later that afternoon. Darn! We had planned to check in to our hotel in the early morning and sleep for a while, but of course it was way too early since we hadn't reserved a room for the night/morning we arrived, so instead we ended up in the hotel's "hospitality room"--a row of computers, some massage chairs, and a couple of rattan couches--and tried to nap before heading out for breakfast. Really uncomfortable, but at least we weren't sleeping on a park bench. When the sun came up we walked a few blocks to Waikiki beach (pretty much empty at that hour) and laid down in the sand near the water. We must have slept for a couple of hours, because when I next opened my eyes the sun was blazing and we were surrounded by a crowd of bodies in bikinis!  

Waikiki Beach

Eventually we did get to check in to our hotel (Waikiki Sand Villa, a serviceable hotel a few blocks from the beach, along the Ala Wai Canal), where we had a nice corner room with views of the mountains on one side and the beach high-rises on the other, and a sliver of an ocean view. A small sliver.

We spent the next 6 nights in Honolulu, hanging around the beach, walking a lot, doing a little shopping, and taking a couple of day trips to other parts of the island. We rented a car one day and drove around most of the island. Did a good walk to Makapuu Lighthouse on the windward shore--beautiful coastal and mountain views--where I tried to spot a whale but had no success (no surprise, even though this is the time of year that whales can supposedly be spotted along the shore). Looking for whales in an ocean can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We stopped at an orchid farm farther along the coast toward the north shore, where I decided that maybe I'd give orchids a try. Am I patient enough? We picked out a few beautiful plants that will be shipped to us in February, weather permitting.

We stopped for a late lunch at the Crouching Dragon restaurant on the north shore--not bad, nothing special--and regretted it when we saw, a few miles later, the famous fresh shrimp trucks that populate that part of Oahu. We were too full for shrimp, but I had one of the other island specialties, barbecued corn on the cob, drizzled with lime juice, garlic butter, and black pepper. Delicious! The waves on the north shore were pretty big, so we spent some time on Sunset Beach watching the surfers crash and burn before we headed back to the city. If we had it to do over again, I think we would try to find a vacation rental of some kind on the funky north shore instead of basing in Honolulu.

Red flags on the north shore mean swimming is dangerous

Another day we hooked up with a Kailua (windward shore) kayaking company that picked us up in Honolulu and brought us to their shop near Kailua beach where we picked up a couple of kayaks and trundled them down to the water for some ocean kayaking. The water was fairly choppy so it took a lot of work to get out to the nearby coral island, but it was a good workout. We used to kayak only on quiet lakes and rivers, but we're so much more comfortable in the sea now that we've had a few of those experiences under our belts. While we were in Kailua we stopped by Island Snow, the shave ice shop favored by the Obama family, who were also vacationing in Kailua while we were there. About 30 flavors to choose from--a really refreshing cross between a slush and a snow cone.

Shave ice flavors at Island Snow

Food-wise, Hawaii has some fun home-grown delicacies: poke (marinated raw tuna cubes), loco moco (ground beef and rice, topped with an egg), pupus (appetizers), and malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) among them. We love the Asian influences on the cuisine, and we ended up eating a lot of Japanese food. Our favorite restaurant was tiny Matsugen on Beach Walk, which serves the best soba noodles we've had outside of Japan. Next door to it is another really good restaurant, Arancin, where we had excellent Italian dishes. Both these little places are very popular with visiting Japanese. Another night we ate at Uncle Bo's Pupu Bar and Grill, a short walk from Ala Wai Canal, a little off the beaten track. Really good and not so packed with tourists. For lunch on a couple of days we headed to the Japanese food court at Shirokiya Department Store in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, which is modeled on the food courts in Tokyo department stores. Loved perusing all the possibilities and choosing our favorites to bring to the tables where we ate among the throngs of Asian diners doing the same.

Selecting from the Japanese food court at Shirokiya

Bottom line: Hawaii is gorgeous and easy to love. It's a good entry point back into the United States after a long trip in more exotic places--easy to put everything on autopilot and enjoy the scenery, the amazing weather, the surfers, and the island lifestyle. It's crowded with tourists during the holidays, especially near the beach at Waikiki, but I'm glad to see the Hawaiian economy doing so well after taking a hit during the recession. We were ready to move on when our six days were up, especially since our next stop was San Francisco and a chance to meet our new granddaughter.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pohnpei: It takes a Village

I bet you've never heard of Pohnpei before, even though it used to be a U.S. Trust Territory and it contains a former U.S. national landmark, the ancient site of Nan Madol. Pohnpei (formerly spelled Ponape) is actually the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia--which include  Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae (heard of them, right?)--which became independent of the United States in 1986. It’s another one of the many Pacific islands that were occupied over the years by the colonialist flavor of the month—Spain, Germany, Japan, the United States.

Oh yeah, it's a Pacific island
We chose to stop in Pohnpei, which lies well east of Palau and just a bit north of the equator, about halfway between Manila and Hawaii, for 5 nights because John’s parents had taught at the community college there in the early 1980s. We had wanted to visit them at the time but never got around to it, so it’s been on our list for quite a while. It made a really nice stop on our island-hopping route to Hawaii.

The flower-filled island has a population of about 34,000, with the main town, Kolonia, a hub of small commerce, especially humming right before Christmas. There are a few places to stay, but during our Internet research we were fortunate to have come across the star of the show, The Village, a 20-bungalow wooden inn that sits on a hill overlooking the sea, several miles outside of Kolonia. It’s a beautiful place—just what I imagine when I think “Pacific island.”

Once I saw the palm-thatched roofs of the cottages that splash down the hill from the reception area and restaurant, I knew we were in the right spot to spend a happy Christmas in the Pacific. The cottages are large, with big screened windows on all sides (no glass) and mosquito nets draped over the beds. An added bonus was the really good food served in the open-air restaurant, including fresh-from-the-sea tuna (both grilled and as sashimi), mahi-mahi, mangrove crab, and a tasty morsel called plum chicken. There was also a pretty decent wine selection and a nice Jamaican beer (!) called Red Stripe, which we drank a lot of. I am still a bit disappointed by the lack of fruit variety in the Pacific islands—mostly bananas and pineapple, though we were also able to enjoy papayas and soursop (the latter best served as a major ingredient in delicious soursop daiquiris).

The Village, surrounded by tropical forest
Closest thing to icicles in this part of the world
At The Village we met another visiting couple, Tom and Anita (Tom was working on a road project in Chuuk, an island about which he had almost nothing good to say), who were renting a car for the day and invited us to tag along with them. So we spent part of the 24th with the local holiday shoppers, though we passed on the ubiquitous t-shirts and shorts and gravitated instead to the island handicrafts—fish carvings, wooden and shell mobiles, and seashell-decorated items. Most women on Pohnpei wear colorful mumus or calf-length flowered skirts, and most of the people we met were pretty friendly. 

We also drove out to another part of Pohnpei, Sokehs, and hiked up the hill on a rough gravel toward the top. The views along the way were great, but we eventually had to turn back because the trail got too muddy—Pohnpei gets a huge amount of rain (300 inches in some places), and the wettest season was just ending. Oh well, more time for Red Stripes back at The Village.  

We had a really great Christmas — two days of Christmas, in fact. The first day (the 25th on the island) we did a combined snorkel/hike/kayak trip to the highlights of Pohnpei: snorkeling with huge, amazing manta rays, hiking to a gorgeous waterfall where we swam in the pool at the base of the falls, and kayaking through the ruins of Nan Madol. In between we had a bento lunch (served in a banana leaf) on a small island with some of the finest sand we’ve ever stepped in.

Lincoln Logs at Nan Madol
Nan Madol is more than 1,000 years old and is made up of 92 man-made islets built of basalt columns. Lots of hard labor went into building up the structures, apparently constructed during a 500-year period of rule by the dictatorial, outsider Saudeleur dynasty. As with many ancient structures, it’s difficult to fathom how the heavy stone columns were transported to the area and used for building with limited means of transportation and technology. An impressive site for sure.

Blue-tailed lizards dart around the pathways
Christmas dinner back at The Village was a filling meal of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding with carols playing in the background. A beautiful way to spend our first Christmas day on Pohnpei.

But wait—there was another one! Because the island is on the other side of the International Dateline from the United States, December 26th in Pohnpei was actually Christmas day in the United States. And that’s when we got the best Christmas present of all—our first granddaughter. Congratulations to Tyler and Kelly on the birth of little Scarlett Sophia! We were on pins and needles while we awaited news from San Francisco, made especially difficult because my global phone doesn’t work in Pohnpei (ironically, it’s the only time we’ve wanted to use the phone and the only place it hasn’t worked!). But we eventually got the news, and Tom & Anita shared a bottle of champagne with us to celebrate. It was also an interesting coincidence—29 years ago we sent a telegram to John’s parents in Pohnpei to announce the birth of their grandson!

Our final two days on the island were spent working on our projects (back to reality), made easy by the beautiful view we had as we toiled away on our computers, and taking some walks in the local area. At one point we were approached by a young guy named Dwayne, who spoke a little English and invited us to come with him to his home a short ways away. We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we went along. Turned out he just wanted us to stop by where his family was gathering for a post-Christmas celebration so we could exchange greetings. It was kind of awkward so we left pretty quickly, scratching our heads about what that was all about! Perhaps a little too much of the local island drink, sakao, had been consumed.

Today we fly to Honolulu for our last island adventure. We’ve been to Hawaii many times before, so we feel like we are really saying goodbye to the less-trod path we’ve followed over the past 4 months—only Hawaii, San Francisco (where we’ll meet our new granddaughter), and London still remain on the agenda before we return to New Jersey in mid-January.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chilling on Peleliu Island

The fast boat to Peleliu Island, in the southern part of Palau, costs upwards of $50 each and takes just under an hour, but we took the slow (cheap) boat at $17.25 for the two of us and our bags, arriving at the dock in Peleliu about 2 ½ hours after we left Koror. The boat took us, about 40 Palauans (several of whom were chewing betel nut), 5 Europeans, 1 car, and dozens of boxes (including lots of instant noodles) and bags on the slow cruise past the Rock Islands, where we had snorkeled and kayaked—why would we want to go fast?

On the boat to Peleliu
Pulling up to the Peleliu dock, we knew we had arrived at another special place. About 700 people live on the island, which is 6 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point. There’s one main road with a few offshoots—no street signs, no stop signs, maybe 100 cars in various states of repair. Ninety percent of them are unregistered, and 90 percent of the drivers are unlicensed, according to a local guy we talked to. Downtown consists of one small store, an elementary school, the state legislature building (Peleliu is a separate state in the Palau Republic), and a couple of tiny resorts. Our lodgings, the quiet little Dolphin Bay Resort, is about a mile down the road, set on the edge of a lagoon that is protected by the reef, where waves break about 400 yards from shore.

Free kayaks at Dolphin Bay
Dolphin Bay Resort is owned and operated by a Japanese/Palauan couple, and we were greeted with many bows as we hopped out of the van that had met us at the dock. The resort is associated with Peleliu Divers, a nice little dive/snorkel operation. The 7 cottages are lined up next to each other with small decks looking out to the sea and the entrances facing a lovely tropical garden that is immaculately kept. There’s a small restaurant that serves delicious home-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and kayaks are free for guests’ use. Really simple, really nice, $195 a night with all meals included. We couldn’t ask for a nicer place. There’s no choice at meals—though the owner asked us if there was anything we couldn’t/didn’t want to eat (no)—but the food has been wonderful (rice, chicken or pork stir-frys, interesting vegetables, spring rolls, fried bananas, a grilled whole red snapper); lunches are packed for us in bento boxes, which always makes them taste even better.

This little note in the guests’ booklet is indicative of the vibe: “Peleliu is a tropical island with beautiful tropical insects and marine life. When you are greeted by one of them, you can enjoy their natural beauty.” 

The view from the hammock
So what did we do during our 3 days in this little piece of paradise? Well, we kayaked in the lagoon every afternoon, timing our trips according to the afternoon tide. THE SUNSETS HERE ARE AMAZING! As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, we’ve seen a lot of cool sunsets, but the one we experienced the first night we were here takes home the top prize.

U.S. Sherman tank, left where it was hit
One day we did a land tour with a local guide to see the World War II remnants that are scattered all over the island. Peleliu was the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the war (and perhaps the most needless, in retrospect). It was fought as a prelude to the United States’ successful attempt to take the Philippines from Japan. There were many thousands of casualties in what the Americans erroneously assumed would be a 3- or 4-day battled; it raged for 2 months in September-November 1944 before the U.S. eliminated the Japanese resistance. There are lots of abandoned tanks, parts from downed aircraft, guns, and other remnants to look at, as well as a small museum that does its best to document the battle (could be improved greatly with some money and curating assistance—especially needed is a scanner to digitize the photos that are quickly deteriorating). We climbed up to Bloody Nose Ridge, site of one of the most deadly parts of the fight, where we got a good view of the scope of the island. Very interesting.

Ruins of the Japanese Headquarters, commemorated by origami cranes
On our last day we did our final snorkel outing in Palau—just the two of us, with a boat driver (Godwin) and our snorkel guide (BJ). We snorkeled at 5 different spots, including the eponymous Big Dropoff, a fantastic place to snorkel and dive, with blue, blue water and shockingly beautiful fish. Our favorite fish of the day was the clown triggerfish, but we also saw a horde of yellow goat fish moving along the coral like they were in a Miyazaki movie, several turtles up close and personal, black-tipped sharks, a big Napoleon wrasse—plus quite an array of coral and of other fish, big and small. Some of the divers we’ve met along the way grouse that the diving in Palau isn’t as good as they were led to believe (wow—they must have seen some really great places elsewhere in the world), but this is the best snorkeling we’ve ever done--or at least it more than holds its own against the Great Barrier Reef.

View from Bloody Nose Ridge

I did experience one little incident while snorkeling earlier in the week—everything was going swimmingly but suddenly I was being covered with what felt like a dozen invisible stinging strings. I couldn’t see them, and I couldn’t get away from them! I quickly returned to the boat and put ice on the stinging parts of my body—my back, arms, and ankles—and fortunately soon felt better. Our guide said that sometimes during the rising tide coral shoots off tiny pneumatocysts—stinging cells—that can get to you if you get close to the coral. I wasn’t particularly close, but I guess they got me! Made me kind of nervous the next couple of times I got in the water, but fortunately that was the only time anything like that happened.

Spend about 15 minutes in Palau and you're tan
Yesterday morning we made our way back to Koror by slow boat and checked into a fancy nearby hotel for the day/evening. We flew from there to Guam at the ridiculous hour of 2:30 a.m., and then on to Chuuk (aka Truk), finally reaching Pohnpei at 2:30 p.m., where we'll stay for the next 5 days. Christmas in the islands! The only bad part of it is that Tyler, Kelly, Owen, and Roque aren't here to enjoy it with us and reprise our great days at Casa Ensueno in Nicaragua. We miss you!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Palau: A fish and coral paradise

To get to Palau from Phnom Penh we first flew back to Vietnam, staying overnight in Ho Chi Minh City before flying on to the Pacific. To make things easy, we had arranged with our Vietnam travel agent, Tonkin Travel, for a car to pick us up at Saigon airport and take us to our old standby, the Sanouva Hotel.  As usual, there were a bunch of drivers waiting with signs as we left the airport, and we spotted our name on one of the signboards. We waved to the driver and he led us out to his van, which took us on the route we were familiar with by now. But when we got to our street the driver pulled up to the Golden Hotel, not the Sanouva, which was across the street. No problem—we told him we were going to the Sanouva, walked across the street, and checked in. 

A few minutes later we got a call from the travel agent asking us how we had gotten to the hotel. When we told her, she asked if we’d paid the driver anything. (No, since we knew that the agency paid the driver directly.) Then she said that our driver—apparently the driver we were supposed to go with—was still at the airport, looking for us! Very strange. I think what happened is that when we waved to the driver at the airport the wrong driver came over, and it was just a lucky coincidence that he was supposed to take someone to the Golden Hotel, across the street from our own hotel.  So now we know how to get a free ride from the airport even if you haven’t reserved one—just point to one of the name boards and go with it!

The next morning we were back at the airport by 10 for our flight to Koror, Palau, via Singapore and Manila. The first two legs were on Singapore Airlines, which has to be one of the finest airlines in the world. Great service, sufficient legroom (even in row 57), decent meals that included free wine. And Singapore airport is really nice—the floors are carpeted (and the carpet is spotless!) and the chairs at the gates are padded. Comfortable! Quite a contrast to Manila airport. There we got to use the VIP lounge because we’d been upgraded to business class on Continental for our flight to Koror, but the lounge was the worst I’ve been in. When it came time to board the flight the extra security checks were the most stringent we’ve seen in awhile. No more laid back Southeast Asian airport security!

Many flights into and out of Palau all take place around 2 a.m. We arrived around 2:30 a.m. and took the West Plaza Hotel shuttle to our lodgings for the next 5 nights. First impression of Koror: sleepy, and sleeping. The hotel is basic but expensive for what you get ($100 a night), like many things in Palau. But it has air conditioning (important in this tropical climate) and a view across the water, so it’ll do. The plan was not to spend much time in the hotel anyway—we’re here to kayak, snorkel, and enjoy the laid-back tropical atmosphere.

We arranged a trip with Sam's Tours to the nearby Rock Islands that included a speedboat to the best kayaking locations (the boat takes us and the kayaks to the spots), kayaking, and snorkeling. Water tours aren't cheap here--they run about $115 per person. Oh well--how many times will we get to Palau?

Red roosters are popular in Palau!
Our plans were put on hold, however, by a tropical storm that passed through Palau on its way to the Philippines. That gave us more time to explore the town, including the Belau National Museum (there's no "p" in the Palauan language, so Belau is the local spelling of the country). Palau has been administered by several countries in the past couple of centuries: the Spanish gave way to the Germans, who gave way to the Japanese, who lost Palau to the United States in World War II. After the war the islands that make up Palau became a U.S. Trust Territory; in 1994 they became an independent nation with a seat in the United Nations. The museum has some interesting exhibits on the area’s history. It was a nice place to visit until it was overrun by Chinese and Japanese tour groups as we were leaving—Palau is a popular holiday destination for Asian travelers, and most of them travel in packs, so when they descend on a site they really make an impact (both on land and in the water).    

The Pacific islands treat has been modernized!
The storm didn’t amount to much in Palau, though it did cause significant damage and at least 200 deaths when it got to the Philippines. By evening it had mostly passed through our area, so our kayak trip the next day was ON. Yay! It was interesting to see day-to-day island life in Palau, but our interest was quickly running out.

And then we got what we came for: 3 fantastic days on and in the water. 

On the first day there were 6 of us on the boat, plus our guide Lewis, a couple of guides-in-training, and the boat captain. The boat brought us and the kayaks to some amazing kayaking and snorkeling sites, including lagoons with calm waters—perfect for both kayaking and snorkeling. The corals were gorgeous—purple, green, orange, white—and in all kinds of varieties. The fish were equally colorful. I can’t list them all, so I won’t list any; suffice it to say that what we saw on our 3 snorkeling runs that day was 10 times better than the best aquarium we’ve ever been in. Maybe our favorite was the Harlequin Sweetlips—dark brown with big white spots and fluffy fins. But there were so many others! The colors of the water ranged from milky blue to turquoise to all shades of blue-green. 

We boated into a big cave, and John and the 2 other guys climbed up to the top of the cave’s opening and jumped into the blue-green water below (I stayed on the boat that time, to take pictures). The kayak portions of that day were the best we’ve ever experienced. Awesome.

The next day we went out with Sam’s again, this time on a snorkeling tour with 2 other people (U.S. Navy guys from Guam), further afield in the Rock Islands. We snorkeled 5 times—one was at the edge of a reef wall where on our right side the corals and fish were again amazing and on our left side the trench along the Philippine Sea was unfathomably deep. 

Our kayaks ready and waiting
Another place was the unbelievable Jellyfish Lake, an interior marine lake that we reached by hiking up a steep coral path and then down an equally steep slope to the lake—fortunately there was a sturdy rope on one side that we could hang on to to keep our balance as we climbed up and down. The walk was worth the effort, though, because at the lake we had our own personal National Geographic moment: snorkeling with thousands of pulsating orange jellyfish, some bigger than my hand spread wide, all of which have evolved with no stingers since they have no predators in the lake. We were able to touch and hold the jellies but had to be careful not to lift them out of the water because that would have been harmful to them. We were lucky because our guide timed our visit perfectly to sandwich us between two big tour groups—one leaving just as we arrived, the other arriving just as we left—so the 4 of us we had the lake and its resident jellyfish all to ourselves while we were there. Stunning!   

Who are these people?
Another fun stop on that snorkeling tour was the Milky Way, a protected lagoon in which very fine, white mud accumulates on the bottom and makes the water a milky blue. Our guide, Loren, dove down to the bottom of the lagoon and brought up a pile of mud, which we plastered all over ourselves for an impromptu mudbath. (The same mud sells in one of the expensive hotels in Palau for $100 a bottle.)

We had so much fun on both the kayaking and the snorkeling trips that we decided to do yet another kayak/snorkeling combo today. Yes, we saw more awesome sights and got more great exercise. At the first snorkeling stop we snorkeled over a place called Darwin’s wall, named for all the brain corals and other colorful corals that line the wall. At the second snorkel stop we saw a black-tipped shark patrolling less than 10 yards from us as we swam. We kayaked in a quiet marine lake that we got to by doing the limbo on our kayaks under an low opening in the wall; by the time we left the lake the tide had begun to rise and we had to really flatten ourselves against the kayak tops in order to get through. We also did a lengthy, slow paddle through a beautiful mangrove channel to an inner lake where we saw devil rays gliding below us. What a great day—too bad I didn’t have a water camera! Or maybe it’s good—I was able just to enjoy what I saw and take a mental picture.

For meals we’ve had bento boxes arranged by Sam’s Tours (not great, but they keep the hunger pangs away), and dinners at Fuji (Japanese), Little Italy, Taj (Indian), and a Thai restaurant whose name I’ve forgotten. Nothing memorable—food is definitely not one of Palau’s highlights. However, one of our guides highly recommended Carp Restaurant for local food, so we’re going to try that before we leave Palau.

Tomorrow we get a break from all the physical activity: we’re taking the $5 state ferry 2.5 hours south to the Palauan island of Peleliu, where we will stay in a seaside cottage for 3 days of laying in a hammock, doing a little more kayaking, and otherwise relaxing before we say good-bye to Palau and fly on to Pohnpei, farther east in the Pacific.