Palau your not-so-typical tropical island paradise
Looking for a relaxing and safe year-round tropical getaway? Pristine Palau, situated in Western Micronesia between the Philippines and Guam, is your best bet for a convenient tropical paradise vacation.
Unless on group tour, it’s best to first arrange auto rental. You can rent from the airport on Babeldaob Island, though it’s cheaper to get something while on Koror Island, about a 20-minute ride south. I got my rental for only $28/day (local currency is in U.S. dollars) across the street from the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) while inquiring there. The PVA is on the main drag toward the end of downtown Koror city, business hub of Palau, where half the country’s population of 21,000 reside. Get over to PVA first; they’re open mid-morning to late afternoon. Staff are very helpful and friendly; they’ll answer all your inquiries and even propose an itinerary for you based on your personal needs. Since Palau gained independence from the U.S. in 1981 and is now a U.S. protectorate, English is spoken throughout with Chinese and Japanese widely understood at major attractions, as well as some Korean. PVA tourist brochures, maps, and guides all come in the aforementioned languages.
A fair-sized American ex-patriate community resides here. While resting inside one of Koror’s two major department stores alongside the main thoroughfare, I bumped into “Dale,” originally from California, now a permanent resident of Palau. He first came in 1974, served three years with the American Peace Corps, moved to Guam in 1978, then Saipan, and now resides in Koror with his Palauan wife.
According to Dale, crime is low; Palau remains safe and tourist-friendly. There’s little by way of dangerous wildlife, though seawater crocodiles do lurk in mangroves primarily off the West Coast of Babeldaob Island, the largest of Palau’s 250 islands, and where the Airport is located. Don’t swim there alone and at night. This travel writer can testify to Dale’s overall assessment: the countryside is safe; Palauans are noted for their warm heartedness and hospitality.
There are no major franchise-type tour operations like Grayline Bus Tours, which is found virtually worldwide. Downtown Koror offers individual-owned and operated agencies, though expensive. A one-day guided tour could easily set you back $150 per individual. Suggestion: Get a good, compact-sized rental car for under $30 daily, and tour the islands yourself. Gas is more expensive compared to the U.S., though cheaper than in Korea where I reside. Koror Island is small, yet outlying islands are bridge-connected. It’ll only take about two hours to drive from Ice Box Park in the southern tip of Malakal Island, travel across Koror, and finally reach Ollei Port and Rest House in the northernmost tip of Babeldaob. That’s it; that’s the end of the road. Other than nearby Ngarkebesang Island, bridge-connected to Koror, other islands must be reached by boat.
Ready for some great tropical island adventure? Great. The following are just a few of many exciting places to take in. Let’s start first by heading over to Etpison Museum on the left of Koror’s main drag before Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge connecting Koror with Babeldaob. It’s a must-see. Named after the country’s third president, it’s a three-story set-up laden with Palauan artifacts and displays. “Elvis,” a white cockatoo, greets you inside upon arrival. Though he doesn’t sing rock ‘n roll, he’ll salute you in plain English. Explore a compilation of Palauan history and culture, ancient and contemporary, brought to life by miscellaneous souvenirs, storyboards, gifts, photos, wood carvings, artwork, seashells, jewelry, books, and myriad publications in the Art Gallery. Walk around and take in the bright-colored cultural exhibits featuring ancient artifacts, prints, maps, and displays like the famous Bai, traditional Palauan men’s meeting house. “Bai” stands for community house and the country’s best-known symbolic image. The architecture employs unique styles of finely crafted hardwood-constructed designs elaborately painted in brilliant hues of black, white, ochre, red, and, especially, yellow. (Drive over to Belau National Museum in southern Koror to see a huge Bai outdoors on the Museum grounds as well.)
Getting a little hungry or thirsty? Drive a few minutes south on Koror’s main street and on your left, stop by Burger House. They’ve got made-to-order hamburger dishes, along with other fast-food meals, and great tropical fruit milkshakes. There I met “Wanda,” a friendly nearby Airai State government employee; she elaborated on how low incomes coupled with high expenses remain the primary problem for permanent residents today. Now let’s turn back around to explore sights on Babeldaob Island….
Immediately after crossing Japan Friendship Bridge on the left, take a three-hour Jungle Kayak and Blue Cave Tour at Nature Island Resort Tours. RSVP a day in advance. (Because of the tides, virtually all Palau’s water tours are conducted in the morning.) Kayak 2.5 kilometers with guides through a lush green maze of mangrove bushes for a couple of hours. Enter the surreal Blue Cave; it has the deepest, Parrish-blue seawaters you ever laid your eyes on. Don’t attempt an impromptu dip; an occasional, small saltwater crocodile might be nearby. You’ve been officially forewarned!
Let’s head north. Deep inside the jungles of northwest Babeldaob is Eco-Theme Park in Ngardmau State on the eastern side of American-built Compact Road, showcasing Ngardmau Waterfalls, biggest in Palau. There used to be a cable car to the base of the falls; now take a 20-minute monorail ride or walk down. There’s a zip-line zipping over the canopy of jungle treetops for adventurous souls. Take your pick. Whatever you choose, bring a swimsuit to cool off in the nearby crystal-clear stream or pristine pond at the waterfall’s base. No crocodiles here! Note: This is free-flowing inland water. By Palauan standards, it’s cold!
Next, get back on Compact Road and head north to Ollei Port and Rest House. It’s a hectare or so block of land jutting out into the Pacific, marking the northernmost point of the island and end of Palau’s highway system. There you’ll find Tour Extreme Outfitters offering a medley of boat tours and activities run by local Hadley Renguul. Later, you can start back south, get on Compact Road, and hug the eastern shore of Babeldaob….
Best bet on the return trip to Koror is to stop by the Palau National Capitol (Ngerulmud) in Melekeok State on the central-east coast about an hour drive from Ollei Port. The capital was moved there in 2007 with expectations that businesses would follow. Such was not the case. The Capitol’s adjacent vicinity is virtually deserted; the Capitol itself is a magnificently structured work of architectural design beautifully painted in soft pastels that blend in perfectly with the surroundings, especially at dusk. I recommend you visit then. You won’t be disappointed.
Back in downtown Koror, try the 3-D Cinema to take in a good Hollywood blockbuster. It’s on the second floor over the bank of Guam on the left heading south. Can’t miss it. Admission is only about $5. Stop by or call ahead. A minimum of four patrons are necessary and it seats 21. Coziest public movie house you ever visited, and the only in the country. Want to see more? Tomorrow we’ll head over to the Palau Aquarium….
The country’s premier aquarium is located just off Koror’s main highway. It sports an expansive indoor exhibition hall and miscellaneous outdoor exhibits featuring the area’s unique marine wildlife. Read about the legendary founder of Palau: Chuab, a gigantic baby born to a local woman who, upon death, fell into the ocean and formed today’s Palauan Islands. The legend is recounted and graphically illustrated on outdoor signboards. Although traditionally seafaring people, many Palauans, like other Western Pacific islanders, can’t swim.
For a memorable evening of luxury boat dining and entertainment, sign up for the Seabird Cruise Sunset Dinner Cruise. Rates are reasonable. Sets out to sea around 5:30 p.m. for dinner of your choice under starlit skies. Feel the ocean breeze gently caress your skin, followed by live entertainment featuring traditional Palauan music, singing, and dancing. Get up on stage with island dancers and dance up a Palauan storm. The ship is docked opposite West Plaza Hotel on the T-Dock Peninsula. RSVP recommended.
If ever asked how you heard of any and all these activities on the islands, just tell them: “Ron sent me!”
Note: Steering wheels in Palau cars are on the right, though traffic moves on the right as well.
Caution: Most roads tend to be very rough with speed bumps everywhere. Speed limits are set low, though police patrol vehicles are seldom in sight.
Interesting tidbit: There are no traffic lights in Koror or adjoining islands; the last one was removed several years ago. During “rush” hour between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., however, traffic gets congested. Drive slow. Throughout Palau there are dogs, dogs, dogs everywhere roaming the streets.
Ron Roman has taught English throughout the Pacific Command, at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) originally, since 1996. He can most recently be seen acting as Admiral Forrest Sherman in the Korean War movie “Operation Chromite,” featuring Liam Neeson.