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Palau, The Edge of Eden

By:
Ben Hall
 

Once a World War II battleground, Palau is now better known as a nature-lover’s paradise, both above and below the water. 

The lagoon was pulsating with golden, transparent jellyfish, and at first, I couldn’t believe I was actually snorkelling among them, let alone touching them. I’d seen it done only weeks before in episode six of “Survivor Palau”, but there’s quite a difference between watching something on television and doing it for real. The idea of immersing myself into a lake teeming with jellyfish had made me nervous. These fascinating animals are the bane of swimmers and surfers across the globe - I, too, had my fair share of painful welts after a close encounter with a bluebottle while swimming at home in Sydney. But as we were told, nothing in Palau is the same as anywhere else in the world, and that includes jellyfish. 

Jellyfish Lake nestles in the heart of one of Palau’s famous Rock Islands, and to get there you traverse a steep track through dense jungle. The lake used to be a submerged reef that at one point in history rose up from the ocean and became sealed off. With no natural predators the long tentacles of the jellyfish gradually evolved into stubby fingers, and it eventually lost its ability to sting. During the day, millions of them migrate around the lake, following the sun and bobbing up to the surface occasionally to take nourishment from its rays. And luckily for us, limited numbers of visitors are allowed to share the moment with them. 

Their numbers and graceful fragility was impressive. Davis, our guide, had warned us to swim calmly and slowly among the jellyfish and not to lift them out of the water as they are easily damaged. And if we felt we had to touch them, the key word was “gentle”. As I cupped a small one in my hands, I had a surreal sense that I was in a truly special place and doing something rare which I may never do again. But that’s Palau in a nutshell - a unique slice of paradise which is memorable on every level. 

The banana-shaped islands of Palau lie at the far western end of Micronesia in the Philippine Sea, halfway between Guam and Bali. A tightly bunched archipelago, its 200-plus islands sprawl along an ocean corridor only 32 kilometres wide. While the northern islands are volcanic and fertile, those in the south are upraised limestone coral formations - the famous Rock Islands. Less than a dozen of Palau’s islands are inhabited and barrier reefs enclose the entire chain, so if you’re looking for surf here you’ll be disappointed. The visit to Jellyfish Lake proved to be the highlight of a long day of snorkelling, which in Palau is pure sensory overload. 

Venturing out that morning, Davis had told us that waters are so clear in Palau you can drop a coin down to 30 metres and still tell whether it’s heads or tails. Biologists across the globe recognise this archipelago as the bulls-eye of biodiversity, and as we slipped into the warm, pale blue ocean for our first snorkel of the day, it was obvious that neither one was exaggerating. Palau’s spectacular underwater world is a meeting place for three major ocean currents, which brings abundant food supplies and a myriad of marine life into the region. As a result, it’s a diver’s paradise of spectacular coral reefs, blue holes, WWII wrecks, hidden caves, tunnels, and over 60 vertical drop-offs. Even a casual snorkel in the right spot can reveal sea turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, lion fish, moray eels, napoleon fish and occasionally dugongs. 

After a long day, it was a relief to come to the surface, enjoy a cool drink and wind down. Our home was the Palau Pacific Resort on Arakabesang Island - only 15 minutes from the capital of Koror - and the only beachfront property in the area boasting a private strip of unblemished white sand and a stunning coral reef. It’s also at the luxury end of the scale. The 160 spacious rooms have a warm, tropical decor and all mod-cons, and views of the ocean or lush tropical gardens dotted with flowers and fish ponds. This is the kind of resort where you can be as active or chilled-out as you choose. 

There is a variety of water sports you can enjoy right off the beach, and a nature trail winding upwards through the local rainforest to a stunning lookout. And for sun lovers there are cabanas, a swimming pool, and plenty of peace and quiet. Palau’s growing reputation for excellent food can also be sampled at the resort’s two full-service restaurants. But some of the best memories belong to the end of the day, sitting at the Mesekiu Waterhole, sipping a local cocktail, and watching one of Palau’s legendary sunsets slowly unfold. Even the most avid diver or snorkeller has to come up for air, and a kayak tour offers a different and unique way to explore some of the rock islands and secluded lagoons. As we ventured out on yet another picture perfect morning - the average temperature year-round is 30 degrees C - it was easy to see why Palau was chosen for the 10th season of “Survivor”. These jungle-topped knobs of limestone dot the waters for a 35 km stretch south of Koror. Although Palauans come here to picnic, fish and play at the weekends, the solitude can at times be so pure you imagine you've found the blueprint for Eden itself. 

We paddled out from Lee Marvin’s Beach, where some scenes for the 1968 film “Hell In The Pacific” were shot, our destination Risong Bay - an area of spectacular beauty teeming with marine and bird life. Every vine-covered tunnel, sea cave and lagoon was breathtaking. We visited Wreck Bay, where the rusty remains of Japanese supply ship poke through the water’s surface, and the turquoise oasis called Mandarin Fish Lake, with its stunning corals and the only salt-water waterfall in Palau. But Kingfisher Bay, a deeply hidden lagoon, rated unanimously as the most memorable. After paddling in through a narrow opening, our guide, Ding, recommended that we lie back, close our eyes and float freely - there wasn’t a breath of wind so our kayaks didn’t stray.

Sooty terns (which are actually white) swooped high in the clear blue sky to a chorus of cricket chirps and mysterious cheeps from unseen creatures hidden deep in the jungle. I don’t recall exactly how long we floated there, but as we paddled out everyone was strangely silent. We had all felt it - a humbling sense of serenity amid the untouched wilderness, which lingered long after we returned to the resort. 

Much of Palau’s early history is still largely veiled in mystery. The native people are believed to have migrated from Malaysia and Indonesia, and in its more recent history, Spain, Germany and Japan have all dominated Palau in succession. After WWII, the USA administered the islands - the US dollar is still local currency - but in 1994 Palau declared independence. Today, the locals appear very westernised with their casual American-style clothing and baseball caps, but most continue to uphold tradition. Skimpy beach attire is frowned upon away from the water, chewing betel nut (which makes your teeth and saliva turn blood red) remains a popular pastime, and if you visit a private home you’re expected to leave your shoes at the front door. 

Koror is home to two-thirds of the republic’s population and is surprisingly modern. The town focuses on a long strip you can comfortably walk in about 15 minutes. This main road is dotted with restaurants, shops, and convenience stores, and is presided over by the statue of Jesus - arms outstretched - from atop the Sacred Heart Church, reflecting Palau’s strong Catholic roots. The country’s most famous handicraft is the storyboard. Carved from slabs of wood, these boards are etched with intricate scenes of Palauan legends. One place to see them is Palau National Museum, but a more unique display is on show at the Department of Corrections. With time on their hands, many Palauan prisoners have taken up the art with surprising results - some sell for several hundred dollars a piece. 

The influence of Asia on Palauan cuisine is strongly felt, and Dragon Tei restaurant, which fuses Japanese style with local produce, is one of Palau’s best places to try it out. Specialities include mangrove crab and a local spinach called kangum, but the napoleon fish, which can be enjoyed as sashimi or baked in banana leaf with onions and cheese, is not to be missed. Eventually, our exploration of this Eden-like paradise came to an end. We’d packed a lot into five days, and at the same time had easily slipped into the easy pace of island life. 

Plenty remained unseen and undone, however - the WWII wrecks, the Ngardmau waterfalls, the stone faces of Melekiok to name a few. But the best thing about not “doing” everything in a place like Palau is that you have the perfect excuse to go back again .... that is, if you really need an excuse.

Getting There: 

United Airlines fly to Koror from Cairns via Guam. Connections to Cairns from most major Australian cities can be made with Virgin Blue. Call 13 67 89, or visit www.virginblue.com.au

Where To Stay: 

Palau Pacific Resort, Koror, Palau. Call 0011 680 488 2600, or visit http://www.panpacific.com

Exploring Palau: 

Sam’s Tours offers a comprehensive range of water and land-based tours as well as a full diving program. Call 0011 680 488 1062, or visit www.samstours.com

Tourism Information: 

Palau Visitors' Authority: www.visit-palau.com

Special Stopover 

Guam: 

As the flight from Cairns to Koror has to make a stop in Guam, it offers visitors the opportunity of explore a US territory known more for its duty free shopping and military bases than ethnic culture. But if you venture beyond the main strip of Tumon Bay, you'll discover a hidden side to Guam that few people get to experience. 

Aside from aesthetic beauty, which includes rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, and volcanic hills, Guam has a fascinating history and a unique heritage which is worth exploring. Beyond the typical glitzy North-American-style tourist trail, other influences from the indigenous Chamorro race and Spanish settlers are clear to see. Guam also has great diving and snorkelling, especially for anyone interested in WWII wrecks, and if shopping is your thing every possible brand name from high street to designer is found there. 

One of the best places to enjoy a stopover en-route to Palau is the Outrigger Guam Resort. An absolute beachfront property located in the heart of Guam’s “Pleasure Zone”, Tumon Bay, it has 600 rooms most of which boast sweeping views of the ocean. The hotel has good snorkelling on its doorstep, a full-service Mandara Spa, a Voyages  Club on the 21st Floor, and it's perfectly located for duty free shopping. Outrigger Guam Resort, 1255 Pale San Vitores Road, Tumon Bay, call 0011 1 671 649 9000, or visit www.outrigger.com. For more tourist information about Guam, visit www.visitguam.org

Cairns: 

As the return flight from Guam to Cairns arrives late at night, travellers needing to continue their journey to other parts of Australia will require an overnight stay. The Shangri-La Hotel at the Marina is arguably Cairns' most luxurious resort and well placed to enjoy a good night's rest, as well as all the popular sights of Cairns. Call +61 (0)7 4031 1411, or visit www.shangri-la.com

The US Dollar is the official currency of Palau. For the latest exchange rate, visit our partners at XE.com

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