Marshall Islands Travel Guide
Date Visited: January 2017
Yokwe! Welcome to the very remote Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Located across the International date line, five and a half hours flight west of Hawaii. RMI is the first stop on the epic United Airlines Island Hopper (UA154) – a 14 hour, all stops, meander through the central Pacific from Honolulu to Guam. For more on UA154, check out my Central Pacific island hopping blog. The official currency of RMI is the US dollar.
RMI has a total population of 60,000. The capital and main hub, with a population of 27,700, is Majuro. Here you’ll find the international airport, shops, restaurants, hotels and all services. The highest point on Majuro is at a giddy 3 metres – this can be reached by walking to the top of the Majuro Bridge. There is just one road on the atoll so you will not require Google maps.
The real attractions of RMI lie offshore on the myriad islands where you’ll find great diving, snorkeling and fishing.
Located in the middle of nowhere halfway between Hawaii and Australia and north of Kiribati, RMI is made up of two parallel island chains; the Ratak (sunrise) and the Ralik (sunset). The country consists of 29 atolls and 5 islands – the tops of ancient, submerged volcanoes. RMI is the most easterly part of Micronesia .
The largest piece of real estate in this part of the world is Kwajalein Island. ‘Kwaj’ is a restricted US Army base, built on land the US government has leased from the RMI since pre-independence days. UA154 makes a stop here but non-military personnel are not allowed to disembark. The island is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
It is believed the RMI was originally settled around 1,500 B.C. by Micronesians, migrating from the west. The first Europeans to make contact with the islands were the Spanish in 1529. They were passing through on a return voyage from their colony in the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico. The British were the next visitors – mapping the islands in 1788 under the direction of British naval captains Thomas Gilbert and John Marshall, for whom the islands are named (Kiribati to the south used to be known as the Gilbert Islands).
The islands remained largely untouched by Europeans until the Germans arrived in 1878 and set up a coaling station. They declared the islands a German protectorate. The Japanese seized the islands in 1914 and held onto them until WWII at which point they became major battle grounds until US forces prevailed and liberated the islands.
In 1947, all former Pacific islands occupied by Japan were grouped together to form the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands – administered by the United States. The Trust Territory included Palau, Guam, The Northern Mariana islands, Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
In 1978 the Marshallese voted to leave the trust territory, declaring independence in 1979 with Amata Kabua being elected as its first president.
For a more comprehensive overview of the history of RMI, you can refer to Wikipedia.
From atomic bombs….
Following WWII, US President, Harry S. Truman, issued a directive to US army and navy officials that testing of nuclear weapons would be necessary to determine the effect of atomic bombs on US warships. Due to its remote location, well removed from international flight paths and shipping lanes, Bikini Atoll had the misfortune of being selected as the site for such tests. The only problem were the 167 local residents.
On a quiet Sunday in 1946, the then US governor to the Marshall Islands, visited Bikini and, after the local church service had finished, asked the islanders if they would be willing to vacate the island temporarily. They have never been able to return home.
Once the island had been vacated, the US military relocated 242 warships, 156 aircraft and 25,000 radiation recording devices to Bikini ready for testing. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini, some underwater, some on land and others in the air. The largest detonation was from ‘Castle Bravo‘, which resulted in a staggering 15 megaton yield (a megaton is equivalent to one million tons of TNT). The bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In total, the 23 tests yielded a combined 42.2 megatons of explosive power. The tests completely destroyed and contaminated this once pristine tropical paradise, rendering it unfit for habitation.
In the meantime the islanders, who had been transported on a US Navy boat 200-km to Rongerik atoll, were struggling to survive as the island offered no arable land for farming nor a reliable water supply. They were eventually relocated to another atoll, but not before some had died from starvation. Today you can visit the Bikini atoll town hall on Majuro.
…to skimpy swimsuits.
Meanwhile, in 1946, a Parisian engineer by the name of Louis Reard, had just created a skimpy two-piece swimsuit and was looking for a catchy name. In the headlines at the time was news of the nuclear testing at Bikini atoll. The rest is history.
Majuro is a quiet, relaxing place. Apart from one tiny museum, there are no sights to visit, but the experience here is to soak up the ambiance of the atoll and plan trips to the nearby islands. I rented a scooter, which allowed me to explore the entire atoll.
It’s a long drive to the last village of Laura (named by US GIs in honour of Lauren Bacall). On the way, you will pass through the equally sleepy village of Rita – (also named by US GIs after Rita Hayworth). You will also pass a Copra processing plant which you can visit (weekdays only).
Adjacent to the Marshall Islands Resort is a traditional boat building workshop. Early Micronesians were skilled boat builders and navigators who made long canoe journeys among the atolls. Navigation was made by way of ‘stick charts’. At the workshop, you can observe the art of traditional boat building and have someone explain how to use a stick chart. Who needs Google maps?
If you wish to rent snorkeling gear or arrange diving, there is a dive shop at the Marshall Islands Resort, operated by a Japanese dive master.
There are various offshore islands you can visit from Majuro. Arno island can be reached using the ferry from Robert Reimers Hotel (see the ‘Getting Around‘ section below). There is one basic guest house on Arno.
A highlight of my visit to Majuro was a Sunday trip to nearby Enemanit island. The island was once used as an R&R base for US soldiers and it’s said Bob Hope once performed on stage here. The remains of the stage are still visible. Today, Enemanit is a private island owned by Jerry Kramer, a local businessman – originally from the US – who, over the last decades, has built up a collection of successful businesses, which now span the Pacific. Despite his success and the fact that he owns his own tropical island, Jerry is very unpretentious and grounded and is a great personality. Spending a day with him, his family and friends was a memorable experience. I was treated to a BBQ lunch, lots of beers and great conversation on the beautiful sandy beach. Jerry runs a boat every Sunday morning from the dock of his shipping company (PII) to the island. Friends and visitors are welcome to join him. If you are interested you should inquire at the office of Pacific International Inc (PII) on the northern side of the Majuro bridge.
A highlight of a visit to Enemanit Island is the opportunity to snorkel above the remains of a wrecked passenger plane, which lies in shallow waters 100 metres off the beach. A few metres in front of the plane is a wrecked helicopter – all great stuff. Ensure you bring your own gear.
There are few hotels on Majuro – the largest, with 80% of beds on the island – is the Marshall Islands Resort (MIR). Being the biggest fish in a very small pond, most tourists (including myself) end up staying here. Formerly an outrigger resort, the hotel has seen better days. The rooms are old and tired, the pool is permanently closed due to problems with the filtering system, service is very lax, staff are less than enthusiastic and not very helpful. The hotel restaurant is the largest on Majuro and hence is THE place for celebrations/ functions. Food and service is hit and miss. Anywhere else this hotel would not be so busy but there are few other choices on tiny Majuro.
One other choice is the much smaller Hotel Robert Reimers. The staff here are much friendlier and more helpful – this was my ‘go-to’ place whenever I needed information. The hotel is conveniently located downtown and includes the best restaurant/ bar on Majuro – Tide Table (see ‘Eating Out‘ below for more). You can book either of these hotels using Booking.com
The best bar and restaurant on Majuro is Tide Table, part of the Robert Reimers Hotel complex. With an array of flat screen TV’s on the walls, it has the feel of an American sports bar. The menu could also be best described as Sports Bar cuisine. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the burgers and pizzas are especially good. Happy hour is very popular and a great way to meet local expats.
The offerings at the Marshall Islands Resort restaurant are OK. This is the biggest restaurant on Majuro so you’ll probably end up here at some stage.
There is a weekly farmer’s market held every Saturday morning in downtown Majuro. On offer here, is fresh local produce grown on farms at the northern end of the atoll near the town of Laura.
Some nationalities require visas for the Marshall Islands – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
The following airlines provide connections to/from Majuro:
- Air Marshall Islands: Domestic services to outer islands.
- Nauru Airlines: International services to Nauru, Tarawa, Chuuk, Pohnpei
- United Airlines: International services to Chuuk, Guam, Honolulu, Kosrae, Kwajalein, Pohnpei
There are no public buses on the island. Hotels operate minibus shuttles to/ from the airport.
Shared taxis are the sole form of public transport on Majuro. They run shuttle services along the one main road between the airport and downtown. You never have to wait too long and they’ll go out of their way to drop you off at your front door. Fares are 0.50c for anywhere downtown or $4 for the 20 minute trip to the airport.
Ferries to nearby islands, including Arno Island, operate from the dock at Robert Reimer’s. Best to ask the hotel reception staff for the current schedule.
Hotels and various other companies offer hire cars on Majuro. I hired a scooter at $25 per day from MJCC (Marshall Japan Construction Company) in downtown Majuro.
Author: Darren McLean
Darren is an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver, adventurer and the author of taste2travel.com