Date Visited: February 2017 – March 2017
There I was – on a dive, 20 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, clinging to a large boulder that was firmly embedded in the seabed of the German channel. The current washing through the channel from the outgoing tide was strong but I was determined to keep my grip and await the arrival of a creature I had always dreamed of seeing up close. I would not be disappointed! After some time a large shadow slowly loomed over me, blocking out the rays of the sun above, it was a large adult Manta Ray – a species who can grow to seven metres in width. It was soon joined by another – equally large – Manta Ray. I was positioned at a cleaning station in the channel – the two giants floated two metres above me, being cleaned by an army cleaner fish. To be so close to such magnificent creatures is an unforgettable experience – a highlight for any diver.
Diving is Palau’s main draw-card. The island nation is well known for its abundant marine life, anti-shark fishing policy and strict environmental regulations which apply inside the Palau National Marine Sanctuary – the world’s sixth largest sanctuary, covering an area twice the size of Mexico. At the centre of the sanctuary are the Rock Islands – 300 uninhabited limestone bumps surrounded by the most amazing turquoise water teeming with marine life.
Palau also has a fabulously rich, complex and unique culture – one which is still actively practiced. Colourful, traditional meeting houses, known as Bai’s, dot the landscape. Wooden carvings, known as ‘storyboards’, tell traditional folk stories. All of this makes Palau an interesting and engaging destination for those willing to get off the beaten track. This remote, pristine Pacific island nation is not easy to reach – and – once there, is very expensive – but – it’s definitely worth the effort and cost.
Palau is located in the middle of the Western Pacific, about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) southwest of Guam and 1,000 km (600 miles) east of the Philippines.
The first inhabitants of Palau arrived 3,000 years ago from the Philippines. The first Europeans to make contact with the islands were the Spanish in the 16th century – they made Palau a part of the Spanish East Indies in 1574. Following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, the islands were sold to German who administered them as part of German New Guinea. The Japanese captured Palau during WWI and occupied them until their defeat in WWII by the United States.
In 1947, Palau (along with the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands) was made part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the United States. In 1979 Palau voted against joining the newly independent Federated States of Micronesia, gaining full sovereignty in 1994 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The official currency of Palau is the US dollar.
For a more comprehensive history, please refer to the following Wikipedia site.
Palau National Marine Sanctuary
The star attraction of Palau are the incredibly beautiful (World Heritage listed) Rock Islands – 300 (uninhabited) emerald-coloured, limestone/ coral mounds sprinkled throughout the stunningly picturesque turquoise-coloured southern lagoon between the islands of Koror and Peleliu. Helicopter tours of the islands are offered by Palau Helicopters, who charge $1,400/ helicopter for a 30 minute sightseeing trip or $1,800/ helicopter for a 45-minute trip.
As part of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, this pristine, virgin environment is protected by a host of regulations. It’s here that you’ll find Palau’s most popular dive sites such as Blue Corner, Blue hole, German Channel and the famous Jellyfish lake – a lake that was home to thousands of sting-less jellyfish. At the time of my visit (March 2017), there were no jellyfish present in the lake so snorkeling trips were not being offered. Scientists believe droughts caused by El Niño may be to blame – you can read more about this in this National Geographic article.
I did two dives – one at German Channel and one at Blue Corner – with local dive operator Fish ‘n Fins. Like everything else on Palau, diving does not come cheap, with a two tank dive (including full equipment rental and a permit to the Marine Sanctuary) costing me almost $300. Prices do become more reasonable if you book multiple days of diving.
German Channel – named after the Germans who blasted a channel through the reef to facilitate transportation of phosphate into Koror – is famous for it’s Manta Ray cleaning stations. The stations are located at a depth of 20 m and on my dive we saw several of these huge, majestic creatures receiving a clean. The current can be quite strong during tidal movements but there are plenty of rocky outcrops to hold onto. The rock I used as my anchor was home to a beautiful octopus who kept sticking his head out of his hiding hole to see if I was still there. Between him and the Manta Rays it was a wonderful hour-long interaction.
Blue Corner is an underwater promontory sticking out of the reef like a triangular terrace twenty meters deep. Precipitous walls surround the terrace and are the favoured congregating ground for large schools of fish, including barracuda, jacks and lots of reef sharks. All of these schools attract plenty of predators and during our one hour dive I lost count of the number of sharks we saw. The abundance of marine life in this little corner of the Pacific is truly amazing.
Back on land, I spent one day exploring the main (largest) island of Babeldaob in my rental car. Driving around the island is very pleasant thanks to the well-maintained, American-built Palau Compact road. The road circuits the island and can be easily driven in a few hours. Making stops at the various attractions along the way, you should allow half a day.
Babeldaob is home to Palau’s airport, it’s capital – Ngerulmud – and ten of the sixteen states. Each state on the island charges visitors an ‘entrance fee‘ to visit any sites within it’s boundaries. The fees can be up to $20 per person per state so it’s best to decide in advance which sites (and hence which states) you wish to visit. There are almost no restaurants on Babeldaob – the one place I was directed to was the wonderful seaside Okemii Deli & Internet Cafe in Melekeok. The cafe offers grilled local seafood along with other cafe staples.
The first state you enter after crossing the causeway from Koror to Babeldaob is Airai. Here you can decide to turn left onto the Palau Compact road and travel clock-wise around Babeldaob or turn right and travel anti-clockwise. Airai is home to the airport and several significant war ruins, including Kaigun Sho – a bombed Japanese communications centre. The state ‘entrance fee’ for visitors is $20 and eager government rangers are out in force patrolling sites to ensure tourists have paid their fee.
One place worth visiting is the Mangrove walkway at the Papago International resort (5 minutes drive from the airport). For a small fee, visitors can access the resorts’ mangrove boardwalk. It’s a great place to spot birds and other wildlife.
Travelling in a clockwise direction around the island, the next state you enter is Aimeliik – home to one of the oldest villages in Palau and also home to a beautiful hilltop Bai. The state ‘entrance fee’ for visitors is $10 and can be paid at the ticket office next to the Bai.
At the northern end of the island, you can visit Badrulchau monoliths – 37 basalt stone pillars (believed to be foundations from a building) from around 100 AD. Just south of the monoliths – on the north-east coast is the tiny state of Ngiwal (population – 220) – home to one coastal village with sandy beaches.
Continuing south you will eventually reach Melekeok state, home to the national capital enclave of Ngerulmud. The capital complex is very grand and impressive but not too interesting. You are not allowed to access any of the buildings (I did try to enter the Capital building and was promptly asked to leave by security) but you can wander around the grounds and take photos. Okemii Deli & Internet Cafe is located on the beach downhill from the capital complex. There is (apparently) an impressive Bai in Melekeok state but this was closed for renovation at the time of my visit.
Koror is the centre of action on Palau. With 70% of the population and almost all tourists services, Koror is where visitors spend most of their time. This narrow, busy island is traversed by one long, main (permanently congested) road. Along this road are hotels, dive shops, banks, shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, government offices etc. The southern end of the island is home to upmarket resorts, built around quiet, pristine coves.
There are two museums on Koror – the older Belau National museum (oldest museum in Micronesia) is home to a beautifully painted Bai and two floors of exhibits, which detail the complete history of Palau.
The newer Etpison museum (named after a former president) is the place to come if you are looking for somewhere to develop a better understanding of Palau culture. The admission cost of $10 is a little steep for such a small museum – but this is Palau. Displays include; a model of a bai; local tools; artifacts; money; clothing; photos showing the childbirth ceremony and more. For Australians visiting the museum – you might be surprised to be greeted by two friendly sulfur-crested cockatoo’s that are kept in a cage inside the front door. Cockatoos were previously introduced to Palau from Australia.
If you’re impressed by the traditional ‘storyboard’ wood carvings displayed at the Etpison museum, you should ask staff for directions to the resident expert carver. His roadside studio is located in a side street a short walk north of the museum (turn left at the Blue Bay petrol station).
Storyboards were introduced into Palau by a Japanese artist during the Japanese occupation of Palau and adapted by the islanders to record their own traditions. The stories that are told on the Palau storyboards are usually old Palauan legends. You can watch the carvers at work and purchase directly from them (no bargains here).
Most hotels can be found on the island of Koror – a 30 minute drive from the airport. Like everything else on Palau – accommodation is not cheap. I stayed at the Japanese-owned DW Motel, which is located on the main road close to downtown. The first half of my stay coincided with their peak season, which meant I was charged $140 per night for my single room (definitely not worth the money but it was the cheapest place I could find). The second half of my stay was charged at $70 per night which was more reasonable but still over-priced. Breakfast is not included but you are provided with a clean, small, spartan (TV-less) room.
On the south side of the island are larger, more upmarket resorts. Many of the hotels on the island are Taiwanese-run and not registered on OTA’s (Online Travel Agent) sites such as booking.com
You should ensure you organise airport shuttle transfers in advance – do not assume taxi’s will be available at the airport when you arrive.
While traditional island cuisine is based on root vegetables, pork, chicken, and seafood – there has been enough outside influence (especially from America, Japan and – more recently – Taiwan) on the island that ensures local restaurants cater to a variety of tastes. Strung along the main road of Koror is a good selection of restaurants.
One of my favourite places is the fabulous Rock Island Cafe, an American-diner inspired restaurant staffed by friendly Filipino’s (they constitute the main labour force on the island). The cafe is open from early morning, offering possibly the best (and most reasonably priced) breakfast on the island. They have a bakery next door which supplies the cafe with amazing cakes which are sold very cheaply along with their freshly brewed coffees.
In the south, on the small island of Malakal is the Drop Off Bar and Grill. This outdoor, waterfront venue is perfect for sipping drinks and enjoying fresh local seafood and more.
Some visitors require visas to enter Palau, check your requirements prior to arrival.
Flights to Palau arrive at Palau International Airport, 6-km north of Koror.
The following airlines provide connections to/from Palau:
- Asiana Airlines – flights to Seoul-Incheon
- China Airlines – flights to Taipei
- Delta Air Lines – flights to Tokyo-Narita
- Korean Air – flights to Seoul-Incheon
- Palau Pacific Airways – charter flights to Hong Kong and Taipei-Taoyuan
- United Airlines – flights to Guam, Manila and Yap
Departure tax from Palau is a hefty $50 and is comprised of $25 terminal fee and $25 environmental fee.
There is no public transportation on Palau.
Taxi’s are available around Koror – but almost non-existent elsewhere. It’s always best to book a taxi in advance rather than trying to hail one on the street. The fare from Koror to the airport is $25.
When I arrived at the airport (early evening flight from Guam) there were no taxis available. The friendly lady from the tourist information desk tried to arrange a taxi, but no drivers were willing to come out to the airport. She closed the information desk and drove me in her car to my hotel (providing me with a guided tour of the island along the way).
Hire cars are available, but like everything else on Palau – they’re not cheap. At the airport, Alamo quoted $70 a day for a compact car. I shopped around in Koror and found an old (compact) clunker which cost me $40 per day. Cars are often worn and old but the speed limit is 50 km/h and distances are not great.
Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
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