A Trip to Paradise

Contributed By Dominique McNeeleyMy friends said to me, "Where are you going again? Yap? Where in the world is that??" As the Continental jet banged down on the short runway, roughly enough to knock a few of the oxygen masks out from their overhead compartments, I began to wonder if I had made the right choice in coming to this tiny speck on the map.

I had been fortunate enough to have won a free trip to Guam, as well as being granted a bit of vacation time from work. But as I perused the travel brochures displaying the variety of exotic islands of Micronesia, I knew that I would have to visit more than just Guam. Plus at $300+ dollars per night on average for hotels in Guam, I wasn't sure how long I could reasonably stay. However, my time only allowed me to stay at one additional island. Being the "adventurer" that I am, and hoping to escape the standard tourist areas, I settled on the remote native island of Yap.

They may appear as nothing more than a tiny trail of dots on a map, but the islands that make up the Federated States of Micronesia are some of the most stunning dive spots on earth. Guam, a U.S. territory, functions as the gateway to Micronesia, with many signature spots of its own such as the only side-by-side World War I and II wrecks in the world--the Cormoran and Tokai Mare. Guam's other signature spot is the Blue Hole, a vertical chimney that empties against a vertical wall.

Of all the Micronesian islands, Yap seemed to me as if it might be the most intriguing, having let most of the modern world pass by. The island culture is said to be completely intact, with people doing things the way their forefathers did years ago. I experienced this firsthand within minutes of arriving.

Being one of only two passengers who deplaned in Yap, I was surprised to see the little shack of an airport completely crowded with people. Grasping my luggage in the sweltering humidity I passed through the gate looking for a representative of the hotel I would be staying at. I was hoping to be picked up from the airport. But I saw only a crowd of men in loincloths and bare-breasted women in grass skirts and sarongs, gazing at me like the foreigner I was.
Feeling a little panicked at the thought of being stranded at the little airport, I moved to the nearest and only payphone to call the hotel. The only payphone at the airport was out of order.

Before I could worry further, a tall man in a bright loincloth approached and asked to take my bags. I realized finally with relief that he was part of the hotel staff. He smiled, exposing teeth shockingly stained blood-red and black. I soon realized that most people on the island had this slightly vampiric appearance due to chewing on their beloved beetle nuts. It was unsettling at first to look at, but became surprisingly normal within a short time.

Lawrence, my driver and soon to be tour guide, led me to a vehicle which looked like it had been used on the set of Gilligan's Island. It was an odd contraption of bamboo and palm fronds attached like a camper shell to a pick up truck. Apparently that was the luggage rack.

I asked Lawrence why there were so many people at the airport. He laughed and replied, "Well, for entertainment. They like to see who is coming and going."

I must say, there are many days now when I think of that, and wish that I was living in a tropical island paradise where the day's excitement might be strolling on down to the airport to see who is coming and going.

The Gilligan's Island deja-vu continued as soon as we arrived at The Pathways Hotel. Let me say that the little cottages are extremely charming, built from native woods and materials and interconnected by a series of rope-like bridges up in the hillside overlooking a lagoon. The hotel staff was very friendly, and welcomed me to a nice, cool room with fresh flowers laid out on the bed.

With a good night's rest and recovery from travel, and a delicious breakfast of fresh tropical fruits and juices the next morning, I was ready to go out exploring. (Note: Yap room service is always readily available - a large bunch of ripe bananas from a nearby tree happened to dangle right over my patio, as well as a papaya tree. Very convenient for snacks at any time.)

I soon found that you really couldn't get around Yap on your own. There are no rental cars, and many roads are confusing or private property anyway. You must have a guide to at least drive you out to the best spots. Being a rather independent traveler, I resisted this initially. But I soon found that using Lawrence as a guide was the best decision I could have made. As a native, Lawrence was able to tell me fascinating stories and we drove about this remote paradise, giving special insight into the Yapese people and their traditions.

At Yap, huge carved stones still remain a traditional form of currency. Stone money may date back 1,800 years, when ancient Yapese navigators sailed their canoes across hundreds of miles of open ocean, exploring neighboring islands. On Palau they discovered caves containing a crystal known as calcite. Using hand tools, they quarried and sculpted stone disks ranging from two to twelve feet in diameter. Each piece has its own legend and its value is directly related to the degree of difficulty in obtaining it. Stone money banks lie deep in the jungle, with the stones lined up in careful rows. The money is still occasionally transferred from one bank to another on special occasions such as marriages.

Yap is full of many interesting secrets. A trip to outlying districts is like stepping back in time. There are men's houses built of huge logs and palm thatch. There is even a portion of the island that is forbidden to all outsiders. As a visitor, you may pay to view a traditional Yapese stick dance where islanders perform this ancient art in their finest dress. It is very interesting to experience, but not exactly cheap.

Nature is abundant and breathtaking in Yap. It is like walking into Eden. During a mangrove jungle tour in a long, narrow canoe, I spotted their famed species of bird, the Yap Monarch, flittering between great globes of breadfruit. Strange insect eating plants and unusual flora and fauna make it nature lover's paradise.

But above all, Yap is known for its superb diving. There are literally hundreds of excellent places to dive all about the island. Gilmaan Wall is a vertical wall dive at the very southern tip of Yap where the reef line juts two miles from the shore. Underwater visibility ranges from 150 to 200 feet. The face of the wall is covered with hard corals such as gorgonian fans, daisy corals, and bright yellow crinoids. Exotic reef fish occupy small caves and crevices all along the wall. Because of its exposure to the sea it is possible to encounter Dogtooth Tuna, turtles and Eagle Rays.

For divers, another exciting site is Lionfish Wall, which begins at a depth of 18 feet and plummets straight down to 160 feet. A large community of majestic Lionfish presides over this wall. Some other stunning dive sites include Manta Ridge, Tap Caverns, Milli Channel and Valley of the Rays.

Speaking of Rays, Yap is the unchallenged leader of Manta Ray diving worldwide. Divers visiting this remote island will see more mantas per dive than anywhere else in the world. Most of the manta encounters are inside channels that lead from the lagoon to the open sea, with mantas lining up single file in groups of four to six to take their turns at being cleaned. They seem unafraid of divers and will sweep past at unusually close proximity, which is quite the experience I found out, as these giants have wingspans of ten to twenty feet and weigh up to 1,000 pounds or more.

If you are looking for five star resorts and adventure packed days, Yap is probably not the place for you. Life is very laid back and mellow on the island. It is a wonderful place for relaxation and getting in touch with nature. And the accommodations, while good, are understandably not in the same level as you would expect at more well known and popular spots.

There are two main accommodations generally used by those visiting Yap. The Manta Ray Bay Hotel features 23 air-conditioned rooms with ceiling fans, color TV/VCR, mini bar, and private bar. The dcor is tropical in rattan and pastels. Yap Divers, located on the hotel grounds, offers a dive shop, dock and training center. The Australian owner, Bill Acker is very friendly and makes sure that his guests enjoy the best Yap has to offer at reasonable prices.

The Pathways Hotel consists of freestanding hillside cottages crafted from native materials. Rooms are air-conditioned or fan cooled with private facilities. Each cottage is slightly unique. I found in mine a signed book of art and several prints by an artist who had stayed there previously. There are fewer amenities and less expense in comparison to Manta Ray Bay, but lots of character. Who needs TV when you are in Yap anyway? The native family who own The Pathways take great pride in their hospitality, and are very helpful in setting up custom tours of your choice.

There is much more that one can say about this island's fascinating people and culture. They are laid back and genuine, yet quite savvy despite outside appearances, with open and friendly natures toward visitors. Upon departing they handed me an exquisite lei, expertly weaved from several different flowers and plants for good luck in my travel back. It was nice to note that this was a normal part of their routine, not simply a tourist display, and that this culture which has stayed so strongly rooted in their daily life still exists today, intermingling with modern day issues yet not forfeiting any of its integrity.
This hidden jewel of an island will remain in my memory for years to come.

Dominique McNeeley
Copyright 2001, all rights reserved

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