Pipe Dream, Palau
Dramatic clouds billowing from a giant’s pipe find their reflection in basket-like islands that seem to float atop the opalescent waters of Micronesia. The air is sweet with flowering frangipani. It is also salty with sea breezes, and pearly-gray, like a dove’s breast. This is Palau, an emerald-green archipelago in the western Pacific with more than 500 islands. Everything is so incredibly beautiful here, it seems unreal.
The islands – big and small, oblong and round, look like Chia pets – all neatly undercut with a double-razor of steady lapping waves and gluttonous snails that live under the rock and eat algae while boring deeper and deeper into the limestone.
With about 20,000 permanent residents and only 30,000 visitors a year, Palau is a dream come true – for divers and eco-adventure seekers as well as for honeymooners and spa junkies.
Tourist accommodations in the Republic of Palau usually provide vacation packages that include room and board, water activities, and sheer relaxation.
Palau Pacific Resort (palauppr.com) where we stayed in Koror, on Arkabesang Island, has neat two-story cottages surrounded by tropical gardens. Island folk-style-decorated rooms are spacious, comfy, and have all the modern conveniences. There is a secluded white sandy beach with beds and chairs, kayaks, and windsurfing boards. The resort has tennis courts on the premises, and endless green lawns, and even a pair of resident chickens that add to the rural feel of the resort.
An open-air restaurant, the Coconut Terrace, overlooks the swimming pool and beach, and serves fresh island fare and a variety of Asian cuisines – tropical fruit, fish, rice, curries, barbecued pork, beef, and chicken, udon and ramen noodles, miso soup, and vegetable salads.
Away from the crowds, in a serene and secluded location steps away from the main lobby, is the pride and joy of the resort – Bali-inspired Elilai Spa by Mandara, with sensuous spa villas overlooking a quiet lagoon.
Heaven for newlyweds, Palau Pacific Resort already has 100 weddings booked for next year. It was easy to imagine the bliss in a petal-filled bathtub in a couple’s villa, but my husband and I were on a group diving expedition, so we proceeded to the well-equipped Splash Dive Center on the premises.
On our diving/snorkeling tour with Splash, we visited Big Drop Off and Blue Corner, which are a couple of the many famous diving sites of Palau. The underwater world of Palau is nothing short of a miracle.
In the warm shallow water of the Big Drop-Off, I was surrounded by a myriad of sparkly fishes gliding over the background of the coral floor. It was as if an elaborate and colorful piece of ancient mosaic buried in the sea all of a sudden came alive and streamed in my direction, one piece after another.
There are more than 1,400 species of fish and more than 700 species of coral thriving in the pristine waters of this well-protected archipelago. The coral formed stacks of golden plates, forests of shiny antlers, fragile pink fans, and spiky lilac brushes. Neon blue, white and yellow damsels, Moorish idols, clownfish, and parrot fish were hovering above their pastures of choice. Everything was so close, I had to proceed on the very surface of the water and be careful not to touch anything.
After snorkeling without any direction and happily dazed, at some point I reached the drop-off line, where the water changed from diluted turquoise to dark blue, and where scuba divers from our group descended into the abyss, now identifiable only by the ascending silvery air bubbles. I turned to get back to the shallow ground, and met a peaceful-looking reef shark nose to nose.
When my husband returned from his scuba dive and I shared my news with him, he sneered. “I saw like 40 sharks down there, all together, and mantas, and Napoleon fish, and a school of giant groupers.” It was no contest, but I was content with snorkeling.
Back on the boat, a bento box lunch with soba noodles, pork belly, and pickled bitter melon never tasted so good. More information at the Palau Visitors Authority website.