MICRONESIA TRAVEL GUIDE
The antithesis of the South Pacific, the tiny isles of Micronesia are strewn across thousands of square kilometers of the North Pacific Ocean. This vast region is a world class diving destination of warm coral seas and tiny tropical isles. Though joined by an unremitting ocean, the South Pacific and Micronesia are historically and culturally distinct.
More than 3000 years ago Southeast Asian voyagers peopled these isolated specks of land. Two and a half millennia later, Spaniards under Magellan arrived. They stayed intermittently until the late 19th century, when German colonialists took over. The USA won Micronesia's largest island, Guam, from Spain in 1898, and Japan seized the rest of the region from Germany in 1914. The close of World War Two saw the Americans in control of almost all of Micronesia, except for a few scattered British colonies. Between 1968 and 1986, most of Micronesia attained self government.
Politically, the region encompasses the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau. Tourists and travelers can island hop along Continental Air Micronesia's routes between Hawaii and Guam, or fly south on one of the shuttles from Japan to Saipan, Koror, or Guam. Honeymooners account for the bulk of the Japanese arrivals, while most North American and European visitors are scuba divers. A remarkable assortment of cultures and traditions has survived centuries of colonialism and consumerism, making Micronesia a truly colorful place to go.
Micronesia lies north of the equator between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Micronesia crosses five time zones, west of the International Dateline.
Beaches, reefs, sunken ships, archaeological sites, varied island cultures.
Island hopper flights between Hawaii and Guam, then north and south on feeders.
Only half a million people inhabit an area larger than Canada or the United States.
The islands of Micronesia are almost endlessly varied. They range from the sprawling atolls of the Marshalls and the Gilberts, to the steaming volcanic peaks of the Carolines, and the uplifted limestone plateaus of the Marianas. Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands is the world's largest coral atoll in lagoon area while Christmas Island in Kiribati's Line Islands is Micronesia's largest uplifted atoll.
Dazzling reefs teaming with a cornucopia of marine life surround these shores, and the islands are flanked by some of the deepest depths on earth. The Marianas Trench along the east side of the Mariana Islands, Yap, and Palau is 11 kilometers deep. Islands like Chuuk east of the Trench are slowly sinking as the Pacific Plate is pushed under the Philippine Plate. Islands like Guam and Saipan to the west are rising up.
Today these outer edges of paradise are all too vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Higher temperatures are altering weather patterns, causing more and stronger hurricanes. Acidification of the world's oceans is gaining pace with sea waters absorbing up to half of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Coral bleaching will become an annual event by 2050, effectively killing all of Micronesia's reefs and whole shorelines will be swept away. As sea levels rise due to glacial melting and sea water expansion, the low coral atolls of the Gilbert, Phoenix, Line, and Marshall island groups face extinction. (View a detailed map of Micronesia as it is today.)
The best months to visit are December to March when the rainfall and humidity are generally lower. However, regional variations are to be expected. Kosrae and Pohnpei are the rainiest islands in Micronesia while the Gilbert Islands just south frequently experience drought. The cooling northeast tradewinds predominate during the drier season. Winds out of the west signal the approach of rain.
Hurricanes or typhoons can occur from May to December, although they only last a few days are followed by clear weather. As hurricanes tend to form in the east and move west, they're far less common in the Marshall Islands than they are in the Marianas.
For the scuba diver, Micronesian waters will be clearer during the dry season but the seas are often calmer in the wet allowing for a greater choice of dive sites.
Because most bird, animal, and plant species reached Micronesia from the west, the biodiversity declines as you move east. Even the marine species are most varied in the west, which helps explain Palau's popularity among scuba divers. Bats and flying foxes were the only mammals to arrive without the help of man. Much later, dogs, chickens, and pigs were introduced by Micronesian voyagers. The rich array of life in the lagoons, on the reefs, and in the surrounding seas compensates for the scarcity of land-based fauna. In fact, it's believed that most marine organisms presently found in the Pacific evolved in the area just southwest of Palau.
The beautiful beaches featured in the travel brochures are not the most common shoreline here. Rather, the ubiquitous mangrove swamps provide a rich habitat for small birds, fish, and shellfish. The cable roots of the mangroves make these coastal forests impenetrable on foot but a healthy mangrove area is fascinating to explore by kayak. Far from being an eyesore, the mangroves are an unexpected attraction which work in tandem with the coral reefs to protect shorelines from erosion.
first Micronesian canoes arrive from the west
The Magellan expedition sights Guam
Spain occupies the Mariana Islands
Protestant missionaries on Pohnpei and Kosrae
German traders arrive in the Marshall Islands
The Spanish annex the Caroline Islands
German declares the Marshalls a protectorate
Britain declares the Gilbert Islands a protectorate
The United States captures Guam from Spain
Spain sells Northern Marianas and Carolines to Germany
Japan occupies the German part of Micronesia
Japan begins building military bases in Micronesia
Japan captures Guam from the United States
The US occupies all Japanese holdings in Micronesia
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands established
Nauru granted independence by Australia
the Northern Mariana Islands join the US
Kiribati becomes independent of Britain
Self-government in the Marshall Islands and FSM
Marshall Islands and FSM join the United Nations
Palau self-government, joins the United Nations
Kiribati and Nauru join the United Nations
Typhoon Chataan devastates Chuuk and Guam
Typhoon Sudal devastates Yap in April
High waves flood islands in the Marshalls
From the archaeological sites of Pohnpei to Saipan's historic beaches, the islands of Micronesia offer the traveler hundreds of intriguing destinations. Palau's reefs are famous around the world, while Chuuk is renowned for its sunken wrecks. Pohnpei is home to mysterious Nan Madol, while Kosrae is called the jewel of Micronesia for its unspoiled environment. On the isolated atolls of Marshall Islands and Kiribati, life moves at a slower pace with fishing and gardening the main activities. Intriguing relics of World War Two are found almost everywhere, above and below the waterline. You can surf, swim, dive, bike, kayak, camp, and hike here.
Few visitors to the Marshall Islands get beyond Majuro Atoll. After visiting the Alele Museum in downtown D-U-D Municipality, the thing to do on Majuro is to take the 56-kilometer drive to Laura at the opposite end of the atoll. Two local companies organize scuba diving from Majuro with shark diving an attraction.
Kosrae features one of the most accessible archaeological sites in Micronesia. Coral walkways have been laid out between the huge basalt logs of the Lelu ruins behind Lelu town. Kosrae also has a number of hills to climb and several companies cater to scuba divers.
The ruins of Nan Madol on the east side of Pohnpei Island are touted as the Venice of the Pacific for the large stone buildings separated by canals. Construction of this ancient city began around 800 years ago but it had already been abandoned when the first Europeans arrived. It's a fascinating site today. Otherwise, Pohnpei's jerry-built capital Kolonia is fun to explore briefly, and there are hills and waterfalls to visit around the island.
Chuuk (Truk) is famous for the 70 sunken Japanese ships which litter its lagoon. The vast majority of contemporary visitors come to Chuuk to dive on these wrecks, and land-based Japanese artillery provides an incentive to the hiker.
Guam is an island with a split personality. The northern half is a blend of American suburbia and huge military bases. Southern Guam is closer to the original Chamorro island, as it was before the Americans arrived. In the capital Agana is a Latte Stone Park with megalithic monuments re-erected in 1955.
The beach along the west side of Saipan Island in the Northern Marianas is like a little Waikiki for packaged Japanese tourists. These visitors make pilgrimages to cliffs at the north end of Saipan where large numbers of their country people jumped to their deaths in 1944. The planes which dropped the atomic bombs on Japan took off from Tinian Island nearby. Rota Island between Saipan and Guam has fewer wartime associations but good scuba diving.
Yap is famous for the thousands of huge stone "coins" found around the island. Footpaths link the villages and this is one of the areas where traditional culture is most alive. Yap is also a favorite scuba diving destination best known for its manta rays.
Palau is one of the world's top dive destinations, especially the fantastic Rock Islands south of the main town Koror. The mushroom-shaped coral formations, reefs, and marinelife here are unsurpassed. Further south are the small coral islands of Peleliu and Angaur, important wartime battlegrounds. The much larger volcanic island of Babeldaob to the north has a few waterfalls but is less visited.
Most visitors to Kiribati arrive from Australia or Fiji rather than the U.S. or Asia. Crowded Tarawa Atoll has the country's main airport and a variety of wartime relics but the outer atolls of the Gilberts are far less spoiled. Kiritimati or Christmas Island in the Line Island group far to the east attracts anglers who come for the fighting Pacific bonefish.
Nauru Island is best known for the coral pinnacles of its interior where phosphates were mined throughout most of the 20th century. The Japanese took Nauru from Australia at the start of World War Two and fortified the island's coral ring. In recent years, Nauru has been the site of a camp where Australia sends illegal immigrants.
Everyone needs a passport to travel around Micronesia. Entry requirements to Guam are the same as those of the United States. Most nationalities can visit the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati without a visa but a return or onward air ticket is required. Everyone requires a visa to visit Nauru.
The U.S. dollar is the currency throughout the region, except in Kiribati and Nauru where Australian dollars are used. Micronesia is not a cheap area in which to travel. Apart from the high airfares, hotels and restaurants tend to be as expensive as those in the United States or more so.
Continental Air Micronesia's Island Hopper route between Honolulu and Guam stops on Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk, and between Guam and Manila on Yap and Palau. From Fiji in the South Pacific, you can fly Air Pacific or Our Airline (Air Nauru) to Tarawa or Continental Airlines to Guam. Our Airline also flies to Nauru and Tarawa from Honiara and Brisbane. Air Pacific lands on Kiritimati (Christmas Island between Nadi and Honolulu. Numerous flights link Guam to cities in Japan, Korea, and China.
From Guam, both Continental Airlines and Cape Air have flights to Saipan. Cape Air also calls at Rota. Pacific Missionary Aviation flies for Yap to a number of remote atolls. From Tarawa, Air Kiribati services the atolls of the Gilbert Islands. Air Marshall Islands is based on Majuro. Except on Guam, local flights can be hard to book ahead.
Travel by boat is possible around the various island groups but seldom between states/countries or within the Mariana Islands. Schedules are irregular and you need a lot of time to travel this way. Shorter lagoon trips are possible at Chuuk and Koror. On land there's a choice of taxis, rental cars, and minibuses.
David Stanley researched and wrote the first
three editions of Moon Handbooks Micronesia.
Copyright © 2001, 2013 David Stanley, reproduction prohibited.