Posted on March 1, 2020
I normally don’t chat with other passengers when I’m flying, but once, many years ago, I did, and that conversation stayed with me. After telling my seatmate that my very favorite thing is snorkeling with beautiful marine life, she told me about a place called Palau. Her description of clear water, colorful reefs, and myriad fish was compelling. However, I soon began a prolonged period of writing fat guidebooks to Australia and New Zealand, and my dream destination remained unvisited.
Then last year, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography reignited my desire. During an interview about climate change, I asked for her thoughts on the best coral reef.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she replied. “It’s Palau.”
I immediately began planning a trip.
The Republic of Palau, I learned, is an archipelago of 340 islands located in the Western Pacific Ocean. The Philippines is 550 miles to the west and Guam is 840 miles northeast. Fewer than 22,000 people live in Palau. Since 1994, the country has been in a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. Before that, it was part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, established in 1947. Palauans speak English and their native language; the currency is the U.S. dollar; and citizens of Palau may serve in America’s armed forces. Interestingly, there is a thriving long-distance learning program between SDSU and Palau Community College.
I also discovered that it takes nearly forever to get there. In January, my husband and I flew from LAX to Honolulu to Guam to Palau. Along the way, I remember saying to myself, “this better be worth it.” (Spoiler alert: it was.)
Snorkeling with Swing
My planning began with looking for a local guide. I asked the tourism office for “someone with a lot of experience, a comfortable boat, and a good sense of humor.” That’s how we found Swing, aka Swingly Aguon. I recognized his good nature right away when I accidentally phoned him in the middle of the night and he was surprisingly nice about it. pristineparadisepalau.com, swingspalautours.com
The best snorkeling in Palau is in the turquoise water around the 300+ jungle-covered Rock Islands. These are so special that they’ve been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gorgeous mounds seemed like a maze to me, but Swing knew them like the back of his hand. He also knew all the best dive spots and was a master at getting us to the most popular places when no one else was there.
On the morning of the first day, he took us to one of his “secret spots,” and when I saw the healthy coral and abundant colorful fish I felt like I’d been magically transported back to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef decades ago, before it was bleached by global warming.
“Ready to see some turtles?” And off we went to the next site, the German Channel, a stretch that was dredged in 1908 when Germany was mining phosphate in Palau. And yes, we saw lots of turtles and also some manta rays.
Pretty soon, the four of us, including Swing’s son SJ, developed a routine: Power to a new spot, get a heads up from dad on what to look for, gear up, jump in with SJ, snorkel as long as we wanted, get out of the water wearing big smiles. Repeat.
At Shark Island, we swam with blacktip reef sharks. We did an exciting drift snorkel at Ulong Channel, and I loved the tranquility of Ulong Cove, where birdsong filled the air. We saw tons of fish, more turtles, and another shark at Turtle Cove. At the Milky Way, we gave ourselves facials with white limestone mud scooped from the bottom of the lagoon and floated on our backs in the warm water while listening to the song of native pigeons.
My favorite snorkel spot was the Big Dropoff. The water here was crystal clear, and I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium as I explored the top of a coral reef that extended hundreds of feet to the floor of the ocean. It was almost too much beauty to absorb. Soft corals, hard corals, and sea fans in many colors attracted iridescent parrotfish, orange and white clownfish, and schools of yellow butterflyfish.
Spellbound by Jellies
My seatmate on that plane all those years ago told me about a lake on Palau where it’s possible to swim with jellyfish. It sounded wonderful, and also a little scary, so when we got to the lake, I entered the water cautiously. Soon, the otherworldly creatures came into view and I was transfixed by their beauty. I wanted to stare at them like paintings in a gallery but, like fluffy clouds, their pulsing bodies floated slowly past me in an ethereal procession.
Perfect Palau Lodgings
We loved our overwater bungalow (#2001) at Palau Pacific Resort. The inside was lovely and well furnished, but what we enjoyed the most was the large wooden deck with stairs leading right into the water. The day we arrived, I swam less than ten feet from the steps and found myself looking down on a huge giant clam with a gorgeous emerald green mantle. The bungalow provided a wide view of beach, bay, and sunset, and easy access to the wonderful spa staffed by Balinese therapists. palauppr.com/en
I really wanted to see the Rock Islands from the air, and the hotel staff recommended flightseeing with Smile Air. The view was spectacular and included flying over several historic WWII sites. This prompted a quick visit to the excellent National Museum.
I only wish my long-ago seatmate had said, “Allow tons of time when you go to Palau because you’re going to fall in love with it and not want to leave.” Elizabeth Hansen
Photography courtesy of Adams/Hansen Stock Photos