About Micronesia
Palau (Belau)
A spectacular 400 mile long strand of pearls laid across blue sea best describes this jewel of the Pacific. Made of limestone coral reefs lifted above sea level and undercut by ocean currents which over time, have notched the bases so that from the air they look like giant green mushrooms, the Republic of Palau is truly nature at her most majestic.

The tightly clustered Palau archipelago consists of the high islands of Babeldaob, Koror, Peleliu and Angaur in the south; the low coral atolls of Kayangel to the north east and Ngeruangel and the limestone Rock Islands of which there are more than 200. Apart from Kayangel, Ngeruangel and Angaur all the islands are inside a single barrier reef. 

Only eight islands are inhibited, for the entire population is 15,000 with the majority of them living in the provisional capital of Koror. There are an additional 2500 foreigners, mostly Filipino labourers.

The Spaniards named the group Los Palos (the native name is Belau) and laid claim to them in 1898, selling them to Germany a year later. In 1946 Palau became one of the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands under the governance of the USA. In 1994 it gained its independence and was admitted to the United Nations as its 185th member.

The island group is divided into 16 states each maintaining the traditional clan system with English and Palauan the official languages. The people are warm, hospitable and generous and though they look more American than other Micronesians, they continue to follow their old matrilineal culture.

Paradise Air operates regular and charter services between several islands. There are also twice weekly boats. Taxis are not metered so ask your driver to show you the rate card before starting the journey. You can rent cars if you wish to be independent.

Koror

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Koror, the capital, has breathtaking views of the islands, Japanese stone lanterns and the only Shinto Shrine outside Japan, a reminder of Japanese occupation during the war.

There is a National Museum founded in 1955 which displays a bounty of island treasure and on special occasions you can see young Palauan women dressed in grass skirts, covered in coconut oil and turmeric perform ancient native dances on the museum's grass.

The museum is packed with exhibits ranging from the mounted head of a 15ft (5m) crocodile - the largest ever found on the island - to Palauan bead and shell money, intricately carved storyboards and other local artifacts and crafts. On the grounds is a beautiful wood-and-thatch bai (communal meeting center) and a few remnants of Japan's war machine.

There are international standard hotels, the largest being the 160 room Palau Pacific Resort, plus motels and guest houses. Restaurants cater for all tastes, the best being American, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and local eateries.

From Koror you can take a tour boat to one of the many islands for an all day picnic, take up the new sport of kayaking around the Rock Islands, snorkelling on the way, or go swimming, scuba diving and shelling out at the reef.  If you prefer fishing, cast a line from the beach or a dinghy and catch a swag of tropical fish.

Malakal Island, across from Koror, is home to the Micronesia Mariculture Demonstration Center, a research marine lab engaged in conservation and commercial projects. Their big claim to fame is their success in cultivating giant tridacna clams. The tropical aquariums of the visitor centre are worth a peek. There's an excellent view of the Rock Islands from nearby Malakal Hill.

Babeldaob

The thickly jungled Babeldaob, the largest island in Micronesia after Guam, has a land area of over 150 sq miles (400 sq km), more than four times the total area of all the other islands put together. Still, its population is small, as most young people make their way to Koror in search of jobs. Babeldaob's Melekeok State was designated in the constitution as the future site of the country's capital, and although grandiose plans have been drawn up, many people doubt they'll ever come to fruition.
 

Babeldaob is a high, volcanic island of gently rolling hills, with beautiful stretches of sandy beach on the east coast and mangrove forests on the west. Parts of the jungly interior are virtually unexplored, and many of the villages are still connected by ancient stone paths.

Many of the island's hillsides were once terraced into steps and pyramids; archeological research suggest they were probably begun around 100 AD. Their purpose remains a mystery, and even curiouser, only one village was built anywhere near them. Ngarchelong State, at the northernmost end of the island, has an open field with rows of large basalt monoliths known as Badrulchau, placed there according to legend by the gods to support an enormous bai.

Airai, at the southern end of the island, has Palau's international airport. The town's most visited attractions are its two bais, one old and one new. The northern Ngaraard State has some of the island's prettiest beaches.

A village tour of Babeldaob is where you can see some of the impressive historic and cultural sites such as stone walkways and hedges of immense sizes, plus the Palauan equivalent of the Biblical Lot story - an ancient statue of a mother and child who were turned to stone when the mother peeked inside a village men's house.

Overnight accommodation here is not available so visitors can ask to stay with a family. If you do this, return the hospitality by bringing with you food gifts such as bread, coffee, canned meat and cigarettes. Also it's a custom to remove your shoes before entering a home.

Rock Islands

The Rock Islands are Palau's crowning glory. More than 200 of these jungle-topped knobs of limestone dot the waters for a 20 mile (35km) stretch south of Koror. Their bases, having been worn away by tidal action and grazing sea creatures, are narrower than their tops, causing them to look like emerald-hued mushrooms rising from the turquoise sea. From the air, they're a knock out, and flights from Koror to Angaur or Peleliu are worth taking just for the view alone. But it's the waters surrounding them that make the Rock Islands unique. Dive in and you'll find some of the most abundant and diverse marine life to be found anywhere.

Three ocean currents converge on Palau and bring with them marine life that is four times as rich as that in the Caribbean. There are over 1,500 species of fish and more than 700 species of coral. Divers can scale the 60 foot vertical drop-offs including the Ngemelis Wall descending some 1,000 feet to a dazzling array of multi-coloured sponges and fish, black coral whips and soft corals. Giant clams sit on the reef and moray eels hover nearby as do sharks who appear to be too well fed to be interested in you. For the more adventurous there are the underwater catacombs filled with massive, ancient stalactites and stalagmites, the best being the Blue Corner and Blue Hole.

The Ngemelis Wall is widely considered to be the world's finest wall dive. Starting in knee-deep water, it vertically drops off nearly 1000 ft (300m), showcasing a brilliant rainbow of sponges and soft coral whose intense colors form the backdrop for quivering 9ft (3m) sea fans and giant black coral trees. Blue Corner is the country's most popular dive, where you can expect to be dazzled by an incredible variety of fins and flippers, from schooling sharks and barracudas to soft and hard coral.

Inland, Jellyfish Lake is a marine lake, popularized in the National Geographic TV special Medusa, wherein millions of tiny stingerless jellyfish float and bob in unison. This is a magical stretch of water trapped inside a rock island that is fed by rain water. It's home to thousands of jellyfish that have mutated from a salt to fresh water habitat and who have lost their sting. Snorkelling with them, and there are thousands upon thousands of them crammed together as they have no natural predators, is a fascinating, surreal experience.

Some of the Rock Islands have soft, white-sand beaches to laze about on after a dive, while others boast caves with dripping stalactites, rock arches and underground channels; ancient rock paintings (on Ulong Island); and half-carved Yapese stone money (in a cave near Airar Channel). And, oh yes, crocodiles.

Peleliu

Peleliu was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of WWII. Though only 5 sq miles (13 sq km) in area, in two months there were over 20,000 casualties, more than the current population of the whole country. Many of the island's residents today are survivors of that campaign. During the fighting, Peleliu's forest were burned to the ground, but now they ring again with songs of birds, who thrive in the second growth jungle. If there weren't the occasional pillbox, rusting tank or war memorial to remind you, you could almost forget the island's violent past.

The island's main attractions are its war relics and underwater sights. There's a small war museum in the main village, Klouklubed. The Peleliu Wall, southwest of the island, is one of the world's finest dive sites, with an abrupt 900ft (300m) drop and scores of sharks, hawksbill turtles, mammoth gorgonian fans and an amazing variety of fish. Both White Beach and the inauspiciously named Bloody Beach are good for snorkeling.

A good road system on Peleliu permits extensive exploration by land to many fine sandy beaches and you can sit in a half submerged Japanese Zero fighter plane or visit the quarry-scarred islands from which Yap seamen carved their legendary stone money.

Ulong Island

Ten miles southwest of Koror is Ulong Island with its ancient rock paintings and further south is Angaur, a quiet retreat with spouting blowholes and monkeys, descendants of two animals let loose during German times.

Angaur

Angaur is the southernmost of the Palau Islands group, and for the independent traveler looking to get off the beaten track, it has some serious South Seas charm. It's a low-key place, with only one village and just over 200 people, who are outnumbered 3-to-1 by crab-eating macaques. The monkeys descend from a pair brought over in the early 1900s to monitor air quality in the island's phosphate mines. The Germans began mining the island in 1909, and the Japanese continued the operation until WWII. Instead of their tunnels, though, you're more likely to see the green ponds that have formed in the pits, now home to a small colony of crocodiles.

Angaur's lone village overlooks its harbor on the western coast. The harbor, which is nearly enclosed, has waters so calm you'd think it was a giant swimming pool. North of town, there's an old Japanese lighthouse hidden by a jungle on a hill. It takes a sharp eye to find it, but you'll enjoy a great view from the top if you take the trouble.

There's a miniature wooden Shinto shrine located on the northwestern coast with a nice beach nearby and good snorkeling when the water's calm. On the northwestern tip of the island there's a statue of the Virgin Mary, erected to protect Angaur from stormy seas. A Buddhist memorial with markers honoring fallen Japanese soldiers is nearby, and if you look to the east you'll see a big blowhole.

On the northeastern side of the island, an eerie airplane graveyard is littered with pieces of wrecked WWII planes. You'll have to look closely into the dense jungle covering, as most of them are overgrown. Look hard enough and you'll find a Corsair with its wings intact, although the amazing root structure of the towering ironwood trees is just as interesting as the planes.

Kayangel
Toward the northern end of the Palau Islands is Kayangel, a picture-postcard coral atoll. Its four islands, fringed with sun-bleached beaches, ring a well-protected aqua-blue lagoon. The main island, Ngcheangel, is less than 2 miles long and takes only a few minutes to walk across - and yet there's a chief for each side.

The atoll has just one village, home to about 140 people, most of whom live in tin houses. There are a couple of small stores, a little ice-making plant and a few mopeds, but the island has no cars, phones or airport. Although Kayangel is fairly traditional, it welcomes culturally sensitive visitors. Dress is particularly important - women should plan on wearing a T-shirt and shorts over their bathing suit when swimming, and neither men nor women should wear shorts in the village. Woven handbags and baskets from Kayangel are in demand, as they're made from a high-quality pandanus leaf. The average bag is reasonably priced and lasts a couple of years.

Kayangel is the only true coral atoll in the group and Melekeok, the future capital, has a deep water port and five 'stone face' monoliths, while on the northern tip of the island a further 37 monoliths stand in two rows on prehistoric terraces.

For hikers, local guides will lead the way to Palau's largest waterfall and highest peak, 713 foot high Mt Ngerchelechuus where you can see 70 species of orchids and wildlife.

Activities

Palau is one of the world's truly spectacular scuba diving locales, with coral reefs, blue holes, WWII wrecks, hidden caves and tunnels and over 60 vertical drop-offs. It's the meeting place of three major ocean currents, which bring abundant food supplies and an enormous variety of marine life to the area. Thanks to that, the waters surrounding the Rock Islands literally teem with over 1500 varieties of reef and pelagic fish and more than four times the number of coral species than is found in the Caribbean. If you're a diver, you probably already know this, and if you've ever thought about learning, Palau is the place. Need further testimony? Palau was named the number one Underwater Wonder of the World by CEDAM International, an organisation of divers, marine scientists and conservationists. The southern end of the archipelago is particularly worthwhile.

If you're sticking close to the main tourist area, the beach fronting the Palau Pacific Resort has some of Koror's best snorkeling, with rainbows of tropical fish, platter and mushroom coral and giant tridacna clams in full view. That said, no one really comes to Palau to snorkel in Koror. The real action is in and around the Rock Islands, and it's worth whatever it takes to get yourself out there. Probably the most surreal snorkeling experience you'll ever have is waiting for you at Jellyfish Lake, a saltwater lake made famous by the National Geographic TV special Medusa. A ten-minute jungle trek inland, it pulsates with millions of harmless, transparent jellyfish, swimming en masse and following the sun.

For sun seekers, Palau's best beaches are found on the Rock Islands, Babeldaob and Peleliu, but most islands have a few lovely spots to toss down your towel. Local sportfishing catches include marlin, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo. There are also tennis, running and - increasingly - kayaking possibilities on Koror, if underwater watersports aren't your bag.

Factsheet

  • Full country name: Republic of Palau
  • Population: 18,400
  • Capital city: Koror (pop 12,300)
  • People: Polynesian, Malayan, Melanesian
  • Languages: English (official), Palauan (official), Sonsoralese, Angavr, Japanese, Tobi
  • Religion: Christian (33%, including Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assembly of God, Liebenzell Mission and Mormon), Modeknegi (indigenous faith)
  • Government: Constitutional government in free association with the USA
  • Location: Oceania, group of islands in the North Pacific Ocean, southeast of the Philippines  
  • Area: total area: 458 kmē land area: 458 kmē comparative area: slightly more than 2.5 times the size of Washington, DC  
  • Land boundries: 0 km  
  • Coastline:  1,519 km  
  • Maritime Claims: continental shelf: 200-m depth or to depth of exploitation exclusive fishing zone: 200 nm territorial sea: 3 nm  
  • International disputes: none  
  • Climate: wet season May to November; hot and humid  
  • Terrain: about 200 islands varying geologically from the high, mountainous main island of Babelthuap to low, coral islands usually fringed by large barrier reefs
  • Natural resources: forests, minerals (especially gold), marine products, deep-seabed minerals  
  • Irrigated land: NA kmē  
  • Land use arable land: NA% permanent crops: NA% meadows and pastures: NA% forest and woodland: NA% other: NA%  
  • Environment: current issues: inadequate facilities for disposal of solid waste; threats to the marine ecosystem from sand and coral dredging and illegal fishing practices that involve the use of dynamite natural hazards: typhoons (June to December) 

Note: includes World War II battleground of Beliliou (Peleliu) and world-famous rock islands; archipelago of six island groups totaling over 200 islands in the Caroline chain

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