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The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is in the heart of the South Pacific, somewhere between Japan and the Philippines. It is a protectorate and trust territory of the United States so Uncle Sam’s presence is everywhere in this sunny paradise.
From the smooth paved roads to its people’s penchant for being on time, the Marianas is a slice of Americana. We land at the Francisco C. Ada International Airport to the chatter of English, Chamoro, and Filipino in the tube that leads to the Immigration screening, which is nothing more than a cursory look at our passports and fingerprinting. In less than thirty minutes we are processed and cleared at customs.
The Serenti Hotel is located in the middle of Beach Road, which is the heart of downtown Garapan city in Saipan. This is where tourists of all shapes and sizes mix and mingle with the populace. Mike Kakuse of the Marianas Visitors Authority shows us our trip itinerary and we realize this is going to be short and swift as he rattles off the list of sites we’ll be seeing.
The Magic of Managaha
Managaha is an uninhabited island South of Saipan, which is more of a home to a colony of birds than people. It is a popular daytime destination for its beach, and for the snorkeling and parasailing. We board a ferry for the trip to the island and as we approach we see frenzied activities. Vacationers–with children, husbands and snacks in tow–form a throng, walking or running, along the concrete jetty. This is something everyone has been looking forward to and it’s infectious.
Tasi Tours and Transportation is the major tour provider on the island. Our day activity ticket is processed promptly and two gentlemen come forward. One speaks in accent-free Filipino, “Dito po tayo!” (This way, please!).
First, we choose fins, snorkel, and a mask. We get onto a speedboat and in ten minutes we go under. Luminescent Fiji Reef Devils cower within a staghorn coral while an assortment of domino damsels and striped sergeant majors move with the current. It’s a profusion of colors in the crystal clear water.
As I rise from the bottom, our guide grabs my arm and points at a lone barracuda, and in the next moment at a school of fish, then at the outline of a shark out of the corner of my eye. In a split second, they’re gone. That was my first barracuda and my third shark, so that’s going to be in my books forever.
Ten minutes out into the open water, the guides strap the safety harness between my legs, around my hips, and twice around my waist. Two carabiners dangling on either side are all that will hold me. The parachute unfurls and with a tug, we lift off slowly and quietly. As we go higher, the sound of the water and the boat disappears. It’s just the wind rushing around my ears, my feet dangling in empty space, and the faint drone of the outboard. Our conversation is not muted, but is surprisingly crystal clear. The stretches of white sand, the rising forest cover of palms and coconut trees, and other parasailers gliding like kites above a meadow of sapphire blue make for a simply exhilarating sight.
The Deepstar is the only submersible in Saipan. It’s a 40-minute look under the sea in a submarine. The entire process—from arrival at the pier to the boat that takes you to the sub up to your entry into the steel tube—takes no more than 12 minutes. Seated on either side, the steady whir of the air-conditioning is the only sound as a hush spreads throughout the cold, damp interior. With a slight nudge, we move forward with a school of surgeonfish keeping pace with our forward motion. You can’t see the surface above us anymore and right now everything is bathed in a cool, light blue hue. The bright reds and oranges from the different fish still stand out. In a way, we are luckier than many scuba divers because we see an assortment of fish, shipwrecks, and downed planes littering the seafloor—without getting wet.
Testaments at Tinian
Everything is flown into and out of the Marianas’ second biggest island via single engine aircraft. From the people to the water . . . everything! The Japanese established a foothold in the Carolinas after World War I and established sugar plantations with the locals as labor. As we drive down Tinian’s hypnotically straight roads, we race down the highway that leads straight out into the sea. Ms. Vida Borja of the Marianas Visitors’ Authority tells us, “This is Runway Able . . .”
Runway Able is one of six ten-lane-wide runways, and was at one time the busiest airport in the world, playing host to the B29 Flying Super fortresses. In fact, Tinian’s claim to fame revolves around the events that unfolded in World War II. There’s no argument as to the strategic importance of the island to the United States. Waging a war in the Pacific meant a long haul trip from the mainland to the Far East. As it was strategically the gateway to the East, it served as the nerve center of the Pacific war effort.
Suicide is not painless
It is listed in the US National Register of Historic Places as Suicide or Banzai Cliff. Imagining the atrocities that the Americans would inflict as retribution drove over 1,000 men, women, and children to jump to their doom from this grassy outcrop in one of the many bays around the island. Even with the Emperor’s promise of a revered place in the afterlife, I doubt if the civilians who plunged to their deaths went peacefully. The different shrines memorialize what must have been their cries of terror as they leapt to their deaths—not into the water but on the flat bedrock below, washed away by the crashing surf at high tide before being swept out to sea.
Taga house is the most visited site on Tinian, but to this day, no one knows how the native Chamorri raised these stones to their vertical positions. Consisting of an upright vertical pillar or “haligi,” and a capstone placed on top with the flat side up, two rows would serve as the foundation for the traditional wood and palm huts. Out of the original twelve, only two still stand while the others are strewn haphazardly, certainly a result of a violent jolt of some sort. They are a curiosity that begs for some answer to their mysterious presence.
Of Torii and turtles
The Hinode shrine is where the Japanese would make offerings for a bountiful harvest. A Torii gate guards this quiet marker alongside the beachheads. In one of them, turtles can be seen foraging in the clear waters of Tachogna beach at 10:30 every morning. This beach has the potential to feed more than just turtles, though. After all, what tourist wouldn’t want to see turtles feeding in their natural habitat?
A favorite last stop are the bunkers that stored the first atomic bombs before they were deployed. A flatland of concrete show two depressions enclosed in glass—the only reminders of “Little Boy” and “Fatman” ever being here. It stands as mute testimony to how World War II ended. Markers from different teams of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines dot the sides of what must have been a busy secret facility that is now nothing more than an empty lot.
Rambling in Rota
Rota is the smallest among the three major islands in the Marianas and has a population of 2,000. The old sugar mill has a run-down locomotive on display, its bright red colors bold against the green grass it sits on. It once pulled rail cars filled with cane, deposited these into the mill where they were pressed, their juices simmering until all that were left were the molasses, which were transformed into the crystalline white sweet ingredient. The scorch marks left by the furnace that simmered the liquid are still apparent along the brick walls—and is downright creepy.
Shooting the cake
Along the winding road, small caves dot the landscape, facing out into the open ocean. In one, an actual cannon is still in place, still able to swivel on its mount. If you looked straight out, you’d see an island jutting out like a target. Mt. Taipingot is bordered on either side by the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine sea, its top shaved off flat, like a cake, earning the moniker, Wedding Cake Mountain.
Taga is the mythical giant who moved from Guam and first lived in Rota then settled in Tinian. The Latte stone quarry has a statue of Taga and legend has it that he did his first haligi and capstone in Rota but never raised them. Seeing him standing ten feet tall and holding the tools that were used to chip the stone, one can’t help wondering, “What were they thinking, leaving these unfinished stones on the ground without purpose?”
The Songsong village is the second largest village on Rota and it was there where the cemetery was, its tombstones bedecked with flowers and candles. South of the cemetery is a hill that allows an unobstructed view of the village below and looks straight out at Wedding Cake Mountain. Every Easter, the devout takes turns dragging a makeshift cross of Christ from St. Francis Church up to this lookout point, in what must be quite a religious experience.
Out of obscurity
The crisp efficiency in processing tourists going through the attractions in Saipan is the exact opposite of how we got around in Tinian and Rota. Although these are more personalized tours of what to see and do there, the challenge is in commercializing it. The shrines and the cannons, plus World War II memorabilia scattered across these two islands, are the primary draw. Tinian and Rota should be able to lift its war gems out of obscurity towards an acknowledgement of their own ability to rise from the ashes of war. An entire industry can be built around what we’ve seen to showcase these hidden treasures.
HOW TO GET AROUND THE NORTHERN MARIANAS
Car rentals are the norm in these parts and they are present in every airport in the island. The Mustang is popular in Saipan while Mazda 6’s are all over the Tinian and Rota islands. Island hopping is a different matter altogether. Star Marianas Air conducts regular flights from Saipan to Tinian, Rota, Guam and back, using an assortment of single and twin engine planes. Each flight has a full complement of pilot and co-pilot and is always on time.
WHAT TO WATCH
Sandcastle Entertainment has been providing Vegas-style entertainment in Saipan for over two decades. The Sandcastle Theater is housed within the Hyatt Regency and is their showcase theater with three stages providing audience with a wide-angle view of the show. The Sandcastle Magic Show is Vegas pomp at its finest. The dinner is a classic rendition of traditional show favorites including Lobster Bisque, a choice of Filet Mignon or a Seafood medley of Lobster and Fish, with a sweet chiffon cake ending. The real attraction is the glitz and glamour that is always a crowd pleaser!
WHERE TO SHOP
The Joeten Shopping Center on Beach road in Garapan city is the biggest in Saipan. George Moses, a native Palauan, spoke to us about his role as the general manager of the place. Most of the fresh produce come from the mainland of the United States so it’s common to find brands like Oscar Mayer, Ballpark, and Gallo Salami on the shelves. Most of the beef is guaranteed Angus and there’s never a shortage of sodas. Fresh produce is the bigger draw here and these are as fresh as they can get.
I Love Saipan is an institution best known for souvenirs and everything marked with Saipan’s name—from T-shirts to beer bottle holders. Need a ref magnet? You’ll find more variety here than there are islands in the Marianas. Yuko Kumada has been handling marketing for the group for five years and is proud to say that they carry the widest assortment of Saipan-branded souvenirs on the islands.
WHERE TO EAT
The deli is right beside the Supermarket in the same compound as the shopping center. It has an assortment of pastries and doughnuts set side by side with a cafeteria-style breakfast offering of bacon, ham, chicken tocino (sweet cured chicken strips), fried and scrambled eggs, as well as steamed rice, French toast, and white bread. Some ala carte items are up there on the board but most people make do with the All-American starter. Off to one side, you can get your cup of Joe in Espresso, Americano, and every other variation.
Aqua Resort Club Costa Terrace Restaurant
The Themed Lunch Buffet changes daily, but there will always be something good to eat at the Costa Terrace restaurant. Dinner buffets likewise change daily from Seafood to Prime Rib. Our lunch has an international theme featuring stews, noodles, salads and cheeses. It even includes a “make your own” Shabu Shabu corner, where a simmering broth poaches the vegetables and meats to produce its own unique flavors. Pair that with the different sauces available and create your own bowl of comfort.
The Country House restaurant serves classic cuts on a hot plate except steaks ordered rare. From filet mignon to prime rib, sirloin and T-Bone, they’re all perfectly grilled and come with a side of fries and steamed greens. Oh, you can get your fix of ribs, chicken, and other barbecues hot off the grill. With a multilingual staff, you can’t go wrong. Would you like a soup and salad to go with your steak? Get the Steak Dinner for the full value!
JC’s Café in Tinian
If we had space for a heartwarming success story, JC’s restaurant in Rota would be it. When they moved out of Zambales in the Philippines, after the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic eruption, they literally arrived in Saipan as refugees and had nothing but the clothes on their back. Now, they have spiffy clothes and the best Buttered Chicken on the island. There’s no butter in the mix but if you want the whole story, have lunch there and maybe some karaoke afterward. A full menu has you covered from appetizer to soups and salads, and to top American and Filipino favorites.
ALI’S Barbecue and everything else
Ali Badilles went to Rota as a farmer just to find a better future for his family. Fourteen years later, his complex stands right beside the Marianas Visitors Authority’s office and is the go-to place for Coconut Crab in his Special Sauce. He’ll share with you the secret formula but you’ll have to live in Rota forever after that. Try the dried, cured deer jerky from deer caught in the island by the locals. He will give you fresh lobster, split and buttered with garlic, and regale you with stories of his experiences in the island.
Oh, have I mentioned this? Ali owns a construction company, as well as a bakery that supplies Pan de Sal (Bread with Salt), a traditional Filipino breakfast staple. He has also gone into his latest venture—a flower shop. What’s next is anybody’s guess.