One of America’s treasures is little known to statesiders. Most Americans do not realize that the beautiful islands of the Northern Mariana Islands are part of the American family. Located in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, they are the “everything” destination, with beautiful beaches, fascinating Chamarro culture and a history that played a critical role during WW II. The 14-island archipelago is a Commonwealth similar to Puerto Rico. The three main islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota are all within a short hop of one another on a small plane, with Saipan as the hub and where 90 percent of the people live. Only Tinian and Rota have any other significant population. Citizens have American passports, they speak English and no visa is necessary to visit this tropical paradise. But before the Spanish, Japanese and lastly, the Americans, there were the Chamarros, who are thought to have come from Southeast Asia around 2000 BC. Over the next 1,500 years they developed a distinctive culture in relative isolation leaving intriguing stone monoliths called lattes.
Sun, sand, and sea
Today the Northern Mariana Islands are a vacationer’s paradise that has long been a favorite getaway for the Japanese and other Asians, but seldom visited by statesiders. The islands have everything except those pesky annoyances, such as insistent beach vendors and overcrowded roads. All of the islands have beautiful sandy beaches, warm ocean waters, a variety of accommodations, diving, golf and plenty of history. The islands have one of the world’s most equitable climates, so visit any time of the year. Each island has its own unique attractions.
All travel starts in Saipan, the largest island, where at low tide the beach in front of the Hyatt Hotel goes out forever. Nearby is a favorite wind surfing spot. Name your pleasure: snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, riding on a banana boat, basking in the sun or spending the day on pristine Managaha Island, which is just off shore and easily accessible by shuttle boat. More adventurous divers and snorkelers will revel in a cool dip in the Grotto, a huge limestone cavern connected to the ocean by an underwater passage. While there are plenty of scenic photo stops, most popular are Bird Island located in a secluded bay and the panoramic view from Mount Tapochau, Saipan’s highest point.
Visit the award-winning Saipan Botanical Garden and the Saipan Zoo, but to learn about the island’s history starting with the pre-contact time, visit the Northern Mariana Islands Museum. Most impressive is the American Memorial Park, with a museum that tells the story of the Battle of Saipan and the rest of the Marianas. The displays and video are excellent. As a narrator relates, “What took 30 years to build was destroyed in 20 days,” during which 43,000 American and Japanese were killed. For such a small island it was profound. Beside the museum and memorial, the park is home to community events. At the north end of the island are Banzai and Suicide Cliffs, where hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians, including whole families took their lives instead of surrendering. Today they are somber spots with many peace memorials.
Take a 10-minute flight on a five-seater plane to Tinian. In 1945 the island was home to the world’s busiest airport, North Field. Today it is deserted and overgrown with weeds, except for one section that has glass-coverings over the bomb pits that once held the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, bringing World War II to a quick end. There is a Japanese bomb shelter and other remnants of the war years but little else. At the south end of the island is another Suicide Cliff. Intriguingly, in the little town of San Jose are the remains of House of Taga, built around 1500 BC by the Chamarro. The massive twenty-foot pillars called lattes supported the house of the powerful Chief Taga. Legend has it that when the last stone falls, Chief Taga will return. There are only a couple still standing. The island also has a five-star casino hotel that is popular with Asian visitors.
The beautiful island of Rota, the smallest of the three most-visited islands, possesses a unique character and charm all of its own. Just north of the airport, discover how the ancient Chamorros carved giant latte stones out of the limestone rock at the Taga Stone Quarry. Enjoy the beaches or take a refreshing dip in the cool, clear water at Rota’s famous Swimming Hole. There is plenty to do. Marvel at the thousands of seabirds that make their home at the Sagua’gaga Seabird Sanctuary. Learn about the local culture and dozens of indigenous plant species at Taisacana’s Botanical and Nature Trail. Visit the new museum of Charmarro and Carolinian culture. Check out the fascinating collection of artifacts at the Rota Cave Museum, located inside a giant limestone cavern. At the entrance to Songsong Village, stop by Pinatang Park, a seawater park with numerous channels out to the open sea. Once in the village, visit the Tonga Cave, a huge natural cavern with dozens of stalagtites, stalagmites, tunnels and mini caves.
Getting there is half the fun. Don’t be put off by what seems to be a very remote destination. For those looking for a new unspoiled destination, the Northern Marianas are easily doable for statesiders. From anywhere in the US there are connections direct to Saipan from Honolulu, as well as Tokyo and several other Asian locations. For such a small island Saipan has excellent tourist facilities, with a wide range of accommodations, car rentals, a plethora of restaurants and duty-free shopping. While Tinian and Rota are much smaller, they also have excellent facilities. Guam, less than an hour away by air from Saipan, has even more options for air carriers. In fact, a trip to the Northern Marianas can be enhanced by adding a stop in Guam, America’s other Pacific vacation destination.
If you go: For more information check www.mymarianas.com. The five-star Hyatt, www.hyatt.com, (888 96 HYATT), the only American chain on Saipan also has a beautiful hotel on Guam.