The world has gotten small, and when you are searching for a new location that offers great diving, along with atmosphere and amenities to keep a non-diving family happy, it's even smaller. So when I challenged my favorite travel agent, Jim Harlan with Uncommon Adventures, to find us such a rare location, he had to do a bit of head scratching, particularly since we had already visited nearly all the Caribbean locations that fit the bill, and had previously taken a trip to the hands-down winner for diver/non-diver travel, Fiji.
We considered Wakitobi, in Indonesia, but that was vetoed by the family (they hold a permanent majority in our household) because of the possible risk transiting Bali, so the next choice offered was Palau.
With a little research I determined that Palau would certainly fill the "superb diving" requirement, and since a good beach is non-negotiable with the ladies, there was really only one choice for lodging, the Palau Pacific Resort.
With the main destination chosen, now it was time to build a trip.
At present, Continental airlines hold the keys to Palau travel, and although there are a few variants, the route to Palau primarily goes through Tokyo and Guam, and the route home goes through Guam and Honolulu. Having in the past squinted through severe jet lag for the first few days at distant destinations, I now make an effort to incorporate a stop-off on the front end of the trip to reset the body clock. From Washington DC we stopped at Houston, Tokyo, and Guam. Tokyo was an intriguing stop-off possibility, but we had stretched the wallet pretty thin to fund this trip and it just wouldn't stand a stopover in one of the most expensive places on the planet. Plus, there are not much in the way of diving opportunities for warm water wimps there.
I knew nothing about Guam, so it was time to hit the books.
Guam looked immediately promising. Good hotels, safe, nice beaches, and on top of that an American territory. And, what do you know, a thriving but little known diving scene. So we booked 5 nights in Guam and shortly afterward I hit the jackpot for local knowledge of the diving, in the person of Chris Bangs, an experienced underwater photographer who just happened to live on Guam and is a manager of the Micronesia Divers Association. Chris posts on a couple message boards and some friendly folks on the boards got us connected. He bent over backward to help me plan the diving (and eating) portion of our trip and I am most grateful to him.
I don't have much experience with Continental Airlines, but I must say our flights were relatively painless and the customer service was far above normal. We were able to book bulkhead seats on all three of the very long legs by calling 24 hours before the departure of our first leg, and all my phone experiences with them were pleasant. They also let our slightly overweight bags slide, which was another big plus.
Our brief layover in Tokyo was interesting, particularly visiting the shops in Narita airport. We were able to lay in a vacation supply of Salted Squid Guts, and the toilets had a remote control bottom cleaning feature that has leapfrogged our current toilet technology to the point that I doubt we will ever catch up. More on that later.
We hit Guam late at night, and after negotiating a van for transport as to avoid paying a second cab for our copious luggage, we arrived at the Guam Hyatt Regency, checked in, stumbled to our room, and passed out. The whole check in process was much like my first colonoscopy, surprisingly painless and soon forgotten. We all awoke pleasantly surprised. First, we weren't on a plane. Second, the room was unusually nice. Third, there was a lovely, spacious veranda and a terrific view. Well-kept gardens with a mini-water park, white sand beach, calm blue ocean, and an unlimited coastline vista. Not too darn bad for a stopover.
The Hyatt, and Guam in general, is a vacation hotspot for Japanese tourists. I estimate that over 90 percent of non-natives we encountered were Japanese, and the island economy reflects those numbers. Driving along the island streets is a journey through a mixed culture, combining the influence of the American military bases, the pervasive Japanese tourist trade, and the Guam locals.
The Hyatt is located in on Tumon Bay, at the epicenter of island shopping opportunities. A large upscale mall, A Hard Rock Cafe, TGIF, and McDonalds for those who just can't shake the addiction to American fast food, and countless knick-knack, local foods, convenience stores, Japanese noodle shops, along with strip joints and other adult fare are within an easy walk. Of note, the numerous ABC (brand, not booze) stores turned out to have a little of literally everything and very reasonable prices. We bought snacks, beer, and even souvenirs there.
The hotel itself has the amenities you would expect from a Hyatt, along with the prices. The restaurants served good food, and there was always a buffet available, but you can manage quite nicely with the more moderate priced food options an easy walk away. Internet is a princely $20 a day in the rooms, but free high-speed wireless is available in the lobby, along with a very elegant daily afternoon tea.
The plusses of the Hyatt are its terrific ocean views from the spacious verandas, a nicely kept man-made beach with flat blue water, and a lush, well kept garden area with multiple pools, water slides, and hot-tubs. The small ocean-side water park is a great diversion for non-divers. At the far end of the beach is located a fairytale-book wedding chapel, serving a market of well-to-do Japanese tourists who want to marry by the shore. I'm told a catered day at the chapel runs $30-40K. That this is a Christian church and that few Japanese are of the faith seems a mere quibble.
One downside of the resort to be aware of is the fact that the beach in front of the hotel is a public, rather than private beach. All those comfortable chaise lounges and umbrellas and water toys are only available for steep daily rent. And first thing in the morning, all the water toys are floated in the ocean forming an unsightly plastic armada.
The Wedding Chapel
The first day was spent napping, eating, orienting, renting a car, and napping some more. We drove up the coastal highway to the opposite end of the island to locate the shop and finalize my diving arrangements. Guam resident Chris Bangs was at the MDA shop to greet me and show me around, and I have to say it's a pretty darned impressive operation. MDA is the Micronesia distributor for many familiar brands of scuba gear, and a fill and nitrox blending station for several other shops. Its shelves are well stocked, and prices are reasonable for an island location. And they are busy.
Chris connected me with the local dive association, which offers a great deal for traveling divers, 6 unguided boat dives for $75 including air and weights. When compared to three $25 breakfast buffets at the Hyatt, is a helluva deal. Guided dives are also available for an extra $75 a day, so I planned to just follow the crowd and pretend I know where I'm going. I am very familiar with this strategy; it is how I go through life.
If you are diving air, you just show up at the dock, if diving Nitrox you need to stop by the shop en route to the dock and throw your tanks in your car. $10 a fill, solid 32% and consistent 3400 PSI fills. Oh, I forgot to mention that MDA uses neutral AL80's, which can be filled to 3400 and are neutral when empty. Extra air and less weight, what a great idea!
MDA boats are contracted by local guides, which is why "guides" are an extra cost.
On the first day there were 24 Japanese divers, 2 Japanese DMs, three boat crew, and me. The boats are comfortable albeit a bit crowded, and the crew was most accommodating.
As we arrived in Guam we just missed a typhoon, which later moved on and badly pounded Japan. Although our first full day was sunny and comfortable, the seas were still very rough the next day on the dive boat. Guam has a very large, protected harbor which contains several good dive sites, but the best diving Guam has to offer lies outside the bay. The first dive of the first day we scooted outside for a dive at Amphitheater, a so-so site that started out with great vis, which dropped to 40 feet by the end of the dive. After that dive, we were not able to get outside of the harbor for the rest of the trip. The remaining 5 dives included 2 on a sunken American Tanker, which lies against a massive artificial sea wall built during WW2, 2 reef dives, and another wreck dive.
Crown Toby Pufferfish
Orange Finned Anemonefish
The second wreck dive was on the SMS Cormoran and the Tokai Maru. The former went down during WW I in 1917 and the latter 1944 during WW II. This is the only location in the world where a WW1 and WW2 wreck lie together touching each other. At a depth of 100 feet you can touch both wrecks at once, which I did. No proof, though, because there were no hands left to operate the camera. I'm really not much of a wreck nut, but the Cormoran had plenty of coral and fish life to keep me entertained for a dive, and you can just tell it would be a spectacular night dive.
Well-populated window rails of the Cormoran
Colony of life on the mast
Another fun dive was on a reef that is visited daily by the local Atlantis tourist submarine. There are several fish feeding stations on the reef to ensure a good show for the tourists, and between the feedings and the eerie sights and sounds of a large electric sub humming around the reef, this dive was a unique experience. The vis was only about 40 feet, so often you could distinctly hear the electric motors of the sub while not being able to see it at all. Then it would appear out of the gloom, and drift by with the passengers waving out of the row of windows on the side.
.After I finished my last dive I stopped by MDA to thank Chris again and stock up on some scuba knick-knacks and Chris presented me with my favorite souvenir of the whole trip, a clear Coke bottle, circa 1945, that he brought up from the sand near the American Tanker. I'm telling everybody I found it myself, so exnay, OK?
I couldn't fairly assess the diving on Guam because of the weather, but I can say that MDA is a good, professional, and safe dive op, that the dives I did do were pretty darn good for bad-weather protected sites, and that I feel confident that if there wasn't so much other chart-topping diving in the vicinity Guam could make for quite a nice diving vacation. I certainly want to go back and see the outer reefs.
Our afternoons on Guam were mostly spent lounging at the beach and pool at the hotel, with a daily excursion for shopping and supper. Chris supplied us with a list of his favorite restaurants, so we just worked our way down the list. Here are the ones we visited and would further recommend: Jamaican Grill, For Thai: Marianas Trench, Indian: The Curry Kabob, For local food: Chamorro Village Night Market, and our very favorite, A Korean buffet at the Pia Marine
condo. Authentic Korean food, all you can eat, delicious, $13 per person.
So, all in all Guam proved to be a delicious, filling, and tantalizing appetizer, but now it was time to move on to the main course, Palau.