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(Photos at bottom of page)
Saipan is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, a part of the United States. The airport--while rustic--is modern and has jet ways. The check-in area is open air and feels like Caribbean airports used to feel 20 or 30 years ago.
The roadway leaving the airport is lined with flame trees (Royal Poinciana). While they had a few bright orange blossoms during our trip they must be spectacular during the summer months when they are in full bloom.
We flew into Saipan from Guam with arrival at the Hyatt Regency Saipan just in time for the sunset. The hotel was nice but quite honestly just didn't measure up to other Hyatts in tropical zones. The balconies were okay but there were no dividers between rooms so everybody around your room got to know you quite well out on the balcony. The rooms were showing their age.
The happenin' area of Saipan is Garapan, right where our hotel was located. We chose to dine at the hotel's Italian restaurant and it was very good. Outside in the landscaped grounds they had the typical tourist shows. We've seen way too many in our travels around the South Pacific!
The next morning we headed down to explore the grounds and they were very pretty. As with Guam, you'd be hard pressed to think that you weren't actually in Hawaii. The beach (Micro Beach, considered one of the best on the island) was small and I contemplated putting on the old snorkel gear. However it was strange that there was nobody lounging around and then we figured out the deal. There were hundreds of menacing little flies that kept landing on us. They didn't bite but they made time spent on the beach unfavorable so we arranged to rent a car and set out on an island tour.
The little downtown area is an interesting hodge-podge of modest shops and restaurants and hotels with plenty of signs in Japanese. It's curious looking and reminded us of many places. On the one hand it looked a little like Nadi in Fiji. On the other hand it had a very small but upscale area that included a beautiful Hard Rock Cafe and Tiffany's. Of course we had to stop by the Hard Rock and collect a shot glass!
Maybe it's just me but the remnants of World War Two seemed much more apparent on Saipan than on nearby Guam. Two of the places we visited were sites of mass suicides. One was called Banzai Cliff and the other Suicide Cliff.
Banzai Cliff sits right on the Pacific Ocean. When it became apparent that the Japanese were going to lose control of the island during the war, civilian Japanese families marched to this cliff and hundreds committed suicide plunging down onto the rocks and surf below. The same thing happened at Suicide Cliff which is inland and had a vertical drop of 820 feet.
Why did Japanese civilians opt for death? Sadly, they felt like the Americans would torture them once captured. Part of it also was the Japanese ethic of dying rather than giving up. The procedure was the same on each cliff. Families lined up back to back on the cliff with the youngest child nearest the cliff. Next came the older children in order of age. Second to last was the mother and the final person in each family line was the father. The smallest child was pushed off the cliffs by the next oldest. The process repeated itself until only the mother and father were left. The father would push his wife over the cliff. Then finally, the father would run backwards over the cliff.
American troops tried their best to prevent these tragedies. They dropped leaflets in Japanese assuring civilians that no harm would come to them. They also used loud speakers to try and stop the suicides. But sadly, it didn't work.
Many Japanese families have set up peace memorials at these sites, especially on Banzai Cliff.
One large memorial to World War Two was right next to our hotel. American Memorial Park is a 133 acre park operated by the U.S. National Park Service paying tribute to American soldiers.
Tinian is a small island just a few miles from Saipan and is world famous for one thing. The Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber, took off from Tinian and dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. We didn't visit Tinian but we did fly right over the airstrip used by the Enola Gay on our final approach from Guam into Saipan. Tours are offered of the airstrip and the island has a big hotel and casino.
Just driving around the island of Saipan is a visual treat with drop dead beautiful palm lined mini-mountains and vistas of the sea. One great view is an overlook with Bird Island down below. This is a haven for nesting sea birds.
In addition to palm trees you'll see plenty of banana plants, a few papayas and the odd breadfruit tree here and there.
The locals in Saipan love to chew on betel nuts as do their neighbors in Guam. I'm told this gives them a mild narcotic high of sorts. The resulting "spit" is bright red and you see signs posted saying: "No betel nut chewing or spitting." The red spit leaves nasty nearly permanent stains!
We chose a popular local restaurant for lunch--Chomorro House. Sadly, the restaurant has since closed. But it was sure good back then! This is the local cuisine of the island and featured fish and meat in coconut milk, etc. My wife had shredded beef in coconut milk and I opted for the "fried" fish. When most people think of fried fish, they conjure up an image of a nice golden brown filet, right? In this part of the world and in fact in most parts of the world, fried fish means the whole thing fried up. When it arrived at the table smothered with green veggies (no idea of what they were but they were good) I didn't have to ask the waiter what kind fish it was. Its beak gave it away. It was clearly a parrotfish. I hate to eat them because they are so beautiful swimming around underwater. I wondered to myself whether I was eating a stoplight parrot, blue parrot, princess parrot, etc.? There are many, many different kinds of parrotfish.
A funny story about our waiter at the Chomorro House. He was an extremely nice guy who had come to Saipan to work. He said when he learned that he had been cleared to leave his native Phillipines to work in the U.S. he ran out and bought a winter coat. He figured that any place in the U.S., even Saipan, would have snow sooner or later. With that winter coat in tow, he said he was shocked to look down and see palm trees as his jet touched down!
Our final night in Saipan we were bushed from being out in the sweltering heat (it felt like 90 and extremely humid although I'm told it rarely gets over 85 on the island) so we opted to dine at another of the Hyatt's specialty restaurants "The Chinese Restaurant." It was quite good. Again, the rooms of the hotel were a little run down for a Hyatt but the restaurants were all top notch.
Interestingly we saw a place on the island where rumor has it that aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart was supposedly held after being shot down by the Japanese over the nearby Marshall Islands in 1937. The "word" is that the Japanese suspected her of being on a spy mission and blasted her out of the sky. Most people think that she simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean somewhere else but some old-timers on Saipan swear they actually saw her. Who knows....
Saipan is a beautiful island. Wish we had had more time there. The water is so pretty the snorkeling had to be great. We hope to return sometime.
Interestingly just off shore from Saipan in the Philippine Sea is the Mariana Trench. At a depth of nearly 39,000 feet, this is the deepest ocean known on earth.
An estimated 75% of the native people on Saipan are Chomorros. Carolinians also are present. Of resident aliens, most come from the Philippines.
During our stay on Saipan, we were the only American mainland tourists. All of the rest of the visitors appeared to be from Japan although we did see a Western "looking" family at a Pizza Hut but they appeared to be speaking Russian.
SAIPAN IS THE CAPITOL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF THE NORTHERN MARIANAS AND PART OF THE UNITED STATES. DRIVING IS ON THE RIGHT. A PASSPORT IS EXPECTED FROM AMERICANS EVEN WHEN TRAVELING FROM GUAM, ALSO PART OF THE U.S. CURRENCY IS THE U.S. DOLLAR. (Like Guam, the immigration paperwork you fill out on the plane before landing is much more in-depth than the paperwork you fill out returning to the U.S. mainland.)