Iam standing on a jetty, looking out over the tranquil waters of an inland lake, the watery centre to a forested ring-doughnut island in Palau - two hours' flight time beyond the Philippines, in mid-Pacific. The diving guide instructs me: "When you're blowing out your snorkel, watch out for the jellyfish. Some of them are tiny and they're quite easy to swallow."
I have a natural fear of jellyfish, but these, apparently, were harmless. Protected from ocean predators, the trailing, stinging tentacles of these jellyfish had atrophied, and my guide's concern was all for the residents. "Be careful not to kick your fins when you're among them - it's easy to cut them in half."
At first, I swam through clear water. But as I paddled towards the sunshine, jellyfish appeared, some mere specks with frantically pumping skirts, others the size of dinner-plates, languid and translucent. I let one swim into my cupped hands, its body strangely firm, like a slippery football with a gently insistent mind of its own.
I waved myself gently through a thickening cloud of them, which faded to the depths and coloured the water yellow in every direction. I let my snorkel fill with a soup of the tiny creatures and sank below the surface, to look up and see hundreds back-lit against the sky, pulsating in the midday sun.
Until now, divers have made up the majority of the few visitors who head out to Micronesia and Palau: 800 of last year's 825 UK arrivals came armed with fins and masks to explore what is, without doubt, one of the world's richest reef ecosystems. Compared with Hawaii's 570 shallow-reef species, Palau has 1,400. On a 20-minute snorkel off the outer reef, I looked down on six grey reef shark, trailed two turtles and swam after two spotted rays.
I could have stayed for ever, but our dive guide yelled: "Shark!" and swam with a fast, panicky and strangely infectious stroke back to the boat; this proved a remarkably effective way of getting an undisciplined group of snorkellers back onboard quickly - though he was bluffing, of course.
Palau's corals are also uniquely resistant to the bleaching affecting relatively nearby places such as Yap and Guam - let alone the more fragile systems of the Indian Ocean or Caribbean - because they are used to regular washes of cool water from the ocean depths. But even the most obsessive divers are forced by safety regulations to spend their last day doing something above or on the surface, and Jellyfish Lake is just one of the mini-adventures dreamed up to fill those last 24 hours. Given that the fly-and-flop travel market rarely seems to require more than a decent resort, tropical sun and sandy beach, all of which are effortlessly available on Palau, the islands' range of gently active options starts to seem like overkill.
On the archipelago's 20 large islands there are traces of a long and fascinating culture, only recently disguised by pick-up trucks and air-conditioned bungalows, where childbirth was regarded as an illness cured by makeshift Caesarean sections. Perhaps for this reason, any childbirth that results in the survival of both child and parent is still marked by exuberant celebrations that can last days. The indigenous culture is explained in the privately run Etpison museum, in the capital, Koror. A day's hike away, the stones of Badrulchau, 36 basalt monoliths as enigmatic as Easter Island's statues, are scattered across a field.
Palau's natural beauties are at their sunny best on 566 uninhabited smaller islands, many clumped together in a cluster called the Rock Islands. They were scraped from the ocean floor by moving tectonic plates millennia ago and have since been chiselled into mushroom shapes by rock-crunching crabs in search of shellfish. These islands, topped by the last untouched forests of the Pacific and riddled with caves and inland lakes reached by secret tunnels and causeways, are best explored by kayak.
In this maze of waterways, local guides control the numbers - and the impact - of tourists. Palau has three jellyfish lakes, for example, but only one is open to the public. Only a few of the inland lagoons, vibrant with the colours of the endemic corals and fish species, can be visited.
Led by our guide, Jake, we canoed in caves as large as cathedrals and through bat-filled channels that only exceptionally low tides made passable. Disney Lagoon, we were told, could only be entered four times in each lunar cycle. We found a pristine environment where the vivid colours underwater easily explained its name, fringed by lianas and a dense, unexplored jungle echoing with the calls of Micronesian pigeon.
The waters around Palau are also littered with ships and aircraft wrecked in the Second World War. At the outbreak of war, Palau, then known to the world as the Caroline Islands, was firmly in the hands of the Japanese. On one of the Rock Islands I saw a lonely Japanese gun position, surrounded by empty clam shells and beer bottles, and with letters home scrawled on the wall. I posed in a plane beached in such shallow water that even snorkellers can pull themselves into the cockpit. But the larger island of Peleliu, dominated by a tarmac cross of two heavy-duty runways, saw some of the most fierce fighting.
Japanese and American visitors are segregated for their visits and, unsurprisingly, I was fitted in with an American group. We started at a haphazard flowerbed that may someday grow into a "Thank you USA" sign, and explored a bomb-scarred Japanese administration building. Scattered around the island, a variety of American landing craft and tanks rust into the lush undergrowth, while some Japanese gun emplacements still look as though they could be fired if needed.
In 1944 the Americans took three days to invade the island and turn it into a muddy wasteland, but Japanese snipers, hiding in more than 600 limestone caves, fought on for a further 10 weeks. The Americans had to expend an average of 1,589 rounds of ammunition to clear out each resistance fighter. The last 34 Japanese soldiers surrendered , to everyone's surprise, three years later - well after the war had finished.
It's lucky that Palau has so much to occupy its visitors. The archipelago forms one of the world's newest nations, sailing into independence in 1994 with just one useful vote in the UN and $700m of US aid, spread over 15 years. Given that this is divided among a population of 17,000, it doesn't take long to work out that when the US slush fund runs out in 2009, the standard of living is likely to change dramatically. Tourism, they hope, will come to their rescue.
At the tourist board they talked reverentially of Bill Gates's business partner who visited recently in his yacht and spent $300,000 in five days. However, the majority of visitors tend to be tour groups from Taiwan who, thanks to their uncertain diplomatic status, don't have many places where they can take their annual breaks.
Though the Palauans try hard to synchronise tours to ensure smaller parties of three or four Westerners are kept apart from large Taiwanese groups, I ran into them at Face Pack Bay, one of Palau's most popular attractions. The fish of the Rock Islands use this bay as an aquatic midden, and generations of excreta have turned the seabed white with a thick layer of moisturising gunk. It has already been optioned by cosmetics brand Shisedo for a face-pack treatment, but for now it can be scooped from the ocean freely. Hysterically happy, 30 or 40 Taiwanese bobbed around in their life jackets, pasted white. If Palau is so popular with this new generation of visitor, none of whom dive, its future as a tourist destination is, hopefully, safe.
No scheduled flights operate to Palau, so you will have to get to Taipei or Manila and then connect to a charter flight. The only airline with direct flights to Taipei is Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com), which flies from Heathrow via Bangkok. From Taipei there are four weekly charters to Palau. Alternatively, fly to Manila - for example on Cathay Pacific for around £500 return. From here, Continental Micronesia (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com), flies via Guam to Palau for around $1,300 (£750) return.
Palau Visitor's Authority (00 680 488 2793; www.visit-palau.com).Reuse content