Coconut heaven

Micronesia has been the secret of divers and war veterans. Until now. By Malcolm Senior
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The Independent Travel
"Aaah," said George, grinning a toothy smile stained red by chewing betel nuts. "You thirsty, do you want a coconut?" He strolled over to the nearest coconut pile, tapped one expertly and then chipped a small opening, leaving me to pour most of its contents down my shirt as I tried to quench a tropical thirst.

Such are the hazards of life in Micronesia, a chain of islands and coral atolls stretching from the Philippines across the Equator and gesturing vaguely towards Hawaii. In between is the Pacific Ocean, miles of glorious, rich, blue. Divers have been coming here for a long time, land-loving tourists less so.

Palau, or more correctly the Republic of Palau, is the nearest part of Micronesia to the Philippine coast. It's also the only remaining United Nations Trust Territory, administered by the United States whose shadowy influence dominates the area. For the Americans, the islands are of strategic importance. For the islanders, this means interference, millions of dollars in aid and access to the US higher education system.

Tourists in Palau, however, come mainly from Japan. And rather than travelling to see the many shrines to Japanese soldiers of World War II, they come to dive around Micronesia's crowning glory - the Rock Islands.

I went out there in a boat organised by a com- pany called Fish 'n' Fins. Above the surface a pleasant opal-blue sea lapped against the boat, below was a riot of coral and fish of every colour imaginable. I flapped around on the surface, grinning grotesquely through my mask and snorkel, beneath me divers from my boat had bigger fish to fry. "Man," said one, "there were sharks everywhere, hanging around like wild dogs. And did you see that wall of barracuda? Just amazing."

The best hotel in Palau, the Palau Pacific Resort Hotel, brings all of this to your doorstep, with a dive company based in its grounds and an underwater photography shop run by a cheery ex-model from Crosby (by way of the Bahamas) and her husband, Bert, from Arkansas. Jan Yates goes out with the divers and films them as they share the depths with sharks and turtles.

If you can drag yourself out of Palau's natural theme park, and you should, then a trip to one of the outer islands is essential. Palau Paradise Air will fly you to the island of Angaur. Paradise Air is a low-key operation where you meet the pilot, Spike, an ex-Vietnam vet from out of Texas, in the airline office before he drives you on to the runway and you clamber aboard his nine-seater Islander for the 30-minute flight.

Landing on Angaur, you're met by Leon Guilbert, who sorts out the mail, drives people into the main village and, if you need somewhere to stay the night, will find you a room with a family. He also lent me his bike. Angaur was the setting of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war. Much of the debris remains untouched. As I wobbled around on Leon's bike I came to Red Beach, where the Americans landed and tried to force out the Japanese. They had been told not to surrender but to hide in the island's caves for as long as possible. On Red Beach, a rusty shell of a tank sits semi-submerged in the sand next to the remains of a machine gun. Up the coast lies the wreckage of a Corsair and a B29 bomber. Vines tangle around bits of wing, propeller and other unidentifiable metal.

After all this frozen violence, the island of Yap comes as a place of great tranquillity and peace. Yap really should be called Wa'ab, but when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century and asked what the name of the island was, the Yapese thought they were pointing at the paddles they were carrying, so they told them the word for paddle - yap.

The island has fought off attempts to dilute its idiosyncratic culture. There are precise rules about where you may walk, and if you're not sure, ancient stone footpaths mark your way. Yap is also famous for it stone money: large flat discs with a hole in the centre. The money derived its worth from the dangers faced by those who were brave enough to venture to Palau and cut the discs from limestone cliffs. Each village stores its stone money alongside stone paths sometimes leading to a faluw, or men's meeting house.

The best place to see a traditional Yap village together with its stone money, faluw and houses thatched with coconut leaves, is at the Bechiyal Cultural Centre. Here George meets you, taking you on a very personal tour around the village, culminating with a long chat in the faluw. So we sat, surrounded by tuna tails and turtle shells, talking about how the village had changed and slurping from George's copious supply of coconuts. He suggested I might want to have a look around the beach. I did, wading through warm water before lying on a perfect stretch of empty sand, shaded by yet more coconut palms.

As if to add to this general island reverie, Yap has one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in. The Pathways Hotel is a collection of wooden cottages, linked by hanging staircases and platforms, built deep into the undergrowth up the side of the hill. On my second day there, I was woken by the rain falling on the jungle that surrounds the cottages. When it stopped, the sense of verdant expectation was overpowering.

On from Yap, is Chuuk, better known to divers from across the world as Truk. Chuuk's main lagoon is famous for one thing: wrecks. Most of them sit on the sea-bed as a result of Operation Hailstone, where, 51 years ago, 60 ships from the Japanese Fourth Fleet were sunk by the American air force.

Chuuk (and, to be honest, the rest of Micronesia) is not the place for the gourmet traveller. Call it the easy life, someone told me, but the arrival of convenience food has wreaked havoc on the Micronesian diet, increasing the instances of diabetes and vitamin A deficiency to serious proportions. Apart from fish, it's difficult to find fresh food anywhere, but if your idea of celestial bliss involves processed cheese and ham toasted sandwiches, spam and Pepsi in copious quantities, welcome to heaven. In any event for the traveller who wants to play at being Gauguin while swimming through an oceanic paradise, Micronesia is a joy. It won't be long before I'm back with George and his excellent coconuts.

When to go

Rainfall tends to be heavy throughout the year, but it eases off slightly in the early part of the year, between January and March.

How to get there

The main airport is Guam, at the north of the archipelago. A round-trip from London or Manchester via Dubai and Manila costs pounds 919 through Flightbookers (0171-757 3000).

What to spend

US dollars, are acceptable everywhere, even among the stone-dealing residents of Yap.

What to read

'Micronesia: a Travel Survival Kit' (Lonely Planet, 2nd edition, pounds 7.95).

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