Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Trip to Saipan Island

I find it hard to believe, but of all the 200+ posts I have done on Peyt's Island in the almost two years since I started it, the most popular post is the one I wrote about our trip to Saipan in October 2010. On a weekly basis, the stats indicate that most people make it to Peyt's Island by Googling "Saipan," "Saipan island," "Saipan pictures," or something like that. So it dawned on me that there must be enough people out there looking for info that perhaps a more informative write-up is in order.

For anyone reading this from Guam who has heard that Saipan is "just like Guam," I highly suggest you go and find out for yourself. While, sure, there are many similarities since these islands are a mere 100 miles apart, I promise you there are enough differences where you will feel like you escaped.

Getting to Saipan is an easy nonstop flight from Guam, Tokyo, Seoul, and major cities in China.  In fact, from Guam it is only a 35-minute flight, which feels like a blink compared to the 8 and 14-hour hauls heading stateside! And in fact, you can even fly in and out at normal times, no 4a.m. alarm needed. (Some of the parents remarked that it was weird being at Guam's airport while the sun was up and even felt like we were doing something wrong... so true!).

If you can, sit on the left side of the plane (coming from Guam) so you can see the island of Tinian on your way to Saipan. This is where the atomic bombs took off in the Enola Gay to bomb Hiroshima in WWII. On our way in I also captured the island's lovely golf course, sprinkled with beautiful red flame trees like the rest of the island is this time of year (June).
From the airport, pick up a rental car. USAA members will want to go through their website to get the member discount at Hertz. At $40/day, I found it was the least expensive rate on island. The rental office is on-site and a quick five minutes of paperwork will have you on your way.
Our rental car parade... already you can see how much tidier the roads and jungles are than Guam (less trash and not so overgrown... and surprisingly great roads!).

View from Aquarius Tower
Both times I have gone to Saipan, I have stayed in the Aquarius Towers. This simple but fantastic property is only 10 minutes from the airport, is extremely reasonably priced (call for military rates!), has a beautiful beach with views of Tinian on site, and a wonderfully helpful staff. They have a courtesy shuttle to and from the airport in case you choose not to rent a car. Best of all, this place has two bedroom/two bathroom and three-bedroom/two bathroom condos, so it's perfect for hosting a larger group or for a family with kids. It has a large living room area and a kitchen (bigger than the one in our house!) stocked with basic supplies. We chose to stay here so our group could save money on meals by eating in (there is a grocery store right next door). The ocean behind it has soft white sand, shady trees, and vacation blue/green water!

Once you are settled there are a number of places to start. In order to tour the island properly, I recommend you start by visiting the American Memorial Park Visitors Center in Garapan. It's really easy to find (check out your map from the rental car company), and they will show you a 20-minute video (upon request) for more background on the war. Take a few minutes to walk through the exhibit for more photos and information. The Visitors Center is open M-Sat., 10-6, and Sunday until 5p.

Once you have a better idea of all that crazy history, head north up the coast. Stop and check out the Last Command Post, off the main road on the right. There are bunkers and tanks to explore and photograph.

Drive up the hill and head to the east side of the island for a gorgeous view of Bird Rock, one of Saipan's signature viewpoints.
Continue up the steep hill until you reach the top of the Suicide Cliffs. This was yet another view that looked different to me. Guam's jungles are scattered with clumps of palm tree forests, but Saipan has a completely different look to it. The significance of this place in history combined with the serenity of the nature surrounding it make it a very memorable stop in the Pacific.
Amazing how much of the small island has no trace of human impact.

 We lucked out going while the flame trees were in bloom.

All of us Guammies were captivated by the sweet songs of the birds who once inhabited Guam but are now extinct thanks to the brown tree snake. It was so sweet waking up to the sound of birds chirping in the morning!

The next stop is down the cliff (uhh, via the road) and a quick right turn to the Bonzaii Cliffs. This is a great place to watch the sunset and listen to the waves crashing onto the cliffs.

 Saipan has some fantastic sunsets
 This one is from Memorial Park in Garapan.
 Breathtaking! Is this vacation or what?
 As far as activities go, there's the awesome Wave Jungle Waterpark at World Saipan Resort. They have an unpublished local rate that includes people from Guam! Just bring some sort of local ID. It knocks the entrance down from $80 (adult) to $30... and add only $10 to include a fabulous all-you-can-eat lunch at Buffet World!
There's fun shopping too... hit up the "I Love Saipan" souvenir shop on the main road in Garapan. Go next door for fancier shopping and to take your picture with the giant Saipanda. My favorite find was hot pepper sauce made from peppers that grow on Tinian.

 Snorkel out to the tank at Tank Beach, just up the coast from the Aquarius Tower

 Go diving in the Grotto, Saipan's most famous dive site, a fascinating cave that opens into the ocean.
Giant fans in the Grotto

 Check out some beautiful untouched beaches

There are lots of great places to dive and snorkel. I found the diving here to be crisper, with better visibility and way more sea life (bigger and more plentiful!) than Guam. We went with Harry Blalock at Axe Murderer Dive Tours and were not disappointed. He picked us up, provided all our gear and tanks, and toured us through the Grotto and other spectacular dive sites. (He also took these fabulous underwater photos with his fancy underwater camera!).

All this and there are also some fantastic places to eat on this island! Check out Godfather's for fresh seafood and a great local music scene. There's a Thursday night market in Garapan that's worth the stop for fresh produce (try the mini bananas!) and locally made souvenirs. And the rest, you will have to discover for yourself. I certainly encourage anyone who needs a break from everyday life to head there for a three-day weekend. It's worth the trip and definitely feels like an island getaway adventure... even if you happen to be island hopping.

Other Saipan posts:

Travel tips: Saipan uses US electrical outlets (so no converter needed!). Saipan's tapwater is unpotable, so invest in some bottled waters at the grocery store, and bring a water bottle to fill up at filtered water stations.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Saipan Retreat!

This week I took a group of 10 teenagers and 6 adults from the Lutheran Church of Guam 90 miles north to the small but beautiful island of Saipan. We had a great time! Here are some of the highlights
 Just landed in Saipan!
 First thing we noticed different from Guam... Flame trees are in bloom everywhere. 
(PS... I did not take this picture while driving... Travis did).
 Within 30 seconds of arriving at our accommodations, the kids had a game of Spoons going.
 Our first order of business was to tour the island, starting with a 20-minute movie at the National Park Center about the incredible WWII history on Saipan. We learned about the Japanese occupation, the American liberation, and the sad stories of the Suicide and Bonzai cliffs.
 Our next stop was to Bird Island on the east (Pacific) side of the island.
 Girls are awesome
 Next we drove to the top of the Suicide Cliffs, where thousands of local families jumped to their deaths shortly after the Japanese were defeated. They were told the Americans would take them as slaves :(
 Looking over the steep drop...
 Another difference between Saipan and Guam... no snakes, which means awesome birds! We were all captivated by their beautiful singing. Here Tammy Jo is bird watching.
We headed to Memorial Park for what turned out to be one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen!

 I posted this picture on Facebook and could not believe how much attention it got... apparently other people were as captivated as we were. Simply incredible!

After a late night playing some of our favorite games (paper telephone and mafia!), we took some time to chill and reflect on the beach with morning devotionals (and journaling!). 
You can see the island of Tinian in the distance 
(where the A-bomb took off from heading to Hiroshima).

 Then it was off to the Wave Jungle Waterpark at Saipan World Resort. No one's excited...

 Introducing the "toilet bowl," the kids' favorite ride... slide around a few times until it spits you out into a pool below.
Toilet bowl ninja
 Water slide time!

A nice ocean view from the top of the slide tower... go Malia!

Hanging out in the wave pool... this was a tough picture to get with all the bobbing
Waterpark Olympics... who can do a handstand the longest 
(does this picture say summer vacation or what??)

Chicken fight!!! As you can see, no one had any fun at the waterpark.
 After our fun day in the sun, we did a little shopping... and we found Saipanda!
We drove back to the Bonzai Cliffs to watch the sunset. Everyone crowded around when the girls spotted a sea turtle in the ocean below!
 Not sure which is more gorgeous... the sunset or these sweet smiles :)
 Guys being goofy... shocking
 The wall of sisterhood
 Crafting into the wee hours of the morning!
After another late night of fun and games, we did our beachside devotionals, then a small service project... a beach clean-up!
 Saving the world, one Pringles can at a time (and yes, Travis's shirt really says that... oh Travis).
There was no shortage of trash to pick up (sadly)
Not bad for 15 minutes of work. 
Then it was all fun and games at the beach and an easy 35-minute flight home.

Gator Girls! I have converted some fans :)
My favorite parts of the trip? Here goes!

 Gorgeous red flame trees everywhere you look
Games galore! And kids (and adults!) who know how to have fun.
 Hanging out with these guys (thank you for all your help!!!)
Introducing Jamaica to a new land. She is 15 and this was her first time to leave Guam!
And finally, a sunset that could stop time.

"I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells." Psalm 26:8

So hard to believe the sun is setting on this incredible role I have found myself in here. It has been a heaping dose of Vitamin F (friendships, fun, faith, etc.). Thankfully I still have a few good months left. You better believe I will be soaking in every minute.