GUEST ARTICLE: Saipan is a US territory, the largest island in the Northern Marianas Island Chain and is situated just 190kms north of the island of Guam. The population hovers around the 45-50,000 mark. The island itself is pretty small being only 19km long and 9kms wide.
The native Chamorro have inhabited the island since 2000 BC. Unfortunately, due to war and years of annexation by various countries their numbers have since dwindled. Nowadays the population consists of the Chamorro and a collection of different Asian ethnicities from surrounding countries. The overall population has decreased due to the bad economy and new immigration laws.
Night had long fallen when we touched down at Saipan’s little airport. We had flown in from Honolulu after a short transit in Guam. There was only one beat up looking cab waiting at the front so we took the bull by the horns and scooped that baby up. Lucky thing we did because we didn’t notice any other cabs along the way.
The trip into town only took us about 15 minutes but cost about $30US! Lucky thing we pre-booked a rental for the next day (a must do). The place seemed like a ghost town as we drove down dimly lit streets until we finally came to our hotel the Fiesta Resort in the village of Garapan. The hotel itself looked a bit dated but the rooms were nice enough and made for a comfortable stay for our short 3-day stint there.
As we were getting settled into our room we heard music coming from outside. From our balcony we had a great view of the village and saw that just on the street in front of us there was a market being set up for the next night. A local band had started up while dancers practiced on a little stage. We found out that we had arrived just in time for the weekly Garapan Market held every Thursday, how lucky for us!
The next morning after breakfast we went for our first walk around the resort. The day was brilliant with clear blue skies and a hot scorching sun. There was a nice beach out the back with a few chairs and umbrellas to accommodate but it was just too hot and we didn’t want to fry ourselves in the sun.
Our rental car agent showed up on time later that morning and the agent handed us a set of keys to a little Toyota Rav 4. It wasn’t new by any means but it was great for touring around the island and a lot cheaper than cruising around in a cab. With the A/C on full tilt we headed out in search of a good place for lunch.
We both remembered seeing a little restaurant on the main highway on the way in from the night before so we thought we’d give that a shot. What a find!! The Oriental Dumpling House had the BEST melt-in-your-mouth homemade dumplings and noodles we’ve ever had (no kidding!). I so wish we had this place back home because it was way too good and really cheap!
After lunch we went on our first little explore of the island. Saipan was an important battle site during WWII and today there are many memorial sites around the island in dedication to all the thousands of lives that were lost. In 1922 Saipan was taken over by the Japanese Empire and by 1941 was home to thousands of settlers from Okinawa and was heavily garrisoned with about 30,000 Japanese troops.
On June 15, 1944 the US Army and Marines landed on Saipan beaches and thus began a 3-week bloody battle where about 30,000 Japanese defenders were killed. Thousands of civilians also died when they jumped to their deaths off of the notorious Banzai and Suicide Cliffs.
The memorial sites were nicely done with beautiful stone effigies and meaningful epitaphs. We went to the top of Suicide Cliff and I got butterflies in my stomach just looking over the edge. It’s hard to fathom the atrocities that had occurred there. Around the island there are still some existing Japanese armaments and bunkers to visit.
The drive around was really scenic. Lush tropical forest blanketed the area and the ocean looked wild and breathtakingly blue. From the top of Mt. Topochau we got the best panoramic view of the island. We were fortunate to have encountered an engineer who was up there at the time and he warned us not to stay up there too long (15 mins max) because of the radiation the communication towers up there emit.
Later that night we decided to have dinner at the Garapan Market. Everything started to really liven up at around 6pm. Hundreds of people milled about wandering from stall to stall. Delicious food and BBQ aromas wafted through the air and music livened up the normally quiet atmosphere.
After partaking in some of the delicious treats from various stalls we got a massage at one of the many shops situated along the street. They gave a good massage and for a pretty reasonable price. The singing and dancing talent was fairly entertaining and it appeared to be the big night for local teenagers to really let loose and show off their best dance moves.
The next morning everything went back to normal and the streets went back to being very quiet. We had lunch once again at our new favorite noodle house and then got back on the road for one last sightsee. As we drove through towns we couldn’t help but notice a number of Poker places everywhere and they usually had a laundromat situated next door. Very strange and sad because this place didn’t look like a place to where people had money to waste gambling.
For such a small island there are plenty of beautiful places to explore. One place we thought was pretty spectacular was the Grotto. We had to climb down a steep set of stairs to get to it but the payoff was well worth it. Towering dark jagged rocks surrounded a pool of electric blue water.
The heat of the day was so intense the water definitely looked inviting ~ that is if you were brave enough. The water looked unpredictable and rough at times with waves from the sea constantly bombarding the Grotto. I heard that you could go snorkeling but at your own peril. It is also known as a famous dive spot but mainly for advanced divers. Diving can also be pretty dangerous there and over the years there have been a number of deaths.
Our last tourist attraction was a visit to the very beautiful Bird Island Lookout. The view of the island was nothing short of spectacular. Stark white limestone cliffs adorned with lush green foliage covered the little island while thousands of birds swarmed the air around it. The sea was a mixture of amazing blues and we could see a nice white sand beach lining the shore. There is a path to take you down to the beach and closer to the island but after the strenuous climb to the Grotto we decided this was best seen from afar (it was way too hot).
For our last night our hotel put on a nice dinner and show. We got to see some impressive Chamorro and Pacific Island fire dancing and my husband Rob got chosen to get up on stage to shake his booty with some of the dancers. What a great night, full of visual treats and big laughs.
Saipan is definitely worth the visit but don’t expect a vivacious nightlife scene. It caters more to those looking for some quiet island life. The natural surroundings are also sure to please. We also found all of the historic war sites to be very interesting and educational. To get to Saipan you’ll have to fly in from Guam on a short flight and don’t forget to book yourself a car!
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!