Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water

When I revealed to a good friend of mine that our next port of call on the trip after Mongolia would be Palau he joked that we were perhaps the 55th and 56th people ever to fly such a route. Our check-in experience at Chenggis Khan International Airport seemed to jive with this suggestion. It was as if the check-in agents had never heard of the country and it took a handful of them plus a supervisor to get us checked in. They took our word for it that we didn’t need a visa. The truth is, as Americans we can even go live and work there visa-free!

ULN
ULN

To get between the Mongolia and Palau, three flights were required. First we took Air China from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was our second flight with Air China and once again, we weren’t too impressed. The in-flight catering was pathetic (even by US standards) and the transit experience at Beijing was even worse. It took 90 minutes to get from our inbound aircraft to the lounge thanks to a remote stand, a slow bus, and a horrendous bottleneck at the transit counter.

We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.

From Beijing it was onward to Seoul with a much classier carrier: Asiana. Loads on the segment to Korea were very light… 13 passengers on board our Airbus A321 which can carry over 170 people. The Asiana business class lounge in Seoul was nearly deserted with only one other passenger to be found. I still refrained from banging on the grand piano. Our flight to Koror, the capital of Palau, left at 11:10PM and arrived in the midst of a thunderstorm at about 4AM the next morning.

Thanks to the short overnight flight, our first day in Palau was pretty much a write-off. We wandered town a bit and soaked in the island vibes. The island has a Hawaiian feel to it but it a very small place. The whole country has only about 20,000 people and of those, 13,000 live in the state of Koror.

Palau has been a sovereign nation since 1994 but has a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States that allows citizens to move freely between the two countries. It also gives them some other strange perks such as having US zip codes and being part of the US postal system. I made good use of this by sending a flat-rate box crammed with 8kg of stuff I had accumulated back to Florida. $14.95 to send 8kg most of the way around the world in under 10 days. Not bad, eh?

Palau’s ties with the United States were evident when we took a trip to the grocery store. The stock was a mix of American and Japanese brands. Spam anyone?

A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific

On day 2 we arranged a snorkeling day-trip with IMPAC tours to the Rock Islands. This set us back $90 per person plus $35 each in park permits (used for multiple days) and took to some of the Palau’s headlining attractions. The Rock Island archipelago is made up of thousands of limestone islets which have been worn away over the millenia. Most of them are sharply undercut by the lapping waves and almost look like mushrooms at low tide.

After one round of snorkeling we boated to one of the islands that has a marine lake. A marine lake is a sinkhole in the center of the island which is connected to the surrounding ocean through the island’s porous rock. The result? A unique and very rare salt-water aquatic environment. Some of Palau’s marine lakes hold millions of harmless jellyfish whose stingers have evolved away thanks to a lack of predators.

A short 10 minute hike from the boat was necessary to get to the lake. We swam out a good ways and before we knew it we were surrounded by thousands of pulsating peach-colored jellyfish. The biggest of them weren’t much larger than a softball and it was interesting to be able to gently cup them in our hands. As far as the eye could see it was nothing but jellyfish slowly pulsing away. This was definitely an other-worldly experience. Sadly neither of us had an underwater camera with us so the only photos I have of the jellies are from a friend we met the next day.

After Jellyfish Lake we made a lunch stop at one of the nearby beaches. The Rock Islands are all part of a state park and on many of the beaches you can find nice picnic huts and even bathrooms – you don’t see luxuries like that too often in this part of the world! A large tour boat was “parked” at the beach but it was still peaceful enough.

Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom

In the afternoon it was more snorkeling. My favorite part was snorkeling in amongst the mangrove roots along the shore – all sorts of little fishies call the roots home! We also stopped at a lagoon called Milky Way. The bottom is covered in a slimy limestone-based goo that they said was good for our skin. Honestly, it reminded me quite a lot of the white paste found on the bottom of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon spa!

As compared to Easter Island and the Cooks, eating out in Palau was dirt cheap. We talked to a guy at the tourist office and he filled us in on the local joints. We found a nice casual place called Emeimelei Restaurant that served up all sorts of island fare plus sweet tea (with free refills!) that made me feel like I was back at home. Dinner for two for $10. It was a good thing food was cheap because our accommodations didn’t offer any sort of cooking facilities! Speaking of which, we stayed at a place called Guest Lodge for $65/night which was the cheapest place we could identify.

Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive

On day 3 I went diving with a company called Fish & Fins and Amy joined the tour as a non-diver. Diving in Palau is very expensive – my two-tank day of diving came to $190 (in comparison, a three-tank dive in Malaysia set me back about $100). Weather was a mixed bag, it was cloudy in the morning and rainy in the afternoon. Sadly, heavy rain overnight made underwater visibility quite poor but it was still some great diving.  Unlike many of the island destinations in SE Asia, Palau is spotlessly clean and the Palauans seem to be very responsible towards the environment.  I didn’t see a single plastic bottle or grocery bag the whole day.

We rented an underwater camera for the day. I found that it is surprisingly difficult to use a camera while diving.   Most of the really blue photos in the album came from my attempts with the camera, the better shots came from fellow divers (thanks guys!).  I ended up using the camera for one dive and then Amy used it for snorkeling during my second dive. Best part of the diving? Manta rays!

Manta ray
Manta ray

Kayaking was on the agenda for our fourth day on Palau. We rented a kayak from IMPAC and just paddled the waters near Koror. Even though we were close to the biggest city in the country, it was easy to get away from the development and enjoy kayaking around the limestone islets. We took turns snorkeling from the kayak and found the reef to be pretty good although not as nice as the places our tours took us. The double kayak cost $35 for the day which makes it one of the cheaper day activities.

Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

Our last day in Palau was spent taking care of the usual errands (like writing postcards). We also made an attempt at getting our passports refilled with more pages but we failed. They moved the US Embassy since our guidebook was printed and the new location was way out of walking range. Luckily, a nice local gave us a lift back to town after our frustrating walk to the old location.

Palau isn’t cheap but it is certainly a beautiful place.  If I had to do it again, I would try to meet more locals.  The locals we interacted with were very friendly and proud of their country and I suspect that might be the key to experiencing Palau on the cheap!

Palau
ULN
ULN
We didn't fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
We didn’t fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
Air China 737
Air China 737
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes.  Good job, Air China.
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes. Good job, Air China.
Nice sunset at PEK
Nice sunset at PEK
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul.  13 passengers on board!
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul. 13 passengers on board!
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
The Toto Washlet...sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
The Toto Washlet…sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
"The Rainbow's end"
"The Rainbow’s end"
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like?  Well here you go.
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like? Well here you go.
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
This is how you park a boat in Palau
This is how you park a boat in Palau
Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
Gas station ice cream
Gas station ice cream
Tridacna clam - about two feet across
Tridacna clam – about two feet across
Jaws
Jaws
Eel
Eel
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror...good thing I had my mask
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror…good thing I had my mask
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Those are some big clams!
Those are some big clams!
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

Aug 072011

I am happy to report that our 8-day stay on the Cooks lived up to expectations.  We spent our entire visit on Rarotonga, the biggest island in the Cooks.  It’s a volcanic island with a jungle-covered center and beautiful beaches and reefs around its circumference, similar to Kauai but less commercialized.  It’s about 20 miles around the island and at the recommendation of a friend we booked a bungalow with Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast.

Avarua harbour
Avarua harbour

Avarua is the nation’s capital as well as it’s biggest town.  Most of the restaurants, banks, and shops are in Avarua as is their humble parliament building.  Avarua’s lively Sunday market (Punanga Nui) is definitely a must-see since it is a good place to sample some local cuisine without breaking the bank.  Rarotonga wasn’t as bad as Easter Island but the restaurant menu prices were still quite high.  I ordered up a BBQ plate for NZ$10 and received an absolutely massive plate of meat and carbs.  It was about 50% larger than the biggest plates I’ve been served at L&L BBQ in Hawaii and by that I mean it was about 4 times the amount of food I want at one sitting!  It was a long and difficult battle that I eventually lost.

Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)

We actually had two different types of accomodations at Rarotonga Backpackers.  For the first four nights we stayed at their “Hillside” complex which was about a quarter mile inland from the coast.  Our bungalow was a outfitted with a bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony – that’s “self-contained” in Cooks lingo.  We couldn’t quite see the ocean over the palms but the view was nice enough.  Nightly rate was $72 New Zealand Dollars which works out to about $61 US dollars per night.  For the last four nights we moved down to their recently-opened Garden Bugalows which are closer to the beach but without a view.  The garden bungalows were a couple bucks more but I would say that the proximity to the beach made it a win.

Hillside Bungalow
Hillside Bungalow

Initially, getting around the island was a bit frustrating.  Our guesthouse picked us up at the airport just as promised but the rest of the time we relied on Rarotonga’s bus service.  There is a once-hourly bus that goes clockwise and another that goes ANTI-clockwise around the island.  The full circuit takes just shy of an hour, plus or minus.  Unfortunately, the posted schedules mean next to nothing as everything and everyone operates on “island time.”  On a few occasions we just gave up on the bus altogether and spent the subsequent hour or so walking to our intended destination.  During these lengthy strolls I pondered how I would model the bus arrivals as a stochastic process.  But I digress…

A bit of a revelation came to us on day 4 or 5 when the helpful staff at Rarotonga Backpackers suggested that we try hitching “like the locals do.”  Sure enough, that worked like a charm!  As an added bonus I got to talk to some locals.  One time I had some kids show me how they liked to catch colorful reef fish in plastic cups.  Another time I rode with a lady on her way to church whose only trip out of the Cooks took her to Boston for a seminar at Harvard.  Small world!

A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.

The main thing we occupied our time with during the visit was snorkeling.  You can snorkel just about anywhere around the island and there are very few off-limits areas where there are dangerous currents.  One day we took the bus over to Muri Lagoon on the eastern coast.  The lagoon is dotted with small islands and there is good snorkeling just past one called Taakoka.  The island is a few hundred yards off the coast of Rarotonga but knee-deep water made it an easy walk.  We just had to watch out for all the sea cucumbers and the foot-wide cobalt blue starfish that crowd the lagoon!

My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”

Another day I decided to tackle the cross-island trek.  Amy wanted to do some more snorkeling her fancy new prescription mask so I went solo.  After hitching my way up to Avarua I walked about 2km on a dirt road leading to the island’s interior and a sign marking the start of the trail.  It informed me that it should take about 3 hours to make the 5km crossing to the south coast.  The climb was quite steep and it became very obvious why all the guidebooks strongly advice against attempting it after rain.  The surface of the trail is almost clay-like and I am sure it turns into a muddy slip-n-slide with even the slightest precipitation.

Looking south from the ridge
Looking south from the ridge

I made it to the top in about 45 minutes and stood on the ridge of the island right next to this rock pinnacle they call the Needle.  You used to be able to climb the needle itself but a sizeable piece fell off it a few years back and now there are some very to-the-point signs advising against climbing.  I heeded the warnings and just enjoyed the view from the overlook – it was good enough.  The descent on the south side was much steeper but fortunately they have quite a few ropes in place that you can use to help yourself down.  Eventually the trail flatted out and followed a nice little stream past a waterfall to the coast.  Total elapsed time was just over two-hours.

From the miscellaneous island activities category I can say now say that I have been “jet blasted.”  I went down to RAR (isn’t that a great airport code?) one afternoon to catch an Air NZ 777-200 arrival.  There is a nice place to watch right at the end of the runway so that made for a fun diversion one afternoon.  I regret not sticking around for the departure.  Seeing a few hundred thousand pounds of aluminum and jet-A go from stationary to airborn in less than 7,500ft is surely a loud and exciting spectacle.

Another entry in the miscellaneous category came on our last day on the island.  I was staring out the window of our bungalow and happened to see a nice large coconut drop from one of the palms.  I went out and retrieved a relatively large green specimen and started to formulate a strategy.  Tools on hand included a kitchen knife, my hands and my feet.  Step one was to google how to husk a coconut.

I learned that green ones tend to be harder to open than their more mature brown counterparts but that they usually contain more coconut water.  The basic idea is to attack from the stem end and peel sections of the husk off one-by-one.  Having a nice sturdy prybar was highly recommended but I just had to make due with my hands.  I won’t lie, it was difficult and I probably looked a right idiot while I was working on it.  Start to finish it took over an hour but the results were worth it.  As an added bonus I didn’t detach any digits in the process!

From an eating standpoint we mostly self-catered.  Groceries were expensive and going back we would have brought a bunch of staples with us from the States.  Nevertheless, we still managed to keep to a pretty low budget with our grocery bill totalling NZ$87 (about US$73) for the week.  We primarily shopped at a nearby mini-mart and while selection was limited the prices were on-par with the bigger grocery stores in town.  Coconut cream was readily available so Amy put together some excellent coconut curries a couple of the evenings.  We also had our fair share of standard backpack cuisine: pasta, sauteed veggies, and toast.

Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes

All in all the Cook Islands left us impressed.  Given Air NZ’s nonstop flight from LAX and relatively reasonable airfares, I am surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in the Cooks.  It is much like Hawaii but has two big advantages, at least to me.  The first are the plentiful beaches – having a couple hundred yards of pristine white beach to ourselves was the norm (and it was high season when we visited!).  The second big win is the lack of commercialization.  The Cooks have strict rules against outside ownership so this has kept the big hotel chains at bay.  This gives the place a bit more character if you ask me.

We would love to visit the Cooks again someday to travel to some of the other islands.  Domestic airfares are a bit pricy but the other islands are supposed to have their own charms that are well worth exploring.  Lastly, I decided to put together a budget summary for those who are interested.  Perhaps some other travelers will find it useful someday.

Budget Summary (prices in US$):

  • Accomodations (8-nights): $497.35
  • Groceries: $72.25
  • Eating/drinking out: $64.58
  • Local transportation: $58.53
  • Total: $692.52 (or $43.28 per person per day)
    Cook Islands
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Hillside Bungalow
    Hillside Bungalow
    These mosquito coils came in very handy.  Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    These mosquito coils came in very handy. Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market.  Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market. Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    The aftermath...I barely finished half.
    The aftermath…I barely finished half.
    Avarua harbour
    Avarua harbour
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    Muri Lagoon
    Muri Lagoon
    Taakoka Island
    Taakoka Island
    A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
    A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    Looking south from the ridge
    Looking south from the ridge
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    777 arrival from Auckland
    777 arrival from Auckland
    Our local grocery purveyor - the Tex Mart
    Our local grocery purveyor – the Tex Mart
    After an hour of hard work.
    After an hour of hard work.
    Fresh coconut water!
    Fresh coconut water!
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack's.
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack’s.
    Sunset on our last day
    Sunset on our last day


Map showing our routing across the Pacific.

After I returned to the States in early June, I had no specific plans as to where to go next.  The volunteer opportunity I had pursued in Africa all but fell apart so I really didn’t have a specific reason to head in that direction – at least not yet.  I spent hours combing through airline award charts and award seat availabilities.

The Republic of Palau, a small group of islands in Pacific, looked to be an awesome destination.  It’s an island paradise with all sorts of natural wonders to explore.  Continental operates its “island hopper” flight which makes stops at cool places like Truk, Kosrae and Kwajalein as it plies the Pacific from Honolulu to Guam.  I’ve heard that the flight is quite interesting but award availability was extremely scarce for the dates we wanted to travel.

Eventually, I came upon some nice availability for travel to the Cook Islands.  The Cooks are a popular destination for Kiwis and Aussies but are relatively unknown to North Americans.  Surprisingly enough it is possible to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the priciple island in the Cooks) once a week with Air New Zealand.  But why fly nonstop when you can go by way of Auckland (a 2000+ mile detour) on one of Air New Zealand’s brand new planes for the same price?!

Air New Zealand recently took delivery of Boeing’s latest addition to its 777 series, the 777-300ER, and made headlines in aviation circles with their innovative seat designs.  They have a “Sky Couch” product in economy, some very comfy looking “Spaceseats” in premium economy and a revamped lie-flat seat design in Business Premier.  As luck would have it, award space was available on NZ1, the flight operated by the new plane, so I snapped those up as fast as I could.  Using my United miles, business class tickets to the Cooks came to 60,000 miles and $2.50 in taxes.

Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback

After a bit more searching around I was able to piece together an exit plan for getting off the Cooks.  We would fly to Malaysia Borneo (Kota Kinabalu) by way of Sydney and Seoul with a stopover in the latter.  I know it sounds a bit roundabout but it is the most direct routing available using Star Alliance carriers.  Even so, it took a supervisor at British Midland to authorize the long routing.  The total worked out to 18,750 miles and $401 in taxes and fees for the business class booking.  Oh, and if anyone is wondering the total flown mileage on these two tickets is about 19,025 miles.  The Pacific is one huge ocean!

Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway

So…on to the flights.  Air New Zealand Flight 1 from LAX to AKL was incredible.  The new seats were easily the best business class seats I have flown and I would say they compete nicely with many carriers first class products.  In particular, the quality of the cushioning when the seat is in “bed mode” is superb.  The back of the seat actually folds forward to reveal a separate matress for the bed.  In most lay-flat seat designs the seat itself just goes flat and isn’t a true matress.  Another nice feature of the plane is the fact that the galleys are equipped differently so that the crew can actually cook (as opposed to reheat) food on the aircraft.  I had some great waffles for breakfast just prior to landing in AKL!

Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast

After some showers in the Koru Club we boarded one of Air NZ’s older 767 aircraft.  Nothing too exciting in terms of the seats or in-flight entertainment but the service was exceptional as it always seems to be on Air New Zealand.  The load was light that day (5 of 24 seats occupied in business) so it did feel a little like a private jet.

Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga

Arrival into Rarotonga was a nice firm landing runway 8.  I guess pilots don’t like to waste precious runway…especially then it comes to landing a widebody on a 7,500ft runway!  Much like Easter Island there are no jetways so everyone takes the stairs and immediately gets to soak in some of the great island weather.  A local band was playing in the baggage claim area and before we knew it we were through customs to meet the representative from our guesthouse.

Across the Pacific
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
Air NZ's new generation of herringbone suites.
Air NZ’s new generation of herringbone suites.
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
The chef's selection plate as a light main.
The chef’s selection plate as a light main.
Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway
Time for bed.
Time for bed.
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ's Koru Club
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ’s Koru Club
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Climb out from AKL
Climb out from AKL
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
I love it when there is no jetway!
I love it when there is no jetway!

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