MANILA, APRIL 24, 2006 (STAR) CULTURE VULTURE By Therese Jamora-Garceau - Before Asian Spirit flew there for the first time on April 2, Palau was a name known only to avid scuba divers.

"What’s in Palau?" people would ask when I told them where I was going, or – even worse – "What’s Palau?"

FYI, it’s a tiny island nation in Micronesia that shares many similarities to ours. For one, it’s an archipelago, but so much smaller that if you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you’re bound to hit the sea.

We also share history. Palau was colonized by the Spanish, Japanese, and Americans, but unlike us, Palau had a fourth colonial power: the Germans, who came after the Spanish and before the Japanese.

Thirdly, divers – who tend to wax lyrical about coral species and biodiversity – worship at our underwater altars. While we have Tubbataha, Puerto Galera and Malapascua, Palau has Blue Corner Wall, Peleliu Express and New Dropoff, all of which were ranked among the Top 100 Dive Sites by Scuba Traveler magazine. Palau was also named one of the top three diving destinations at the recent Marine Diving Fair in Tokyo. It came in at number two, just ahead of number-three Philippines.

Thanks to proximity, Palau is also the sister city of Davao, occupying exactly the same latitude 650 km. east.

On a four-engine, 100-seater British Aerospace (BAe) 146 jet, the latest and roomiest addition to Asian Spirit’s fleet, STAR Lifestyle artist-cum-photographer Rey Rivera and I flew an hour and 40 minutes from Manila to Davao for a brief stopover before flying two more hours to reach Palau. With us on the inaugural flight were a 60-strong Pinoy delegation composed of Davao City officials, Asian Spirit bigwigs and media people.

Most of us didn’t know what to expect, but after two days we came away impressed. Because of the similarities, it was remarkably easy to immerse ourselves in Palau’s laid-back culture.

We stayed at the Palasia Hotel Palau, a four-star in the heart of the capital city, Koror. While the lobby might be no-frills, the rooms are clean and very comfortable, with balconies overlooking the town, the bay or Palau’s marine showcase, the Rock Islands. In the low season from May 6 to June 30, rooms range from US$110 for a Deluxe Town View to $300 for an Executive Suite.

If money is no object, you can stay at the beachfront Palau Pacific Resort or Palau Royal Resort. Designed in the vein of the luxurious, five-star tropical resorts in Asia, both feature sprawling layouts with pitched-roof huts based on Palau’s traditionally painted bai and blai meeting houses.

Divers have their own options. Because Palau’s famous reefs are too far to commute to from land, divers usually stay on liveaboard boats fully equipped with food and bedding. Companies like Scuba World or Cruise Island Adventure in the Philippines offer dive packages on liveaboards like $1,000 for four days, including food but no drinks.

"In Palau, it’s like a TV where all the wonders are in one site," says Fernando de Achaval, COO of Scuba World. "In the Philippines, Tubbataha has 90-percent biodiversity – the highest in the world – but it’s all spread out."

But never fear. Even non-divers can find their own little slices of paradise in Palau. For us it was swimming in a lake surrounded by hundreds of transparent yellow jellyfish. No, it’s not scary at all but quite breathtaking. These are harmless jellyfish that evolved without stingers because the lake they live in is surrounded by limestone walls that keep out predators.

Palau’s lure is in such once-in-a-lifetime experiences. You can go dolphin-watching here, but instead of sighting dolphins – if you’re lucky – on some crowded tourist barge, here you can pluck a leaf straight from a dolphin’s mouth. At Dolphins Pacific, a research facility housing eight dolphins saved from trouble in the wild, trainer Billy Watson has taught his charges to clean their "rooms" – large, undersea pens where they can frolic in undisturbed peace. The dolphins used to eat the leaves that fell into their rooms, which is as bad for their health as carcinogens are to ours. So, in lieu of ingesting this unhealthy snack, Watson has trained them to collect all the leaves they find and bring them to the trainers, which earns them a reward of a sardine or a mackerel. To boost the dolphins’ immunity, Watson also feeds them noni juice and monitors the effects.

This sure beats Sea World, we thought as Watson, together with his team of Japanese trainers, led the dolphins through their paces, having them jump high in the air, roll over and wave their flippers at a charmed audience. It wasn’t as if we were watching some staged show at a distancing amphitheater, either. What was refreshing was seeing these friendly, obviously happy dolphins do their thing from a mere three feet away.

A large part of Palau’s charm lies in its natural wonders. If you love island life then you’re in luck, because Palau’s Rock Islands are world-class, with the benefit of being as-yet undiscovered and therefore unspoiled. We almost flew there via super high-powered speedboat, which the drivers expertly navigated through cobalt-blue waters and dozens of limestone islands. Again I experienced déjà vu. While Koror looks like "typical Philippine province meets Guam," the Rock Islands bear a close resemblance to El Nido in Palawan, with its dramatic limestone cliffs and vibrant marine life.

Our first stop was the Milky Way, so named because it’s a lagoon into which limestone has sedimented, making the aquamarine water look milky and turning the inlet into a natural spa. The Palauans with us dove down 10 feet, scooping up handfuls of the sandy white bottom which felt like soft clay mixed with finely powdered sand.

"This is a Palauan beauty secret," they claimed.

True to their word, the mineral-rich mud did indeed make an excellent face and body scrub you could then wash off in the bathtub-warm water.

Then it was off to lunch on Ngkesil island, which had picnic tables under shade trees on one end and a strip of white-sand beach on the other. Palauan cuisine naturally highlights fresh seafood. We had excellent steamed lapu-lapu at Under the Mango Tree, a treehouse restaurant at Cliffside resort where a fish big enough for four was cooked to perfection and melting off the bones. At our hotel, Palasia, we had all-you-can-eat sashimi and giant mussels bursting with flavor (plus the best egg tarts ever). Like us, Palauans are fond of cooking with coconut milk, and they keep their women fetchingly Rubenesque by feeding them lots of taro. One American legacy, though, is their fondness for a great piece of meat. (Davao congressman Tonyboy Floirendo marveled that a kilo of prime Angus beef in this former US trust territory costs a mere P300.)

Rey and I were lucky in that our tour guide Jamie, an athletic beauty who was Miss Palau in 1998, treated us to the best burger in Palau at Bem Ermii. I don’t know where we were expecting to be taken – a beachside café with fishing nets draped on the walls, perhaps – but the strongest indicator of how unpretentious life is in these islands was when Jamie pulled up to a little roadside kiosk on wheels a la Burger Machine for these legendary Angus burgers. On the drive there she had ordered a patty with egg and cheese (US$3.50) for us on her cell phone, and we wolfed it down standing up, though there were benches nearby for customers. Jamie was spot-on. As Samuel L. Jackson says in the film Pulp Fiction, "This is a tasty burger."

The informality of the whole setup, though, reminded me of a comment by Philippine Ambassador to Palau Ramoncito Mariño, who started his term this year. Upon meeting Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Mariño was amused to note that the President was dressed for the occasion in shorts.

After eating, we also preferred to stand and chat with the cook, who was a Pinay from Bulacan, from where Rey also hails. According to Ambassador Mariño, there are 5,000 Filipinos living and working in Palau and a total of 7,000 in the whole of Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands. It’s a significant figure, considering Palau’s population is 15,000. Palauans, who prefer the laid-back lifestyle, leave a lot of jobs open for Pinoys in hotel and restaurant services, construction, and government jobs like accounting.

"Palau doesn’t make anything and has to import everything so goods are expensive," said Mariño, who was previously posted in Syria and Lebanon. "Tourism is their number-one industry, and they get about 80,000 to 100,000 tourists a year. Beer is $1.25 (gas is $3.23 a gallon). But even if the minimum wage is $1.50 an hour, it’s easy to save because there’s nothing to spend on – there are no shopping malls and not much to do except karaoke and diving."

Let me reiterate what he just said: there are no shopping malls in Palau. There are two shopping… centers, is what I would call them: WTC Plaza and Surangel, owned and named after the richest man in Palau. We went to Ben Franklin in WTC to shop for souvenirs and got a healthy dose of sticker shock: $50 for a pair of board shorts, $15.95 for a T-shirt and $5 for one refrigerator magnet. Needless to say, no one went on any shopping sprees that day, with prices that could reform even the most diehard shopaholic.

With their solid frames and easily tanned skin, Palauans look a lot like Pinoys or, conversely, Pinoys can look a lot like Palauans. Palau’s original settlers came up from Indonesia as early as 2500 B.C. Their nearness to both Oceania and Southeast Asia has given rise to an ethnic brew of Polynesian, Melanesian, Malay and Filipino. We learned this and many other interesting facts at the Etpison Museum, which is a great stop for history buffs and landlubbers. For instance, did you know that Spain owned Palau for 300 years before selling it to Germany in 1899? Then Japan occupied Palau in World War I until the US seized it during World War II. After the war it became a UN trusteeship, administered by the US. Palau finally gained its independence in 1994, though they have a contract requiring the US to provide economic aid in exchange for the right to build and maintain US military facilities in Palau. Driving around Koror and seeing various roads and bridges under construction, it’s evident that a lot of aid money is indeed pouring in from the US and Japan.

So why did Asian Spirit choose Palau as its first international destination? Chairman Toti Torralba Jr. was plagued by the same questions I was from people: "Everyone asks me, ‘Why Palau? What’s in Palau?’"

Granted, there was no ready market, but Asian Spirit is known for pioneering paths to destinations that are potential hotspots, even if few see their potential right this minute. A decade ago, after all, Asian Spirit started flying to a little-known area called Caticlan, to get to a little-known destination called Boracay.

"In Boracay 10 years ago there was nothing, and today it has put the Philippines on the world map," said Torralba. "Today it’s the same with Palau. We would like to grow with it and in 10 years it will be on the world’s map as one of the top destinations."

It’s a "risky challenge," but the owners of this cooperative airline have faith, as do the people of sister city Davao. "Palau and Davao can grow economically together," added Rep. Floirendo.

"You have your Palawan, and now you’ve found your Palau 2," said Jackson Henry, chairman of the Palau Travel Authority, and we could tell he was only half-joking.

Just as we Pinoys would say "Mabuhay" to that, in Palau thay would say, "Alii!"

* * *

Asian Spirit flies three times a week (Tues., Thurs., Sun.) from Manila and Davao to Palau. Promotional roundtrip fare is US$380 (from Manila) and $280 (from Davao).

Asian Spirit is also offering Palau Holidays Hotel Packages from April 1 to July 9, 2006. A three-night twin package at West Plaza by the Sea (WPS) is $460 for a standard and $480 for a deluxe room; $610 for a garden-view room at Palau Pacific Resort (PPR). A four-night twin package at WPS is $495 to $525; $690 at PPR. All packages are per person and include daily hotel breakfast, roundtrip economy-class airfare, and roundtrip airport transfers.

For inquiries, call 854-7367 (Manila) and (082) 297-1859 (Davao).

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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