SEA  PALAU!

MANILA, OCTOBER 20, 2006 (STAR) RENDEZVOUs By Christine S. Dayrit - As the sun begins to set on this Eden, the heavens high above blush with splashes of pink, mauve and red, while the celestial dance of the fishes changes step underwater. I remember a Palauan myth of the setting sun: before descending below the horizon, the sun passes by an orange tree, collects a few oranges and then throws them into the sea before entering, in order to scare away the sharks. It looks like someone is standing in the water flashing hundreds of mirrors. Moving closer and focusing on the water, I realized that the source of the shining light was the sun’s golden rays reflecting off the sides of little fish swimming in a school. In a flash, I feel that I have unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the world: that there is a sacred pattern in life that guides our lives and speaks to the human heart.

Arriving ahead of time, the captain of our Continental Airlines flight (the aviation company that has serviced the Philippines-Micronesia routes for almost three decades) announces an impromptu fly-through tour of Palau’s glorious islands. As the aircraft circles a few hundred feet above the islands, fascinated passengers – including my sister Yvonne and hubby Pael Romualdez – take a delightful look at Palau: a string of green tufts in the North Pacific that is blessed with what many cognoscenti say are the best dive sites in the world. While the international diving fraternity has been making this trek for years, many non-divers have the impression that it is hard to visit what has become an underwater mecca without getting their feet wet – and still have fun.

At first glance, however, it seems an easy task. Palau is one of the rare places on earth that looks even more alluring in reality than in the glossy travel advertisements. It is made up of some 300 pint-sized islands surrounded by spellbinding turquoise sea midway between Guam and the Philippines. Most islets are empty but for small palm-fringed beaches, clear lagoons and abundant wildlife. Under the surf, an exhilarating adventure with marine life awaited us once again. When we finally made a smooth landing on Palau soil, the smell of fresh tropical breeze calmed our souls and its azure waters serenaded our spirits.

Like honeymooners, the Romualdez couple truly enjoyed the flight and itinerary graciously arranged by Mon Magno, general manager of Trans Pacific Air Services Corporation, GSA for Continental Airlines in the Philippines. From the airport, a scenic 15-minute tour took us along the paved winding road and across six islands and two states before reaching the formidable gates of Palau Pacific Resort.

Operated by Pan Pacific Group of Japan, the Palau Pacific is a luxury international resort that combines the spirit and culture of the islands with tranquil ambience and beauty, a choice destination for diving enthusiasts and non-diving visitors alike. It has 160 two-story cabanas built on a 60-acre site fronting a white sandy beach and the pristine waters of the Western Pacific.

What sets Palau Pacific Resort apart from other properties is its own private swimming cove, which has been declared a conservation area. In its knee-deep, crystal-clear waters, you can snorkel and admire the various species of marine life. The Palau Pacific Resort, in its effort to help promote conservation, started its own Clam Planning Program where guests are given a hands-on experience in tending and caring for clams. Yvonne had a ball frolicking with the tiny creatures swimming around and decided to bring her kids on their next trip.

The day always starts early for divers, providing plenty of leeway for equipment preparation and check-up, assessment of environmental conditions and dive planning with respect to all of the aforementioned. After a sumptuous breakfast treat of eggs Benedict topped with our very own longganisa, expertly prepared by Palau Pacific chefs, we realized we had forgotten to prep for the planned dive that day!

Sam’s Tours, one of the biggest tour operators in Palau, came to our rescue when no one else wanted to take us in. Within minutes, we were off to the southern reaches of the archipelago where Palau’s most characteristic geological features rise in strange formations. Rock Islands, our first destination, is a group of largely uninhabited limestone islets that rise 300 feet above a vast shallow lagoon that protect it from the open sea waves. The small and verdant islets resembling green mushrooms are sanctuaries for birds, bats, skinks and snakes, while the surrounding lagoon features abundant marine life. Scattered across the sea, these uprisings are described in Palauan legend as the protruding remains of a gargantuan woman who, through her insatiable and selfish appetite, exploded, thereby creating these unusual and unique formations.

The islands of Palau are actually ancient coral reefs that have been raised from the violent volcanic process that created this Pacific mountain range, the tops of which are the verdant islands of Palau. These reefs are porous, full of holes and passages or siphons where water surges, flows and pumps as in a complicated circulatory system. The ride through its glistening crystal-clear waters is in itself an exhilarating experience!

At Milky Way, a place bordered by a few islets, one can snorkel in the shallow waters with the intention of scooping handfuls of white sand from the bottom surface. Native Palauans attest that a mud pack of Milky Way’s sands is an effective skin exfoliant. We spent the rest of the day snorkeling and exploring some of the 50 World War II shipwrecks, the remnants of an aircraft carrier attack, rare and exotic marine species, and visibility that can exceed 200 feet add to divers’ surprise.

Lying deep within the precipices of the renowned Rock Islands is the famous and unique among the rare, Jellyfish Lake. Only one life form dominates and it is otherworldly. Here, big and small species of light and dark-orange stingless jellyfish teeming in the millions drift in during their larval stages and flourish. Due to the absence of natural predators, these creatures have lost their sting, feeding off the rich, algae-filled fresh waters as they gently pulsate in and around the lake. We were midway through the lake’s length when these gentle creatures, moving from the shore toward the lake’s center, formed a constellation of life where invisible forces pushed and pulled in a dance of sun, moon, tide and jellyfish. We let ourselves loose in a playground of unique cosmic collage.

On our third day, Sam’s Tours’ American dive master Jim took us out to the waters once again. One famous sanctuary among divers is the Blue Hole, a cavern composed of four holes, one of which, at 90 feet, opens onto a steep vertical wall. Blue Hole is commonly the entrance point for drift dives to the legendary Blue Corner during an outgoing tide. The Negemelis Drop-off is widely considered the world’s best, a Technicolor reef that begins at two feet and plummets vertically to more than 1,000 feet. A wonderful sensation is experienced as one leaves the three-dimensional world and slowly descends into a four-dimensional one. The legendary Blue Corner is one of the planet’s most exciting sites. Here, one rubs elbows with an abundance of fish-like sharks – the gray reef, black-tipped and white-tipped sharks. By their abundance, these creatures of terrible beauty gliding through their domain tell me that I have come to a healthy wilderness. Another popular dive site is the German Channel, more popularly known as a cleaning station that attracts large manta rays and sharks. Small, blue-streaked fish called cleaner wrasse swim overhead, advertising their services. We descend to a sandy bottom at about 45 feet and wait behind large coral colonies near the cleaning station. It is an incomparable thrill when a giant manta swims within a few feet and remains there momentarily while being cleaned.

Back at the resort that night, we were treated to a sumptuous Palauan buffet dinner featuring their own version of lechon that melts in your mouth. Other delectable exotic Palauan dishes were also on the spread, like beef simmered in betel nut bark, and native staple diet like taro leaf and tapioca-based delicacies.

The sun ascends over the reef once again and a new day begins. The sun’s rays yet again penetrate the clear waters. The sea explodes in a frenzy with millions of creatures dancing, entranced by the most distant cosmic forces, the sun and the moon. Few places on earth can match the magnificent and astonishing natural beauty of Palau. My journey to paradise stops here for now.

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For more information and reservations, call Palau Pacific Resort at +680-488-2600, fax +680-488-1606, e-mail palau@panpacific.com, or visit its website at www.palau.panpacific.com.

Continental Airlines flies direct from Manila to Palau. For flight bookings and packages, call its reservations offices at 818-8701 (Manila) and +6332-2557533 (Cebu). Or log on to www.continental.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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