Our last stop is Melekeok, the nascent capital, where our truck almost stalls as we inch down a pocked dirt road to reach a soaring thatch-roofed A-frame. Every village in Palau used to have such a bai, a communal house where the men gathered daily to chat and catch up and deliberate. This one, Bai Melekeok, is Palau’s most important, where the island chiefs used to meet. It is also one of the few that remain standing. “They only use it for the [presidential] inauguration,” Malahi says. “Now the men prefer to go to air-conditioned restaurants.”
We jolt another 400 meters down the track, and the carpet of tropical vegetation opens abruptly at the base of a 12,000-square-meter complex of four Greco-Roman style buildings, complete with Doric columns and a rotunda capped with a glimmering white dome. Except for the birds, fish, and other Palauan icons decorating the facade, the new capitol building would be right at home on Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Malahi doesn’t want to go inside, but she pauses long enough to rap firmly on one of the columns with her fist, producing an empty-sounding clunk. “Hollow,” she says smugly. “They’re made of fiberglass.”
The first thing I notice when my boat putters up to Peleliu is the trees.
The island, a 13-square-kilometer speck of coral and palms an hour south of Koror by boat, saw one of the most savage battles of World War II, with nearly 20,000 Japanese and American troops perishing here as the U.S. naval juggernaut swept across the Pacific. Photos taken after the war show a broken, charred landscape denuded of all vegetation. Now the island looks like Eden, blanketed in a thick, leafy layer of greenery that shifts and sways in the Pacific breeze. I spend the afternoon wandering the pebbly beaches and overgrown dirt tracks. I see wispy golden tendrils of wild orchids wrapped around the rusted scraps of artillery and the roots of trees choking remnants of downed fighter planes. The island has suffered, but it has endured and thrived.
There’s something else, though: a palpable, heavy silence that girds the isle like a reef. Locals who were evacuated to Babeldaob before the war have since trickled back; about 700 people live here now. But they seem to move in a reverential hush. As I pad through the undergrowth, land crabs scuttle away and fruit doves whoop in the canopy above, but not once do I hear conversation or laughter or any other human sound. I find myself constantly wheeling around to see who’s behind me. Though I never see a soul, I can’t shake the feeling that someone is watching me.
I’m still a little spooked the next morning when I head off for a dive, but practicalities soon preoccupy me. If time is a vague proposition throughout Palau, it might as well not exist on Peleliu. I’m told to be at the north dock no later than 8:30 a.m. or risk missing the boat. Five other divers—a Japanese couple and three Americans—are waiting when I turn up, but the boatman doesn’t emerge until 9:20. By that time, the Japanese—“Saito, Mister and Missus,” the husband barks with martial zeal—have been in their wetsuits for an hour. Despite cheery smiles, they’ve begun to sweat profusely.
Before we dive, we have to pick up more tanks from another boat in the German Channel, 20 minutes in the opposite direction from our south-shore dives. Back in the days of German occupation (1899–1914), bauxite miners—using corvée labor and heaps of dynamite—plowed out this 60-meter-long, 12-meter-wide trough to gain quicker access to the still waters of the inner reef. What began as an environmental and humanitarian atrocity is today one of Palau’s favorite dive spots. But we’re bound for another site, Peleliu Wall, and by the time we get our tanks, clear our permits with a ranger, and make our way back south, it’s almost noon. Missus Saito looks like a pickled daikon in the sun, and her husband, whom she is fanning with a handkerchief, seems to have succumbed to a heat-induced coronary.
When we finally tumble into the bathtub-warm water, everyone flops to life like fish thrown back to the sea. We fin through a horizontal passage and find ourselves on a 300-meter wall alive with hard and soft coral. Schools of opalescent blue tang and zebra-striped surgeonfish scatter as I approach; gray reef sharks skulk in the shadows below. I’m startled when I nearly run into a 200-strong school of glowering barracuda that menace me with their teeth. In an hour of drifting on the current, I see more marine life—boomerang-shaped batfish, bumphead parrotfish, wizened sea turtles—than I could in a full day at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
Back on the boat, my apprehensions from the previous day lift like a fog in a marine gale. From the suffering of its dark past, Peleliu has blossomed into an exquisite little secret. In a place where so many perished, it buoys me to see the shores plastered with foliage and the waters electrified with fish. “We live by the land. The men fish, the women farm,” Ngotel Rehebont, a Peleliu native, had told me the night before. “And there’s plenty.”
Risks are like lies—the more you take, the harder it becomes to stop. I’ve now dived to 45 meters with a mob of sharks and swum in my skivvies with millions of jellyfish. Hell, I’m half convinced I’ve faced down an island full of ghosts. So, suppressing a deep distrust for rotary-wing aircraft, I ring up Palau Helicopters to schedule a sunrise flight. It seems like the best way to gain some perspective on this perplexing little island nation. Matt Harris, the jovial Aussie pilot who picks up the phone, is reassuring: “Awww mate, you won’t regret it.”
No one should miss Palau from the air (and I’m not talking about the nighttime void from 10,000 meters). The close-up encounters from the deck of a boat or from behind a scuba mask deliver intimate insight—the crenellations and scars on a nurse shark prowling along the edge of the reef, or the papery rustle of the pandanus trees when the wind blows off the Pacific. But nothing illuminates the country’s spectacular beauty the way zipping around in a chopper does.
We hurtle skyward from a rooftop helipad, and Koror vanishes into a vast sweep of emerald islands and endless ocean that looks like mirrored slate in the early hours. We hopscotch over secluded beaches, plunge down limestone escarpments, and float over midnight-blue lagoons, where the millions of jellyfish form spiraling nebulae in the dark water. I see islands to the horizon and shimmering sea beyond, and I finally grasp Palau’s full allure. There are the fish, of course, and the pure waters and pristine forests and countless uninhabited atolls. But what will stay with me forever is the totality of the experience, the fact that out here, in the middle of the broad ocean, is a genuine tropical idyll that few people know exists. Romantics would call it a dream, and now that I’ve seen it I’m inclined to agree. I just hope this is a reverie that won’t soon end.
“It’s one of the world’s last true paradises,” Eric Verheij had told me a few days earlier. “Now it’s up to the Palauans to choose whether they will preserve that. So far, they’ve made wise choices.”
Continental Airlines (continental.com) operates several flights a week to Koror from Guam, with connections from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tokyo. The carrier also flies directly between Manila and Koror on Wednesdays and Fridays. Hertz (hertz.com) and Budget (budget.com) rent cars at Palau’s international airport, but taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
When To Go
Average temperatures hover around 27∞C year-round, and though it can rain anytime, February and March tend to be the driest months, while June, July, and August bring the heaviest showers. Islanders will tell you that Palau lies outside the typhoon belt, but the storms do hit every few years.
Where To Stay
There are many hotels and resorts in Koror, but the only one with a pristine beach is the Palau Pacific Resort (680/ 488-2600; palauppr.com; doubles from US$280). The Elilai Spa, set up by the Mandara Spa group, has carved out a little piece of Indonesia on the resort’s grounds, with masseuses—and sublime service—straight out of Bali. On Peleliu, the Storyboard Beach Resort (680/345-1019; storyboardbeachresort.com; cottages from US$60) offers six simple seaside cabanas. Between the impeccable service and the fresh-from-the-ocean seafood, it’s a perfect spot to spend a few days in solitude.
What To Do
Founded by Sam Scott, the American-born son of a Palauan chief, Sam’s Tours (680/488-7267; samstours.com) provides diving, kayaking, and cultural tours, as well as nearly any other amenity you might require. It’s a five-star PADI operation, with service to every major dive site in the islands as well as a sailboat live-aboard service. And for excellent insight into Palauan culture, book Malahi’s land tour of Babeldaob. For the best perspective on the islands, ring Matt Harris at Palau Helicopters (680/778-5831; 30-minute flights from US$259) and book an aerial spin over the Rock Islands. –AG
Originally appeared in the May 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Low on the Water”)