Saipan: Magical, tropical paradise
RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit
The underwater “Grotto” is a sight to behold
Azure seas, swaying palm trees and a cool crisp breeze epitomize this magical, tropical paradise in the Marianas. Here, the rugged structure of the island showcases limestone formations with wide side slopes fronted by barrier reefs and dramatic shores. Called by some the most beautiful place in America, it is a golfer’s and diver’s haven where one can enjoy the most magnificent views of craggy cliffs and imposing waves. Here, in Saipan, one will fall in love each day as the island entices one to stay.
Saipan is a small island (115.4 square kilometers) with big allure to those who are willing to discover its blue lagoons, immaculate beaches and even dense forests and expansive hills. Despite its small size, Saipan is the most populated island in the Northern Marianas where more than 90 percent of the population lives. The island, from north to south, stretches 400 miles along the edge of the Marianas Trench where the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth is situated.
Lying 190 kms north of Guam, Saipan forms part of a chain of 14 tropical islands where it is the capital. It is the commercial center, principal and largest tropical island of the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Guinness Book of World Records listed Saipan as the place on earth with “the most consistent temperature.” Rainy season is from May to November. The rest of the year is mostly dry, with strong trade winds. Saipan is occasionally hit by typhoons. The best time to visit the Northern Marianas is during the dry months of December to March. The average monthly temperature is between 24 and 27 degrees.
The island flourishes throughout most of the year and some areas, including some dense rain forests, are very beautiful. It’s still possible to find isolated, unoccupied beaches in the more remote areas. In this tropical paradise, you can choose activities that range from beach bumming, golfing and diving. No matter what beach you choose to visit in Saipan, you won’t be at a loss for wonderful spots to swim, snorkel, beach comb and picnic, to name a few.
On the southeastern part of Saipan you’ll find the famed Lau Lau Beach, along Magicienne Bay. It is a large beach divided by rock formations with shallow waters and gentle waves and it boasts one of the largest reefs on the island. Lau Lau is also ideal for diving and snorkeling. The beach is home to hundreds of small mammals, wrasses, butterfly fish, stone fish and octopuses.
Another popular spot is the Obyan Beach where divers and promenaders can find two World War II Japanese bunkers, an ancient latte stone site and, of course, white sandy beaches with a great view of Tinian. This palm tree-lined beach is a perfect place for barbecuing, swimming, snorkeling, spear fishing and boogie boarding.
If you want to bury your feet in the finest white sandy beaches of Saipan, head to the Micro Beach, popular among locals and tourists for its play park and many water sports facilities. With a piña colada or an amareto sour in your hand, Micro Beach provides the perfect spot to relax during the day or, at dusk, to watch one of Saipan’s enthralling sunsets.
Those with green thumbs will be excited to visit th Saipan Botanical Garden, an exotic garden filled with tropical plants, trees and fruit that are endemic to the island. The beautiful botanical garden has an exhibit of over a thousand varieties of plants that will excite the gardener in every visitor.
In Saipan, golfers have half a dozen courses to choose from. With my dear friends Yvette Lee and Ricky Tio, we checked out two courses with ocean views. Lao Lao Bay has two 18-hole layouts designed by Greg Norman. The west course is wider and more forgiving. But most people come to play the East course, which is carved out of the limestone cliffs abutting the sea. Thus, there are spectacular water views from the fourth to the seventh holes with the sixth hole acknowledged as the signature hole. A mandatory carry over water, this par-three hole requires precision in both distance and direction; otherwise your ball will remain forever in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, we all made the green on our shots though none of us made par.
The fairways and the greens are immaculately kept and we enjoyed the cooling trade winds and the passing showers. Having played in other seaside courses, I knew that balls on the green have a tendency to break towards the ocean, even when it seems the slope is going in the opposite direction.
The Coral Point Golf Course is a “beach side” course designed by Larry Nelson and, like Lao Lao Bay, has two holes — the seventh and 14th — which require shots that must go over the water. It is also the longest course in Saipan. Since its location is on the south western tip of Saipan, it escapes the ferocious winds that felled a lot of trees in Lao Lao Bay and its flame trees were in full bloom throughout our stay.
Saipan is also well known for its scuba diving spots in clear water, which Yvette Lee had a chance to explore. The “Grotto” is the most famous, but it required her to trek down 113 steps and cross over a dominant rock formation before she was able to jump into the cyan waters below a massive cavernous dome. Fortunately, the guy who operated the food truck by the parking lot also hired himself out to carry tanks for $20.
Once in the water, she said there were three fissures to the open sea. Yvette and dive instructor Toshi Yamaguchi, who guided her, took the fissure to the left. Finning along the wall, they came to a cave that had massive sea fans in the ceiling. Since there wasn’t much fish life, she took pictures of the dramatic underwater topography both inside and outside the cavern.
According to Toshi, the right opening would lead them to more pelagic sealife such as jacks and a shark or two. Since Saipan was a Japanese bastion during the second world war, there are wrecks to be found underneath its azure waters. The Floating Emily is a Japanese plane wreck resting only 30 feet below the water. Often mistaken for a B-29 bomber, the Floating Emily is actually an Imperial Japanese Navy H8K or Type 2 Large Flying Boat. The name “Emily” came from the Allied forces, which used that name to idenfity the craft in their radio reports.
It is scattered over an area where one can still see the 7.7 mm machine gun sticking out from the sand. The four large props are still intact, as is most of the wing. Done as a boat dive, it is a mere 15-minute ride from the beach and lies in only 10 meters of water.
If you are still good on air, you can surface and have the boat driver bring you to another wreck next, the Chin Sen Maru, which was originally a Korean ship that was taken over by the Japanese. It was blown apart by a torpedo and massive pieces of it lie on the sea bottom, now home to schools of fish and a sea turtle or two.
Both wrecks can also be seen without getting wet by going on the submarine tour which Yvette and Ricky Tio encountered when they were checking out the ship wreck.
Another boat dive was a spot called the “Ice Cream” due to the shape of this massive coral bommie. Its claim to fame, aside from fields of picturesque and intact corals, are the schools of pyramid butterfly fish which like to crowd around divers doling out tidbits of food.
Yvette’s favorite dive is called the “Pipeline.” Most of it is a white sandy bottom at about 60 feet, interspersed with several coral heads. Some of these coral heads are cleaning stations for eagle rays.
Yvette saw an eagle ray coming towards her not even five minutes into the dive. A few minutes later, Toshi beckoned her and pointed out another strand of coral heads. Coming towards them was a school of nine eagle rays! For a glorious half hour, she observed these diamond-shaped beauties getting a spa treatment from cleaner wrasses that flitted in and out of the rays gills and mouths.
Back on the boat, Toshi told her that they found this dive site by accident while motoring over to another dive site. As they passed over the white bottom, they saw an even larger school of eagle rays hovering beneath their boat. Toshi said that he has seen a school of approximately 50 rays at the cleaning station. Needless to say Yvette wants to go back in January when the rays are most plentiful.
All the physical activity made us sore so we ended up looking for a massage lounge. Just as in Bangkok, there are a lot of massage parlors in Saipan. The one we found was staffed by Chinese ladies who kneaded our aching muscles and joints!
Many places on earth can boast of exhillarating beauty, golfing and diving depths. In Saipan, however, one will have a heavenly taste of all these activities. The beauty and grace when visiting Saipan will entice you stay, more and more each day.