The first impression of Saipan is not very intriguing or impressive. The airport is pretty bland and the surrounding area is pretty lame. As you drive into Garapan, the capital of Saipan, you pass tons of fast food places, poker houses (not real poker but video poker-apparently a national obsession) and massage parlors (yes those kind) that pretty much look empty. Arriving into Garapan isn’t much better, a bunch of the same plus a fancy DFS mall (the same one they had in Guam with all the fancy stores) and some swanky hotels like the Hyatt. I am staying at the Century Hotel which is a third the price of all the majors and just as nice a few blocks from the beach. Luckily, I left the hotel and investigated myself to find an island with fun and interesting people and some awesome natural beauty.
It’s true that Saipan has been devastated economically from the Japanese recession as they are easily the largest tourism demographic that comes to Saipan. Most people speak Japanese here and all the menus are in Japanese and English. This is also strange to me because Saipan was the sight of some of the worst casualty numbers for the Japanese in World War II. In fact some of the biggest tourism points on the island are named Banzai Cliff(below) and Suicide Cliff.
Both of these are named as such because once the allies had taken the island, the remaining Japanese soldiers resorted to committing suicide by hurling themselves and their families off these cliffs into the azure waters and cliffs below. The baffles me, especially because the US was dropping leaflets saying that the soldiers and their families who surrendered would not be harmed. However, to the Japanese, they believed they would be tortured and worse yet, defeat was shameful and death was a better option.
As I understand it, thousands of Japanese killed themselves at Banzai Cliff. In fact, whole families would line up on the cliff in order or age and the next older child would push the next youngest off the cliff until the mother pushed the oldest child and then the father pushed the wife before running backwards off the cliff himself. This horrific reality is tough to stomach and in the years since, there have been many memorials put up around the sight, which today is a beautiful place but it is clearly muddied by the horror that occurred there so few years ago.
Aside from cliffs, Saipan has several little islands right off the coast of the island such as Bird Island (above), Forbidden Island and Managaha Island which is one of the highlights or lowlights of the island of Saipan.
The island is a gorgeous prototypical South Pacific island, something you’d see in Fiji or in the movie Castaway. The beaches are great and you can walk the circumference of the island in 20 minutes. The problem is tourism. Mainly Japanese tour group tourism. I am serious, I went this morning and there were no less than 20 boats pulling up with Japanese tour groups. They all did different activities (including about 100 learning to snorkel above) but rest assured they always go as a group and the picture taking was more significant than normal. Granted it was a beautiful island and a great day but goodness! Haha, in all seriousness, the island was beautiful but it could do for a limit on the amount of people on the small island.
There were also several good beaches on the island itself. Micro beach (above) is the best one for sure and is not shockingly behind the Hyatt and Fiesta Hotels in Garapan. Other cool beaches were Pau Pau (below) and Wing beaches which are north of Garapan and have to be accessed by car. And renting a car is the only way to get around Saipan because there is no public transportation and the taxis are expensive.
As always, one of the biggest highlights for me is the food and Saipan doesn’t lack amazing and unique food. The best thing I have eaten thus far is certainly poki, which is similar to sashimi but with some really spicy sauces on it including Tinian pepper from the neighboring island of Tinian. I ate at Abyss last night and had that along with garlic rice and a spicy tuna roll which may have been the best roll I’ve had in a while. Needless to say I plan to go back there shortly which is unusual for me because I always like to try new places but this was so good, I need seconds!
Tinian is worth mentioning too. Tinian is the small island just south of Saipan where the Enola Gay was loaded with the little boy and fat man, which are of course the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II. The plane actually did take off from Tinian and I was fortunate to see where it left from as we flew into Saipan. There isn’t much else on the island so it’s not really worth a trek over which can be done by 12 minute flight or by a ferry which is apparently appalling and in fact it is currently broken and not in service.
I was fortunate to have been set up with friends of friends from Guam here in Saipan to show me around and introduce me to the beautiful flame trees lining the islands streets (above) and certainly give a great restaurant recommendation. I am grateful and look forward to another great meal tonight and perhaps a drink or two at Jonny’s after dinner. I don’t leave until 3pm tomorrow for Yap so I will be at Micro Beach tomorrow morning before my flight. I have been going to sleep so early and waking up early, I should have plenty of time for yet more beach time! Anyway, off to yap tomorrow…stay tuned.