Blue water, white sand and historyNot far from better-known Guam is another tropical island offering crystal-clear, brilliant blue water, coral reefs, white sand beaches and tall palm trees, along with some painful World War II history.
A four-hour, 3,000-kilometer (1,800-mile) flight from Korea, Saipan is 30 kilometers northeast of Guam, which is in the Southern Mariana Islands. Saipan is one of the major islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, along with Tinian and Rota.
The property of Japan until the war, the island is now a U.S. territory. After the Japanese, Koreans make up the largest contingent of tourist visitors to the island.
As the war ended, Japanese soldiers facing defeat in Saipan threw themselves from a cliff to their deaths. Korean history here is no less grim, and was less voluntary: Some 3,000 Koreans were enslaved and forced to work here for the Japanese army.
Among Saipan’s 12,000 residents are native Chamorro and Carolinian people, as well as Micronesians, Filipinos, Koreans and Japanese. Most of the population speaks English.
About 23 kilometers (14 miles) long and 8 kilometers wide, the island has two major commercial centers, Garapan and Susupe.
Garapan, the island’s focal point, is where visitors will find major duty-free shops, such as DFS Galleria, and five-star hotels like the Dai-Ichi and the Hyatt Regency. Susupe, which is smaller than Garapan, boasts four-star lodging like Saipan Grand Hotel and World Resort Hotel, as well as Joeten Shopping Center.
Visitors may find Garapan the more convenient place to stay, as shops, nightclubs, massage parlors and restaurants, including a Hard Rock Cafe as well as many Japanese restaurants, are clustered within walking distance.
Most of the four-star and five-star hotels are located right on the beach, and most provide seafood dinner shows, such as the famous Land Castle Show at Dai-Ichi Hotel. Dinner shows are generally priced from $35 to $65.
The prices at DFS Galleria, Saipan’s biggest duty-free shop, are higher than at its Korean counterparts, including its Incheon International Airport branch. ABC Mart, located right in front of DFS Galleria, is a good spot for souvenir shopping, selling a variety of Saipan-themed goodies. You can pick up a box of chocolate macadamia nuts for $4, or a snorkeling mask for $10.
People say that in the tropics, the sky is lower and the horizon is not a straight line, but a curve. This certainly seems to be true in Saipan.
Probably the island’s main attractions are its long white-sand beaches, clear water and colorful tropical fish. There are plenty of opportunities for marine sports; the best spot for snorkeling is Managaha, a small island that’s a 10-minute boat ride northwest from Saipan.
Marine sports shops offer packages to Managaha island, where you don’t have to go deep into the sea to find tropical fish; they swim over coral in shallow waters. Prices vary, but one half-day Managaha package goes for $125, which includes a tour of the island, an underwater “sea walk,” a banana-boat ride, parasailing, jet skiing and snorkeling equipment rental. (Individually, the island tour costs $15; introductory diving, $55; jet skiing, $25; parasailing, $45; the underwater tour, $70, and the submarine tour, $75.)
Some consider Saipan’s Blue Grotto― three connecting caves about 22 meters (65 feet) below the surface ― to be one of the three best spots for scuba diving in the world; it attracts divers year-round. Holes in the caves let in sunlight, illuminating the cave’s blue waters. Scuba diving costs $40 to $65 per dive.
On land, Mount Tapochau, the island’s highest point, stands 473 meters above sea level, and offers a panoramic view from its peak. It’s unreachable by foot, but local travel agencies offer a “jungle tour” at $60 per adult and $40 per child, which provides a sport utility vehicle ride to the peak.
There are four golf courses on the island; green fees per round range from $90 to $170, depending on the season.
Because of its history as a battleground, wrecked tanks and battleships can be seen all over Saipan. Now the tanks are displayed for tourists, and the ships have become habitats for tropical fish. The Last Command Post of the Japanese Army is located north of the island; Japanese tanks and artillery are exhibited there. Near the ruined post is Banzai Cliff, which has a superb view of the expansive, 80-meter-high cliff and the sea. Here, Japanese soldiers are said to have cried “banzai” as they jumped.
Near the post stands the Korean Peace Memorial, built in 1979, which is dedicated to the enslaved Koreans who died here.
There is also a memorial dedicated to the Japanese soldiers and generals who committed suicide. What’s odd about the Japanese memorial is that it’s stained with chewing gum. Apparently to avenge the Korean victims of the Japanese, their countrymen keep leaving chewing gum on the monument. The Japanese government has tried to clean it, but seems unable to deter Korean tourists from taking their vengeance.
There is no public transportation on the island, unless you count taxis. Rental cars are available, though it is not necessary to rent one if you stay close to the center of the island, or if you are on a package tour. Car rentals are available at major hotels, and cost $70 to $100 per day at U.S. and Japanese car-rental companies like Avis, Dollar and Nippon Rent-A-Car. Another way to get around the island, for free, is to take a shuttle bus operated by DFS Galleria, which connects the major hotels.
Travel packages to Saipan
Korean travel companies offer a number of packages to Saipan; current prices start at 499,000 won ($430) for a four-day, four-night tour (the last night is spent on the plane). The itinerary for that package includes three nights’ accommodation at the four-star Saipan Grand and a half-day trip to Managaha island, plus meals. Departure on a Thursday or Friday normally costs an extra 40,000 won.
Only Asiana Airlines operates between Incheon and Saipan; flights leave Incheon at 8:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. daily, and return at 2:50 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. from Saipan, making Saipan a red-eye travel destination. Asiana also offers air and hotel packages on its Web site.
The package tour guides will help vistors get around the island and suggest various recreational activities. But the fees for these activities tend to be hefty; you could end up paying $100 to $110 for snorkeling, jet skiing and banana-boat rides. You can find better prices on your own; it’s possible to reserve marine sports packages in advance online, or to arrange them after you get to the island.
by Limb Jae-un