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Palau 101?

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Preliminary informationwanted:I am thinking of going with my daughter to Palau next May or June (2013) and wanted to know if anyone has suggestions if you are going MORE for snorkeling,kayaking and just enjoying the beach rather than scuba diving?
Any tips as to what part we should stay in and if we should rent a car? She is an oceanographer so we would be happy be near any part of the ocean with scenery.thanks for your help!

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    My husband and I spent a week in Palau in December 2011. We didn't go to dive but instead wanted to snorkel, kayak, and learn more about the islands. The hotel choices were either poor quality or expensive--I wouldn't really recommend the one we stayed at in Koror (West Plaza by the Sea), but we did love the small, low-key Dolphin Bay Resort on Peleliu, which to my mind was worth the boat trip (only $5 per person by public boat, but it doesn't run every day). Koror isn't particularly charming, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. Here are my notes from the trip. Pictures available at my blog from the trip,, in the December 2011 archive.

    Many flights into and out of Palau all take place around 2 a.m. We arrived around 2:30 a.m. and took the West Plaza Hotel shuttle to our lodgings for the next 5 nights. First impression of Koror: sleepy, and sleeping. The hotel is basic but expensive for what you get ($100 a night), like many things in Palau. But it has air conditioning (important in this tropical climate) and a view across the water, so it’ll do. The plan was not to spend much time in the hotel anyway—we were there to kayak, snorkel, and enjoy the laid-back tropical atmosphere.

    We scouted out several possibilities for snorkeling/kayaking outfitters the next day, not having made any arrangements in advance (most divers have their outfitters all lined up before they get to Palau). We liked Sam's Tours the best and booked a day trip to the nearby Rock Islands that included a speedboat to the best kayaking locations (the boat took us and the kayaks to the spots), kayaking, and snorkeling. Water tours aren't cheap in Palau--they run about $115 per person. Worth it, though!

    Our plans were put on hold, however, by a tropical storm that passed through Palau on its way to the Philippines. That gave us more time to explore the town, including the Belau National Museum (there's no "p" in the Palauan language, so Belau is the local spelling of the country). Palau has been administered by several countries in the past couple of centuries: the Spanish gave way to the Germans, who gave way to the Japanese, who lost Palau to the United States in World War II. After the war the islands that make up Palau became a U.S. Trust Territory; in 1994 they became an independent nation with a seat in the United Nations. The museum has some interesting exhibits on the area’s history. It was a nice place to visit until it was overrun by Chinese and Japanese tour groups as we were leaving—Palau is a popular holiday destination for Asian travelers, and most of them travel in packs, so when they descend on a site they really make an impact, both on land and in the water.

    The storm didn’t amount to much in Palau, though it did cause significant damage and hundreds of deaths when it got to the Philippines. By evening it had mostly passed through our area, so our kayak trip the next day was ON. It was interesting to see day-to-day island life in Palau, but our interest was quickly running out.

    And then we got what we came for: 3 fantastic days on and in the water. On the first day there were 6 of us on the boat, plus our guide, a couple of guides-in-training, and the boat captain. The boat brought us and the kayaks to some amazing kayaking and snorkeling sites, including lagoons with calm waters—-perfect for both kayaking and snorkeling. The corals were gorgeous—-purple, green, orange, white—and in all kinds of varieties. The fish were equally colorful. What we saw on our 3 snorkeling runs that day was 10 times better than the best aquarium we’ve ever been in. Maybe our favorite was the Harlequin Sweetlips—dark brown with big white spots and fluffy fins. But there were so many others! The colors of the water ranged from milky blue to turquoise to all shades of blue-green.

    We boated into a big cave, and some of us climbed up to the top of the cave’s opening and jumped into the blue-green water below. The kayak portions of that day were the best we’ve ever experienced. Awesome.

    The next day we went out with Sam’s again, this time on a snorkeling tour with 2 other people, further afield in the Rock Islands. We snorkeled 5 times—-one was at the edge of a reef wall where on our right side the corals and fish were again amazing and on our left side the trench along the Philippine Sea was unfathomably deep.

    Another place was the unbelievable Jellyfish Lake, an interior marine lake that we reached by hiking up a steep coral path and then down an equally steep slope to the lake—fortunately there was a sturdy rope on one side that we could hang on to to keep our balance as we climbed up and down. The walk was worth the effort, though, because at the lake we had our own personal National Geographic moment: snorkeling with thousands of pulsating orange jellyfish, some bigger than my hand spread wide, all of which have evolved with no stingers since they have no predators in the lake. We were able to touch and hold the jellies but had to be careful not to lift them out of the water because that would have been harmful to them. We were lucky because our guide timed our visit perfectly to sandwich us between two big tour groups—one leaving just as we arrived, the other arriving just as we left—so the 4 of us we had the lake and its resident jellyfish all to ourselves while we were there. Stunning!

    Another fun stop on that snorkeling tour was the Milky Way, a protected lagoon in which very fine, white mud accumulates on the bottom and makes the water a milky blue. Our guide dove down to the bottom of the lagoon and brought up a pile of mud, which we plastered all over ourselves for an impromptu mudbath. (The same mud sells in one of the expensive hotels in Palau for $100 a bottle.)

    We had so much fun on both the kayaking and the snorkeling trips that we decided to do yet another kayak/snorkeling the next day. At the first snorkeling stop we snorkeled over a place called Darwin’s wall, named for all the brain corals and other colorful corals that line the wall. At the second snorkel stop we saw a black-tipped shark patrolling less than 10 yards from us as we swam. We kayaked in a quiet marine lake that we got to by doing the limbo on our kayaks under an low opening in the wall; by the time we left the lake the tide had begun to rise and we had to really flatten ourselves against the kayak tops in order to get through. We also did a lengthy, slow paddle through a beautiful mangrove channel to an inner lake where we saw devil rays gliding below us. What a great day—too bad I didn’t have a water camera! Or maybe it’s good—I was able just to enjoy what I saw and take a mental picture.

    For meals on the trips we had bento boxes arranged by Sam’s Tours (not great, but they kept the hunger pangs away), and for dinners we ate at Fuji (Japanese), Little Italy, Taj (Indian), and a Thai restaurant whose name I’ve forgotten. Nothing memorable—food is definitely not one of Palau’s highlights. One of our guides highly recommended Carp Restaurant for local food, so we tried that on our last night. Not so good.

    We then took the state ferry 2.5 hours south to the Palauan island of Peleliu, where we stayed in a seaside cottage for 3 days of laying in a hammock, doing a little more kayaking, and otherwise relaxing. The fast boat to Peleliu Island costs upwards of $50 each and takes just under an hour, but we took the slow (cheap) boat at $17.25 for the two of us and our bags (extra charge for the bags. The boat took us, about 40 Palauans (several of whom were chewing betel nut), 5 Europeans, 1 car, and dozens of boxes (including lots of instant noodles) and bags on the slow cruise past the Rock Islands, where we had snorkeled and kayaked—why would we want to go fast?

    Pulling up to the Peleliu dock, we knew we had arrived at another special place. About 700 people live on the island, which is 6 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point. There’s one main road with a few offshoots—no street signs, no stop signs, maybe 100 cars in various states of repair. Ninety percent of them are unregistered, and 90 percent of the drivers are unlicensed, according to a local guy we talked to. Downtown consists of one small store, an elementary school, the state legislature building (Peleliu is a separate state in the Palau Republic), and a couple of tiny resorts. Our lodgings, the quiet little Dolphin Bay Resort, were about a mile down the road, set on the edge of a lagoon that is protected by the reef, where waves break about 400 yards from shore.

    Dolphin Bay Resort is owned and operated by a Japanese/Palauan couple, and we were greeted with many bows as we hopped out of the van that had met us at the dock. The resort is associated with Peleliu Divers, a nice little dive/snorkel operation. The 7 cottages are lined up next to each other with small decks looking out to the sea and the entrances facing a lovely tropical garden that is immaculately kept. There’s a small restaurant that serves delicious home-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and kayaks are free for guests’ use. Really simple, really nice, $195 a night with all meals included. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer place. There’s no choice at meals—-though the owner asked us if there was anything we couldn’t/didn’t want to eat (no)—-but the food has been wonderful (rice, chicken or pork stir-frys, interesting vegetables, spring rolls, fried bananas, a grilled whole red snapper); lunches were packed for us in bento boxes, which always makes them taste even better.

    This little note in the guests’ booklet is indicative of the vibe: “Peleliu is a tropical island with beautiful tropical insects and marine life. When you are greeted by one of them, you can enjoy their natural beauty.”

    During our 3 days in this little piece of paradise, we kayaked in the lagoon every afternoon, timing our trips according to the afternoon tide. THE SUNSETS THERE ARE AMAZING! We’ve seen a lot of cool sunsets, but the one we experienced the first night in Peleliu took home the top prize.

    One day we did a land tour with a local guide to see the World War II remnants that are scattered all over the island. Peleliu was the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the war (and perhaps the most needless, in retrospect). It was fought as a prelude to the United States’ successful attempt to take the Philippines from Japan. There were many thousands of casualties in what the Americans erroneously assumed would be a 3- or 4-day battled; it raged for 2 months in September-November 1944 before the U.S. eliminated the Japanese resistance. There are lots of abandoned tanks, parts from downed aircraft, guns, and other remnants to look at, as well as a small museum that does its best to document the battle (could be improved greatly with some money and curating assistance—especially needed is a scanner to digitize the photos that are quickly deteriorating). We climbed up to Bloody Nose Ridge, site of one of the most deadly parts of the fight, where we got a good view of the scope of the island. Very interesting.

    On our last day we did our final snorkel outing in Palau—just the two of us, with the boat driver and a snorkel guide. We snorkeled at 5 different spots, including the eponymous Big Dropoff, a fantastic place to snorkel and dive, with blue, blue water and shockingly beautiful fish. Our favorite fish of the day was the clown triggerfish, but we also saw a horde of yellow goat fish moving along the coral like they were in a Miyazaki movie, several turtles up close and personal, black-tipped sharks, a big Napoleon wrasse—plus quite an array of coral and of other fish, big and small. Some of the divers we met along the way groused that the diving in Palau isn’t as good as they were led to believe (wow—they must have seen some really great places elsewhere in the world), but this was the best snorkeling we’ve ever done--or at least it more than holds its own against the Great Barrier Reef.

    I did experience one little incident while snorkeling earlier in the week—everything was going swimmingly but suddenly I was being covered with what felt like a dozen invisible stinging strings. I couldn’t see them, and I couldn’t get away from them! I quickly returned to the boat and put ice on the stinging parts of my body-—my back, arms, and ankles—and fortunately soon felt better. Our guide said that sometimes during the rising tide coral shoots off tiny pneumatocysts—stinging cells—that can get to you if you get close to the coral. I wasn’t particularly close, but I guess they got me! Made me kind of nervous the next couple of times I got in the water, but fortunately that was the only time anything like that happened.

    Reluctantly we made our way back to Koror by slow boat and checked into a fancy nearby hotel for the day/evening. We flew from there to Guam at the ridiculous hour of 2:30 a.m., and then on to Chuuk (aka Truk) and Pohnpei.

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    All the hotels are expensive, as are the restaurants. The less expensive hotels are pretty basic, but the one we stayed in, at least, was very clean. If you're there for the water activities, you won't be spending much time at the hotel anyway. Tough decision though! You'll love the Rock Islands for snorkeling, kayaking, and just even gazing at the gorgeous water. By the way, on the Asia forum a blogger posted a link to his blog that includes a lengthy description of his visit to Palau--you might want to check it out for more insight.

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    Palau is one of my favorite trips ever!
    We did spend most of our week diving (thumbs up for Sam's tours mentioned above), but also did a few days of snorkeling and kayaking which were great.

    Koror itself is quite boring. But the water activities tend to wear you out fast, so after an early dinner (there's enough decent options there) all we wanted to do anyway was sleep.
    The marine life is amazing (and even snorkeling you get to see so much!). There was not so much in terms of beaches to speak of though, as most of the islands are rocky. We did stop by some beaches on the snorkeling trips etc., but we didn't spend any time just lazying around - too much going on inside the water!

    As for hotels, we stayed at sea passion which was ok - except we had no hot water for days, and the management was rude so we left, and moved to blue ocean view hotel. It was a bit basic, but very clean and with a better ocean view than we had at sea passion. Both of them were pretty affordable (~100 USD/ room/night or just a bit more).
    Both of them were in a good location for us - had a view to the sea and were close enough to Sam's tours to be convenient. We took taxis or walked when we went into town for food. No need to rent a car.

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