It Takes 30 Hours to Get Here, so Explore It the Right Way: By Land, Air, and Sea

PHOTO: Naima Niemand/Shutterstock

Best known for epic scuba diving, Palau’s wonders go beyond its renowned ocean realm.

First things first. You’ve got to really want to go to Palau.

The far-flung Micronesian archipelago made up of over 300 islands lies some 1,200 miles away from Guam, which is also in Micronesia—a rather sprawled out region of islands strewn across nearly three million miles of the western Pacific.

Even from the west coast of the U.S., flights with multiple connections and over 30 hours of travel time are standard. It’s enough to make Hawaii feel nearby.

The great news, however, is that Palau is one hundred percent worth the long slog.

If any island destination pops to life before your eyes like something you’ve only ever seen on a screensaver—otherworldly emerald islands erupting from an expanse of impossibly blue blues—it’s Palau. But there’s more: flights over remote World War II battlefields, massive schools of fish clouding reefs in an “underwater Serengeti,” and camping safaris within the fascinating geology of the Rock Islands are among the adventures that await.

Read on for our favorite ways to experience the best of Palau—on land, at sea, and up high.

On Land

For a destination that gets so much of its glory for the waters surrounding it, you might be surprised that finding an idyllic beach in the predominantly limestone islands of Palau isn’t as easy as you’d think.

Close to Koror, it’s widely known that for the best stretch of sand you’ll have to fork over the non-guest day fee to access the tidy beach at Palau Pacific Resort (unless you’re staying there, of course, then it’s free to access). But as pleasant as lounging there with a fruity frozen drink is, it’s hardly representative of all Palau offers—and hardly the reason you’ve journeyed this far.

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For something different on land, head just north of Koror to Babeldaob—Palau’s largest island and the only volcanic one in the archipelago. It’s a mostly rural and jungle-enshrouded landmass about three times the size of Disney World that you can explore by rental car or during guided trips with Sam’s Tours. Group excursions include such highlights as visiting a bai (a traditional meeting house for men that sits on a stone platform and has a steeply pitched A-frame design) and seeing stone monoliths that date to 161 AD.

The chance to see freshwater crocodiles at the largest natural freshwater reservoir in all of Micronesia draws people to Ngardok Nature Reserve, about 40 minutes north of Koror on Babeldaob, where you can scout for the reptiles from the safety of a floating dock.

You can cool off in croc-free waters on the north side of Babeldaob at Micronesia’s highest waterfall, Ngardmau, where water rushes down from Palau’s tallest peak and stretch along a long ledge like an immense curtain of water. The falls can be reached by a fairly exerting hike of about 30 minutes through the jungle and along a mountain ridge, and the reward of dipping in the spectacularly beautiful pool at the base is worth all energy expended.

INSIDER TIPWait to eat until you’re back in Koror, where Drop Off Bar & Grill serves up locally caught fish, great sashimi and Hawaiian-style poke with marina views.

On the Water

With over 1,500 fish species and hundreds of different corals, there’s a good reason Palau is considered a Holy Grail destination for enthusiastic scuba divers. They arrive here from all corners of the planet to dive legendary sites like Blue Corner and German Channel, famous for shark and manta sightings.

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Longtime Palau resident and owner of Paddling Palau, marine biologist Ron Leidich, has likened Palau’s waters to the “Underwater Serengeti of Planet Earth.” He’s referring to the super-schools of fish, huge numbers of sharks, manta rays and other creatures that frequent the outer reefs, walls and channels. Certified scuba divers can head out on day trips with outfitters like Sam’s Tours and Fish ’n Fins, where you’ll learn to use a reef hook to attach to a dead part of the reef and stay steady in the current while scores of sharks swim past. Several liveaboard dive boats (where you eat and sleep on the boat for a week or longer) also operate in Palau’s waters, including the 16-passenger Palau Siren and Ocean Hunter III.

For snorkelers and kayakers looking to spend quality time on the water, there’s no better way to explore the Rock Islands—the limestone formations on those screen saver images that lured you here—than by planning a multi-night camping and kayaking trip with Paddling Palau. Three, five and seven-day trips, along with day trips, are offered. The luxury kayaking/camping safaris come with perks like cushy tents you can stand up in, a chef and a support boat should you get tired of paddling. Or choose an expedition-style trip that’s more DIY (read: no support boat, lots more paddling) but also comes with an expert guide.

After a two-year closure due to environmental pressures including drought conditions on the islands, Palau’s famous Jellyfish Lake reopened to visitors in early 2019. Tourists can once again get into the water of the marine lake in the Rock Islands to snorkel among clouds of the non-stinging golden jellyfish.

INSIDER TIPUnless your sunscreen is reef-safe, leave it at home. Starting in 2020, Palau will ban the sale and use of “reef-toxic” sunscreens containing chemicals that harm corals, fish and invertebrates.

By Air

For some reason, many of the flights in and out of Koror’s International Airport operate in the dark evening hours. If you want those screensaver views of the Rock Islands, it’s worth splurging on an aerial tour of the archipelago with Palau Helicopters.

The excursions are hardly inexpensive, but it’s a singular life event to peer out a chopper’s bubble window (or, even better, pay extra to request the birdie’s doors be removed for the ride) as you fly low over waterfalls and pristine rainforest and spot the walled topography of Palau’s famous dive sites from on high. The highlight, of course, is banking over the karst formations of the Rock Islands and seeing marine lakes you’d never even know where there, sparkling like gems set within.

INSIDER TIPHalf-hour Rock Island flights are the most popular. But World War II buffs won’t want to miss a flight over the battlefield at Peleliu island, in the southern reaches of Palau. Here, U.S. and Japanese troops staged a bloody battle codenamed Operation Stalemate II. It’s possible to land at the island’s WWII airstrip to get off and explore.