‘Forbidden’ angles

IMG_5983The Forbidden Island is just one spectacular plateau that looks like it was sliced it off from the main island and pushed a bit off the shore but there is more to this slab of a rock than meets the eye.

I have seen the Forbidden Island from the overview and close from the base of the island before. The chance to see it from above and from the other side came last month when I was invited to an aerial tour of the island, and that was the first time I saw the top of the island from above. It was looking at this landscape from a whole new perspective.IMG_4028

I asked our pilot if he can maneuver the four-seater plane above the Forbidden Island as low and as close as we can get while I took photos of this popular piece of rock that jutted out like a crouching reptile.

The top of the plateau is rocky but some portions are flat and covered with green and it looks like you could spend a night camping there, but getting up to the top of this island is a whole new difficult story. It is almost next to impossible, especially if you are not that daring and you don’t have the right equipment.

The Forbidden Island is one of Saipan’s must-not-miss sites if you want to say you’ve been to Saipan. A trek down to the island itself requires at least 45 minutes, a sturdy pair of shoes, comfortable clothing and lots of guts. The jungle trail going down is easy, the trees providing shade from the heat and the only challenge you meet are the pine needles that make the pathway slippery. IF

When you emerge into the clearing where the jungle ends, that’s when the real challenge begins and it’s already too late and too far to go back. If you are scared of heights, just proceed with caution and focus on the road. If you can avoid it, try not to look the sides of the path where you will see yawning cliffs or you’ll get dizzy and give the adventure up.

Don’t underestimate this small slab of rock. It isn’t named Forbidden for nothing. It has claimed numerous lives in the past.

I’ve tried climbing halfway around the island and had to go back minus the soles of my shoes with numerous cuts and scratches in my arms and legs. I didn’t take the option of climbing straight up aided by a rope because it looked so hard and steep but the group I was with had to come back when our trek ended in a dead end. Fighting the strong currents of water when the tide is coming in is another challenge you have to consider when you go to the island.IMG_5989

The challenge actually starts when the paved road in Kagman ends and you take the rough road that answers more to the description of a river bed gone dry. The road is only ideal for four wheel drive vehicles and most parts of the road are like giant potholes, with elbow-sharp turns that could send you hurtling down deep ravines if you’re not careful but it’s worth the trip.

This article was also printed at the Marianas Variety


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Saipan Smiling Cove Marina

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Long-exposure photography at Banzai Cliff

DSC_6581YOU should visit Banzai Cliff at night to see a totally different aspect of one of the most frequented places on island.

Recently, I was there with five other photographers. We wanted to learn time-lapse photography and we were told that Banzai Cliff was the best spot to do it. We arrived just before 8 p.m.Setting up our tripods and cameras, we studied the sky. Only a few stars were visible and I was beginning to get disappointed, but I followed what my companions were doing and set the timer on my camera and left it to do its work. We kept repeating the process and paid more attention to the food and drinks that we brought with us.IMG_2196

Banzai Cliff was so different at night. It had an eerie feel and the silhouettes of monuments seemed sinister. My imagination was running wild, as usual. I thought the statues would come to life at any time, and I could almost hear the screams of the people who died in that place during the war.

Half an hour and several gigabytes later, I scrolled back to have a glimpse of what my camera collected. I was in for a big surprise. I saw only a few stars but the camera showed more — in fact the sky was filled with glittering dots and I had to check if my camera was not playing tricks on me. I peered at the screens of my companions and discovered that yes indeed, there were more stars in the sky than we saw.DSC_9006

Fascinated, I repositioned my tripod to face the area above Suicide Cliff and turned it to the widest angle to capture the silhouettes of the monuments with the stars.

My images did not come out good as well as the time-lapse images of the other photographers. I need more practice, but the experience taught me a lot about the wonders of the sky.IMG_5663

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60119-time-lapse-photography-on-banzai-cliff

Stars& Stripes and sunset dinner cruises

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OVER the past years I have had the chance to be on three sunset dinner cruise boats: Puti’on Saipan, Jade Lady 111 and Stars and Stripes.
Most of the times, a spectacular sunset highlights the dinner cruise, but when the sky is grey, guests can still enjoy the performances of local talents.IMG_3219
I got the chance to board the Stars and Stripes again a few months back with Matt, Donna and Pat.I vowed I was not going to take out my camera and just enjoy the dinner cruise for a change even though there was the possibility of a stunning sunset.Stars and Stripes entertainer Roger Cadua sang songs in different languages to the great delight of the tourists who were on board with us.
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Pre-dinner drinks were served while Cadua taught the tourists how to dance the chacha.I broke my promise the minute a boat crewmember started to slowly unfurl the huge stars and stripes-designed sail. I started shooting photos while I stood on deck and forgot everything and everyone. The sunset was spectacular.Then it was dinner time and everybody lined up to partake of the delicious buffet spread while Cadua and his fellow entertainers continued performing.Stars and Stripes has been in the biz since 2005. Photos and videos of the boat have made their way to all parts of the world as the thousands of satisfied customer continue to share their unforgettable experiences through word of mouth, photos and videos and published articles.

Stars and Stripes owner Sam Markos said the boat was made in Singapore in 1988, and it sailed in Guam waters from 1988 to 2001. Markos bought it in November 2002 and brought it to Saipan where he and his wife Jenny have transformed it into a first class boat for cruising.

It has an air-conditioned room that can accommodate 100 people in case it rains. But most of the time, guests want to enjoy the view on deck.IMG_3130

If you have been on island all your life and have not been on Stars & Stripes, grab the chance to experience a whole new world out there even for an hour. For inquiries and reservations, call Sea-Lago Inc. at 234-7266.

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First published at the Marianas Variety here 

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59935-stars-stripes-and-sunset-dinner-cruises

The glory that was the Palms beachfront

 
 
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  RECENTLY, I had the chance to spend a blissful hour taking photos of the sunset at the once-bustling beachside of the now closed Palms Resort in San Roque.
I and my photographer buddy Donna walked on the sand from Paupau Beach as we made our way to the lonely beachfront one late afternoon.Except for a couple of men in beach chairs casting their fishing lines in the water, the hotel beach was deserted.

I had a great time capturing the silhouettes of the row of coconut trees aIMG_7785gainst a splendid sunset, I was lost in what I was doing and forgot I had a companion.

When I looked behind me I realized that the once magnificent, well-lit, lively hotel was now a sad, lonely abandoned building. Thick grass had grown on the beachfront, somehow fencing the structure in and creating an image so forlorn that it would have moved to tears those who had seen the hotel, which once hosted Japan’s imperial couple, in its heyday.

In the gathering dusk, the hotel looked like a scene from a horror movie. It stood there, dark and menacing and my imagination started to play tricks on me. I trained my zoom lens on the rooms and almost expected a face to peer from one of the windows. I was getting scared and actually jumped when my companion tapped me on the shoulder.

We made our way slowly to one of my favorite wedding venues on island, St. Angelo Chapel, which was a few yards away.IMG_7806

Despite the fact the Palms Resort closed down three years ago, the chapel is still used for weddings. The lawn was still manicured, and the chapel did not show any signs of the desolation and abandonment that Palms Resort now exuded. The chapel was a separate world by itself.

We went around it, careful not to touch anything while taking photos. A few minutes later, I was startled again and this time by the silhouette of a man approaching us from across the bridge. He asked what we were doing. We learned that the men fishing on the shore were security guards who alerted another guard about our presence.

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We explained that we were just taking photos and were leaving, which we were only too glad to do. We made our way back to our car at Paopao Beach and left for home.

I was hesitant to download my photos from my memory cards, sad to see such a big hotel transformed into yet another abandoned structure.DSC_7812

But I saw no faces peeking out of the hotel windows in any of my photos. If you get the chance, visit the Palms Resort beachfront at twilight, you will see what I mean.DSC_7900

First published at the Marianas Variety here: http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59396-the-glory-that-was-the-palms-beachfront

Heaven 2: Where Blue Meets Blue

??THE surprises never stop if you keep on driving off the beaten tracks and explore any of Saipan’s rugged, dirt roads.

Recently, a friend and I followed the rough dirt road on Capital Hill passed the Wireless Cemetery. I had no idea where the road was leading to. My companion had been in the area before but he was not answering any of my questions.

He just drove on and on, listening to the groaning of the car while expertly avoiding the huge potholes in the road which really required a four-wheel drive and not my beat-up Mirage.

Just when I thought the road was never going to end, he stopped in front of a walled building which looked like a private residence. We were in the middle of nowhere. I had not been to the place before, but saw a couple of vans with the words “Heaven II” printed on them.

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I have seen these vans around and thought Heaven II was the name for a religious institution or retreat house but had no idea where it was. I finally learned that it was a hilltop resort.

There was nothing spectacular about the façade of the building. We stopped by the reception area to ask if we could snap some photos. Unlike other hotels in the tourist districts, Heaven II seemed abandoned and I was starting to wonder what photos I would take. We went around the side of the building and emerged into a spot which made my jaw drop, literally.IMG_7754

Before us was an irregularly shaped swimming pool, its blue waters reflecting the nearby white lounge chairs. The pool looked rarely used, and there was a wet bar poolside. Down below, the blue of the ocean merged with the blue sky, creating varied hues broken only by a sprinkle of red flowering shrubs below the pool.

If it was an “infinity” swimming pool — the water seemed as if it were dripping into the ocean. It was such a beautiful place with an amazing million-dollar view of the reef and with lush vegetation around. At the foot of the hill is the village of Tanapag.

 

 

 

Despite the shimmering noonday heat, the place was relaxing.

I was sure that it would also be a perfect site to shoot photos at sunset, when all the blue hues had disappeared behind a fiery mix of gold, red and orange sky. But we didn’t stay long enough to see the sun set although I plan to do so soon.

Spots like these are all over the island just waiting for the daring and the adventurous.IMG_7800

IMG_7751The secret is to go out and just drive. Follow the roads wherever they leads and ask questions later.

For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota destinations, check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE
    http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58833-where-blue-meets-blue

Lazy afternoon on the Lazy River

DSC_7831AN afternoon floating lazily on the Lazy River at the Pacific Islands Club was something I always thought was a great thing to do if you’re a tourist. I had said no to many invitations until my very persistent buddy Tom refused to take no for an answer. –
We skipped lunch but munched on some sandwiches and French fries at the Buoy Bar just before heading to the Lazy River. A lot of lounge chairs were still vacant. It was just after 1 p.m. and only a handful of people were in the water. I learned why very soon. The river current was turned on at 2 p.m., and you couldn’t enjoy walking in waist-deep water.We went around the river twice when I noticed the difference. Suddenly, I no longer had to “walk” and my tube started floating and only then was I able to totally relax, feeling the warmth and the languid motion of the water.

On the Lazy River you stand beneath the waterfalls and let the water massage your body. There are areas where the water is smooth and slow and relaxing, while there are spots which you can’t stand for too long as the water seems to rip your body parts with its strong flow.DSC_8992

But you can’t float around forever. You have to try the other water delights PIC has to offer.

I was not especially looking forward to our next destination — the slides. Compared to other slides, those at PIC are short and small and looked friendly enough, until you try them.

I had never tried going down a slide even when I was a kid. I was planning to just stay at the pool and watch Tom but he had other ideas. He hoisted two blue water mattresses and dragged me up the stairs. I was alarmed but there was nothing I could do except sit on the mattress obediently and wait for my end.DSC_2757

Without warning, the pool attendant gave me a push and down I whooshed like a bullet, ducking, when huge amounts of water splashed on my head as I passed a waterfall. I went down one twist after the other and one more turn before I was finally ejected into the pool, my mattress and I flying to different directions.

Flailing my arms, I surfaced, sputtering. I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls. I also had a wardrobe malfunction. My shirt strap came down and left me exposed. Luckily, everyone was busy and no one except Tom saw me. Lesson learned — when you go on the slide make sure your bathing suit fits you snugly.

Miraculously, I had enough guts to go down the slide again, and I finally mastered the technique of how not to get separated from my mattress at the end of my wet ride.

I also agreed to float from the Point Break. The surging water was enough to make me say no but the pool attendant sent my tube spinning several times before giving it a final push. I almost died. Or I thought I did. DSC_7532I closed my eyes and hugged the tube tightly. I felt like throwing up before reaching the Lazy River. It was a few seconds of agony that seemed to last forever.

If you don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut or an acrobat, don’t start from the Point Break. Or you can but just don’t let the attendant give you a spin. That spells the difference between an enjoyable and a dizzying afternoon.

Anyway, when you want rest and relaxation, try a lazy afternoon swim in the Lazy River. Rates are lower during weekdays and not a lot of people use the facilities but if you want to mingle with an international crowd, go for a weekend swim. The muscle pains are worth the bliss that awaits you.

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58488-lazy-afternoon-on-the-lazy-river

‘Shooting’ a Japanese cannon

IMG_4657THE first time I saw this Japanese cannon at Naftan Point, Saipan’s southernmost tip, was in 2009 when I went for an early morning hike with my co-workers, and I vowed never to return to that place. For someone whose only form of exercise was going up and down the stairs at the office, another hike from Dandan to the very edge of Naftan was a nightmarish proposition.
That vow was broken some months back when an unplanned drive around the island with three photographer buddies took us to the rough road beyond the airport where we ended at Hawaiian Rock.
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Luckily, this time we were in a Rav-4 and Donna at the wheel was courageous enough to drive in the area. I broke my promise because I was not hiking and I was not driving either.The road in the jungle heading to Naftan Point was like a dried-up river with portions so deep and some so rocky we had to hold our breath wondering if the car could make it. But Donna navigated through the potholes with grim determination. And that was how I found myself again at the cliff overlooking Tinian on the right side, and Forbidden Island on the far left. And unlike the first time I was there, I got the chance to enjoy taking photos because I was not panting and trying to regain my breath. Soon we all got so busy clicking away we almost forgot each other.

From the Naftan Point ledge, the tip of the Japanese cannon emerged from behind the bushes so we all trooped toward the World War II relic, slowly picking our way through the grass and sharp rocks. There was really no path that led to the cannon. We had to create one. When we got to it, we all went to work immediately. Pat took video footage with his steady cam while Ems, Donna and I used our Canon cameras to take photos of the cannon.IMG_4644

There were no visible changes to the Japanese cannon, except for the rust that was eating at the entire structure. According to historical accounts on the internet, the roof of the bunkhouse that housed the Japanese cannon was blown off during the battle of Saipan.

The cannon was strategically placed, hidden in the thick undergrowth but with its tip facing the ocean.

Naftan Point remains a perfect site for hikers and bikers as well as for World War II buff and daring explorers. There are numerous trails and forks in the road that lead to caves, more war relics, bunkers, and anti-aircraft enclosures which are scattered all over the jungle.

Except for a biker every now and then, you rarely see anyone at Naftan IMG_1446Point. It is so out of the way and the almost impassable road for small cars is enough to discourage anyone from going there.

But the Naftan peninsula is a photographer’s dream, with its enchanting jungles, rugged terrain, steep cliffs and plateaus.

No matter how many times you’ve been there, there is always so much to see and explore at Naftan Point.

First published at the Marianas Variety

The Shadow at the Bell Marker

IMG_9219IT started with a red arrow on a rusty sign beside the path that proclaimed: “The Bell of Peace and Love…anyone who rings this bell will return to this special place someday again.”
It was the red arrow pointing to a wooded area some 80 meters ahead that kept me going despite the knot of fear that was forming in me. It was almost dark and I never feel comfortable being alone at Sugar King Park but I couldn’t resist the sign. I kept going with hesitant steps, looking furtively behind me as I did so.I followed the stony pathway strewn with orange blossoms from the flame trees that snaked around the grassy areas and came upon a structure in the midst of a mini-forest that I hadn’t seen before — a hexagonal building of sturdy wood on a concrete platform.
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No one was around and there was silence except for the chirping of the birds in the trees and the crunching of the leaves on the ground I was stepping on. I tentatively moved toward the structure and tried to peer through the windows barred with steel but I couldn’t see a thing inside. The roof was covered with fallen leaves. Three big padlocks hung from the door so there was no way to check what was inside.Then I remembered what I was there for — the bell, and there it was, on the left side as you face the prayer house.I saw a marker with the inscription: “The Bell of Peace, The Bell of Love. Anyone who rings this bell will vow the eternal peace and love. Anyone who rings this bell will be blessed with great joy and happiness. The sound of the bell filled with peace and love will lead them to this special place someday again.” The sign was translated into Japanese.I was about to press the shutter and take a photo of the marker but I freaked out when a shadow fell on it. I felt my hair stand on end and was poised to run when I realized it was my own shadow, complete with the camera hanging from my neck.

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I dared not ring the bell. I had no wish to hear a prolonged ringing echoing through the woods. My imagination was playing havoc on my mind and I had visions of waking up the souls of the dead. A mossy trail ran up the hill just behind the house of prayer, but I dared not follow it. It was almost dark and I felt weird trying to fight off the feeling that I was being watched. I left the place, vowing to return soon in broad daylight and with companions.

According to information on a board near the prayer house, the construction of the hexagonal hall of prayer or the Saipan International House of Prayer (Nanmeido) was made possible by Reverend Shinryu Akita of Shizuoka, Japan and the families, relatives and friends of the Japanese soldiers who died here during the war as well as the Marianas Visitors Bureau (now known as the Marianas Visitors Authority).

A completion ceremony was held on October 4,1990. Built of fine Japanese cypress, the prayer house was dedicated to Jibo Kannon, Goddess of Mercy who has the power to draw near all the deceased spirits in hopes of eternal peace and prosperity for Saipan. The prayer house was designed by Kameyama Construction Company of Seki, Gifu Prefecture in Japan. Professor Naito Akira of Nagoya Technical College, an authority on traditional Japanese wooden structures, supervised the construction work.

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If you haven’t been to this part of the Sugar King Park before, just follow the path of the Pai Pai Hill Nature Trail that runs to the right of the Saipan Katori Jinja temple and you will get there.

First published at the Marianas Variety

60-minutes of bliss at La Mer

TUCKED into a luxurious row of rooms on the second floor of Saipan World Resort is heaven on earth — La Mer Massage.

Sathiyan Kalarkkal, who is in charge of the establishment, said La Mer has been open for several years now but not a lot of residents know about it. One afternoon a couple of months ago, photographer buddy Donna and I ventured into that part of the hotel.

A couple of masseuses led us into a luxurious room with two massage tables, and a shower room with a circular tub for flower and coffee baths. Stepping out of our clothes, we submitted ourselves to the expert hands of our masseuses for a 60-minute relaxing massage which included deep tissue massage on the back, shoulders and feet.

Amid the soft gurgling sound of water in a small fountain in the corner of the room, we were soon lulled into a deeply relaxed state and would have fallen deep asleep if not for our occasional grunts whenever our masseuses found sore muscles.

When the massage was over, we were given a tour of the three other massage rooms that offered the same luxury and comfort as the one we had been in.

La Mer Massage specializes in Ayurveda, according to Kalarikkal. Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit word which means life and science, and is one of India’s natural healing techniques that are 5,000 years old.

Kalarikkal said most of the oils are from India, but they also have locally produced ones including coconut oil.

La Mer’s Original Coffee Esthique is one of their most popular massage courses. For 90 minutes, you will be treated to a coffee bath involving coffee beans for cleaning your legs and feet, back and face.

Kalarikkal said coffee beans have fermentation and deodorizing effects on the body and they help create firm smooth lines on one’s skin that create a younger look.

After experiencing the massage and beauty courses offered by La Mer, you’ll feel refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated. Also, check out the various facial courses.

The next time stress overtakes you or if you want to escape from the daily routine, head to La Mer which is open from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day except Thursday. For reservations, call 234-5900 extension 210.

-First published at Marianas Variety