Coconut Kingdom by the Sea in Rota

DSC_5306ROTA — One of my favorite spots here is the abandoned Coconut Village, a row of wooden cottages facing the Pacific Ocean. Driving from Sinapalo to Songsong, you can see a signboard by the road side directing you to the Rota Coconut Village Hotel about a third of a mile away.
If you are new to the island and not that daring, you might think twice before taking the right turn past the signboard. It’s one of those rough and rugged side roads that looks rarely, if ever, used. I took that right turn during my first trip to the island a couple of years back. I was a bit scared, not knowing what to expect. I drove my rented car slowly, trying to avoid tricky potholes that were covered with fallen leaves.

But the spot just before the Coconut Village was stunning. It was a little forest of moss-covered trees and a carpet of orange and red fallen leaves. It was like stepping into a fairy tale and I was scared to breathe lest the magic spell be broken.

A few feet away, the rolling waves of the blue ocean crashed onto the rocky shores. It was in March, the perfect time to shoot photos or videos of gigantic waves from a cliff if that’s what you’re after.

I drove on and saw the Coconut Village sign in front of a cluster of wooden cottages. The place lived up to its name, with tall coconut trees lined up along the shoreline and adding a spectacular touch to the whole view.

I took a couple of steps away from the car and took dozens of images of the resort that had seen better times. The cottages facing the sea had individual balconies where guests could sit and relax, enjoy the view and breathe in the ocean breeze.DSC_5300

I passed by a huge wooden umbrella installed on top of a pile of stones, a perfect spot to have a drink or pass the time away. Although it’s no longer in business, it’s obviously maintained.

The second time I visited the place, I saw somebody cutting and raking the grass. The lawns were maintained and there were blooming flowers all around. The cottages were not falling apart, unlike most of the abandoned resorts and structures on the island.DSC_5281

If you dare to continue driving along the rough road, you will arrive at another popular spot —the Swimming Hole Beach Park.

I dared to take that drive, comforted by the thought that I could hear the ocean so I couldn’t became lost.

DSC_5311Rota has more treasures waiting to be discovered, undeveloped sites that contribute to its name as an untouched gem in the Pacific.

First published at the Marianas Variety here DSC_5294

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60514-coconut-kingdom-by-the-sea

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Panoramic Stopover in Sinapalo, Rota

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ROTA — A few miles past the Sunset Hotel in the village of Sinapalo, there is a spot by the roadside you must not miss. There is nothing spectacular about it — a couple of unused benches covered by leaves and twigs and a pile of stones bordering the edge of the cliff.
I’ve driven by this same spot alone a couple of times in the past but I didn’t pay attention to it or take the time to stop and check it out. But recently, I was again on Rota, this time with photographer buddy Pat. Our host Jackie from the Sunset Hotel recommended that we check the place out.IMG_9883

Driving on the paved road, we found the spot without any trouble at all. As expected, the place was deserted and a few birds were the only signs of life. With cameras ready, we picked our way through dead leaves and headed to the pile of stones that served as some kind of a fence. Thick vegetation protruded from below the edge of the cliff beyond the stone fence.

I was unprepared for the spectacular panoramic scenery that met my eyes when I emerged into the small clearing near the stone fence. Hundreds of feet below us, the blue ocean stretched forever, merging with the blue horizon. It was a bright sunny day and gentle waves lapped along the coast that snaked its way along beautiful rocky shores, forming a kind of a cove.IMG_9888

The different shades of blue in the water and the sky merged with the green foliage, which made the scene look like a work of art.

Down on the rocky shores, small formations created islets topped with vegetation, adding to the beauty of it all.

The view was postcard-perfect, and I then understood why Rota was known as the “untouched gem of a paradise” in the Pacific.

The world seemed to come to a standstill and, for a moment, I forgot I was there to take photos and video clips. I was mesmerized with the splendor of the scene before me.IMG_9887

Lost in another world, my finger connected with the shutter in an attempt to capture the beauty of nature on camera. A few yards away, Pat was as lost as I was taking video footage.

Climbing atop of a pile of stones, I got a much better view, but keeping my balance while trying to shoot photos was too much of a challenge. One wrong step and I could be history. We didn’t have much time to stay at the lookout. We still had so much to see. Watching the sunset from the lookout would be something else, something to look forward to. Another time.IMG_9909

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60305-panoramic-stopover-in-sinapalo

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

‘Enchanted’ wood on a mystical island

IMG_0043The first time I stumbled into this particular “enchanted” spot was during my first trip to the island in 2011. I returned to the same site the next day, and again last March, and then again and again when I was here in May. –
It’s as enchanting as ever every time I go there, regardless of what day and what time. Everything about Rota is enchanting, but there is something about this place that makes you want to stay and flee at the same time.If you keep driving past the zoo in Songsong and follow the road, you will arrive at this spot just before you emerged from the woodland and stare into the barrel of the Japanese canon by the roadside.I remember the first time I saw the place. It was almost sunset and I was curious as to where the road would end. The road was so narrow it looked like someone just carved a passage in the middle of a mountain. It was like a page from a fairy tale or a scene from a mystery film. I was excited and fearful.P1030522

The road was obscured by thick foliage and long vines hanging from huge trees, and in the deepening twilight they looked like arms reaching out to ensnare me. I was too scared to go on, not knowing what was at the other side of that cave-like aperture. By some miracle I managed to find space on the narrow road to turn the car back and drive away from the place as fast as I could.

I dreamed about the place that night, and I knew I just had to go back, which I did. It was early afternoon but the place was still enchanted. I had goose bumps again. I could not shake off the feeling that someone or something would just jump out of the bushes and lunge at me. I was able to summon enough courage to drive through the aperture and into the other side while looking in the rearview mirror again and again. There was that unexplainable feeling that someone was looking at me.P1030547

Last May, I took my buddy Pat there without telling him anything about the place or what I felt about it.

The minute he got out of the car, he stared, fished out his camera and took photos without saying anything. Later, when we were having lunch at As Paris restaurant, he seemed to be deep in thought. Suddenly he started talking animatedly about that spot. I can see his videographer’s mind reeling, imagining all sorts of possible movies he could shoot there.

We went back the next day, and the next, and the enchanted spot still had the same effect on me, and on him. The goose bumps were always there.IMG_9874

To most people, the spot is just a regular curve with vines and thick foliage and nothing else, but to my active imagination there is more to the place than meets the eye. It is enchanted, and has become my most favorite spot on Rota.

If you happen to be here, check out this place, and be prepared for a surprise.

For more articles about Rota, Tinian and Saipan please visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Stopover on Tinian’s Overlook

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THE first thing that you will think of when you land on Tinian is that there’s nothing in the small island that can entertain you.

From above, the island is just a short stretch of trees and forests bounded by, dotted by a few dilapidated structures.

Looking out from the plane window, the beaches and the giant waves sending huge sprays on the cliffs bordering the island provide a spectacular view from above, but    aside from that, you may think Tinian is devoid of life and activities.IMG_9098

And no one will blame you for thinking that way, until you go out and dare to explore.

Only then will you discover that the island houses a hundred and one scenic spots and a treasure of historical sites that continues to draw visitors from all over the world, the remembrance of a bloody war that took place 70 years ago.

A few miles up from Taga and Tachogna Beach, Tinian’s most popular beaches is a certain spot that you will find refreshingly attractive if you care to go beyond your comfort zones and explore.

IMG_9094Just before reaching Tachogna Beach, take the paved road going left and follow it until you reach the first intersection and follow the paved road to the right. There used to be a sign somewhere on the roadside telling you it leads to the Suicide Cliff but sometimes it is covered with tall grasses and sometimes, you could be busy deciding which way to go you will miss it.

About a couple of miles from the intersection, you will come to a small clearing with a row of empty hollow drums lined up like a fence on the roadside. Walk over to the small clearing protected by a wooden fence and be prepared to take in your fill of a spectacular panorama.

IMG_9097Far below the valley the village of San Jose spread out gracefully. You can even see the old tower of the San Jose Church. The blue skies merged with the blue waters and the gently rolling waves on the far beaches present a very idyllic paradise, contrary to the angry waves you can see from the other side of the island.

The last time I was there was over a couple of months ago when the trees and grass were dry and withered, and the farms were brown waiting for the next planting season. What would have completed the overlook would be a small cottage with benches so people can sit there and watch the sunset, or where runners/joggers and bikers can take a short break to enjoy the panorama.

The overlook is just the beginning of your exploration in that part of the island. Go further and you will discover more breathtaking hiking trails, shrines, World War 11 remnants, historical sites like the Korean and Japanese monuments at the Suicide Cliff.IMG_9073

Tinian has more to offer than you would expect. The island holds its share of more adventures waiting to be tapped. There are more to the jungles, underwater wonders and historic sites and you only need to go out to change your perspective of this island.

For more adventures about Tinian, Saipan and Rota, visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

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

The bell by the fire pit

P1030449ROTA–A few yards behind the swimming pool at the Rota Resort & Country Club is a lovely spot that’s perfect for outdoor parties at sundown or at night.
We discovered it at noontime a few months back after an hour at the Swimming Hole when my buddy Pat decided to rinse off the salt water with a dip in the swimming pool.The pool was deserted but I did not goin and instead ventured off beyond the fence, snapping photos of everything that caught my attention until I came to “the spot” hidden behind some flowering trees.
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Crudely built wooden benches surrounded a circular pit bordered by stones and I could see remnants of half-burned firewood from a previous bonfire. There were logs and polished tree stumps on which guests could sit. Then I remembered hearing the receptionist say something about a fireside party which was an option for guests who didn’t want to have barbeque at Tiki Tiki Bar or drinks at the hotel’s Blue Bar.A few feet away from the fire pit was a circular open hut which was just perfect for wedding photography. My finger was itching to press the shutter but I lacked a bride and groom posing under the bell. And there was no one around.P1030468

A rope hung from the roof of the hut and I couldn’t resist pulling it. That’s when I heard a loud clanging which echoed throughout the whole place and beyond. Scared, I stood frozen for a few seconds, expecting someone to come running from the hotel to ask me why I rang the bell.

Thankfully, the noise did not alarm anyone, except Pat who stopped swimming.

I walked over to the sign that read “Yama’s Bell” and learned that it was dedicated to Hidekazu Yamaguchi, manager of the Rota Resort & Country Club for his love of the island and his efforts to ensure that the resort would be appreciated by guests.P1030469

I went back to haul Pat out of the pool. Our flight back to Saipan was in a couple of hours and we had to get our stuff from the hotel room.

If ever you visit Rota Resort & Country Club, make sure to head to the fire pit and Yama’s Bell for a fireside party. That’s one thing we missed, one of the treasures that Rota has to offer. For more articles about Rota and the CNMI, please visit http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59225-the-bell-by-the-fire-pit

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

Rota: Visiting a prayer mountain

It was a place I never knew existed here and we reached it by taking the first left turn off the highway on the way up to Mt. Sabana one hot afternoon.
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We were on the rough, bumpy road w  hen our tour guide, Jack, instructed my buddy photographer, Pat. to take the grassy path on the left for “a surprise.” I looked at Jack and then at the road doubtfully. There was no sign that cars had been on that road for some time as it was almost completely covered with grass, but he was our guide and he knew the island like the back of his hand, or so he said.There were portions of the road where we had to slow down and listen to the creaking and groaning of the car as Pat maneuvered around deep potholes and kept going. After several minutes, there was a fork in the road and Jack pointed to the right.IMG_7156 The road became grassy and less rough as we headed to a clearing with coconut trees on the roadsides. From a distance, I saw objects that looked like white crosses and asked Jack if it was a cemetery but he shook his head. I decided not to ask any more questions and just waited to see where the road would lead us.

Soon, the road ended and then we saw it. A long flight of steep stairs painted bright pink and white leading to a grotto where three huge crosses were erected. The grotto was a natural enclosure in the mountain wall.

The bright paint stood out among the green shrubs and flowering plants. If it was late in the afternoon or early in the morning, I might have been tempted to climb the stairs up to the top, but not in the sweltering heat of the mid day.

IMG_7190There was no one around, but Jack said that during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, the place was filled with people from Songsong and Sinapalo. He said people camp out on Thursday night and make the trek up to the crosses along with other Catholic devotees.

The place is Rota’s equivalent to Saipan’s Mt. Tapochau where people go on Good Friday. The only difference is that here, you get to the top by climbing comfortable and well-maintained stairs.

The drive to this place of prayer is rough but the view along the way is worth it. Far to the other end of the cliff wall were more enclosures similar to the one where the grotto was located. These were caused by bombs during the war.

If you want to visit this place when there are a lot of people, do it during Holy Week, but if you want silence, you can go at any other time of the year and have it all to yourself.IMG_7188

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE