‘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


Video

Saipan Smiling Cove Marina

One more reason to love this island…

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/.

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

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

Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

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I THOUGHT I had been everywhere on Saipan until I discovered roads I didn’t even know existed. Recently, my buddy Pat and I decided to pay a visit to the radar tower in San Roque, a site I had visited and photographed several times before so we decided to make this trip different. Bordering the radar tower on the right side was a huge stone pile with some tangan-tangan trees. The pile — or wall — of stones looked dangerous to climb but my companion was unstoppable and I was not about to stay below.
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Finding footholds and handholds while protecting my camera was a real challenge but I slowly made it to the top. And there, I gasped. We were at the very edge of a high cliff and one wrong move could send us hurtling to our deaths below. I held my breath. I was too scared to move. Spread out before us was a glorious panorama of jungle and cliffs bordering the endless blue ocean. A narrow road snaked its way through the jungle, and I was disoriented, not knowing where we were.

We decided to find out where that road below us began and ended. Ever so slowly, we picked our way down, quaking in fear when a stone just stepped on rolled down. Finally, we made it back to the radar tower and were soon inside the cool safety of our rented RAV-4.

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Driving down from the radar tower, we turned left at the fork with the sign “DPS Shooting Range” on the roadside. I’d never been on that road before but the thrill of the unknown kept us going.

The road was wide enough for one car only, but we were the only ones there. The roadsides were thick with bushes that would have made it impossible to park anywhere.

We drove on down the mountainside until we passed the DPS Firing Range, a place I hadn’t seen.IMG_8404

Past the firing range, the road got steeper and, at times, almost impossible to find, but there was no going back now. We knew we had to keep going and find out where we were headed. After several minutes, Pat decided to make a left turn at a fork in the road, expertly dodging huge boulders. It was a short road and, finally, we couldn’t go any further.

Then I looked up and stared at the gaping mouth of a huge cave. Only then did I discover we were at the Kalabera Cave. I had driven several times to the area from Bird Island but never went beyond the Kalabera Cave crossing before. The road would discourage anyone who values his car.IMG_8379

Anyway, it was an exhilarating afternoon and we got back home, memory cards loaded with new photos of this beautiful and ever surprising island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

I stepped on a ‘wedding cake’

The first time I saw the flat-top mountain everybody referred to as the Wedding Cake, it did not look like a layer of cake to me at all. It was just like any other elevated piece of land.
I later learned that it got the name because it resembled a tiered cake. When I drove up to the Songsong overlook, I saw a different angle to the mountain. This time, it resembled a cake whose top had been sliced.But I still couldn’t see the “wedding cake” — until a couple of months ago when I drove to the other side of the mountain where the Japanese cannon is located.There, you will see that the “cake” is almost perfectly shaped, with several elaborate tiers.IMG_7463The Wedding Cake is actually the nickname for Mt. Taipingot and is one of the post-card attractions of this island which is often referred to as a pocket-sized paradise in the Pacific.I tried all the existing roads at the foot of the Wedding Cake, hoping I could find access to the top, but there was none. All roads ended up at the foot of the mountain.According to those who have tried it, the Wedding Cake is 470 feet above sea level and is an ideal place for hiking. However, crawling up through a dense jungle and rocky mountainside with my cameras dangling from my neck wasn’t for me. I preferred to admire the mountain from a distance.IMG_7015

At the foot of the Wedding Cake, just past the commercial seaport in Songsong is the Coconut Plantation, a beachside resort more popular for its shady coconut trees than the beach itself which is so rocky no one should wade into the waters.

Parking our rented car under a coconut tree, my photographer buddy Pat and I took advantage of the coolness of an open cottage by the seaside. We had about four hours to spare before our flight back to Saipan and we spent the time watching several episodes of Dr. Who on his laptop until the batteries ran out. We also enjoyed the sweet potato chips and venison given to us by our friend, Rota entrepreneur Ali Badilles, and the cool breeze from the ocean.Songsong

When it was time to go, we drove onto a rugged trail leading into the preservation area which was bordered with a high cliff wall on one side, and the sea on the other. Cargo ships and other boats were docked near the cliff. The trail going up to the top of the Wedding Cake could have been somewhere around but we didn’t bother to search for it. Maybe some other time when we had more leisure to do so.

Please check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links for more articles about the beautiful islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota.20130517_125844

First Published in the Marianas Variety

‘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

‘Trespassers’ at Poña Point Fishing Cliff

IMG_0001 ROTA — A fork on the road leading to a small clearing with a signboard that announced “Poña Point Fishing Cliff” caught my attention the first time I went driving aimlessly here a couple of years ago. I saw the sign again while on the same road last March, but I didn’t have the guts to see it.

From the main road, the path to the fishing cliff was obscured by tall bushes and the downhill road looked soft. I was afraid I’d get stuck all alone in the jungle, but I finally s reached Poña Point Fishing Cliff when I again visited Rota two months ago.IMG_0022

I was with buddy photographer Patrick whose fascination with the island was greater than mine so I was finally able to explore places I was reluctant to visit before.

Following the sign, we drove down the short grassy trail, not knowing what was ahead until we reached a rocky area. We had to walk the remaining distance as our rented car could go no further.IMG_0023

Picking our way among the sharp rocks toward the edge of the cliff was a real challenge, and then there was the blistering heat of the sun and the strong wind that threatened to blow me away.

From a safe distance, I looked out and held my breath at the very spectacular panorama spread out before me. The tide was out and the endless blue ocean merged with the blue sky, the gentle waves rolled against the sharp rocks a hundred feet below the cliff. It was fascinatingly scary. Way down, rocks broken into several huge slabs resembled slices of cake topped with green vegetation.IMG_0003

We were atop a cliff and above the sea, and in the howling of the wind, the chirping of the birds and insects, and the crashing of the waves below, we felt like trespassers in a sacred area. It felt like it was a sin to click our camera shutters.

We were tempted to get closer to the edge of the cliff to capture better images, but the wind was too strong.

Poña Point Fishing Cliff is one of the island’s top destinations and is also one of the venues for fishing derby events each year, along with Malilok and Matmos Fishing cliffs.IMG_0010

As we were headed back to the main road, Pat suddenly stopped the car, grabbed his camera and pointed it toward a dead tree. Following his example, I grabbed my camera and was just in time to see a bird with a huge lizard wriggling and captive in its beak while another bird was about to grab the lizard from the first bird.

If you’re on Rota and want to see Poña Point Fishing Cliff, just drive past the Rota Zoo in Songsong and the Japanese cannon until you see the sign beside the road then make a right turn. Don’t be turned off by the soft-looking ground — there’s a hard road somewhere under the green grass that will lead you to the cliff.IMG_0026

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

First published at the Marianas Variety