‘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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A visit to Lourdes Shrine on Tinian

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TINIAN—Just a few meters down the road past the Northern Marianas College campus on Tinian and just beyond rows of pine trees is a turn with a sign pointing to one of the very special and considered holy places in the island—the Lourdes Shrine.

If you see the wooden signboard and a small altar made from a pile of stones, with two smaller statues on both sides of the altar, you have come to the right place.

Take the grassy right turn and the scenic short drive flanked by coconut trees on both sides leading to the Korean Memorial, and the Japanese Crematory a few meters away and going straight all the way to the end of the road will lead you to the Lourdes Shrine.

I had been to this place for a quick stop about four years ago but IMG_2597I never had the chance to go in and explore the area, until some weeks ago when friend Susan took me to another quick drive around the island.

The Shrine for Santa Lourdes is considered a holy place to many especially the devotees, Susan said. She said she often visits the place to pray and meditate.

The Shrine is located inside the huge gaping stone cave with vines hanging from the ceiling. If you go in, you will feel dwarfed like the whole cave is going to swallow you. I followed a small enclosure at the side of the huge cave thinking it was leading to an exit, but it was a dead end. The cave has lost its natural feel because of the electric bulbs installed in the ceiling around the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the wide tarpaulin erected just outside the mouth of the cave to provide shelter for those who want to visit the place, but despite the modern touches, you can still feel the sacredness of the place.

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The Lourdes Shrine is just a few meters away from the main road and you don’t need to wear hiking shoes or anything. You can bring your car right up to the mouth of the cave which we did. Somewhere near the Lourdes Shrine and the Korean Memorial is the Japanese Crematory which was just pointed out to me to be behind tall bushes. I didn’t have a chance to go near it for the two times that I have been to the place, but there is always a next time.IMG_2602

If you divert away from the popular tourist attractions like beaches and historical sites, where every visitor usually goes to, you can discover that there is still so much more to see, discover and rediscover of this small island that has played a big role in one of the bloodiest wars of the Pacific during World War 11. For more adventures on Tinian and the CNMI please visit www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/

Remains of a World War 11 jail

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TINIAN—I have passed by this particular spot on Tinian so many times in the past years thinking that it was just an ordinary abandoned structure left by the owners from years ago. I had always been intrigued by the grills and bars and the small rectangular slits for windows but never got to ask anyone about it, until a couple of weeks ago when I had an unplanned drive around the island with friend Susan Cruz from there.

She drove me to this site in San Jose village and asked if I had visited it before. I was surprised. The area was cleared of the thick brambles which covered the whole block and the remains of the structure, which I learned was a jail used during the World War 11 was revealed.

IMG_2409 Delighted, I ran out of the car and proceeded to the ruins. It was like seeing something you have always seen with new eyes. Some of the walls were still standing sturdy, and some of the grills, despite the rust eating at it, remained intact barring some of the doors.

I picked my way on the rocks and debris covered by newly trimmed bushes gingerly, scared I might step into some hole. I’ve heard stories that there used to be an underground somewhere where prisoners were kept and I tried looking for the entrance to no avail. It was kind spooky, even in broad daylight.

There was no one else around and it was not hard to imagine prisoners peeking from the small rectangular holes and through the grills. If the walls could talk, the stories they have to tell would surely fill volumes.

IMG_2395Unlike the old Japanese Jail on Saipan where it’s located right in a residential area, clean and well-maintained, this old jail on Tinian had been left covered in brambles and abandoned for so long.

Susan warned me to be extra careful and asked me thrice if I was really sure I wanted to explore the place. She said she has heard so many stories circulating that many of those who stepped on the old jail ruins have gotten sick or possessed by the spirits of the old occupants of the jail.

Although a part of me was hesitant, a bigger part was more curious to explore, and off I went, with Susan staying a safe distance away. I knew it was a chance I wouldn’t let slip by because if I did, I would regret it later.

IMG_2442The leaves crunched under my feet as I ventured further into the ruins, tentatively peeking through old broken doors and peepholes, snapping photos as I went.

When I almost stepped on something that looked like a hole covered with leaves, I hurried out of the ruins and ran back to the road, trying to shrug off the scary thought of stepping into the hole and falling into a tunnel.

If I was with someone equally daring, I guess I would have stayed longer and explored the nooks and crannies of this abandoned structure that has played a big role in the history of the island during the bloody World War 11 almost 70 years ago.

This old jail ruins is just one of the many relics and scars of the war that contribute to the significant pieces of history left lying all over Tinian. When on the island, take time to drive around especially with someone who is from the island and you will discover more of the rich historical treasures that not everyone knows.

For more adventures, please visit http://www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at the Marianas Variety.

Close call on Tinian’s cliff side

IMG_2644  I thought I have already explored every nook and cranny in this tiny island and have already written about all that it has to offer, but a quick, unplanned drive into roads that are almost non-existent last week proved me wrong.

For the past years, I’ve been driving around Tinian from a tourists’ point of view. That means renting a car and driving to the most popular historical and scenic spots and taking photos of abandoned structures and sites that have been posted online thousands of times before, and you think you have seen everything and been everywhere. Just wait until you go out with someone who is from the island.IMG_2634

My friend Susan Cruz took me on an unplanned drive to sites not in the maps for a couple of hours on Thursday, taking the coastal road by the dumpsite instead of the usual road to the North Field. I have driven by the place before but never ventured on the rough side roads that were almost totally obscured by thick shrubbery. If you are not from there, you would not even know there is a road somewhere beneath the tall grasses but Susan’s car seemed to have a mind of its own, skillfully navigating through the jungles.

After a few minutes, Susan turned left to a small clearing where several white crosses were erected on the ground and on tombs. We were not on a cemetery but the crosses were erected in memory of those who perished from the seas, she said.

I walked some meters away from the tombstones and peeked through the thick bushes and trees and discovered a spectacular paradise view below.

Parting the thick shrubs, I tried to find a way to get a closer to take photos, not minding the sharp brambles that pricked me. The effort and scratches to get there was worth it. The view was worth it, postcard perfect and a photographer’s dream. It was clearly one of the sites on the island that only a few knows about.

Rocks detached from the cliff and forming small islets added to the attraction of the whole place. The water was crystal clear and you could see all the way to the bottom. It was a paradise, all your own.

I kept shooting as I edged closer to the cliff, my stomach churning as I looked below. It was just about 10 feet or so but it will be one agonizing dangerous drop if someone takes a wrong step. Sharp rocks jutted out from everywhere.IMG_2650

Suddenly, I heard a crack. The branch I was holding on to broke off and the next thing I knew, I was losing my balance and desperately grabbing everything with my left hand while hugging my camera with my right hand. Everything I stepped on collapsed or slid under my feet and all I thought at that moment was the safety of my camera, not mine.

Just when I thought it was the end, my foot landed on something solid hidden beneath fallen leaves—a flat rock that broke my fall and saved my life and my camera, and just a few inches away from the cliff. I released a giant breath of relief and heard Susan shouting from above checking if I was alright.

Too shocked at the close call, I did not tell her what happened but carefully crawled my way back up through the brambles, thankful that I was still intact except for a few scratches.

Oh the things that people would go through just to get a photo, but through these images those who are not so daring can still get a chance to see the hidden treasures that these islands have to offer. We would have visited a few more of those practically ‘unknown’ spots for most people, but my time was limited and I had to fly back to Saipan. Next time, she said, and we’re going to bring a pick-up truck next time. For more Tinian, Saipan and Rota adventures, visit http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

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

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

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

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