‘Caged’ at the Zoobic Safari

This gallery contains 15 photos.

‘Caged’ at the Zoobic Safari. WHEN you watch tigers inside the zoo, you enjoy it but when its you who is inside a cage and the tigers are circling your cage looking for a possible opening and licking their tongues … Continue reading

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Remains of a sugar mill

IMG_7070 I still haven’t figured out how I missed seeing the remains of the old sugar mill on this island during my first two trips, but the dilapidated structure did not escape my lens during my most recent trip last month. Buddy Pat and I had been driving around the commercial seaport looking for just anything to photograph when he pointed out the ruins that I may have seen before but never paid attention, if at all just outside the port gate.

The mill, which is also known as the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha Sugar Mill. Pat parked our rented car beside the road and proceeded to the remains of a red train in front of a quaint but dilapidated brick structure. The ruins looked great with the lush green surroundings in the noonday sun. IMG_7031 IMG_7035

With cameras slung on our shoulders, we crawled through the tunnel-like brick structures and made our way to the base of a ruined of chimney and toward the back of the mill. I was using a 250mm zoom lens and had to move a good distance away before I can shoot.

Huge slabs ofIMG_7028 cement hung precariously in some parts of the tunnel, held in place by a few steel bars that appeared they might give way at any time. But despite the huge holes in the brick walls of the tunnels and the mill, the structure seemed to have defyed the elements quite well.

Thick shrubbery enveloped the rest of the mill behind the neatly preserved façade but that just added to the charm of these dilapidated remains of a once glorious industry.

The mill was built in the late 1920s to early 1930’s. According to the information printed on the sign, Haruji Matsue, who studied agriculture at Louisiana State University, established a successful sugar industry in the Northern Marianas in the early 1920s. There were two sugar-cane operations on Saipan at that time but these had failed and Matsue bought the companies, paid the back wages of the farmers and imported additional labor from Okinawa. Matsue cleared the forests of Tinian and Saipan, facilitated sugar-cane production and extended it to Rota in the 1930s. Rota was the last to be developed as its land was less suitable for growing cane. All the sugar produced on the three islands was shipped to Japan.

Most of the sugar on Rota was grown on the relatively flat eastern region of the island. From the fields, the cut cane was brought to the factory on narrow-gauge rail cars pulled by an engine which is the sole remaining silent witness of a once flourishing sugar cane industry.IMG_7021-001

A third sign at the site provided information on how sugar cane was processed in the factory.

If you visit Rota, don’t miss stopping by the remains of the old sugar mill and let it transport you back to the island as it was in the 1930s.IMG_7042

First published at the Marianas Variety

Revisiting Star Sand Beach

TINIAN — An afternoon of aimless driving at North Field a couple of weeks a go took me and two companions to a fork in the road leading to Unai Chulu, or Star Sand, Beach, a popular destination known for its star-shaped grains of sand.


I’ve been to this beach over four years ago but didn’t get another chance to revisit until that afternoon.We were exploring nooks unfrequented by tourists at North Field and heading to the beach was not in our plan, but we went there anyway.

It was a fun trip because we followed unfaaltmiliar roads and ended up in more dead ends than we could count, but we also got to see more of the island.

We saw a family that included a teenage boy arranging young coconuts opened at the top on a table. The price was $3 for each coconut and I wondered how they expected to sell a lot.

But the boy convinced us to buy at least one coconut and told us a busload of tourists was coming. The boy then ran to the beach and motioned us to follow. He scooped a handful of sand and started sifting through it on his palm, looking very closely until he found what he was looking for and showed it to us — a tiny grain of sand shaped like a star. I’ve seen it before but not my two companions.alt


Unai Chulu is not your ideal beach if you want to lie in the sand to soak up the sun or even to swim. The beach is bordered by sharp rocky cliffs and huge angry waves splashing against them. Thick shrubs cover the shoreline but its star-shaped bits of sand are unique. It may, however, take you forever and too much eye straining before you finally see a star-shaped grain of sand. I tried it before and almost gave up before I was able to identify one. But our new friend, the teenage boy, found a couple of star-shaped grains of sand in no time at all.Susan Manuel, a local businesswoman, picks up sand from this beach along with colored rocks and puts them in tiny customized bottles as island souvenirs. This means that the star sand of Tinian has already made its way to different parts of the world.

Unai Chulu was also an invasion site during the war. A Japanese pillbox on the beach gets a fair share of visitors each day.alt

Moreover, website classified Unai Chulu as one of the top locations for bird watching in the CNMI.

If you are on Tinian, visit this beach and check out its star-shaped sand.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Moonlit sailing in Saipan lagoon

THERE are sunset, sunrise, and daylight cruises. I’ve tried them all at one time or another, but a moonlit cruise in the Saipan lagoon was something I didn’t plan for.

I had heard moonlight cruises were being offered by some cruise companies here by special arrangement through some organizations for fundraisers, meetings and gatherings in the past, but I hadn’t been on one yet. That is until last Saturday when a text message from friend Donna to go sunset sailing pulled me away from my computer. I decided to go straight to Smiling Cove Marina. I was feeling kind of lazy but could not allow a chance to go sailing slip through my fingers. It would be different if you had a sailboat of your own and could go off anytime you wanted to.

The sky was overcast but the waves were gentle when we pushed off from the dock and into the lagoon aboard Matt’s sailboat. With four photographers on board, conversation was not necessary. An overcast sky is a challenge to photographers, but we all gloried in it, shooting cloud formations and everybody wishing we all had giant spades to scoop the clouds away for a view of the dazzling sunset. We had no such luck but on our way back a couple of hours later, we got a bonus. The moon made its way up in the sky, casting a luminous glow on the water.

From afar, we could hear the laughter and singing from one of the sunset cruise boats full of tourists. From where we were, we could see billows of smoke rising from the CUC building in Lower Base, but aside from that, Saipan looked like one sleepy island with no one else up and about.

We slowly sailed back toward the dock. Matt got busy rolling up the sails when we entered the Cove. With the sails neatly rolled in place and the engine still off, the sailboat glided ever so slowly as we entered the marina. I was lost in thought and my imagination started to get wild as I gazed at the silhouettes of trees across from the cement walkway.

There was a momentary silence broken only by the soft lapping of the gentle waves along the sides of the boat, or the occasional slapping sound as a mosquito tried to feast on an exposed arm or leg.

I realized all of us had drifted into a sleepy state. Everyone was busy gazing at the moon rising above the tree tops or at the shimmering reflection in the water and fighting a bout of drowsiness lulled by the slow and lazy swaying of the sailboat. Everyone, that is, except for Matt who was trying to catch some fish with a pole but with no luck.

It was already dark when we pulled into the dock and walked to American Memorial Park where we had left our cars, refreshed from the moonlight sailing experience. If you have been here all your life and have not yet tried sailing in the moonlit lagoon, you are missing a lot!

Aboard the Asuka 11

FOR the past couple of years, this section has brought you to familiar and unfamiliar nooks and crannies of Saipan, Tinian and Rota — from spots that you have always taken for granted to areas that you have never thought existed here.

Today, put on your sea legs and take a glimpse of what’s inside one of the luxury ocean cruise ships which has visited Saipan every year for the several past years — M.S. Asuka II which is previously known as M.S. Crystal Harmony.

A text message from Commonwealth Ports manager Mary Ann Lizama sent me flying into a frenzy and leaving everything at a moment’s notice to grab a rare chance of exploring Asuka 11 which docked at the Saipan port that morning.

An upscale medium-sized cruise ship that provides western-style luxury, Asuka II, is known as one of the biggest luxury cruise ships in Japan. Its 790-foot long frame almost occupied the whole Saipan port for another one of its regular visits.

Asuka II’s first purser Yukiko Shindo took four of us on a tour of this mighty ship which I had only seen from a distance while it was docked in the port in past years.

We started the tour at the third deck of the mighty ship where we were asked to leave our IDs in exchange for visitor ID’s. I got #004. We made our way through a narrow alley with royal blue curtains on both sides and resembling  a spa and headed to a flight of stairs before riding an elevator to the sixth deck— and that’s where you forget you are on a ship.

The hallway opened into a spectacular two-deck centerpiece atrium with artfully designed furniture and sala sets in the center.

Our guide transported us to a luxurious five-star hotel with lush carpets and wide glass windows offering superb panoramic views of the sea and the island.

Time was never enough as we took photos of everything and anything while trying to take the grandeur of it all in. It was like cramming and wanting to take in everything in at once into a very short time. We wandered through a glorious haze and maze of plush carpeted hallways decorated with contemporary décor and an exquisite art collection emphasizing 20th century western works.

We went past designer shops featuring fashion items, jewelry, and upscale items, to coffee shops and restaurants, elegant lounges and high-end bars.

MS Asuka 11 at the Saipan dock

We waltzed through the Hollywood Theater, which can seat 260 persons, dance halls and conference rooms, a library with huge glass windows offering panoramic views of the ocean, an internet cafe and  computer shop, more shops than I can remember. Whew! If only I had one day to fully explore the ship and take photos at my own leisure.

From the 6th deck, we rode the elevator to the 11th deck and wandered into the poolside area. There, a Seahorse Pool sat at the center of the area, its clear blue waters reflecting the blue of the skies above and the ocean around.  Beside the pool and up six wooden steps with neatly arranged planks a circular Jacuzzi bubbled merrily, overlooking luxurious sun beds that provide passengers a place for relaxation.

Outside the pool a door lead to the Wimbledon Courts. We picked our way toward the other end of the 11th deck past more restaurants and emerged into a wide spacious area with glass windows called the Palms Lounge. Here, wide solar panels allowed natural light to pour into the lounge.

It was not our destination. Shindo led us on until we reached the area directly above the ship’s bridge—the Vista Lounge.


It became my instant favorite and I later learned that it is one of the best features of the Asuka 11. Uniform pillars adorned the front end of the lounge while a huge blue dome occupied the center of the whole area. It was like stepping into the future. Shindo told us that when the sky is totally dark, hundreds of pin lights are seen on the dome, making one feel like he is gazing up into the skies on a starry night. We didn’t experience that because it was still 2 p.m.

We had coffee at the Vista Lounge, sampling the best latte that slid down our throats to add to memories later but I didn’t get to relish in my coffee. I was still too busy taking pictures of everything, wanting to capture it all.

Going up to the top deck of the ship was an experience beyond description. The aqua blue soft carpet stretched endlessly until your vision meets the blue of the ocean and the horizon. The view from up there was breathtaking — the whole of Lower Base spread below with Mt. Tapochao in the backdrop. A few flowering flame trees added touches of fire to the green forests and blue skies and seas.

I asked Shindo on the possibility of hiding in the ship and going down anymore but that was of course impossible. Haha!

We went back to the third deck, surrendered our visitor IDs and out the gangway and discovered we were not in Europe or any exotic part of the world. We were still at the Saipan Port with the blazing sun beating relentlessly on our unprotected skin and with it, the reality that we have deadlines to meet.

The Asuka II tour appeased our frustration for not being able to get onboard the Queen Mary 2 earlier.

This was first published HERE

Eerie twilight at a radar tower

IN a small island like Saipan, an individual with a pair of itchy feet must have to double the effort and sharpen his or her to wanderlust senses to scout for new crannies to explore.
As a newcomer to Saipan last year, I was eager and thirsty to explore everything, turning deaf ears to the friendly advice of ‘taking things slowly because you will run out of places to go very soon.’
A buddy who volunteered to give me a tour of the northern part of the island a few months back drove me in his convertible past the abandoned La Fiesta Mall. Dusk was falling when we turned right and went up to the road in As Matuis. Tight-lipped, my guide would not say where we were going but just drove on and up the paved winding roads, crushing several land crabs on the way.
After several more twists and turns in the road, we came to a stop on top of a hill. I stayed in the car for a few minutes, observing the surroundings and enjoying the silence of nature disrupted only by the chirping of crickets. Suddenly, I saw the structure – an imposing tower standing tall and proud in the deepening darkness. It felt eerie and I half-expected a soldier from the World War 11 to emerge from the bushes.
My companion then told me that the radar tower is the former Pacific Barrier Radar (PACBAR 111) Facility which was originally installed on the Space Tracking ship USNS General H.H. Arnold.
Information from the internet told me that the radar was constructed to provide coverage for space surveillance for a blind area between two other radar stations — the PACBAR I (ALPhoto by Raquel C. BagnolTAIR) at Kwajalein, and PACBAR II (GPS-10) located in the Philippine Islands. It was designed to detect and track foreign missile launches.
We did not stay long in the area but I vowed to come back. And I did, a few weeks ago but this time, in broad daylight.
It feels exhilarating to drive up during the day and see everything clearly — the scenic view below, and finally the radar tower. Gone was the eerie feeling I felt when I went up the first time. In daylight, the tower was just an old structure that has fallen prey to decay and rust from abandonment, but it is one place which carries part of the island’s rich history. Try visiting the place one time, and if you’re daring, do it at twilight.

This article was first published HERE