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

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‘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

Peace memorial on a mountaintop

IMG_7286At the island’s highest elevation stands a stone structure that few people visit: a World War II peace memorial.
I made attempts to see Sabana Peace Memorial Park on my first visits but failed. On my first try, I and a companion drove the rocky and dusty road and stopped when we reached a rusty gate. A huge board by the roadside announced “Welcome to Sabana,” but on the other side of the board obscured by tall bushes was a notice stating that the gate would be closed at 5 p.m. It was already 4 p.m. and we dared not risk getting locked in.On my second try, I decided I couldn’t do it alone so I drove back to the village.During my most recent visit to Rota I finally got the chance to reach the mountaintop because I was with two companions, and I was not doing the driving.The road past the huge billboard became narrower and the wind picked up as we passed acres of fields and vegetable gardens. We seemed to be driving on and on until suddenly, there was no more mountain to be seen, which meant we had reached its peak.IMG_7314IMG_7289The road was barely visible and was covered with thick bushes as we drove on until we reached a clearing with a well-manicured lawn leading to two man-made stone walls on Mt. Sabana.

Everything was so quiet and peaceful as we got out of the car and headed toward two jutting rocks that provided some kind of shelter. They were remnants of the rock wall which Japanese soldiers used as a shield during the war.

A marker with the paint peeling off stated that the Sabana Peace Memorial was erected on Sept. 16, 1973 by the Peace Memorial EreIMG_7241ction Committee headed by Rota Mayor Antonio Atalig and Rota Rep. Prudencio T. Manglona to honor Japanese nationals who lost their lives during World War II on Rota.

According to the marker, “May this gesture promote friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Rota.”

A Japanese translation was engraved on the marker beside the English text.

There was nobody around but we could see the place was well-maintained. We took photos and went around the rock walls to see gently rolling hillsides covered with green vegetation.

A concrete shelter with tables and benches was erected on the left side of the area, providing visitors with a place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain breeze.

I was glad I wasn’t alone. It would be weird and scary to be the only person in that place, and if you had a car problem you would have to wait a long time before another vehicle showed up, if at all. But the long drive was worth it. It’s exhilarating standing on top of the island’s highest peak at 1,627 feet.

We didn’t stay at the peace memorial for long. We decided to try our luck in finding another road that would take us down to the other side of the island. We plowed through bushes taller than our car hoping a road existed beneath them. We had to go back several times after hitting dead ends, and had to finally give up when we saw that what used to be a road was covered with thick foliage and there was no way we could go through even if we had been using a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we were not.IMG_7211

We drove down the same road going to Sinapalo and headed for the nearest store to quench our thirst with cold water, a necessity which we failed to bring on our Sabana trip.

If you’re on Rota, you must visit the Sabana Peace Memorial.For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota go to https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at Marianas Variety

Ladder Beach gazebo: Your new wedding venue

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Photos by Patrick Horton

AN unplanned drive to the southern part of the island one afternoon led me and photographer buddy Donna to Ladder Beach where we got a pleasant surprise.

We had not visited the place since her wedding in September last year, when we all had to find our way through the tall brambles and bushes that covered the stairs going down to the beach and blanketing the parking area.

This time, we found the parking area and the concrete stairs clean and free of vines and bushes. But there were more surprises.??????????????)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We saw a brand new pavilion and perched atop the cliff just above the cave at the beach was a brand new white gazebo overlooking the azure blue waters and the island of Tinian — the perfect venue for early morning or sunset weddings, or for any special occasion.

Donna and I did not stay too long that time but I went back a couple of weeks ago with another photographer, Patrick, who happens to be a friend of the gazebo owner, Jack Atalig.

Atalig said after they constructed the gazebo, a couple of weddings were held there, as well as other events such as family get-togethers, birthdays and Christenings. Atalig wants to make the place an ideal destination not only for tourists but locals too.

Under the noonday sun, Pat and I went to see how Ladder Beach looked from the other side. We picked our way through the tree stumps and parted overhanging branches to get to the rocky part that jutted above the water on the left side of the beach. From where we were, Ladder Beach with the gazebo and the pavilion looked ready for visitors.??????????????)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ladder Beach has always attracted locals and tourists because of its pristine waters that are perfect for snorkeling. The caves by the beach also provide a perfect shelter, ideal for picnics.

With his new facilities, Atalig hopes to welcome more visitors to Ladder Beach.

Sunrise Hotel

If you’re on Rota, you should check out the Sunrise Hotel which is also owned by Atalig and managed by Jackie. It is located at the foot of Mt. Sabana and some distance away from the sea — a feature that makes it unique.

It’s not your usual commercial hotel where you take elevators and run into other guests in the lobby or hallway. It’s a row of rooms that face the gardens and open straight to the parking lot. You go to sleep listening to the chirping of the birds and wake up to the same sound. While there, I had a moment of panic when I heard a flapping sound at the window while I was in the shower. I did not move for a long time but eventually I discovered that it was just a bird outside. It’s an incident that you can experience only at a Rota hotel.

I stumbled upon the Sunrise Hotel on a recent trip to Rota when I emerged from driving through the deep jungles of Sabana Mountain. The hotel is fenced by a row of gracefully swaying palm trees and a low stone wall that resembles a fortress of some kind, one that makes you want to go in and explore. Behind the hotel are Japanese guns and other World War II relics worth exploring.

Among the other bonuses you get at Sunrise Hotel — in addition to meeting and chatting with host Jackie — is the hot water which is perfect after a day of exploring the island. You can also flop into bed to watch TV or a movie on your laptop, or just drift off to dreamland in the cold blast of the A/C unit. All this at very affordable rates that you can find only on Rota.

First published at the Marianas Variety

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

Tranquility at an abandoned park

ROTA — Delightfully situated on a prime spot along the coastal road just before you enter Songsong is one paradise that you should not miss when you’re here —  Pinatang Park.

It is a huge boulevard with an entrance made of cement but designed to look like natural logs and intricate woodwork.

The gate leads straight to a long arch bridge connecting to a smaller island, a small park complete with a pool and spiraling water slides, picnic tables and benches and other amenities that makes up what perfect picnics areas should be.

I stopped by Pinatang Park one cloudy afternoon a couple of months back, drawn to the sense of peacefully quiet but scenic park overlooking the ocean and bordered by islets that serve as natural fences against the giant waves.

I had the whole place to myself and I couldn’t help but conclude that if there is one spot on the beautiful island of Rota that can make you sigh with deep regret, it is this place. Something is missing in this beautiful park —people and sounds of laughter and everything that parks are supposed to be.

The long boulevard stretched endlessly, each slab of cement, posts with missing lights, crumbling or missing balustrades, rusty benches with pieces of steel sticking out, and everything else telling its own sad story.

At the far end of the park, a beautiful cottage/bar or what’s left of it, with round cement stools around it tells its own sad story of glory days gone by, a testimony that this beautiful park has been exposed to fend off for itself against the harsh elements of nature.

A Rota resident said the park requires too much money to maintain and the municipality has no funds for it, hence its present state.

Only the profusion of colorful flowers and the chirping birds refuse to acknowledge the fact that the park is left with no one to maintain it, and that visitors can come and go as they please, at their own risk.

I got scared to cross the bridge and explore the other side of  Pinatang Park. I regretted that decision and wouldn’t miss going there if I get another chance to come back to Rota.

Soon, a school bus dropped off some students on the roadside and the silence was broken. One little boy ventured down the stairs to hide from his companions and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of him.

It’s funny but despite the dilapidation and sense of abandonment surrounding the park, I find it appealing and would have stayed longer if not for the huge, fat raindrops that started to pelt on the deserted park. I ran for the car hugging my gear, and with heart still heavy with regret, drove away to Songsong for a late lunch.

Tranquility at an abandoned park | around-the-island.

A refreshing stop at a famous swimming hole

ROTA — Come on in, the water’s cool. This unspoken and unwritten invitation is too hard to resist if you are at the Swimming Hole, one of the most popular and must-not miss destinations on this island.

Standing on a huge rock with my camera, I would have given anything for a dip instead of just a short stop at this place which I had already seen in hundreds of spectacular photographs and glowing remarks from different blogs and websites of visitors who had been there.

Surrounded by natural rock formations that fenced off the area from the huge wild waves rolling noisily to the shore a few yards away, the Swimming Hole is a pocket of crystal-clear body of blue water that promises worlds of refreshing satisfaction when you step into the warm waters.

The Swimming Hole was deserted when we arrived there. Under the sweltering heat of the 12 o’clock sun, the temptation to take a dip was too irresistible, even for a non-swimmer like me. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the heat of the sun is not so harsh, you can float lazily around, let stress flow out of your body and enjoy a relaxing time.

Unfortunately, when you step on Rota for the first time and want to see as many places and attractions as you can in one day, you can’t stay long in one area. I had to content myself with dipping my toes to test the water, take photos and off we went to explore more of this island’s tranquility.

The Swimming Hole is just one of the numerous unspoiled beaches of Rota. It serves as a perfect getaway, and with fewer tourists, you can have the pool to yourself like one giant Jacuzzi.

My hosts Ali and Doc Manny from Guam whisked me off for a quick visit to the Rota Latte Stone Quarry before proceeding to the Bird Sanctuary, a fast drive around Sinapalo and a faster drive toward Songsong. With so many beautiful places to visit and so little time, I longed to get behind the wheel and explore the island at my own pace, something which I did the next day.

The island of Rota has lots to offer, and the Swimming Hole is just one attraction. This article was originally published here:

A refreshing stop at a famous swimming hole | around-the-island.

Brief stopover at Rota’s latte stone quarry

ROTA — The noonday sun beatPhotos by Raquel C. Bagnol mercilessly on my unprotected arms and back was nothing compared to the excitement I was feeling as I picked my way among the tall grasses toward one of the famous latte stones that had claimed a fair share of space on various websites for the past years.

I was standing at the site of Taga latte stone quarry — known to be Micronesia’s best preserved and largest stone quarry, and one of the most unique cultural attractions of Rota. Anyone who visits the place cannot help but take photos and post it online for the world to see.

I had just landed on island for the first time, and friend Ali drove me straight from the airport toward the northern end of the island which had been in my wish list for the past three years.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Rota’s latte stone quarry, also known as the As Nieves quarry, was a sight to behold, and capture through the lens.

The huge latte stone columns and capstones cut from solid coral limestone separated from each other by trenches was a real wonder. It was hard to imagine how the ancient Chamorros carved the gigantic latte stones but here was one real proof of their engineering skills.

The huge latte stones were believed to have been used as foundation pillars for ancient Chamorro houses. I could not stop going around the area and clicking on the shutter to capture these huge stone wonders from different angles.

Standing tall and proud on a pedestal surrounded with flowers and shrubs a few feet away from the latte stones was a huge statue of Chief Taga, who, according to legend, quarried the stones on Rota before abandoning it and building the House of Taga on Tinian.

Here is a must-visit cultural site on Rota that you should not miss. I would have wanted to stay  longer, but we didn’t have the luxury of time. We still had to visit more attractions that the island had to offer.

Brief stopover at Rota’s latte stone quarry | around-the-island.

Brief respite at Chamoru Park

ROTA — The huge latte stones and the black and white sign board bearing the words “Chamoru Ancestral Park” caught my attention the first time I drove past this site on my way to Songsong from Sinapalo some weeks back, and I immediately made a U-turn to explore the place.

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolParking my rented car at the roadside, I surveyed the surroundings and gingerly picked my way toward the latte stones. The place was deserted.

Except for the rumbling of the giant waves on the rocky cliffs some meters away and the occasional chirping of birds, total silence reigned.

I first thought the place was a sacred burial ground and I had no right to be there. Huge rusty chains fenced the sides of the park. Curiosity, however, got the best of me and I took step after cautious step around, pausing to take photos of anything and everything while trying to shake off the eerie feeling that someone or something was looking at me and whatever or whoever it was would spring at me anytime. It was just past 2 p.m. and I was too old to be scared in broad daylight.

As if in some slow-motion movie, I picked my way around the well-manicured grass, stopping now and then to run a hand at some of the meticulously arranged stone formations and all the while looking beyond my shoulder to make sure I was really alone.

I made my way to the wooden cottages near the sea, almost dropping my cameras when I backed against a post and came face to face with a white coconut husk mask hanging from it.

Stepping a few paces away, I collected my breath, turned toward the sea and simply gaped at the spectacular view. Watching miles and miles of blue water stretching out to eternity and huge waves chasing each other in an endless race toward the sharp cliffs bordered by white wooden railings was a sight to behold. I forgot my fears and simply gaped and took photos and wished that I could stay there longer.

The 28,420-sq. meter Chamoru Ancestral Park, which I learned is owned and maintained by Matias and Mercedes Taisacan, is just one of the charms that win over anyone who visits Rota. The Taisacans also run a family-owned museum containing pre and post World War II relics.

If you are planning a trip to Rota, don’t miss the chance to hang out for sometime at this wonderful spot located directly across from the Marianas Trench Cave Museum on your way to Songsong. For more information, call 532-0078. (This article was first published HERE)