Coconut Kingdom by the Sea in Rota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published at the Marianas Variety here DSC_5294

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

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The bell by the fire pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published at the Marianas Variety

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

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

‘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

Exploring Tonga Cave

20130515_160840Right in the heart of Songsong Village on Rota is a huge cave which I tried to visit the first two times I was here but just didn’t get around to it. First, I ran out of time, and second, I was all alone and kind of scared to go in. –
My chance to go into this huge cave came last month when I finally had company and I got a bonus because he’s a photographer too.Tonga Cave is just a few meters from Rota Breakfast & Bed, beside the IT&E office, and very near the residential areas. Follow the sign on the road and the grassy drive will lead you straight to the cave.The first time I visited the cave was one late afternoon. I went up as far as the main entrance but got scared and went back down, promising myself I’d go back as soon as I had some company. A couple of kids were on their way to the cave but they were called back by their parents halfway up.

20130515_161301Just before climbing up the hundred or so rough concrete stairs to the triangular mouth of the cave, there were two small holes just big enough to let a small person in and they led down into the darkness below. I wanted to explore those holes but not when I had my heavy cameras with me.

I pulled my buddy Pat away from the small enclosures and watched him race up the steps to the entrance. I was short of breath when I finally caught up with him.

Tonga Cave is a mix of the natural and the artificial, with the concrete steps providing easier access to visitors, and with stalactites and stalagmites that made it look like a huge yawning mouth with uneven teeth.

There was no one else in the cave and our steps and voices echoed in the vast chamber. Tonga Cave is not like other caves where you go deep into the bowels of the earth. This cave is open at the other side and the entrance is covered by rocks and hanging vines casting eerie shadows.

Perched on a rock in one part of the cave, I felt like I was looking down at another planet with the small stalagmites covering the cave floor. The cave was damp but not wet. Huge vines hanging from the rocks above the cave entrance added to the charm of the cave. You can almost imagine Tarzan swinging up above.

I heard from Rota residents that the cave was turned into a hospital by the Japanese   during World War II. The residents used the cave as shelter during typhoons, and it was once home to a colony of Mariana Fruit Bats.

It was easy to imagine hundreds of people taking refuge in the huge cave. The cave’s high ceilings dwarfed us. There was hardly any air flow inside the cave and pretty soon, we were sweating despite the open air, forcing us to hurry up taking photos and go out to get a breath of fresh air.IMG_0735

I lingered for a bit longer at the entrance to the cave while Pat went to explore another crevice among the stone formations a few yards down. We met some new friends on Rota who told us there was another bigger cave somewhere on the way to the Bird Sanctuary which would require an experienced guide and flashlights. There’s always a next time.20130515_160927

The next time you’re on Rota, check out Tonga Cave, a piece of history that adds to the allure of this island.

First published at the 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.