‘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


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.

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

Lazy afternoon on the Lazy River

DSC_7831AN afternoon floating lazily on the Lazy River at the Pacific Islands Club was something I always thought was a great thing to do if you’re a tourist. I had said no to many invitations until my very persistent buddy Tom refused to take no for an answer. –
We skipped lunch but munched on some sandwiches and French fries at the Buoy Bar just before heading to the Lazy River. A lot of lounge chairs were still vacant. It was just after 1 p.m. and only a handful of people were in the water. I learned why very soon. The river current was turned on at 2 p.m., and you couldn’t enjoy walking in waist-deep water.We went around the river twice when I noticed the difference. Suddenly, I no longer had to “walk” and my tube started floating and only then was I able to totally relax, feeling the warmth and the languid motion of the water.

On the Lazy River you stand beneath the waterfalls and let the water massage your body. There are areas where the water is smooth and slow and relaxing, while there are spots which you can’t stand for too long as the water seems to rip your body parts with its strong flow.DSC_8992

But you can’t float around forever. You have to try the other water delights PIC has to offer.

I was not especially looking forward to our next destination — the slides. Compared to other slides, those at PIC are short and small and looked friendly enough, until you try them.

I had never tried going down a slide even when I was a kid. I was planning to just stay at the pool and watch Tom but he had other ideas. He hoisted two blue water mattresses and dragged me up the stairs. I was alarmed but there was nothing I could do except sit on the mattress obediently and wait for my end.DSC_2757

Without warning, the pool attendant gave me a push and down I whooshed like a bullet, ducking, when huge amounts of water splashed on my head as I passed a waterfall. I went down one twist after the other and one more turn before I was finally ejected into the pool, my mattress and I flying to different directions.

Flailing my arms, I surfaced, sputtering. I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls. I also had a wardrobe malfunction. My shirt strap came down and left me exposed. Luckily, everyone was busy and no one except Tom saw me. Lesson learned — when you go on the slide make sure your bathing suit fits you snugly.

Miraculously, I had enough guts to go down the slide again, and I finally mastered the technique of how not to get separated from my mattress at the end of my wet ride.

I also agreed to float from the Point Break. The surging water was enough to make me say no but the pool attendant sent my tube spinning several times before giving it a final push. I almost died. Or I thought I did. DSC_7532I closed my eyes and hugged the tube tightly. I felt like throwing up before reaching the Lazy River. It was a few seconds of agony that seemed to last forever.

If you don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut or an acrobat, don’t start from the Point Break. Or you can but just don’t let the attendant give you a spin. That spells the difference between an enjoyable and a dizzying afternoon.

Anyway, when you want rest and relaxation, try a lazy afternoon swim in the Lazy River. Rates are lower during weekdays and not a lot of people use the facilities but if you want to mingle with an international crowd, go for a weekend swim. The muscle pains are worth the bliss that awaits you.

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58488-lazy-afternoon-on-the-lazy-river

Trekking on Edge

A TREK toalt Naftan Point was not on my mind when I joined a group of six others on a late Saturday afternoon. We were in the parking lot of American Memorial parking lot flipping coins to decide where to go for a shooting adventure when I remembered the Rabbit Hole in Naftan. I had only seen pictures of the place but had’t been there yet.

Without hesitation, we boarded two cars and off we went to Saipan’s southernmost tip. Turning at the intersection of Obyan Beach, we began driving on an unfamiliar rough road and ended in someone’s driveway. First try. We went back and followed another road, this time much smaller and rougher than the first one, and ended up on a small clearing with barely enough space for the cars. We tried again and finally found the right road — a tree-lined single lane grassy road that went narrow and narrower as we inched deeper into a jungle of tangan-tangan.

We reached a point where Mervin and Tony had to go down and start clearing protruding tree branches so we could drive through. It was agonizing to hear every squeak and scrape of the branches and shrubs under and on the sides of the car. I was just waiting for the final thud that would make us stuck in that jungle. It went on for the next half a mile or so as we plodded on, finally reaching a small clearing to park our cars.alt

Our trip was not over yet. Carting our heavy cameras and tripods, we slowly inched our way in the jungle — this time parting thick shrubs with our hands and ducking under roots and branches and avoiding one of the hundreds of spider webs along the way.

Emerging into the open, we followed pale pink ribbons tied to waist-high shrubs as we looked for the Rabbit Hole.

The sun was relentlessly unforgiving, beating down on us who had no shelter. Groping our way along the cliff and finding secure handholds and footholds was a real challenge. One wrong step could send us hurtling down into the rocks and the churning waters below.

We reached a cliffside where a spectacular panorama awaited us. Way down below and nestled between sharp cliffs was a cove with a small flat surface but with rugged edges resembling a stage. It was mesmerizing to watch huge waves crash on the “stage,” before rolling back to the ocean in rivulets.

I was too engrossed taking photos and video I did not notice Mervin making calls on his cellphone. We were lost. We were not supposed to be on that dangerous cliffline.

The sun was beginning to set, and we had to head back. I did not relish the idea of getting stuck in a jungle at night and share my blood with thousands of mosquitoes. None of us was prepared for that trek — we were wearing too comfortable sandals, carrying too much gear and were mentally conditioned to shoot photos in friendlier and nearer areas.

We failed to find our destination, and Tony ended up with a torn eyebrow after hitting a protruding tree branch. Our cars suffered a hundred or so minor scratches but we got the photos we wanted, and the adventure we did not plan.

The Rabbit Hole, will still be there, somewhere, next time.

First published at the Maaltrianas Variety

Popular on-island wedding venues

venuescollageCHURCHES top the list when it comes to wedding venues. Weddings are also held at the mayor’s office for a hassle-free ceremony, while others hold it at pool sides, gardens and even at homes.

Saipan, as a tropical paradise, has attracted couples from far and wide who want to get married, renew their vows or celebrate their wedding anniversaries.

Here are some of the popular wedding venues on island aside:

Chapels

The Hyatt’s White Sands Chapel is ideal for small and intimate weddings. The bride and groom get to march toward the chapel amid lush gardens. The place is small and does not require much work for decorations, and the glass windows offer a superb view of the lagoon. Adding to the charm of the chapel is the bell tower that the couple rings together after the ceremony.

Mariana Resort & Spa in Marpi has a quaint chapel ideal for your exclusive dream wedding. Right after the wedding, the couple will get to march toward a beautiful bell tower, a white structure against the backdrop of the bluest ocean and sky — a photographer’s dream.

The Angelo Chapel at the Palms Resort is another charming venue. The hotel has been closed since Oct. 2010 but weddings are still held at the chapel by special arrangements. Angelo Chapel has a long bridge with a red carpet leading to the chapel door. Wedding photos look simply stunning taken at the chapel with the beach as backdrop.

The chapels at Hafa Adai Beach Hotel in Garapan and  Kanoa Resort in Susupe are also excellent options.

Beachfronts

The Hyatt beachfront is another popular choice for couples. Wedding coordinators usually roll out the red carpet all the way to a makeshift stage with an arc and floral arrangements.

Weddings at Micro Beach are a common sight. The area is ideal for island style wedding where the couple and the guests can go barefoot. A simple arch of flowers can serve as decoration.

A wedding on Managaha is  no less perfect.

Ladder Beach is also an ideal wedding venue. Although not a very popular one, the beach and its natural stone caves and coves hold an irresistible appeal for the more daring couples.

Other venues

The gazebo facing the waterfalls in the middle of the scenic gardens at the Hyatt is another popular wedding venue. Very little work is required for decoration. It’s ideal for a garden wedding complete with ponds and flowers.

Very popular among tourists are weddings on any of the cruise boats in the Saipan lagoon. Weddings are usually arranged by coordinators and wedding planners.

Weddings on Mt. Tapochao certainly has the most spectacular, panoramic view of Saipan.

Underwater weddings  are not also that popular but the island’s pristine waters provide divers an ideal wedding venue surrounded by underwater wonders.

Saipan has so many other options for wedding venues. Just be creative and be ready with a backup plan in case the weather refuses to cooperate. But then again, you might just enjoy a wedding in the rain!

Silhouettes at dusk

IN a small island surrounded by beaches, chances are you would have taken for granted what it is to watch the sun sink into the horizon at the end of the day, especially at the beach.

Oh, everybody knows the sun rises and sets every single day but have you ever really spent a few precious minutes watching the descent until it disappears beneath the waters in the distant? Have you experienced the blissful minutes that follow after the sun’s disappearance?

Those few minutes referred to as the ‘blue hour’ is my most favorite time of the day. It is that time where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness and everything seems to come to a standstill.

I try to spend time at the beach to capture the sunset and blue hour as much as I could, but the chance to hang out with office mates is rare. It came one afternoon at the Micro Beach.

A handful of people were taking advantage of the remaining light, swimming and frolicking in the warm and gentle waves. Slumped on the ground some distance away, I set the zoom lens in my camera to start capturing silhouettes of everything.

The next minutes rolled by swiftly with the sun setting and me trying to capture as much as I can with my camera the everyone and everything around in amazing silhouettes. My buddy did an exhibition and away I clicked.

I only got to appreciate the spectacular sunset and silhouettes later when the photos were uploaded to the computer and I saw the amazing results.

If you are at the beach just to enjoy the sunset and the blue hour, then take your time. This spectacular routine of nature could happen so quickly you may look somewhere else and it would be gone before you know it.

A lot of people from other parts of the world would give a lot to experience what we take for granted every day. If you got some spare minutes, or better yet allocate a few minutes at the end of the day to be at the beach and see for yourself this wonder of nature free of charge for all to see. You too, can capture silhouettes in your camera or in your minds to treasure forever—one of the bonuses of living in a tropical island.

First published HERE

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.

Atrium

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