Where is it? That was the first question 99 percent of the people I told I was going to Palau asked me. It's a reasonable question, considering how many different flights and how many hours on those flights it takes to get there. Booming metropolis it is not.
Palau is located in Micronesia, a two-hour flight south of Guam. It's the quirkiest little place. It has its own language that does not employ all of the letters of the alphabet. It's small enough that practically everyone knows everyone else, but consequential enough that they hold a seat at the UN.
They have two luxury resorts -- the Palau Pacific Resort and the Palau Royal Resort -- and a handful of other places to stay in varying price ranges and amenities from economy to not-quite luxury. Palau's main draw, of course, is water. Or, more specifically, what's below the water. They boast some of the best diving in the world.
I, unfortunately, don't dive. Although, after this trip, I decided I'm going to have to get certified. I do, however, snorkel, and Palau offered more than I've ever gotten to see just below the surface, including turtles and sharks, and massive schools of colorful fish.
We went out day after day with Fish 'N Fins, as well as Sam's Tours and I couldn't imagine tiring of it. There was simply so much to see. And the boat rides out through and around the surrounding rock islands to get to the snorkeling spots were almost as much fun as being below the surface. It was just all so shockingly beautiful.
The beaches of Palau, as you might expect, are untouched, white sands. The word paradise gets overused. But these immaculate stretches couldn't be described as anything but. One morning I got up super early with my friend to stand up paddleboard on Palau Pacific's stretch of beach.
It was the perfect combo of smooth water and gentle waves. My only regret is that I didn't bring my own Slingshot SUP because the resort only owns two boards and one was in the shop. Still, as we took turns riding the waves along the isolated beach, it was easy to imagine never returning to the mainland or real life. If only.
You don't have to spend all of your time on Palau beneath the surface or on the beach. There's also zip-lining, kayaking, meeting dolphins, and, my new favorite island activity, four-wheeling through the mud. We took an open-air, Jeep-like vehicle into the jungle and got covered in mud as we navigated the surprisingly difficult terrain.
I was fully prepared to drive, but I let my friend remain at the wheel instead. It was far too intense for me behind the wheel, as it turned out. But I loved the view and the ride from the passenger seat. On our way back we got caught in a torrential rainstorm.
But even that was fun as it washed the mud away and reminded me how much I liked to be out in the rain as a kid. The trip culminated in a hike down to a waterfall. Not for the faint of heart, the waterfall is full on and requires very careful footing in order to both cross and venture beneath.
But, with the right guide, it's no problem and well worth it.
Believe it or not, the local jail was also one of the big stops on my tour, there one can buy storyboards directly from the prisoner artists themselves. The boards are carved wood and portray the legends of the islands. The one I purchased is in the shape of a turtle and tells a Romeo and Juliet-like story of lovers meeting in the night.
I did a little nature-versus-nurture experiment while I was on the island as well. We took a boat to the Milky Way lagoon where our guide jumped in to retrieve piles of chalky, milky, slightly scratchy mud. I covered myself in it and then jumped into the lagoon to rinse it off. It left my skin feeling as if I had just been exfoliated by a pro from tip to tail.
A few days later at the Palau Pacific resort, I signed on for what they call their Milky Way escape. I was guided to my own private Spa Villa where my treatment began with a peppermint foot ritual. I was then scrubbed with a coco body scrub. Once that was finished, I was treated to a scalp massage while I was all wrapped up in my own cocoon. A Milky Way bath followed and then the grand finale -- a warm stone massage.
Final conclusion? Well, they are two totally different experiences and both totally worth doing. My skin felt equally incredible after both, but there is nothing like a two-and-a-half hour spa treatment to really send you off to la la land.
Jellyfish Lake is another one of Palau's must-see and do activities. After climbing up a massive staircase in the jungle and down it on the other side, you find yourself at a lake that doesn't really look like much, until you swim out. The further you go, the more jellyfish you are surrounded with, thousands and thousands and thousands of them.
I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, where jellyfish are not your friends. So it took me a good few minutes to adjust to the idea. I was told this variety didn't sting. But they sure looked just like the stinging kind to me. But as I began to feel them brush by me, I had to believe it's true.
A few of my friends did get light, little stings that they said were no big deal, certainly not worth missing the lake in order to avoid. Skin sensitivity seems to determine whether you get stung or not. Although I was told that if they brush your lips, that will sting. Don't tell Hollywood, they'll start using them as a new option to get fuller lips.
Jellyfish Lake itself is worth the 18-plus hours of flights from Honolulu to Guam to Palau -- or any other flights path you might pick. (Going through Narita Japan in one of those options, but that was awfully out of the way to my mind.) Regardless of how you get there, there's something ancient about Palau that still remains, something about its rich history and the people there who respect it with such vehemence.
Like on Babeldoab Island in Badrulchau, where a gathering of monoliths rise from the ground. Archeologists date them to around A.D. 161. Oversize stairs lead you down to the field where they stand in silent sentry. I'm not generally one for ghosts and all things otherworldly. But I am definitely the first to call them when I see them. And I saw them.
Rather, I felt them. All around me as I walked through the monoliths, their history though unknown, still swirls around them, perhaps waiting to be told. The legend is that the Gods wanted to build a house on Earth. What the reality is, well, it remains a mystery much like Palau itself.
Still pristine, still undiscovered by the masses, still brimming with untold stories.