Some Micronesian islands and South
||The North Pacific section of our trip, to Guam,
Palau, Yap, and Saipan. Korea is much further north, and much colder!
Sun 11th to Thurs 15th, Guam.
Well what a start, we were not five miles from home when the car's red warning light came on and there was a 'hot engine' smell and no water left in the cooling system (due to a cracked thermostat housing we found out later)! Luckily we were able to pull into a pub car park and they let us leave it there and a good friend took us to the airport instead. By the time we checked in at Heathrow we were the last to arrive but fortunately the plane wasn't full and the very nice check-in man gave us four seats to ourselves for the 12-hour flight to Korea and three seats to ourselves for the 5-hour flight to Guam. So after leaving home on Sunday afternoon we eventually arrived on Guam in the early hours of Tuesday morning (local time) - a long day! On the flight from Seoul to Guam the American co-pilot made the standard announcements then added the strange instruction: "passengers are not allowed to congregate in large groups within the aeroplane"! Perhaps he was expecting a riot.
The airline managed to break one of our suitcase handles so after reporting that at Guam airport, we finally started our holiday! We checked into the Harmon Loop Motel which was cheapish ($55+tax) and cheerful with large airy rooms, and got a bit of sleep before waking up surprisingly early and hiring a car for the length of our stay.
||There is no public transport in Guam so a car
is essential. We drove around Hagatna, the capital, where we had a substantial
breakfast at Shirley's Coffee shop, and a look round Plaza de Espana, the
Then we had a drive round Tumon Bay, the holiday beach area full of hotels
and restaurants, followed by a visit to Micronesia Mall, one of the huge
shopping malls that Americans do so well. We finished off with a nice dinner
at the Outback steakhouse. The next day we drove round the north end of
the island past Andrews airforce base, then returned to Tumon Bay for a
walk round the shops and a tasty brunch of pulled pork in BBQ sauce at the
Hard Rock Café.
||On Wednesday evenings there is a colourful fiesta
at the Chamorro Village, a handicraft market with food stalls selling tasty
barbecued chicken or spareribs, a display of Micronesian 'hula' dancing
and nearby the Seventh Fleet Band, a rock band from the American navy belting
out great rock music. When the rock band finished a DJ took over and the
locals started dancing - line and jiving - they might have been elderly
but they had plenty of rhythm! There was a little bar/restaurant in a hut
in the market where we had dark beers and kebab salad. It was all very colourful
||If you dared you could pick up a Coconut Crab
that someone had on display!
Next day we drove round the south end of the island which was more picturesque and mountainous than the northern half, stopping for a look at Umtac Bay where Magellan landed nearly 500 years ago, complete with a replica of his boat.
In between drives round the island we had more tasty meals and several trips to shopping malls where Sheila tried desperately to fill what little room we had in our suitcases. One of the reasons we chose the Harmon Loop was because it has a handy on-site laundry - how can we have so much laundry to do so early in the trip?
Guam felt like downtown USA but hotter, but our next destination was totally
tropical. In the evening we flew to Palau, geographically one of the Micronesian
islands but an independent country.
Thurs 15th to Sat 17th, Palau.
We had booked at DW Motel who arranged to pick us up at the airport, but actually they had forgotten. Luckily they were there to meet a group of Australian bird-watchers so we all managed to cram into the car and go to the pleasant motel. Right across the road was the Rock Island Café where we went for a couple of beers and some onion rings as a late snack.
The next morning we had a moment's panic when the car hire companies said all their cars were already booked, but the Motel people kindly phoned around and found a car for us so we were soon on our way... straight across the road for breakfast at Rock Island Café!
||Firstly we drove round Malakal island which is
mostly port and industrial complexes, then to Arakebesang island which is
more restaurants and resorts. Right at the end of the island we had a wander
round the up-market (expensive) Palau Pacific Resort, including the former
Japanese sea-plane base and a swing in a hammock!
||The resort is also a shark sanctuary, commemorated
with an elaborate sand sculpture.
||Back in Koror, the capital, there is an elaborately
decorated traditional meeting house.
Then we went to the Rose Garden, a resort of lovely wooden bungalows on
the side of a hill where we had lunch of soup and spicy sausages, onions
and chilli flakes in their open-air restaurant with a fabulous view across
the bay. We returned to DW Motel just as a tropical downpour swept in. In
the evening we had a really nice meal of sizzling steak and Nasi Goreng
at the Jive Café, sitting on a wooden balcony over the sea. The
tropical downpour continued all night and all morning, the side effect of
a typhoon in the Philippines apparently. We went for a drive round the other
end of the island, but the hotel that used to have the best view over the
picturesque islands in the bay was closed and derelict. We returned to Rose
Garden for brunch and had a very nice dinner with wine/beer at Rock Island
Sun 18th to Tues 20th, Yap, Micronesia.
At one o'clock in the morning (why are these flights in the middle of the night?) we flew on Continental to Yap, one of the islands in the Federated States of Micronesia. Because of the terrible times of the flights on several occasions we effectively paid for two hotels for the same night - one when we departed, rather than have to check out in the morning and hang around for hours, and one when we arrived so that we had somewhere to sleep when we landed in the middle of the night. To make matters worse Continental seem to regard these Pacific island flights as 'domestic' flights because there was no food or service to speak of.
||We went to the Pathways eco-hotel, a lovely hotel
of wooden thatched cottages/cabins linked by boarded walkways and surrounded
by exotic flowers on a hillside overlooking the bay. It was very quiet
because we seemed to be the only guests.
After a late breakfast at Pathways we had a stroll round Colonia, the quiet little 'capital' of Yap state, checking the menus at the few restaurants. We had lunch at the Marina restaurant by the harbour - fish and chips (Sheila) and Ramen (me), a noodle soup full of meat and vegetables with a fried egg on top.
Yap is even more totally tropical than Palau; quiet, traditional, laid-back. We had a walk round the bay and along some of the ancient stone footpaths over the hill through the jungle, past local villagers' houses and a man up a tree cutting down coconuts. He shimmied down the tree, hacked one open with a machette and gave us a drink of coconut milk. We continued over to the north part of town for a refreshing pot of tea at the Oasis Restaurant.
||On several occasions we went to an old wooden
ship called MNUW, which is a restaurant moored outside the Manta Ray Bay
Hotel, for lunch or dinner.
||One evening Detlef, the very nice German Maitre
d' at MNUW, persuaded us to have a big $50 Mangrove Crab, as big as a dinner
plate. We arrived and they had laid the table beautifully with candles
and lots of exotic flowers and they were all so attentive and made a special
occasion of it, but from then on it was all downhill. After cracking and
smashing the huge claws of the crab (we had to use the crackers like a hammer
to get them open) and eating what little meat there was in the claws we were
exhausted but looking forward to the 'main meal' in the body but oh no, there
was hardly anything in it so we had to fill up on the accompanying tapioca
and bland root vegetables. We really enjoyed the Mars bar when we got back
to our room!
||A pig in a box in Yap!
||Yap - a totally tropical sunset.
Wed 21st to Thurs 22nd, Guam again.
In the middle of the night (2am this time) we flew back to Guam and revisited
Micronesia Mall for shopping and Hard Rock Café for lunch.
||We drove to the Talofofo waterfalls and visited
Yokoi Cave where the Japanese soldier Corporal Yokoi lived in hiding for
28 years after World War II, believing the war was still going on, until
a local Chamorro hunter discovered him.
In the evening we went back to the Chamorro market and saw even better hula dancing and a different rock band, as well as the dark beers and kebab salad of course.
Thurs 22nd to Sat 24th, Saipan, Northern Marianas.
At a more civilised time we flew to Saipan which is the capital of the
Northern Marianas, a 'commonwealth' of the USA. Saipan used to rely on vast
numbers of Japanese tourists coming to visit, but they have largely disappeared
due to the economic downturn and the place is a bit run down. We stayed
at the very pleasant Summer Holiday hotel on the edge of town and discovered
that Thursday is when Saipan has their night market so we walked into town
and saw some more Micronesian tribal dancing (but not as good as in Guam)
and had some barbecued skewers from one of the many food stalls as a starter.
Then we went to the western-style Country House restaurant for a seafood
Continuing the western theme we had a very nice breakfast at Wild Bill's
bar and grill just round the corner from the hotel and went for walks round
the shops and along the beach and through the nice but very expensive Hyatt
Resort. Even nearer the hotel we had wonderful Thai lunches and dinners
at the Thai House restaurant washed down with a pint of Michelob Amber, the
best beer of the holiday, and chatted with Jack the American manager, a former
merchant seaman. We also had a lunch at the Hard Rock Café which
was not as atmospheric as the one in Guam. There's not much to do but eat
and drink in Saipan!
||The only 'sights' seemed to be the Old Japanese
.... and 'Sugar King Park', commemorating Matsue Haruji who created the sugar industry in Saipan, and featuring a battered old steam engine that used to haul the sugar trains (see the photo on Wikimedia at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steam_locomotive_at_Sugar_King_Park.JPG )
Sun 25th to Sat 31st, Seoul, Korea.
We flew overnight via Guam to Seoul. We were upgraded because of the broken suitcase - they put us upstairs in the 747 where the seats were first-class style with a huge amount of space and reclined completely into a bed. In Seoul we experienced double culture shock - Korea is freezing cold after the steamy tropical islands, and not many people speak English. We got the 6015 airport bus to the central Myeong-Dong district, where we found that all of the many hotels seemed to be full; later we realised that this was because a Nuclear Security Summit attended by 53 countries was in progress. Eventually we found the Eco House guest house where we got a tiny Korean-style room for two nights - no furniture, just a very comfortable mattress and bedding on the floor and underfloor heating that became so hot I had to find the boiler and turn it off! It was nice and bright and clean and the young couple who ran it were really sweet although they didn't speak much English (and the auto-translator computer gizmo they tried to use came up with completely incomprehensible messages!). We spent two hours in the tourist office in 'M' Plaza where the extremely helpful lady rang around everywhere to find a hotel for us later in the week, and answered all our endless questions.
We walked around the busy pedestrianised shopping streets in Myeong-Dong.
Because of the Nuclear Security Summit the whole place was on high alert
and the streets and squares were filled with hundreds of police in full riot
gear. Barack Obama was in town for the summit but we were too busy to show
him around! We stopped for lunch at the Touch of Spice Asian restaurant where
the Pad Thai and Nasi Goreng, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine,
were delicious, although unfortunately in Asian restaurants the glasses
of wine are tiny, about the size of the taster you get if you ask to try
a wine in Europe. At the metro station we tried to buy a ticket to City
Hall Square but they persuaded us it was so close that we should walk it.
We went into Deoksu Palace, one of the old partially-restored palaces in Seoul, which was a peaceful oasis of quiet and greenery from the noise and bustle of the surrounding city. From there we did manage to get a metro home to our hotel.
||The next day we went for a great day out at the
Korean Folk Village in Suwon, a suburb an hour's train ride south of Seoul.
The Folk Village was great, with all sorts of traditional houses from
peasants' to landowners' and traditional craftsmen like blacksmiths and
||There were displays of horsemanship and stunt
||.... and traditional dancing with drummers and
brightly coloured costumes.
We just caught the last free shuttle bus back to the station and got the train back to the city (public transport here is so efficient, well-signposted and well-organised - they even line up patiently by the metro doors and wait for everyone to get off first).
After a nice breakfast with our charming hosts in the little downstairs kitchen at Eco House, we checked out and said goodbye, and went down the road to the more conventional Sejong Hotel where they had luxuries like a chair and a bath tub, and a toilet that not only had a heated seat but was also a bidet and massage chair! We had a wander through the huge, bustling Namdaemun market, full of clothes and jewellery stalls and an amazing sparkling warehouse full of hundreds of ladies assembling jewels, and out the other end at the historic South Gate which was unfortunately hidden behind a high fence and building works because of a disastrous fire that damaged it in 2008. We had a couple of Korean hot dogs - sausages on a stick with a rice/batter coating, smothered in mustard and chilli ketchup for lunch.
||We had another great day out in Suwon, starting
with breakfast of lemon chicken sandwiches and coffee at a café
called 'A Twosome Place'. At the post office we found that express mail
to the UK costs $15 so we sent some letters by normal air mail (they haven't
arrived yet) and then got the local bus for the 10-minute ride to Hwaseong
Fortress, a UNESCO world heritage site with intact city walls, gates and
turrets. One section of the wall goes up and over a steep hill so we started
with that one.
||We walked down past the statue of King Jeongjo.
||Then back on level ground we visited the interesting
large palace in the centre of Hwaseong with elaborate roofs ....
||.... and colourful furnished rooms.
Then we got a fast and comfortable main-line train back to Seoul Central Station (rather than the slower but still quite quick metro) and got the metro out to Seoul's East Gate which was also under cover for renovation - we are doomed not to see Seoul's ancient gates.
||There are several markets near the East Gate but
the most fascinating was the Dongdaemun food market, with stalls selling
squid, offal, awful-smelling silkworm larvae stew, pig's snouts and trotters,
very sickly looking fish in tanks and all sorts of other peculiar food which
we didn't bother to try!
||Another day, we went to North Korea! Well, sort
of. We went on the tour to the Joint Security Area near Panmunjom. Everything
was very tightly controlled, we were told exactly where to walk, where
we could take photographs and not to make any sort of sign to the unsmiling
North Koreans with binoculars standing outside the door of the nearby grey
building in case they took exception to it. It was great fun!
||We walked around the conference table that straddles
the border and stood with one foot in each country.
We paused briefly at the 'Bridge of No Return' across the Military Demarcation Line, where at the end of the Korean war POWs were given a one-time opportunity to choose which half of Korea they wanted to live in. On the way back we drove alongside the barbed-wire covered border past guard posts watching across the water to the misty hills of North Korea in the background.
||On our last day we got the metro to Insa-Dong,
a street of interesting shops and galleries. We explored a couple of the
small alleyways and had a ginger tea at the fascinating Old Tea Shop.
||At the top of the road we had lunch at another
'Twosome Place' before walking along to Gyeongbok Palace to see the colourful
changing of the guard ceremony ....
||.... and the guards with their fearsome shields
and fake beards!
We finished off by walking through Gwanghwamun Square and down to Namdaemun market for yet another look round.
Most evenings we walked around the bright lights of Myeong-Dong district before deciding where to eat. A couple of times we went to the 'Matching Mole' pub for some draft beer, but their menu was rather exotic; we couldn't decide between cartilage relief panboiled or crap orang salad, so we settled for a plate of mixed sausages. One evening we went to the Outback steakhouse near the hotel where we had a tasty Chateaubriand, although we had to keep our coats on because the place was freezing (Sheila of course complained). Another evening we tried tasty but expensive Korean barbecue (about US$63) where the food is cooked on the BBQ in the middle of your table (the melted arm of Sheila's glasses bears the scar) and there are numerous side dishes with spicy pickled vegetables and sauces. However, our favourite was a delicious Pizza Diablo and smoked salmon salad with a bottle of Prosecco at 'Coffee and Pizza Bin' restaurant for a special price of $55 (the list price for the wine was $59), where we ate three times and the lady proprietor was so happy to see us returning. We finished off with an ice cream at 'Natuur' ice cream café.
On Saturday we flew home.