Some Micronesian islands and South Korea,
March 2012


Micronesia map
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.

Guam Hagatna Plaza de Espana
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 main square.

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.

Guam hula dancers
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 and atmospheric.
Guam Coconut crab
If you dared you could pick up a Coconut Crab that someone had on display!
Guam Umtac Bay

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!

Palau Pacific Resort hammock
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!
Palau Pacific Resort sand sculpture
The resort is also a shark sanctuary, commemorated with an elaborate sand sculpture.
Palau Koror Meeting house
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 Café.


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.

Yap Pathways hotel
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.

Yap MNUW ship
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.
Yap Mangrove crab 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!
Yap a pig in a box
A pig in a box in Yap!
Sunset 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.

Guam Yokoi cave
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 jambalaya.

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!

Saipan old Japanese jail
The only 'sights' seemed to be the Old Japanese Jail  ....

.... 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.

Seoul Deoksu Palace

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.

Suwon Folk Village blacksmith
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 pipe-makers.
Suwon Folk Village stunt riding
There were displays of horsemanship and stunt riding ....
Suwon Folk Village traditional dancers
.... 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.

Hwaseong city wall
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.
King Jeongjo at Hwaseong
We walked down past the statue of King Jeongjo.
Hwaseong Palace
Then back on level ground we visited the interesting large  palace in the centre of Hwaseong with elaborate roofs ....
Hwaseong Palace
.... 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. 

Seoul Dongdaemun food market
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!

Korea Panmunjom joint security area
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!
Korea Panmunjom conference table
We walked around the conference table that straddles the border and stood with one foot in each country.
Korea border guard post

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.


Old Tea Shop Insa-Dong Seoul
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.
Seoul Gyeongbok Palace changing the guard
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 ....
Seoul Gyeongbok guards
.... 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.

Seoul Myeong Dong night time

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.

To read about our other travels, click here ....... globe