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Settling in to Saipan

The Northern Pacific laps over my feet. Sea cucumbers, considered an Asain aphrodisiac, roll in the gentle swirling surf. Turning inland for a moment, shielding my eyes from the sun, I’m able to pick out scarlet-blossomed flame trees swaying in the sea breeze. The beer in my hand is San Miguel and was paid for in US dollars. I’m on a small tropical island, a long way from home. Any guesses?

If you said Hawaii, you’d be wrong the beaches there are far more crowded. The answer is Saipan, the largest among the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. If you still have no idea of where or what I’m talking about, you could be forgiven. An increasingly popular destination for Japanese and Korean tourists, Saipan remains largely unknown in Europe and only a minor attraction in the US. Which is a shame, as the Northern Marianas are a pretty, and relatively unspoilt, collection of islands with a unique if somewhat bleak and gory recent history.

It’s that same bleak and gory past, however, that lends Saipan much of its uniqueness and interest to the modern-day visitor. Roughly three hours east of the Philippines, Saipan became a Japanese outpost – employing Korean slave labour – in World War Two, until taken in a bloody battle by the US in 1944. There are shrines to the dead from all three countries scattered over the island. More eerily, and perhaps more deeply symbolic, are the old military vehicles and heavy guns that lie rusting amid the fresh jungle vegetation and along the rocky coastline.

I looked around these military ‘fossils’ during a leisurely drive. Hiring a car proved a good idea as the roads were almost traffic-free and the island small enough to get round in a day. Though quite well-off thanks to its status as a US protectorate there’s still that unhurried and pleasantly ramshackle feel to Saipan common to all Pacific islands.

My next stop was the Grotto, a natural water-filled cave, up to 50 feet deep, linked by tunnels to the open sea. A great venue for diving, it’s possible to swim alongside huge garden eels, and even the occasional shark. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with a group of off-duty US sailors whose splashing and loud tattoos seemingly scared off the fish.

Next was a pot-holed dirt road at the northern tip of the island to the Laderan Tangke Trail. A signposted footpath led me through the surprisingly dense and unspoilt Marpi Commonwealth Forest. Occasional clearings along the way allowed cliff-top views of a rugged coastline and a spectacularly turquoise ocean.

The nearby island of Rota was also good for hiking. To get there, I took one of the daily island-hopping flights from Saipan. Once there I walked along an utterly deserted white-coral beach and followed the trail up Mount Paipingot. Again, the vegetation was thick and lushly-green, mostly palm trees and ferns.

The first obstacle I came across was a swarm of irate bees. Finally at the top of the mountain, I was rewarded with a panoramic view of surrounding bays and harbours. The best bit about coming back down (remembering to avoid the bees) was the thought of having the beach and ocean at the bottom all to myself. Imagine my feelings when I came across the second obstacle: the off-duty sailors from the Grottosplashing as beforetattoos as loud as ever.

As afternoon gave way to evening, the air around Saipan grew thick with the tang of barbecue smoke. The local cuisine, called Chamorro after the island’s indigenous population, is perfectly suited to winding down on a warm evening, Chamorro cooking is centred around chicken and fish combined in various ways with red and green peppers, coconuts and fruit juice-based sauces. With the sea sloshing lazily against the shore and the food and drink in endless supplylet’s just say, I’ve had worse evenings.

The following day, however, I discovered an extra – unexpected – culinary treat. As well as Chamorro and the ubiquitous steak and pizza places, there are a number of excellent and authentic Japanese and Korean restaurants. These are owned and run by Japanese and Korean expats primarily for Japanese and Korean customers, much as you find British pubs selling pints of Boddingtons and bacon and egg breakfasts on the Costa del Sol.

All very conservative from a Japanese or Korean perspective, but an exotic bonus for your average Brit. Enter one of these establishments and you’ll find reasonable prices and as fine a selection of raw fish, pork cutlets, noodles, kimchi and barbecued strips of beef and pork – not to mention brands of saki and soju – as you’re likely to find anywhere outside of Japan and Korea themselves.

Spending my final night in a Korean restaurant, chomping steadily through the twenty or so side-dishes, I mulled over my Saipan experience: in food as in many things, the expected complemented by the unexpected, the North Pacific counterbalanced by its collisions with the rest of the world.

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