By Stephen Lioy
Palau's Rock Islands, a group of more than 200 uninhabited islands in this sparsely populated Pacific nation, offer what may be the perfect escape for paddlers. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a beautiful and accessible environment to get outdoors and into the water. You're confident enough to plan a trip to waters anywhere in the world, right? Why not paddle Palau, a former U.S. trust territory in the Western Pacific, roughly midway between Australia and Japan. Here are five reasons why you should make it your next destination.
World's First Shark Sanctuary
In 2009 Palau officials declared the country’s entire commercial waters a shark sanctuary (the world's first), and shark fishing there is now illegal. While this represents amazing news for the pelagic populations of the world, it was pretty good for us outdoor enthusiasts as well. Paddling through the Rock Islands over a sandy seabed, I'm reminded of this as I idly follow a small reef shark until it disappears into deeper waters.
With reasonably stocked supermarkets in the main island of Koror and a bevy of possible campsites in the Rock Islands themselves, Palau is a surprisingly convenient place to organize an independent kayaking trip. Dive shops like Fish'N'Fins rent kayaks starting at $25 per day (Palau uses the U.S. dollar), as well as dry-bags and other gear. The northernmost campsites in the Rock Islands can be reached in a day of paddling from Koror, or dive companies will often take a kayak along on dive boats and drop paddlers off after the last scuba dive of the day.
Thousands of Jellyfish But Not a Stinger in Sight
Locked in a closed ecosystem for over 12,000 years, Palau's most famous residents have also become one of the country's biggest tourist draws. As I swim from the wooden pier toward the center of Jellyfish Lake, one golden jelly floating near me quickly becomes five. The swarm seems countless as I approach the main group. An easy paddle from several campsites in the northern Rock Islands, Jellyfish Lake is one of the absolute highlights of Oceania.
Avoid the Tour Groups
Palau sees quite a few visitors each year from countries all around the world. Most of these tourists will swim in Jellyfish Lake or snorkel Clam City and around crashed WWII fighter planes. The independent traveler, though, venturing just a little farther away from these locations will find a secluded sanctuary full of wondrous sites. Every time I see snorkelers swimming in circles more densely-packed than even my favorite jellyfish, I'm reassured that I made the right choice to go solo.
That Peaceful Moment at the End of the Day
Despite all the other reasons to go to Palau, the most important may still be that feeling of oneness with the world that comes when the sun sets on calm seas. Though Palau itself is anything but undiscovered, at the end of the day (after the dive boats are gone) the Rock Islands feel like an unspoiled paradise.