Who goes to Guam?

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Yes, I’m finally posting what may very well be my least useful destination review ever: Guam.

Something like 1.8% of all annual visitors to Guam are Pinkies and having checked my blog visitor stats from the past week, I know that 0.0% of you are visiting from Asian countries (where 95% of Guam visitors come from), so the chances of any of you actually benefiting from the information contained in this post are virtually nil. But I wrote it anyway. Why? Because I’m a stud, that’s why. Also, I can work my mouse by clenching it between my pecs, a trick that never gets old at my house.

Furthermore, I apologize in advance to my non-US readers for the tone of this American-aimed post, because let’s face it, the precious few Pinkies that do make it to Guam are virtually all Americans. Let’s begin.

The island of Guam sits in the North Pacific like a baseball’s worth of America that someone hit waaaay out of the park into the shattered car windshield that is Micronesia. Considerably closer to Tokyo and Manila than to Honolulu, its familiar chain restaurants and ties to the US mainland have earned it the title of “America in Asia.” Punchy labels aside, in reality this paradise only has a lunar connection to the mainland – largely because a journey here seemingly takes as long as a trip to the moon. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Here’s what I knew about Guam before this assignment:

• Copious WWII devastation
• Duty free shopping
• Hordes of giddy, budget Japanese tourists

Online pre-research didn’t improve the image much. Guidebooks and travel web sites generally don’t get very energized about Guam and even the Visit Guam web site struggles to inject their island with the bare minimum of enthusiasm. I spent the last few days before departure sitting at my desk, lamely wondering how I was going flesh this bad boy out into 2,000-plus words of appealing magazine-worthy text.

Thankfully, seeing Guam in person was much more encouraging. It’s not as thrilling as New Zealand nor as picturesque as Bali, but nevertheless Guam has a depth of activities, history and culture ranging from humble to breathtaking. Island vacation veterans may typify Guam as “Diet Hawaii”, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve previously mused, what with the zealous prices in Hawaii, seven to ten days of comparable accommodations/food/activities on Guam, bug-eyed airfare included, will cost you significantly less than the same interval on Maui.

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Admittedly, that plane ticket price goes down the throat like a poorly prepared artichoke. Then there’s the spirit-wilting matter of the nearly eight hours of ass-flattening flight time it takes to get to Guam – that’s after you get to Hawaii, incidentally. Needless to say, if you’re starting from the U.S. Mainland, there is no such thing as a “long weekend in Guam”. The combination of distance and unholy jetlag will chop a good two days of enjoyment off the journey. Trips to Guam should be done in no less than seven day intervals, though 10 days or more is recommended not only to accommodate the added transit time, but also so you’ll have the ability to leisurely tack on a few side trips to the must-see nearby islands of Tinian, Rota and/or Yap (which I will roll into the upcoming post about Saipan).

The enviable North Pacific marine climate keeps Micronesia’s islands hot and humid, with nominal seasonal variations. This may sound like heaven on the surface, but apart from the devastatingly hot days when it feels like you’re carrying 50 wet blankets, you pay for this kind of climate in two ways: gigantic bugs and monster lizards that escaped the last ice age. Everyone talks trash about how freakishly cold Minnesota winters are, but you know why we need that brutal weather? So that we don’t end up with man-eating bugs and Rodents of Unusual Size like they do in places like Guam. What would you rather have: a few months of unpleasant weather or have to carry a shotgun to work, so you can fend off attacking Skull Island-caliber bugs and lizards? I’m just sayin’…

Guam’s average annual rainfall of 96 inches gushes down mostly between the months of July and November. The opposing dry season is far more appealing, with January and February marking the coolest part of the year. Mother Nature can be brutal on this part of the planet. Guam regrettably sits like a little bull’s-eye in the middle of the menacingly named “Typhoon Alley” and earthquakes are frequent. Case in point: in 2002 alone, Guam was hammered by a 7.2 earthquake in April, a typhoon in July and finally the Super Typhoon Pongsona in December, with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. Personally, I would’ve gotten the f*ck out of there after a year like that, yet the locals show little concern for these ongoing potential sources of devastation. Stout earthquake-resistant structural designs and typhoon countermeasures are integrated into any building larger than a bus shelter. The day after one of two bolt-upright-in-bed tremors that transpired during my six night stay on Guam, I heard islanders casually inquiring to each other “Did you have a nice earthquake?”

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The sensation of flying 13 hours from the US west coast, alighting nearly 36 calendar hours after departure (crossing the International Date Line always makes for wacky jetlag stories), while still spending US dollars is more than a little discombobulating. You’ll spy lots of familiar domestic names like Home Depot, Subway and K-Mart. (Fun fact: Guam allegedly has the highest per capita consumption of Budweiser in the world.) But you’ll also find the islands’ native Chamorro food, culture and disarming kindness. There’s seemingly no end to the incomprehensibly pristine blue waters, flush with diving and snorkeling opportunities, virgin jungle to be trekked, legendary golf, arresting WWII memorabilia, and yes, the highest concentration of Budweiser-loving Japanese in the world outside of Japan, whose outgoing and charming company conveniently amounts to a bonus bit of cultural exposure during your stay without suffering the agonizing dollar-yen exchange rate.

Guam’s ethnic diversity is a constant reminder that while you may not have ever opened your passport to get here, you are decidedly far from home. The largest of the Micronesia island group, Guam permanently hosts nearly 173,500 souls – a dizzying mix of Chamorros, Filipinos, Caucasian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Though the official languages of the island are English and Chamorro, I met Japanese people that had been on Guam for over 10 years and never needed to learn more than rudimentary English. Japanese speakers are well provided for on Guam, with everything from restaurant menus to tourist information plaques dutifully provided in Japanese. Indeed, I came home with several tourism brochures written in Japanese, because they didnt have any written in English.

Designated as an “organized, unincorporated territory of the US” since 1950, Guam residents enjoy U.S. citizenship as well as U.S. domestic telephone area and postal codes, but no meaningful U.S. government representation, apart from a single non-voting congressional delegate. U.S. military spending ($1.3 billion in 2004) and budget tourists from Asia drive the economy. On that note, both Guam’s economy and population will soon get a very intense booster shot. The U.S. Marine Corps’ Third Marine Expeditionary Force, having worn out their welcome on Okinawa, comprised of 24,000 marines and their dependents will be transferring to Guam in stages between 2009-13. Cue the mad rush of entrepreneurs descending on Guam to open country-western themed strip clubs and buffets.

During his Spanish-backed circumnavigation of the globe, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, landed on Guam in 1521, which was later claimed for Spain by General Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565. A Catholic mission arrived in 1668 armed with killjoy accoutrements like bibles and bras and the islands were henceforth governed as part of the Spanish East Indies, serving as a trade route rest stop between Mexico and the Philippines for nearly 150 years. During this time, Guam was heavily influenced by Spanish culture, language and traditions. The United States grabbed Guam during the Spanish-American War (1898). Apart from being taken by the Japanese for nearly 32 months during WWII, Guam has remained a part of the U.S. ever since. The island has the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. territory with a significant population to ever be occupied by a foreign military power.

Guam’s unassuming capital, Hagatna (Hagåtña and/or Agana), holds several attractions, including Latte Stone Park, featuring several enormous lattes, columns used to support pre-historic raised homes and structures (how these mammoth pieces of limestone were quarried and moved around back when all they had was palm leaves and coconuts is still a mystery). Additionally, there’s what remains of the Spanish colonial Fort Santa Agueda (1800), the historic but otherwise lackluster Plaza de España, the neighboring St. Joseph’s Church, and the wildly popular and unspeakably awesome Wednesday Night Market, where locals and tourists converge in equal numbers to enjoy a wide variety of street food, handcraft shopping, music and young dancers in coconut bras.

Apart from the Chamorro food, the best part of the night market is without a doubt the ‘tuba‘ stands – by ‘stand’, I mean a folding table and a giant picnic cooler, quietly manned by a pensioner. Tuba is a sweet alcoholic drink made from fermented coconuts – sold in small and large cups for $1 and $2 respectively – that goes down like sugary heaven and kicks like a frightened mule.

Northern Guam is ground-zero for resorts, over-blown duty-free shopping and water activities. I found the streamlined level of business cooperation in the area to be stunning and heartening, which is as it should be when your economy is so closely tied to tourism. Yet for some reason this simple concept escapes other tourist-dependent places like, say, all of Europe. Many services and activities provide door-to-door transport from your hotel, both complimentary and competing businesses happily collaborate and a fleet of cheap or free trolley-style buses loop through the area at 15 minute intervals day and night, stopping at every hotel and street corner of note. Assuming you’re blessed with nominal patience, there’s absolutely no reason to rent a car in northern Guam (in your face Maui!).

However, private transport or a tour operator will definitely be required to visit the less developed and languid southern part of Guam. Mango trees line the road, hiding tiny villages and “weekend houses” (simple, cinderblock affairs just off the beach), broken up by the occasional breathtaking bay. The winding journey takes you past the War in the Pacific Museum, the ailing Taleyfac Spanish Bridge (1785), Umatac Bay, where Magellan was thought to have landed (it’s recently been discovered that he probably landed in the north of Guam), the ruins of Fort Soledad, built to protect the Manila Galleons during their voyage from Acapulco to Manila, and the Gef Pa’go Chamorro historic cultural village. Intrepid explorers (with stout footwear) should seek out Gadao’s Cave in Inarajan, one of seven caves on Guam that contains prehistoric pictograph geometric figures, some of which seem to represent human images, drawn (presumably) using a lime-like material.

So, enough of the fawning… Here’s what to do on Guam:

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If you’re like most Pinkies that have suffered through the journey to Guam, your itinerary likely includes the copious and somber WWII sites. The War in the Pacific National Historical Park is an excellent jumping off point, where you can load up on info about countless sites and memorials scattered around the entire island.

Some of the best dive sites in the world are around Guam, including the Blue Hole and the dual-wreck site of the SMS Cormoran (German) and Tokai Maru (Japanese), the only site in the world where wrecks from two world wars touch one another.

The Sandcastle dinner and cocktail shows – the current show is a mix of delightfully scantly clad ice dancers, illusions and rare tigers – is almost obnoxiously promoted on Guam. Though it falls short of Vegas-caliber entertainment, I was pleasantly surprised by the high production value. You can get your photo taken with a mostly naked ice dancer before the show, which nearly every Japanese person did. I didn’t. I got the shysies. You would too if a seven foot tall (on ice skates), woman with stage make-up, wearing a thong and a bustier was calling you over. A typically fearless 11 year old Japanese boy had no such misgivings…

Trekking opportunities abound and, though I wasn’t able to do it myself due to bad timing, the fairly demanding hike to Guam’s Yona Tank Farm looked to be quite the multi-faceted adventure. Strenuousness aside, I can’t imagine anything more surreal than wandering through the jungle and emerging into a clearing littered with tanks. Talk about a Lost moment. While no actual battle took place in the area, the pockmarked ruins of Sherman tanks and other military vehicles sit where they were abandoned in the thick red clay during heavy rains in 1944. Guam’s Boonie Stompers, a non-profit organization that organizes hikes every Saturday at 9am, frequently makes the trip.

Seawalker Tours is a sort of rudimentary scuba dive using a diving bell helmet. It’s essentially a low-impact way to explore the sea floor and admire a variety of colorful fish up close, drawn in by the clouds of food that the tour guides squirt out of bottles right into your face so the fish swarm up and nip every errant hair and mole on your body during the ensuing chaos. The dive itself (and the so-so ancillary activities like snorkeling and kayaking) is probably quite a thrill if you’ve never done scuba before, but they try to sell you a DVD of your dive, featuring footage of you and the aforementioned attacking fish horde that’s decidedly priced for the Japanese.

Further to day-long water oriented adventures, Alupang Beach Club has a la carte packages like dolphin watching, banana boat rides and parasailing. If six hours of Japanese girls in bikinis does anything for you, it’s worth every penny.

Finally, Guam has gorgeous and impressive golf courses, including Talofofo a cinematic stretch of links with mountain backdrops jointly designed by nine U.S. Senior Professional Golfers, including Billy Casper, Doug Ford and Ben Hogan.

Since I don’t want to resort to brief guidebook reviews here, I’ll simply mention that Guam has excellent hotels and dining options that, in some cases, may not be as carefully nuanced for peak luxury as in places like Hawaii, but anyone who will miss that degree of anal retentive detail probably shouldn’t be sluffing it in the North Pacific in the first place.

[UPDATE: I belatedly found the segment that Stephen Colbert did on Guam. Dear lord, I love that man!]