Who goes to Saipan?

saipan from up high

Although it breaks all the rules of travel writing – I say that like I ever learned them in the first place – I’m going to start this destination report on Saipan on a negative note, so I can get the bad juju out of the way and spend the rest of this space talking about fun stuff like white beaches and Happy Ending massages.

The fact is that I’ve been struggling with an awkward ethical dilemma while writing nice things about Saipan. I liken it to writing nice things about breast implants. Saipan is really nice to look when it’s under clothes or in a scandalously small bikini, but when viewed up close and naked, laying hands on the real estate if you will, it suddenly becomes less sexy.

Why am I being so helplessly judgmental about beautiful, interesting, affordable, gangs-of-fun Saipan? Mainly because I’m still a little web-shocked after having read the Saipan Sucks website (EDIT: Now defunct) from top to bottom. Talk about an ass-flogging smear campaign… I thought I was pissed off about stuff. I don’t have anything on that Saipan Sucks guy (or guys as they want us to believe).

When I get this fixated and bent out of shape about a country’s/people’s reprehensible shenanigans, I try to anchor myself to the grand scheme of things and a global perspective. Because really, just about any country in the world could have a “[insert name] Sucks” website written about it, using proven facts, presented in a hard-hitting, articulate manner, accusing and condemning easily identifiable people over a variety of unthinkable greed and fraud. I mean, I just got finished living in Italy and Romania, where modern day corruption was invented for Christ’s sake. Or how about the United “Starting Fake Wars for Shameless Self-Serving Profit” States of America? Stuff like this should roll off me a little easier by now.

So, I’ve been trying really hard to un-read what I read at Saipan Sucks, but it ain’t easy. What’s worse, now that I know that half of Guam is reading my blog (hi Guam!!) and someone there will inevitably pick up the phone and call their buddy on Saipan and go “Hey, that Killing Batteries dude is talking trash about you guys,” I feel like I gotta be extra careful with my choice of words.

Anyhoo, I’ve gotten that off my chest. Let’s move on to what really matters (within the confines of this blog), how to enjoy oneself on a tropical island that no one has heard of.

Saipan, part of the greater Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), has a pre-history and culture that largely mirrors Guam’s. In recent history, the island was ruled over first by Germany (1899-1914), then Japan (1914-1944). Taken from the Japanese during WWII, Saipan, along with the whole of the CNMI joined the U.S. in 1986 in a somewhat nebulous relationship, exempting them from certain U.S. federal laws that eventually facilitated several political, labor and sex scandals, again, illustrated in depressing detail at Saipan Sucks.

While mostly resolved, the bad P.R. shrapnel from these high jinks continues to haunt the island, recently plunging Saipan into a grim slump. Despite being better blessed with natural scenery and a more laid back pace than Guam, a rising cost of living for residents and a critical drop in visitor numbers – due in large part to JAL canceling their direct flights from Japan, allegedly in response to a blizzard of complaints about predatory tourist prices and services – has cumulatively brought the island’s economy to a whimpering low. Salvation seems heartbreakingly distant. I’ve been assured by people on the ground that a movement toward improved tourism industry cooperation, a stronger island infrastructure and an image revitalization is in the works. Meanwhile, those that make it here will enjoy underdog-caliber prices and hospitality, to say nothing of the profound beauty and escapism that punctuates most visitors’ impressions.

Saipan’s tourist-busy Garapan district doubles as the primary shopping neighborhood and main pedestrian area. Their small and unimaginative Thursday night market was something of a letdown for me after having just enjoyed the delicious chaos at Guam’s night market the previous evening. There’s also an impressive amount of nightlife, including live music most nights provided by bands flown in from the Philippines, a country where seemingly every soul has been blessed with a gift for musical genius. Garapan is also where Pinkies are relentlessly accosted by hawkers from massage parlors and strip clubs. It’s like a little piece of Bangkok, though significantly less seedy. Indeed, unless you’ve been spoiled in places like Thailand and Laos, the prices for massages on Saipan will seem delightfully low. There’s the small matter of discerning the genuine massage places from the Happy Ending (nudge-nudge) massage places, but otherwise getting the non-happy portions of your body rubbed here is highly recommended.

While the south of Saipan is largely clustered with hotel/resorts and shopping, the north is flush with peaceful scenery and solemn WWII sites, including the haunting Kalabera Cave, Bird Island, Suicide Cliff, the Japanese “Last Command Post” decorated with salvaged military weapons (non-working, I checked), and a large assortment of memorials.

japanese guns on saipanjapanese tank on Saipan

Getting around Saipan outside of Garapan district can be challenging, particularly if you get stuck with a chatty taxi driver that moonlights as a “social director” (pimp). If you plan to do independent exploration, a rental car or a private tour is all but required.

So, without further ado, here’s the big, bad list of Saipan diversions:

Like Guam, Saipan was a hotbed of WWII action. The excellent American Memorial Park is the best place to get a historical overview and information about sites around the remainder of the island.

Yes, that's me, your hero, 25 meters underwaterNot to be outdone by Guam, diving around Saipan is world renowned. Indeed, the current world record for the most people diving at the same location at the same time was set on Saipan (215 people, April 17th, 1999). Lesser known is the world record that was set shortly thereafter, most people at the same location at the same time peeing in the ocean.

Saipan’s Grotto was my first ever underwater cave dive and the parts that weren’t terrifying were simply amazing. I was also ferried over for boat dives at Fleming Point and the Grotto just off the shores of Tinian which were even more spectacular.

Managaha Island, a speck of soft white sand and palm trees on the edge of Saipan’s Tanapag Lagoon, is a day-trip of pure leisure, enriched by crystal clear waters, a variety of swimsuit-oriented activities and a general theme of repose. ‘Managaha’, by the way, means “relax for a while”. Pinkies: bring sunscreen or die.

The Sandcastle dinner show proudly runs on Saipan as well. I must say, Guam’s Sandcastle show clearly enjoys a bigger budget, but it was still good for a few thrills, profound moments of lusting after the showgirls and an impressive dinner. Unlike Guam, at this Sandcastle incarnation they won’t let you into the theatre until you’ve posed for souvenir photos with a scantly clad Russian girl. Incidentally, the phrase “break a leg” is not well received by Russian dancers.

omfg spider on SaipanSaipan’s trekking has a flavor all its own. I was lucky enough to get in on the “Forbidden Island Tour,” operated by Marianas Trekking, a combination jungle, coastline and cave exploration, including breaks for a dip in a cave pool and beach snorkeling. Change into your swimsuit before the tour or be forced to change in public, hiding your dignity from your fellow tourists behind a large rock. Ladies, notice I didn’t say ‘small rock’.

forbidden beach on Saipan forbidden beach on Saipanforbidden beach on Saipan

For people/families that prefer activities that don’t involve open water (say, anyone from Minnesota), the Pacific Islands Club has a location in Saipan, featuring several pools, water slides, a windsurfing pool, kayaking and dry-land activities like tennis, badminton, archery and game rooms.

As I teased in my last post, if the relatively faint “bustle” of Guam and Saipan proves too much for you, side trips can be easily arranged to the nearby islands of Rota and Tinian.

deserted tinian beach

I was able to spend a day on Tinian, touring WWII sites, including what were at the time the busiest airfields in the world, where the infamous Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs were secretly delivered and assembled before being dropped on Japan. Tinian also happens to be one of the last places on Earth where, you can literally have an entire white sand beach all to yourself. On weekends they get mildly busy with families picnicking, but during the work week, these beaches are flat out empty. They may not be winning any aesthetic appearance awards, but people, all to yourself. San Jose (A.K.A. Tinian Town) has yet more white beaches (though you’ll have to share these with a handful of other people), the ruins of the House of Chief Taga, including the most massive lattes you’re likely to ever see, as well as the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino, one of the most remote and obscure four-star casino-hotels in the world.

tinian latte park tinian vistatinian bunkertinian japanese memorialsjapanese air administration building on Tinian

another deserted white beach on TinianTime restraints kept me from personally visiting Rota, but one of my hosts on Guam was a native of the tiny island, just 47 miles north of Guam, and his stories had me positively longing for the pure beauty, tranquility and isolation of the island. Rota, if you’re reading this, please, for the love of Buddha, do not build that casino!

Harder to get to, but nonetheless fascinating, is the island of Yap. Apart from the pinnacle of unspoiled, escapism nirvana, Yap is best known for its gigantic stone money known as ‘Rai‘, which as a former Federal Reserve Bank stooge, I found endlessly intriguing. The island is also the last bastion of certain cultural peculiarities, stamped out throughout the rest of Micronesia, like, ahem, native women going about their business topless as the day they were born. Maybe not good for a postcard, but intriguing nevertheless.

Like my Guam post, I’ll simply summarize local accommodations options by saying, again, as long as you’re not holding a clipboard with a four and five star amenity checklist, you’ll probably be quite happy with the selection on Saipan (quality descends somewhat as you venture out into the smaller islands, the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino notwithstanding). Food also will not win any Michelin Stars, but I ate extremely well, including three excellent surf and turf meals. How much would that cost you in Maui?