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.
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.
Not 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.
Saipan’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’.
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.
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.
Time 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?
People in Guam don’t care about Saipan.
Did you get to stop in Micronesia on your way back?
Angelo – I can’t speak generally, but I know that Ray over at Newstalk K57 in Guam was very anxious to see the Saipan piece. He asked about it three times.
Gary – Hey dude, unfortunately this whole trip was for a focused business traveler magazine piece, so I did not have the time (or funds) to deviate off course. I certainly would have blabbed about it if I did. Looks as if you’re still there?
I’m from Guam and I care about Saipan!
Great story, Leif! I’m really glad you got to see Kalabasa Cave. Wasn’t it incredible? The cave ceiling is so high, I felt like I was in a cathedral. I didn’t know you were going to Yap, too, otherwise I’d of mentioned to you while you were here that the Yapese people used to sail to Guam (and Palau) to quarry their famous stone money. We have a rock here that to this day is called “acho Yap” because it was so popular with the Yapese.
Really hope we see you in October at the Guam Micronesia Island Fair. Then you can be a guest on MY radio show at Newstalk K-57! (Nyah, nyah, nyah Ray!!! I asked him first!)
It’s quite difficult to write positively about Saipan. Trust me, I’m from there and I’ve tried.
Today, when people hear “Saipan”, the first thing that may enter their minds could be related to the political attitude of the island and how heavy it weighs on the community which in my opnion, speaks for Tinian and Rota. Second – the scenery. Third – locals’ hospitality. Fourth – disgusting fritada: according to a few visitors who’ve tried (Note: I said disgusting not toxic). Fifth – culture.
When we speak of/about politics in Saipan, I can almost guarantee that it is about confusion, incompetence or chaos. In other words, a huge circus. Visitors not worry – Fed-USA is the biggest circus, Saipan is just an outlet.
Saipan, Tinian & Rota (CNMI) gloats many beautiful places and countless people. Anyway, half of Guam doesn’t care about Saipan.
I live on Guam & I care about Saipan as well.
In fact, I want to visit Saipan this year
just to boost their economy a little.
I haven’t been to Saipan but I care deeply about the place.
I wish the best of luck and happiness to all of the CNMI’s residents.
I’m from the very beautiful island of Guam, but I live here in Saipan, bacause my wife is from here(she’s from Virginia, actually). Saipan is alright, too laid back, but I prefer going to the malls on Guam, where I can eat at the food court, go to Burger King and enjoy life. I miss Guam so much, that every time we go there I feel and look like a tourist with a huge smile on my face–I know it’s kind of pathetic! Saipan is my second home, but it will never replace Guam, because Guam is always will be my number one home…FOREVER!!
i’m from the island of guam, and personally, saipan fascinates me much more than the island of guam ever will. sure we have all this “hustle and bustle”, but i have a few friends from the islands of saipan/rota/tinian, and it amazes me at how close they are even if they are islands apart. i always feel left out, wanting to share in this close friendship. i constantly read stories they tell me, and they make it seem like all they need to do is swim to the next island and have the time of their lives with friends. i’ve been wanting to visit the CNMI along with the other Micronesian islands all my life. but never had the time or money to even try. so maybe one day, i would be able to leave this island of Guam and maybe when i come back, i’ll have a newfound appreciation for Guam.
Wow so many hatred against an Island that blooms with its natural Beauty.
Why is Guam fill with hatred against Saipan?
When Saipan has done nothing but to love Guam. And yes we can never be like Guam, We are not fully funded by the united states, we don’t have the Army base, Navy base, or Marine base to live off from; Burger King, Wendys, or other great American fast food to eat from. Oh and lets not forget, Great malls where people can go and enjoy an indoor shopping that fills with many beautiful things provided by some country. But we are just an Islands that is simply trying to share our culture our own stuff things will help tours remember about Saipan and its way of life. and by far i think we are doing good so far. Yes, our Government has fallen, but not the people! And lets not forget that Saipan stands upon the people. And yes wrong choices will occur, people will have to face challenges, and many mistakes will take place before succession appear. But we will see the success bloom in Saipan..
I am not from here, I am a resident of Federated states of Micronesia and i hope that one day i will become a citizen of Saipan. I’ve lived here for 18 yrs now, been to the U.S, and also in Guam and I’ll have to say, I am more comfortable In Saipan then I am in Guam. People are a lot friendlier and are willing to help, and most important is they still have their culture.
But this is not all, I do know that the economy is not doing so well, But if you look at other places and other countries and their economical crises i think Saipan is doing a lot better.
And Guam please before you start making any bad remarks on Saipans economy please do look at yours first. Thank you;)
Saipan( The Island I love)
to all that say negative things about saipan and its people you are all too spoiled by money and the economic structures in the main land that you are too used to that when you come to our islands you dont find what your looking for because its back where you came from. the people of saipan will always survive any where we go. because we live with so little that we dont need the big things to live. if mother nature was to remove all structures man made from the earth where would that leave you with all your negativity and spoils of life. ill tell you that saipan will survive. fresh fish from our fishermen, fresh chicken from our farmers, fresh vegetables from our farmers again, all the coconut juice and ways of using this tree you will never learn. so go back to your spoils until you see in front of the black shade that covers your eyes leaving you blind with negativity. for you to truly understand saipan and the northern marianas and its people you would have to give up all your spoils and greet our culture with a hafa adai and see where that will take you.
How can you have written about Saipan without talking about the wonderful closeness of the people, and their warmth to outsiders? For example, that an outsider can’t walk a mile on the beach along the lagoon on a Saturday without being invited by total strangers to join their BBQ’s.
Did you spend any time with locals? Did you learn that we have both Chamorros and Refaluwasch, with different languages and traditions?
And yet the disgruntled ex-government lawyer from the mainland with the uber-negative website gets line after line.
Apparently you do travelogue-type stuff, but even that would be deepened and enhanced by some reflections on the people, both the locals and the expats. For example, it’s interesting how so many expats come here to do good things for the “natives,” and then leave disillusioned and basically racist against locals, because their fairy tale visions of being the great white helper don’t work out. (See disgruntled author of the website the accuracy of which you endorse after a few days on island.)
Things here on Saipan can be messy–it’s definitely a young government that’s still growing and learning (as is the US)–but at least the locals are in charge. And I’ll take that any day over the plastic feel of Hawaii or New Zealand, with their few words of indigenous languages scattered around the way scraps are tossed to animals.
hey kaksaka haha you’re right. we will always survive in any situation :) After reading this, I realize how much I miss home. I know Saipan is not perfect to the rest of the world, but it is where I grew up and it will always be perfect to me. So Guam, stop hating and let’s have a fiesta at Cristo Rai Church!
To Cindy, it’s KALABERA Cave and it’s not the only cave in Saipan with drawings…
albeit, it’s the only cave that’s open to public knowledge, you can find drawings in caves located at LauLau Beach, Beehives’ Cave in Marpi, and all others. You really just got to look and distinguish what’s authentic and what’s not.. If you ever go to Saipan, look up the guys at Historic Preservation Office and they’ll let you know the best places to go… I work with them whenever i go back home, and it’s better to go to them because they know where EVERYTHING is.
Oh, and it’s best not to pick up the bones or other things and put them in your bag-pack. You can get into loads of trouble.
and to Gary, Saipan AND GUAM is IN Micronesia. Yap, Pohnpei, Chuuk, etc… are the Federated States of Micronesia… Difference? Politically yes. Location? No, not in the least.
If you want to have a good time in Saipan, you should probably have looked around and asked some local people what’s good… If you have, you would have tried Tuba (fermented coconut sap wine), Sakkou (Kava kava in Polynesian), CHAMORRO FOOD as in a local barbeque (which is, honest to buddha, radha, krishna, whoever, one of THE BEST ATTRACTIONS in the whole of the CNMI)….
Chances are, you would have had the best time of your life, had you seek out local contact instead of having some pimp/cab driver take you around. Saipanese…. Micronesians, mainly… are one of the friendliest set of people on the planet and if you EVER needed a lift to go somewhere, food, money, drink, a place to stay, a warm bed at night… locals… they’re always your answer.
Anyway…. Marianas Trekking always has the tours. Sandcastle, you can see that anywhere in the mainland and in Guam…
and for your info. the only reason why they would have wanted to hear about the Saipan travel log is because they want to hear you say it’s worse than Guam. Guamanians want to be part of the U.S., the 51st State. Instead of Micronesia and the Pacific… where it actually belongs, geographically and culturally. I’m from Saipan (in Hilo, HI for school actually) as well.
I noticed the last post was in early 2010. THe saipansucks site was written in 2006, before the DeLay scandal and the closing of most of the sweatshops. the writer of saipansucks clearly does have a bias- not because he mentions nepotism and cronyism (which is rampant everywhere, my dear) but sneering at those who are on the dole and the morality of the locals having children out of wedlock show he, she, or they have a clear ethnocentric bias. The last straw was when they called Saipan “The Mexico of the South Pacific” sneering not only at the locals, but at the Mexicans as well. I really did see this as quite racist, mass corruption notwithstanding.
Do you know of recent sites about Saipan from the year 2011?
i live in saipan and saipan is a great place it is full of great things to do and visit and to eat tropical fruits!
OK, so I have recently been considering a move to The CNMI to take a job as a JROTC Instructor. My wife and I have been reading all the good the bad and the ugly on this so far appealing assignment. I have not had my official interview yet so I have been on a quick study of the entire history so I can present myself as a qualified candidate. Like Killing Batteries, I read Saipan Sucks and was horrified. Hateful corrupt citizens, dirty old men seeking out young sexual partners and, $7 for a gallon of milk? YIKES if this is true I guess I will stay right here in Detroit. But perhaps I just have to do more research. My wife and I are simple people. We have been married for almost 30 years and have never owned a new car or owned a home. I spent 25 years in the Army and we have lived all over the world. Both my wife and I are only children and both of our parents have passed. I think this makes us good candidates to be successful as we will not have big family ties in the main land to make us homesick. Working as a JROTC High School Instructor is a great job. I have been retired and working as an instructor since 2008. I have worked in Memphis and now Detroit in some of the most repressed hateful environments this country has to offer. My wife and I have always been able to overlook racial prejudice and fit in wherever we have lived. If we are ever faced with “mainlanders go home” attitudes I think we can handle it. Not sure about the reported conditions of raw sewage on most of the beaches and such is concerning to us. Although we are seriously considering this radical relocation because I find the job appealing the lure of a temperant island with beautiful beaches is an important aspect of what we look forward to. If the beaches are all trashed this will be a disaster. OK, I posted our profile and if anyone wants to chime in on whether we fit the model candidate mold for making it on CNMI let us know Thanks Curt & Marie
Hi Curt and Marie,
The author made a good point that it is difficult to UNREAD something you’ve read. In 2006, when I was preparing to escape from New York to live on Saipan, I too, chanced upon that disgruntled website in a Google search. However, knowing what I know about the difficulty of unreading, I made a conscious decision NOT to visit or read the site. In fact, I never even say or write the name of the site…ever. To this day, I’ve never visited it. If you are new to Saipan and have landed on THIS site first, I encourage you to do the same. (Speech is not free. Words have effect and we are all living the effects of the thoughts and words that are floating around in our minds.)
Check out http://www.welovesaipan.com and http://www.saipanliving.com for more information about Saipan. For an array of other positive sites about Saipan check out http://www.BestofSaipan.com. These are all sites I’ve created or helped launch pecifically to counter the lack of positive information available on Saipan at that time.
I cannot decide on Guam or the CNMI to relocate to. Plan on opening a business on both down the road, but first I will pick up a second bachelors at one of the schools to re-socialize myself to normal people, as I have been in Afghanistan the last 3 years. Guam is obviously the better school, but the Marianas college is so little and quaint and I think it may be better for me. I also think a beach house in CNMI would be a better purchase than in Guam. Guam seems a little too busy and too macho for me, but with more opportunities for friends and business and revelry. I have to make this decision within a couple of months, as I plan to move in July
I plan on visiting and then probably moving to Saipan. I’ve lived all over the US, and being a white guy, how will I be received? I hope to move and retire there. Some of the racism I’ve read about on certain sites has me a bit worried. From what I read, it’s mostly locals hating Asians. I don’t get it, but I know that it’s around 2% white there, so I don’t want to move and realize I made the biggest mistake of my life. There really isn’t much info about the CNMI anywhere on the internet, and was hoping I could get an honest answer here. Thanks.
The author of Saipan Sucks is a miserable, disgruntled, pathetic, woefully inadequate, cynical, negative, sorry excuse of a human being, who has not taken a hard look at his own country, the USA, for the failures of humanity. I am doubtful he did not partake in the Asian flesh trade he protested so much against. I am sure he is a hypocrite whose ego just couldn’t take rejection and decided to vomit all the poison out of his system by dumping on our island. When I was called a “wetback” in San Diego, I learned to speak Spanish. There was a lot of heartache because of my skin color but that did not reflect on the entire city or people. Anyone with that much hatred and vitriol in their blood is to be ignored and avoided.
Did you move to Saipan? How do you find it as a “white guy” from the US mainland? I am curious if there are opportunities to socialize and even prospective of dating?
For Roy, Joe and others
Saipan is like any other place on earth, yes they have women. Yes you can probably even date one. Just remember one thing. You are a white Anglo-Saxon male. If so, you have been already labeled once there and step off the plane. You have money, period. About 90% of the working pop makes $6.05/hr. and works 10 hrs a day at some resort or hotel. Keep that in mind. Oh, one more thing. Try not to act like a jerk. Be polite, tip well and as always, NEVER take a legal taxi.
Have fun in the sun!!