Sanjay Surana pays the island east of the Philippines a visit and tours its highlights. It was love at first flight
This U.S. Territory less than a four-hour flight from South Korea and the Philippines with its name that calls to mind a succulent tropical fruit, has intrigued me for years. I’d heard about its melange of cultures, its fabulous beaches, its shopping, food, and adventure, and yet I’d never met a single person that had traveled there. When Guam’s tourism sages declared 2017 “The Year of Love”, I knew I had to see and learn more about the island known mostly for its American military base. What I discovered exceeded all my expectations.
The largest island in Micronesia, a touch smaller than Metro Manila (with one-eightieth of its population), Guam offers Asians a taste of America without the long flight across the globe. Like the Philippines, it was once under Spanish control, and it was also ruled by the Japanese before being liberated by the United States in World War II. Its past has forged a fascinating hybrid, an island that has meshed Asia, Micronesia, America, and Europe and spawned its own language, culture and cuisine.
In the 1960s, visitors began pouring in from Japan, which has remained the island’s dominant tourism market, although recent years have seen a surge of tourists from the Philippines, who have reason to feel at home in Guam. By a number of estimates, a quarter of the island’s permanent population is from the Philippines, many of them working in tourism. Filipinos will find the food familiar — the indigenous Chamorro people love their meat and fish.
At the casually decorated Terry’s Local Comfort Food in Tumon Bay, the island’s main tourist area, I sampled the famous fried parrot-fish, shrimp fritters and beef steak, all served with the fiery finedene (soy sauce with chilli, lemon, and chopped onions) that locals spoon upon everything. My personal favorites? Two addictive vegetable dishes — hagon suni (spinach in coconut milk enlivened by lemon juice) and lechen biringhenas (grilled aubergine with coconut milk). Meals in Guam are large and usually end with another familiar word, balutan, adopted into Chamorro: food packed for takeaway.
In addition to traditional food, Guam’s restaurants offer the entire breadth from Asian to Latin to European, plus good old American chains like Denny’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and Ruby Tuesday. One evening, I dined at the glass-fronted, Sea Grill, and was wowed as much by the views of a Vegas-like strip in Tumon Bay, as the fine seafood served in ocean-themed interiors, complete with a pair of blue whales for a centerpiece.
The following day I headed over to Fish Eye Marine Park, an underwater observatory at the end of a 300m pier, to check out another of Guam’s celebrated attributes — the thriving marine life in its surrounding waters.
“This area is called Piti Bomb Holes,” my guide Dennis McMurray said, pointing at water teeming with longfin bannerfish and black-and-white damselfish, “because during the war Japanese artillery blew away patches of coral.” The marine park is one of the island’s main attractions, yet signs to it (likewise for every tourist site on Guam) are minimal. I found the understated tourism here refreshing — no blazing billboards, gaudy placards, no overt showmanship, but fun spots promoted tastefully.
Even the marker on the main highway for Guam’s top attraction, Two Lovers Point, is so small that if you blink, you’ll miss it. The point rises above the Philippine Sea and legend has it, is the spot where two ill-fated Chamorro lovers bound their hair together before leaping to their tragic demise.
The look-out point attracts visitors and young lovers attach heart-shaped foam tags, available from the gift shop, to the railings around the viewing platform, each one inscribed with messages or snapshots that celebrate the spirit of romance. Looking down from the cliff, I scanned the endless electric-blue sea and noticed the shell of a huge turtle breaking the surface.
“When I was young I’d fish down there,” Dennis told me, watching the turtle, “and sometimes giant manta rays would just come right up and glide around.”
The Valley of the Latte river cruise allows visitors to explore a slice of the island that’s also steeped in lore with carbon dating indicating that human life existed in the region around 210 BC. Take the pontoon ride up the Talofofo River and pass the nipa palms, banana and papaya plants and the pandanus tree whose leaves can be used to make sails. Here, after World War II, the Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi hid for 28 years, living off the land and the river, making clothes from the bark of the hibiscus tree.
The cruise is soothing, silent but for the gentle rumble of the boat engine and the occasional splashing of catfish in the water. The palms and clouds reflected in the glassy river lent the trip a gentle, dream-like quality.
Back on land, staff dressed in traditional Chamorro loincloths show us a thatched dwelling built atop foundation stones called lattes, where they built canoes — small ones dug out of tree trunks and larger ones made by lashing together planks of breadfruit and flame trees.
It is easy to picture life here 2,000 years ago. Chamorro culture is also celebrated at nightly performances around the island. At the Sheraton’s Bayside BBQ, the only pure Chamorro show on Guam, diners feast on short ribs, Chamorro sausage, and seafood, while performers sing and dance. The event is low-key, tracing the island’s chronology through the Polynesian-esque hip swaying, hand movements to pre-Hispanic tribal rhythms, to dances that incorporate twirls of the skirt, to men with red bands tied around their waists, coconut shells used as castanets. After the show, I learned from the emcee that the Chamorro language, shunned prior to the 1960s, has become more dominant since 2000, and is now taught in all public schools.
Tao Tao Tasi, staged in an open-air arena on Gun Beach, is a much more elaborate show. Translated as “people of the seas” and drawing on influences from across the Pacific islands, it enthralls guests with folk songs, stick-fighting, dancers performing the hip-swaying Tamure atop hydraulic platforms, muscular men twirling machetes and fire batons, and intense, driving passages of percussion.
Of course, the entertainment here extends beyond cultural shows, and includes adrenaline-pumping extreme rides like the Slingshot and magic shows in Tumon Bay. At the pulsing extravaganza Zubrick, I watched big dance numbers, daring acrobatic feats, and some confounding illusions. The following night at Encore!, I enjoyed an intimate variety show more geared to families including everyone’s favorite character Mr. Rob, the Vaudeville-esque, avuncular juggler who kept botching his tricks.
This diversity exemplifies the appeal of Guam — it is has something for all tastes, from elementary to elaborate, low-cost to lavish. Take the shopping: T Galleria by DFS seduces designer-devotees, while Guam Premier Outlets is the home of Ross, a discounter with cut-rate zebra masks, shoes, swimsuits, Ralph Lauren handbags, and more (it’s open till 1am!). Guamanians love to boast that their island has the world’s largest Louis Vuitton store and the world’s biggest Kmart. Yet away from international name brands, there is local shopping. At the Chamorro Village night market held every Wednesday, I found jewelry, carved gifts, Guam coconut oil, remarkable art made of burned wood, and enjoyed smoothies, iced desserts and barbecued meat at the stalls while catching a free traditional cultural show which had fire twirlers come so close to the audience, we could smell the kerosene and feel the searing heat from the fire torches. My fondest memory was buying denanche or chilli sauce from producer Joseph Aguon, a lively man with a chili-pepper earring in his left lobe and a glint in his eye.
Before coming over, I’d always imagined Guam to be densely developed throughout, but one half-day around the south of the island soon dispelled that myth. The majority of Chamorros live in the south, filled with crinkly mountains and thick jungle. At the Inarajan Pool, seawater floods limestone hollows creating natural water holes. I climbed a rock to the right of the holes, accessed via a broken staircase, and enjoyed the spray of the ocean as the powerful Pacific pummeled the shore. The pools were warm with silky soft water and only a handful of tourists (though they get packed on weekends). The village of Inarajan offers visitors a glimpse of Guam’s past. The hamlet was the headquarters of the Japanese forces during the war, a simple house on Hidalgo Way. Bright public artwork, something evident all over Guam, brightened walls of crumbling buildings and one home bore a plaque commemorating Mariano and Ana Leon Guerrero, who lived there with their 16 children.
I strolled around Fort Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, a fortification overlooking Umatac Bay that was a supply stop for the Acapulco-Manila Spanish galleon trade. The fort is serene, with towering Australian pine trees and heart-melting views of the coastline and deep-blue waters. Umatac Bay was where Ferdinand Magellan is thought to have first landed in Guam in 1521, a pretty cove backed by mountains like Mount Lam Lam, the tallest point of the island. As I trod upon the pebbles by the bay, I couldn’t help but wonder if the great Portuguese explorer took these same steps almost five centuries ago.
Driving is one of the unexpected pleasures of the of the island, and a rental allowed me to explore ribbons of empty beach near Ritidian Point in the north, to the quiet village of Merizo in the south. I took in all the forces that shaped the island, from Japanese gun turrets by beaches, to the grand Dulce Nombre de Maria Basilica with its striking stained glass windows to the charming Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Santa Rita.
I drove with the windows down, and in quintessential escape mode, I sometimes forgot where I was. Along some stretches it felt like I was in the Caribbean, the sound of reggae audible all over the island. But the strip-style shopping plazas reminded me of the US. The signs in Japanese suggested I was in Asia. The lilt of Tagalog on the local radio put me in the Philippines.
“Access from the Philippines is almost easier than getting to a remote island in the same country,” Simon Odoca, a resident who is half-Filipino, told me. “Here there are no worries about bus or boat transfers, there is no traffic, the roads are good, the driving is easy, and the distances are short. And Filipinos love the shopping.”
Another lure is of course the outdoors, with great golf, excellent hiking (aka boonie stomping), and sublime beaches which make plenty of water sports available. Alupang Beach Club (ABC), the prime water sports facility near the tourist hubs of Tumon Bay and Hagatna, occupies a stretch of the shallow East Hagatna Bay. Tourists can spend a day here, jet-skiing, stand-up paddle boarding, parasailing, banana boating, snorkeling, and more. At the buffet lunch, I met ABC’s Retail Manager Stephen Gatewood, a tall young man with matinee-idol looks. “I was born and raised here, and even after going to university in San Diego, I couldn’t wait to come back. Guam is full of hidden gems dotted around the island, amazing places to explore.”
One such gem is Lost Pond, a freshwater lagoon not far from Two Lovers’ Point that even some locals don’t know exists. Adventurers walk and wade north along Tanguisson Beach (wear water shoes and carry belongings in a dry bag) and then enter the jungle at a break in the bushes marked by pink and orange tape. After a 10-minute ramble through the jungle, I was able to leap into a calm, emerald fresh water pond.
On my last morning, I planned to hike Mt Lam Lam from the lookout for Cetti Bay. When the trail forked, I turned right, pressed for time, choosing the nearer Mt Jumullong Manglo. The peak is marked by a row of crosses that draws pilgrims by the thousands every Good Friday. At the top, I took in the mountains over the island’s spine and the blue bays below in golden silence, but for cooing turtledoves and splicing breezes.
On the descent, I remembered all the things I didn’t get to do: the hike to Marbo Cave and Cliffs, Sigua Falls and the famed night markets. But it’s all good. Just like many places that have found a way into my heart, Guam still holds reasons for me to return.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Smile magazine.