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Wednesday, April 16, 2014         

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Fantasy Islands

The remote Marshall Islands offer a lasting experience in quiet, back-to-nature travel

By Floyd K. Takeuchi

Special to the Star-Advertiser

POSTED:


Is there anyone who doesn't have a private island fantasy? Someplace where you can forget your problems, be surrounded by quiet beauty, unplug from the rest of the world.

I'm thinking about my private island fantasy as our skiff skims across the lagoon of Majuro Atoll, close in on the lee of small, jewel-like islands. They slip by one after another, covered by coconut palms, thick and emerald green, nestled in a white sand setting, surrounded by turquoise water so clear individual coral heads and darting fish are visible from 40 feet above.

Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific, has 53 islands and islets. Most of them along the northern edge of the atoll are deserted, though here and there a small house is visible through the palms. But clans claim all of these islands, no matter how small, and in traditional times, even these islets would serve a purpose. Marshallese would paddle their canoes here to gather coconuts and breadfruit, or perhaps to hunt birds, certainly to catch fish in the surrounding waters, and sometimes to just get away from nosy neighbors or hectoring spouses.

Today, for those fortunate enough to venture to Majuro, which is about 2,300 miles south-southwest of Honolulu, a number of the atoll's islands have been converted into retreats. Living accommodations range from eco-rudimentary to posh, but no matter the choice the experience is the same: a sense of tranquility that comes from basing your schedule on the tides, the wind and the sun.

IF YOU GO...

Continental Airlines operates four nonstop flights per week between Honolulu and Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands. The flights depart on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The Marshall Islands is 22 hours ahead of Hawaii on the other side of the International Dateline. That means if it is 1 p.m. on Monday in Hawaii, it is 11 a.m. on Tuesday in Majuro. www.continental.com.

More information: Eneko Island: www.rreinc.com/hotel-beaches.htm

Marshall Islands tourism: www.visitmarshallislands.com

 

My retreat is Eneko, an island that is a micro-version of paradise. Our boat driver gently nudges our skiff onto a brilliant white sand beach facing the lagoon, and we jump into cool, knee-deep water so clear it seems to disappear. Just ahead are a bungalow and a separate meeting house with its own kitchen and bar. The thick grass lawn gives way to a forest of towering coconut palms, whose fronds rustle in the steady trade winds.

The sound of the wind through the fronds is a constant companion on Eneko, natural white noise. Not that there is a lot of competing noise to block out on this island. The only other steady sounds are the Pacific pounding against an oceanside fringing reef -- a low-pitched rumble filtered by the thick coconut groves -- and the gentle hiss of lagoon waves washing up on a beach that's only 30 feet from the porch of the bungalow.

This retreat is the vision of Ramsey Reimers, a Marshallese business executive whose family plays the leading role in the country's nascent visitor industry. Ramsey first concentrated on the local market -- yes, it is possible to get harried and stressed working on an atoll where there are no secrets. Eneko's first buildings included a barbecue and picnic shelter and freshwater showers, perfect for a weekend family picnic.

But Ramsey was keen on appealing to the country's small visitor market, which he already served with a popular downtown hotel, the Hotel Robert Reimers, named for his late father. Why not give the visiting trader or international official a chance to spend a night or two in an outer atoll environment, but be a convenient and safe 25-minute boat ride away?

So Ramsey built a screened kitchen-dining room building and a bungalow. The sleeping accommodations are simple but comfortable. One bedroom has a private bathroom. Two other bedrooms share a bathroom. The bungalow can sleep six on beds, though the use of traditional woven sleeping mats could easily raise that number.

Known for his visionary ideas, Ramsey also decided to power Eneko primarily with a small solar-based system. There's enough power to run lights, and a small pump that provides fresh water (rainwater in catchments) for showers. A small gas generator also provides backup power.

Eneko is for those who enjoy the lack of distractions. There are no televisions or radios in the bungalow. There is no Internet connectivity. There is no schedule of planned activities or a concierge. And while you can use your mobile phone on Eneko -- get a local telephone number and SIM card from the national telecommunications authority first -- what's the point?

What there is on Eneko can keep you busy enough. There is fantastic snorkeling in crystal-clear water. Fields of colorful coral are an easy kick or two from shore. Even the novice diver (rent snorkel gear at the Shoreline dive shop at the departure dock) can swim with colorful tangs and angelfish, which dart among the coral heads.

There's also a floating dock for those energetic enough to swim from the beach to the deck attached to pontoons. And there are single and double kayaks available for those who would rather paddle their time away.

Beachcombers will find a large beach along the lagoon side and a rugged coral coast on the north-facing ocean side. At low tide you can walk toward the reef on the ocean side, but use caution -- parts of the reef shelf can be razor sharp, and the tide can come in quickly.

But Eneko, like the other getaway islands in the Majuro Atoll, mostly is a convenient and comfortable retreat from reality. There's nothing to worry about on the island. The Reimers' hotel sends out the boat with freshly made meals three times a day. And we traveled to Eneko with a cooler filled with cold drinks, snacks and fruit. The only other people on Eneko are the family that takes care of the island and ensures that guests have a trouble-free stay.

On our first night on Eneko, sitting on the lagoon beach under a sky thick with bright stars, the only sounds were the gentle beat of lagoon waves and the ever-present rumble of the ocean rolling over the faraway reef. I thought about what constituted "reality" on an island that seemed so removed from my usual urban life.

I looked across Majuro Lagoon to the far eastern edge of the atoll, where most people live, and I watched the bright lights of the capital town twinkle in the night. And then they disappeared. Nearly every light on Majuro went dark within 15 seconds, the result, we later learned, of a power outage at the atoll's only power plant.

So there we were, sitting on a perfect beach under a clear tropical night sky. And across the lagoon, some 25,000 people, nearly half the country's resident population, were in the dark without power.

Suddenly, in the lagoon just in front of me, no more than 30 feet from shore, two beams of light in the water swept the coral heads. Two of Eneko's caretakers were spear fishing, using flashlights to attract their prey. The night would turn out to be good for fishing.

As I watched their underwater beams arc through the lagoon, with the warm glow of solar-powered lights casting soft shadows across the beach, I thought about all of the people in Majuro's urban area who were at that moment no doubt cursing the sudden dark and loss of lights, television and air conditioning.

And I thought to myself, sometimes unreality is the best reality of all.

Floyd Takeuchi, a writer-photographer based in Honolulu, specializes in the Pacific Islands. He was born and raised in the Marshall Islands, and has also worked on Guam and Fiji. The primary photographer for this package, Olivier Koning, is a professional photographer who is also based in Honolulu.






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