POHNPEI STATE, Micronesia >>
I’m panicked and soaked as smiling locals fish me out of the bay on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. “Trip of a lifetime,” I sarcastically thought as we made our way back to land with an upside-down kayak, our cameras and cellphone ruined.
How did I end up drenched, emotionally drained and out a few thousand dollars in electronics in this remote island nation, one might ask? More importantly, here’s why it was totally worth it.
My husband and I traveled to Micronesia on United’s Island Hopper route from Honolulu to Guam. First stop, 4-½ hours from Hawaii: Majuro, a coral atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
We shopped for groceries for a stay on a nearby private island but ended up mostly with items like pasta and cereal; fresh produce was scarce and overpriced. After a 30-minute boat ride to Eneko Island, we spent a few days completely alone, kayaking and chasing colorful fish through turquoise water. Evenings offered breathtaking sunsets, stargazing and cooking our carby meals.
Highlights of Majuro included the tiny Alele Museum featuring Marshallese folk art, history and stick charts used for nautical navigation. Handicraft stores downtown sell traditional, intricately woven baskets and bags. Hotel Robert Reimers offers a solid restaurant and accommodations starting at $45. Pricier lagoon-front cabins are a worthy splurge.
For a pampered vacation, the private Bikendrik Island offers two charming bungalows stocked with cognac and Grand Marnier, three-course meals and occasional visits from the lagoon pet, Oscar the octopus. Rates start at $570.
A short flight west (with a quick stop in Kwajalein Atoll, a U.S. military base where you cannot deplane) took us to Pohnpei, a lush, mountainous island and one of four states making up the Federated States of Micronesia.
Pohnpei’s capital, Kolonia, has souvenir shops, remnants of a historic Spanish wall and a helpful tourism office. Don’t leave without a colorful floral skirt, an island fashion staple. Arnold’s Restaurant offers tasty American fare and Grace’s Special Bakery on Nantuelek Street serves sweet treats.
An hour’s drive took us to Pohnpei’s crown jewel: the ancient city of Nan Madol. Picture 13th-century ruins rivaling the splendor and lore of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Peru’s Machu Picchu, minus the crowds. As with most of this trip, we were the only tourists.
Kepirohi Waterfall is a gorgeous cascading pyramid near Nan Madol. A hard-to-spot sign on Circle Island road marks a turnoff where you pay a $3 entrance fee.
The waterfront Mangrove Bay Hotel has scenic views and a restaurant serving exclusively sushi and chicken wings. The onsite Pohnpei Surf Club can arrange water excursions and guided Nan Madol tours.
To reach some of the 100-plus man-made islets, you can pay local families a few dollars per person to cross their land. But we opted to navigate Nan Madol’s shallow channels by kayak.
After winding through dense mangroves for about 30 minutes, the dark, twisty jungle opened into vast, clear-blue ocean. Massive shadows darted around our wobbling vessel — stingrays from a nearby sanctuary.
At this point, I noticed the kayak inching lower into the sea. But we were by then an hour from the marine institute that runs the small boat rental business. We had no choice but to carry on.
On shore we found walls of stacked basalt columns, an engineering feat still shrouded in mystery. We traipsed through megalithic ruins by foot for a few hours before starting our doomed return to civilization. The hull of our punctured kayak was slowly flooding.
My panic grew exponentially after a number of near tips. My husband paddled gently as I clutched the phone, drone and fancy camera purchased days earlier.
The water was calm and we’re both fine swimmers. But I was upset: This was not the plan.
With the dock in sight, the boat’s sway became unmanageable. In the blink of an eye, we were underwater.
If Pohnpei was an exercise in rolling with the punches, Chuuk State was a master class in relinquishing control.
Another hour on the Island Hopper gets you to this large atoll known for world-class wreck diving. The U.S. sank more than 50 Japanese ships here during WWII and most remain preserved in its shallow lagoon.
None of our stops offered much tourist infrastructure, but Chuuk was the most challenging. The handful of tour companies claimed to be fully booked (if they responded at all). The hotel had lost our reservation. We couldn’t get answers to questions like “can we take this tour?” or “do you have a hotel shuttle?” Infrequent taxis stopped running at 5 p.m.
I quickly realized you have to show up in person and keep asking till you get what you need. When we finally reached the Blue Lagoon Resort dive shop, the previously unavailable wreck trips were miraculously available and, it turned out, well worth our efforts.
Chuuk’s underwater world is simply incredible. We swam through massive schools of tropical fish to find a sunken Momi-class destroyer and coral-encrusted cargo ship. There’s plenty for non-divers to see too, like a downed Mitsubishi Zero plane and a 1937 coastal freighter lying 8 feet down. We spent an afternoon on the private Jeep Island with unbelievable coral reef snorkeling and shark spotting.
The airport-adjacent L5 Hotel offers the newest accommodations. But Blue Lagoon and Truk Stop Hotel are best bets for arranging wreck tours.
As we boarded the plane for our final stop in Guam, sunburnt and still reeling from our adventures, my boat-flipping hysteria was a distant memory.
It was a small price to pay for an unplugged, truly unpredictable journey and a much-needed lesson in letting go.