Thursday, November 22, 2012

Trekking on Edge

altA TREK to Naftan Point was not on my mind when I joined a group of six others on a late Saturday afternoon. We were in the parking lot of American Memorial parking lot flipping coins to decide where to go for a shooting adventure when I remembered the Rabbit Hole in Naftan. I had only seen pictures of the place but had’t been there yet.
Without hesitation, we boarded two cars and off we went to Saipan’s southernmost tip. Turning at the intersection of Obyan Beach, we began driving on an unfamiliar rough road and ended in someone’s driveway. First try. We went back and followed another road, this time much smaller and rougher than the first one, and ended up on a small clearing with barely enough space for the cars. We tried again and finally found the right road — a tree-lined single lane grassy road that went narrow and narrower as we inched deeper into a jungle of tangan-tangan.
We reached a point where Mervin and Tony had to go down and start clearing protruding tree branches so we could drive through. It was agonizing to hear every squeak and scrape of the branches and shrubs under and on the sides of the car. I was just waiting for the final thud that would make us stuck in that jungle. It went on for the next half a mile or so as we plodded on, finally reaching a small clearing to park our cars.
Our trip was not over yet. Carting our heavy cameras and tripods, we slowly inched our way in the jungle — this time parting thick shrubs with our hands and ducking under roots and branches and avoiding one of the hundreds of spider webs along the way.
Emerging into the open, we followed pale pink ribbons tied to waist-high shrubs as we looked for the Rabbit Hole. 

The sun was relentlessly unforgiving, beating down on us who had no shelter. Groping our way along the cliff and finding secure handholds and footholds was a real challenge. One wrong step could send us hurtling down into the rocks and the churning waters below.
We reached a cliffside where a spectacular panorama awaited us. Way down below and nestled between sharp cliffs was a cove with a small flat surface but with rugged edges resembling a stage. It was mesmerizing to watch huge waves crash on the “stage,” before rolling back to the ocean in rivulets.
I was too engrossed taking photos and video I did not notice Mervin making calls on his cellphone. We were lost. We were not supposed to be on that dangerous cliffline.
The sun was beginning to set, and we had to head back. I did not relish the idea of getting stuck in a jungle at night and share my blood with thousands of mosquitoes. None of us was prepared for that trek — we were wearing too comfortable sandals, carrying too much gear and were mentally conditioned to shoot photos in friendlier and nearer areas.
We failed to find our destination, and Tony ended up with a torn eyebrow after hitting a protruding tree branch. Our cars suffered a hundred or so minor scratches but we got the photos we wanted, and the adventure we did not plan.
The Rabbit Hole, will still be there, somewhere, next time.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Friday, November 9, 2012

Moonlit sailing in Saipan lagoon

THERE are sunset, sunrise, and daylight cruises. I’ve tried them all at one time or another, but a moonlit cruise in the Saipan lagoon was something I didn’t plan for. bottom left 
I have heard moonlight cruises were being offered by some cruise companies here by special arrangement through some organizations for fundraisers, meetings and gatherings in the past, but I hadn’t been on one yet. That is until last Saturday when a text message from friend Donna to go sunset sailing pulled me away from my computer. I decided to go straight to Smiling Cove Marina. I was feeling kind of lazy but could not allow a chance to go sailing slip through my fingers. It would be different if you had a sailboat of your own and could go off anytime you wanted to.
The sky was overcast but the waves were gentle when we pushed off from the dock and into the lagoon aboard Matt’s sailboat. With four photographers on board, conversation was not necessary. An overcast sky is a challenge to photographers, but we all gloried in it, shooting cloud formations and everybody wishing we all had giant spades to scoop the clouds away for a view of the dazzling sunset. We had no such luck but on our way back a couple of hours later, we got a bonus. The moon made its way up in the sky, casting a luminous glow on the water.
bottom rightFrom afar, we could hear the laughter and singing from one of the sunset cruise boats full of tourists. From where we were, we could see billows of smoke rising from the CUC building in Lower Base, but aside from that, Saipan looked like one sleepy island with no one else up and about.
We slowly sailed back toward the dock. Matt got busy rolling up the sails when we entered the Cove. With the sails neatly rolled in place and the engine still off, the sailboat glided ever so slowly as we entered the marina. I was lost in thought and my imagination started to get wild as I gazed at the silhouettes of trees across from the cement walkway.
There was a momentary silence broken only by the soft lapping of the gentle waves along the sides of the boat, or the occasional slapping sound as a mosquito tried to feast on an exposed arm or leg.
I realized all of us had drifted into a sleepy state. Everyone was busy gazing at the moon rising above the tree tops or at the shimmering reflection in the water and fighting a bout of drowsiness lulled by the slow and lazy swaying of the sailboat. Everyone, that is, except for Matt who was trying to catch some fish with a pole but with no right
It was already dark when we pulled into the dock and walked to American Memorial Park where we had left our cars, refreshed from the moonlight sailing experience. If you have been here all your life and have not yet tried sailing in the moonlit lagoon, you are missing a lot!

This was first published at the Marianas Variety

Friday, October 26, 2012

Forbiddenly yours

altSEEING it from the lookout, the small island on the east coast of Saipan looks like a little piece of chipped rock pushed into the sea.
The access road to Forbidden Island from the main road in Kagman is quite challenging, especially if you do not have four-wheel drive. Some sections of the road resemble a dried-up riverbed with deep crevices, and thick shrubs cover sharp turns. You may end up narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a vehicle driving in the opposite direction.
Looking down from the lookout, you may think that reaching Forbidden Island is easy and requires no sweat at all, but those who have been down there before know better.
Crossing the small gap of knee-deep water between the beach to the island is something of a major feat as the rocks are sharp and the current strong.
You also have to make sure you’re back on the beach before the tide comes in. Fighting the strong current is no joke. Forbidden Island has already claimed many lives.
The trek, in short, is not for everybody. It is not for the weak of heart or those scared of heights.
You start the downward trail by entering deep into a jungle of tangan-tangan, stepping on loose rocks that may suddenly roll beneath your feet or fall from above.
The final few yards of the trail are the most challenging. The loose earth and rocks almost make it impossible to get a foothold or a handhold. A piece of rope tied to a tree helps hikers, but you can’t hold onto it forever. You have to let go, prevent yourself from tumbling down the rest of the trail and landing on the sharp rocks below.

Then there’s the return trek which is no less challenging. The weather can also play a big role. If you go down on a rainy day, the trail will be slippery and muddy, but if you go on a bright sunny day, the blistering heat is almost too much to bear.
altJust try to forget for a few hours why the island is named “Forbidden” and enjoy the trek. To a lot of people, the island’s name incites curiosity just like anything else that is forbidden.
Designated as a sanctuary for the conservation of wildlife in April 2001 through Public Law 12-46, Forbidden Island offers a superb hiking trail, with spectacular views of an endless stretch of the ocean and blue sky, great snorkeling nooks, pristine hidden pools and a cave which I have yet to explore.
altIt’s an unforgettable experience for hikers, and though you may come home with scratches, bruises and sore muscles, it’s definitely worth it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A walk along the beach

FAMILIES, friends, student and community organizations usually hang out at the different spots along Beach Road from Garapan to San Antonio. They also bike, jog or walk on the pathway while others swim, ride a boat or fish in the lagoon.
All this is a common sight everyday of the week, but have you ever tried a leisurely walk on the beach from the Microl intersection all the way to  PIC? The walk includes a return trek to where you parked your car so it doesn’t sound that appealing, unless you are joining a walkathon.
I did walk from across the Ada Gym in Susupe to PIC one afternoon a few weeks back, taking my own sweet time as I took photos of things and people along the way — the waves gently lapping on the shore, kids swimming and adults  sailing or canoeing. I was having a blast but then it rained hard and I had to run back to my car to keep my camera dry.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined a group for a coastal walk starting from San Antonio, passing by the PIC beachfront and proceeding all the way to Invasion Beach. The walk was brisk and I had to keep running to catch up with everyone while taking snapshots along the way. It was not easy but it was enjoyable. We passed by a couple of fishermen patiently standing with their poles in the water, tourists relaxing in lounging chairs on the beach, kids splashing water at each other.
There are so many wonderful sights to see on the beach — things that a lot of us take for granted.
Why not try a relaxing stroll on the beach barefoot? Enjoy the experience of sinking your toes into the sand while the warm water laps at your feet. Take photos along the way, capture  priceless moments, meet new people or just  breathe in the sea breeze.
Try to do it late in the afternoon or at dawn just before the sun comes up. It’s a heady experience having the beach all to yourself  with no screaming kids, passing cars, smoke from the grill, the smell of barbeque or loud music from a pavilion. Just you and the sky and the vast blue sea and the beach. You can walk all you want and see only your own footprints. This is an adventure that you will not only treasure but one that will refresh and rejuvenate your mind and body.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Into the belly of a ship

WHEN I agreed to join the Bosslift Program of the ESGR last month, it did not cross my mind that I’d have a chance to board a visiting military ship.
ship exteriorI arrived at the dock a few minutes late and was expecting to see the Coast Guard Cutter Washington or a small boat that would bring us to one of those prepositioning ships seen from Beach Road.
Instead, a ports police officer handed me an ID at the gate and pointed me to one of the two military ships anchored at the dock — the USS McCampbell (DDG-85), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that arrived the day before.
Hurrying up the three flights of wooden stairs and crossing a swaying gangplank, I caught up with my companions just before the orientation started.
While off-duty sailors were busy signing log books so they could get off the ship and explore the island, our guide, Ens. Jacob Huntley, identified the equipment and apparatus we saw in the hallways and on the deck. I was unable to give him my full attention. The tour was fast-paced and I was busy shooting photos and videos of everything and anything while trying to watch my steps and catching up with the group.
hangarSoon we were navigating through a labyrinth of narrow hallways and climbing up and down winding flights of very steep stairs with heavy doors at the end that opened to more stairs. I needed more time just to find my way through the confusing maze of narrow cubicles. We eventually reached the navigation room where the ship’s operation took place — a small room full of knobs and consoles that monitored and plotted the course of the ship.
Looking at pictures online and just reading about USS McCampbell cannot be compared to actually going into the “belly” of the ship and seeing how it operates.
We checked out the supply rooms and also got a glimpse of the sailors’ quarters from the narrow hall lined with fire extinguishers.
Unlike luxury cruise ships where everything spells comfort, everyone on USS McCampbell had to move in a single file. The ship only had the bare necessities.
mess hallWe visited the officers’ dining room with its clean and polished wooden tables before proceeding to the mess hall of the sailors with its blue seats and tables topped with cream-colored tablecloths.
But perhaps dining in the general mess hall was more fun. It looked like any regular cafeteria with a giant coffeemaker and huge TV screens on the walls.
We waved at three sailors who were having a leisurely meal at one of the tables before moving on. I had no idea where we were already but once again we went up to more flights of stairs before emerging on the deck.
Huntley took us to our last destination — the place where the helicopter was kept and the deck used as a hangar. The deck was protected by railings connected with thick knotted ropes. From the deck, the Saipan lagoon stretched before us.
We also learned that this powerful ship had a visit, board, search and seizure team to conduct anti-piracy, anti-smuggling and anti-terrorist operations.
Homeported in Japan as part of the U.S. Navy’s Forward Deployed Naval Forces, the USS McCampbell was named after Capt. David McCampbell, the Navy’s leading ace during World War II.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Of WWII bunkers and rocky cliffs

JUST when I thought I had seen all of the  World War II bunkers on island, I discovered another one at a place I had never before visited.
Hidden under a thick canopy of shrubs past the tip of the Coral Ocean Point golf resort were the remnants of a bunker whose small opening for a cannon that was no longer there was pointed directly at the sea and at Tinian.
Looking at the structure from either side, you would not suspect it was a bunker. It looked like just one of the hundreds of abandoned and dilapidated buildings covered with vegetation.
But viewed from the sea, it became something more interesting.
I followed a group of people I was with through the dark narrow opening of the bunker and emerged into the space where the canon should have been. Aside from the few spiders that occupied some parts of the wall, the inside of the bunker was “clean”. Traces of recent visits were visible — mostly offerings that Japanese visitors had left behind, their usual way of honoring their relatives or family members who died here during the war.
We stayed only for a few minutes and emerged through the rectangular opening and headed out to the seaside. I’d seen this area from the plane window several times before but picking my way through the sharp coral stones and watching the huge waves crashing against the sharp cliff lines was a much more exciting experience.
A fisherman sat on the edge of the sharp cliffline with his fishing poles in the water. I would have wanted to stay behind and capture it all on the lens, get wet by the sea spray and just enjoy the ocean mist, but I had to catch up with my group. Picking your way over the sharp coral stones was no easy feat. There was one spot there where you could hear the water gushing  beneath the rock where you were standing on — amazing yet scary too.
The golf course began right at the end of that rocky ledge, and I found a spot with a more stunning view. Where the manicured grass of the golf course ended was another rocky cliff where waves crashed and splashed like a smaller version of the blowhole on Tinian. One particular rock jutted out with its tip hanging above the water — a photographer’s delight.
To get to this point, take the first right turn when you get past the Invasion Beach in San Antonio and you will see this bunker.
This island just won’t run out of surprises. All you have to do is go out and set foot in places you haven’t been to before, and you won’t come home disappointed.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Popular on-island wedding venues

CHURCHES top the list when it comes to wedding venues. Weddings are also held at the mayor’s office for a hassle-free ceremony, while others hold it at pool sides, gardens and even at homes.
Saipan, as a tropical paradise, has attracted couples from far and wide who want to get married, renew their vows or celebrate their wedding anniversaries.
Here are some of the popular wedding venues on island aside:
The Hyatt’s White Sands Chapel is ideal for small and intimate weddings. The bride and groom get to march toward the chapel amid lush gardens. The place is small and does not require much work for decorations, and the glass windows offer a superb view of the lagoon. Adding to the charm of the chapel is the bell tower that the couple rings together after the ceremony.
Mariana Resort & Spa in Marpi has a quaint chapel ideal for your exclusive dream wedding. Right after the wedding, the couple will get to march toward a beautiful bell tower, a white structure against the backdrop of the bluest ocean and sky — a photographer’s dream.
The Angelo Chapel at the Palms Resort is another charming venue. The hotel has been closed since Oct. 2010 but weddings are still held at the chapel by special arrangements. Angelo Chapel has a long bridge with a red carpet leading to the chapel door. Wedding photos look simply stunning taken at the chapel with the beach as backdrop.
The chapels at Hafa Adai Beach Hotel in Garapan and  Kanoa Resort in Susupe are also excellent options.
The Hyatt beachfront is another popular choice for couples. Wedding coordinators usually roll out the red carpet all the way to a makeshift stage with an arc and floral arrangements.
Weddings at Micro Beach are a common sight. The area is ideal for island style wedding where the couple and the guests can go barefoot. A simple arch of flowers can serve as decoration.
A wedding on Managaha is  no less perfect.
Ladder Beach is also an ideal wedding venue. Although not a very popular one, the beach and its natural stone caves and coves hold an irresistible appeal for the more daring couples.
Other venues
The gazebo facing the waterfalls in the middle of the scenic gardens at the Hyatt is another popular wedding venue. Very little work is required for decoration. It’s ideal for a garden wedding complete with ponds and flowers.
Very popular among tourists are weddings on any of the cruise boats in the Saipan lagoon. Weddings are usually arranged by coordinators and wedding planners.
Weddings on Mt. Tapochao certainly has the most spectacular, panoramic view of Saipan.
Underwater weddings  are not also that popular but the island’s pristine waters provide divers an ideal wedding venue surrounded by underwater wonders.
Saipan has so many other options for wedding venues. Just be creative and be ready with a backup plan in case the weather refuses to cooperate. But then again, you might just enjoy a wedding in the rain!
First published at the Marianas Variety

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Lobby talk

(First published at the Marianas Variety)
HOTEL lobbies speak a lot about a hotel. They help a guest decide to stay for a while or go, feel relaxed or stressed out. Hotel lobbies are mute witnesses to a lot of things — transactions, arguments, sweet nothings.
Photos by Raquel C. Bagnol
Photos by Raquel C. Bagnol
If only the walls and furniture could talk! Last week this page featured Laolao Bay Golf and Resort, and this time let us take a peek at the lobbies of the leading hotels on Saipan and Tinian.
Aqua Resort Club in San Roque has my most favorite lobby on island, but its distance is why I don’t spend much time there as much as I want to.
The Aqua Resort lobby does not scream commercialism but offers comfort, bliss and relaxation. It is one place that seems to portray the message to turn off your cellphones and just enjoy and let time pass by blissfully. Let your feet sink into the deep soft carpet and sit in any of the comfortable sets with throw pillows and have coffee with friends or alone. The best part of the lobby is the section where lounges are located. You can recline facing clear glass with a view of greens and colorful flowers outside. The ambiance just makes you drowsy. Views of blue sky, swimming pool and the ocean add to the X-factor of this hotel lobby.
The Marianas Resort Spa lobby is one where you feel at home. It is more of the sporty kind of lobby adorned with stylish wooden benches, a place where guests feel at ease flopping down straight from the pool so if you don’t want to get wet, check before you sit anywhere. The Marianas Resort & Spa lobby offers guests a killer view of a quaint chapel in the distance, swimming pools, game tables, restaurant and bar all within the scope of your view. The front side of the lobby offers views of the golf course and green jungles.
Hyatt Regency’s lobby has a sofa set facing the reception area beside lush greenery under a solar roof. It is just one place where you sit for a few minutes waiting for your car or for somebody. The Lobby Lounge is one choice to have coffee or meet someone else but if you are a non-smoker, better look for someplace else to go to.
lobbiesBut the Hyatt also has  breathtaking scenery: lush green gardens with its streams and ponds teeming with fish, birds and butterflies that are not scared of human intrusion, wooden bridges — a prime choice for family and wedding photo sessions.
The Fiesta Resort & Spa lobby portrays an island welcome with its huge murals and decorations depicting Palau, Yap and other islands in the region. Superb views of the swimming pool and the beach add to the relaxing ambiance. The sofa sets are comfortable enough but it’s not one place you would want to stay for the whole day. Too many people just come and go.
If you want to get a whiff of the fresh, soothing and relaxing breeze that is not sourced from an air-conditioning unit, spend a few minutes in the Hafa Adai Beach Hotel lobby in Garapan.
I love sitting in one of the wooden seats there and having my hair blown away by the breeze but if you want total relaxation, this lobby is not for you. Visitors talk in voices with volumes set like they are at home so if you want a quiet lobby, this one’s not it.
Moving further to Susupe is Saipan World Resort whose lobby is one, if not the busiest, hotel lobby here. It’s one place where people sit and watch TV from the huge screens and where come and go pulling luggage behind them. Entering the massive door of the hotel is like going into an enchanted kingdom. It is one lobby where you feel you can mix business with pleasure.
Kanoa Resort (formerly Saipan Grand Hotel) in Susupe has a lobby with an impersonal touch. The lobby seats, which are located in the middle of commercial stalls, are comfortable and ideal to meet friends. It’s one place where you can be on your own or get lost in a crowd.
The lobby of the Pacific Islands Club in San Antonio is another busy place where people come, sit and go. The warm, snug sofa seats with matching throw pillows, open windows and high vaulted ceilings give an air of spaciousness and make you want to stay around longer. There are no stores and stalls or coffee shops to give it a commercial feel.
Moving on to Tinian, the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino lobby is the most unique compared to the other hotels here. A circular lobby with a giant chandelier that sheds golden reflections on the well polished floors, one feels a certain enchantment in the Tinian Dynasty lobby. It is one place where your voice echoes so you will talk in whispers but still provides some sort of privacy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hangout 101: Picturesque Laolao lobby

IF there is one place that I can count as one of my most favorite hangouts on Saipan where I can gaze into the boundless sky and sea without getting bored, it is the lobby of Laolao Bay Golf Resort in Kagman.
I’ve always been fascinated with hotel lobbies for as long as I can remember, and I fell in love with this lobby at first sight four years ago. This lobby is unlike those of other hotels. Forget boring reception desks, plush chairs and stuffy flower arrangements. Forget hanging chandeliers and brass lights, spiraling staircases and huge television screens. Count out sofa sets where people can have coffee and meet with friends or business clients. Forget about the sight of people staring at their laptops.
Except for one sofa set and a square wicker table adorned with husked coconuts on a wooden tray, and a couple of polished wooden stumps that serve as seats, this lobby is bare.
What makes up for the emptiness is the huge, open window that gives one a full view of the endless sky that blends with the blue stretch of the ocean, and the well-manicured golf courses with little pools in between the greens.
The lobby is bordered by a rocky miniature pool on two sides protected  by a chest-high glass wall partition. Water gurgling from small fountain adds to the relaxing ambiance. I always have to curb the temptation to go wading in the knee-high water and if it was allowed, expect me to be the first to sit on the side with my feet dangling in the water.
Here is one place where you can enjoy the view of man-made and natural scenery and the fresh breeze from the ocean — without distractions. If only the Laolao Bay Golf Resort is not at the other side of the island, if only I have the luxury of time and deadlines are not part of the daily battles, I’ll be frequenting this place.
It’s just sad that only a few people seem to appreciate it. Most of the guests are in a hurry to get to their rooms and go out to the golf courses. Others either take the place for granted or think that it is too far out. They don’t know the long drive is worth it.