On our doorstep: world's best-kept travel secret

A virtually untouched series of limestone islands is now easy for Australians to reach, writes David Barbeler.

As a Westerner who's visited numerous stunning countries corrupted by tourism, I initially had trouble understanding why the people of Palau were getting so excited.

Located 800km east of the Philippines, the Republic of Palau is a series of more than 250 limestone islands virtually untouched by tourists.

Many compare it to the feel of Bali 30 years ago.

Up until April, it use to take Australians about 24 hours to travel there through a limited number of interconnecting flights and/or boats.

However a new A310 Airbus service, operated by Pacific Flier, has just opened the door to Australian tourists for the first time, with a direct flight from Brisbane cutting the trip down to a mere five and a half hours and costing $799 return. Kids can fly for $79 return during the airline's launch period.

Rather than this very traditional Pacific island nation wanting to keep this paradise all to themselves, they are bursting at the seams to show off their Eden to the rest of the world.

Now I wouldn't say I was geographically challenged, but to tell the truth, up until two months ago I had no idea where Palau was (let alone heard of it).

So if you're anything like me and missed out on South East Asia before the tourism boom, then you've still got time to discover arguably the world's best kept little travel secret before everyone else finds out about it.

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What makes Palau so special is that it is virtually surrounded by reefs, many of which are world renowned in underwater recreation.

Home to the world's only shark sanctuary and 1387 species of fish, there's no shortage of snorkelling and diving spots to choose from.

We booked our trip through Fish 'n Fins, which operates more than two dozen boats and offers snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, reef fishing, game fishing, spear fishing, island tours and treks to stunning waterfalls.

There are also a large number of US and Japanese World War Two wrecks that the Fish 'n Fins instructors can take you out to explore.

But it's not just its reefs and wrecks that make for good diving in Palau's waterways.

Over countless centuries, many sections of the jagged, limestone landscape have slowly given way to the relentless tides to form a plethora of underwater caves to snorkel through.

Perhaps even more spectacular is Jellyfish Lake, which was cut off from the main ocean at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago and is home to 13 million stingless jellyfish.

Because the thick blanket of jellyfish that inhabit the lake have been isolated for so long, they've had the luxury of no natural predators, and thus, no need to develop any toxins.

Another must during any visit to Palau is a trip to one of the country's most famous reefs - The Big Drop Off - which runs for several hundred metres along the west coast of Ngemelis Island.

During extreme low tides, the top of the reef is exposed, before dropping a staggering 274 metres straight down to the ocean floor.

Those more interested in catching fish than looking at them are also in luck.

The country's surrounding waters are rich in marlin, barracuda, giant trevally, tuna and mahi mahi and most fishing guides guarantee to hook you up with the fight of your life at least every tour.

But if you just can't get enough of snorkelling and kayaking, then the best place to stay is undoubtedly at the five star accommodation, the Palau Pacific Resort.

More than half of the resort is surrounded by water, and as its "2010 Best Diving Resort" award suggests, has its very own reef to snorkel.

As I said, when I first visited Palau, I had difficulty understanding why the locals were so keen to open themselves up to the risk of the outside world corrupting their little slice of paradise.

It wasn't until I met a cab driver named Benny late one night that I fully appreciated why Palauans were looking for a change.

Benny told me that if more tourists visited their quiet little island, he could turn his passion for diving into a fulltime job.

"What is the point of living in such a beautiful place, if we have no opportunities to fully appreciate it?" he asked me.

In fact, he told me that it's actually the breathtaking landscape that is the main reason why the majority of the 20,000 locals want the tourism bubble to inflate.

While the limestone landscape makes for a picturesque environment, its infertile makeup makes it nigh on impossible for the locals to cultivate anything of worth to export.

He said luring the tourist dollar was therefore one of the only ways to develop a self-sufficient economy - as the country is currently heavily propped up by United States aid.

And I then gave the insightful Benny what I thought was a fair $5 tip.

After explaining to me that accepting tips in Palau was looked down upon, he forcedly pressed the money back into the palm of my hand whilst giving me the widest grin I've ever seen.

Well, I thought, it looks like there is hope for the Palauans yet.

More information:

www.pacificflier.com

www.fishnfins.com

www.palauppr.com

The writer was a guest of Pacific Flier.

AAP

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