Glenn A. Baker shifts down a few gears to join Guam's commitment to the pursuit of leisure.
It comes as no surprise that Guam can feel like Hawaii, but it's a definite surprise that it can also remind you of Malibu. The T-shirts and souvenirs declare Guam U.S.A., while the shopping malls, the Walmarts, the cars and even the kerbing and guttering have a decided Stateside shade. Perhaps it is because this was the landfall bombed just after Pearl Harbour, hammered so harshly the Americans threw a protective arm around it that was never lifted. Plainly, the funds flow.
Had it not been for the 1944 American offensive against the occupying Japanese - described as "the most brilliantly planned and precisely executed campaign of the entire World War II chronology" - Guam might still be the well-kept secret it was for centuries. Off-limits to the casual tourist for many years, it now lays out the welcome mat. Only Hawaii attracts a greater number of Pacific tourists.
Guam is the gateway to Micronesia, a "fairy bread mosaic" of more than 2100 small islands and coral specks fanned about the Pacific Ocean in three major archipelagoes stretching across an area as wide as the US. As the major port of the Mariana Archipelago, equidistant from Tokyo and Manila and on a direct path between Hawaii and south-east Asia, it occupies a pivotal position in the Pacific, albeit a languidly paced one.
Leisure is passionately pursued. All around the coastline, by bays and inland waterways, in parks, sometimes just by the side of the road, families and extended families tote out the picnic hampers from the station wagons and four-wheel-drives, then feast heartily while tossing around balls and chinwagging. Not just on weekends but any day of the week, from morning to evening.
It's the Guam motif, and that may be because the island grows nothing, manufactures nothing and keeps its citizens occupied largely with tourist-servicing occupations. And there is no shortage of tourists. Board a flight in Tokyo and you can be in Guam in 3½ hours. At the glittering Tumon Bay and Tamuning area near the airport, where the major international hotels rise, is the designer shopping along with the nightlife. But slip from this glitzy precinct of flash emporiums and towering palaces and head south, and the polish gradually disappears and a sort of entertaining Dukes of Hazzard tone appears, complete with absurdly exaggerated recreational vehicles sitting atop massive wheels. Some of these have been put to use in tourism initiatives such as inland safari drives that have you lurching through valleys and riverbeds with amiable guides (mine was in his late 20s and the father of 11) who can plunge their hands into the soil pretty much anywhere and bring up a fistful of spent shells - rifle, mortar and larger - from WWII. You'd be welcome to take them home if an airport security incident didn't await you.
This is a wilder, earthier Guam. It may be the biggest island in Micronesia but it can still be covered in a day or so with visits to what Lonely Planet calls a "kaleidoscope of sleepy historical villages". The denser parts of the jungle bring to mind the extraordinary story of Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi, the Imperial Japanese Army straggler who managed to live undetected for 28 years after the end of the WWII, hiding in a cave in a tight bamboo grove. When he was finally unearthed by hunters near the Talofofo River, clad in primitive garments made from the fibres of hibiscus plants, he told his captors - or liberators - of living on papayas, breadfruits, coconuts, eels, snails and rats.
Stoic Shoichi made headlines around the world in 1972, pointing out that death was considered preferable to being captured alive for a Japanese soldier. He lived to 82, always prepared to relate tales of his lonely existence in the midst of a busy populous island.
The indigenous Chamorros have been here for something like 4000 years, and for a couple of centuries were accommodating enough for Guam to become an essential stopover for Spanish galleons making their way from Acapulco to Manila. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries commenced three centuries of Spanish culture, religion and language. Although Guam was ceded to the US in 1898, following the Spanish-American War, that Latin influence remains not just in the tourist-oriented package revue shows in hotels and by beachside restaurants, but also in unexpected pleasures such as contemporary singer-songwriters bestowing their evocative wares in unlikely locations.
The safety net of being a territory of the US (they can vote for everything but the president, so their favour is sought) gives life a certain casualness. They do like to live well - you're not on the island for an hour before you're rushed into a barbecue ribs joint to partake of a large stack of what is the national dish. That is where you could become aware of the fact that Guam has the highest per capita consumption of Tabasco sauce in the world (two bottles a person a year), or it could be wherever you are able to tuck into red rice with achiote, kelaguen (a dish in which meat is cooked, in whole or part, by citric acid rather than heat), tinaktak (meat cooked in coconut milk) and ka'du fanihi (flying fox or fruit bat soup).
If you're lucky it could be as a guest of one of those gregarious groups soaking up the rays with a packed hamper in a park somewhere.
Wander by and there's a good chance they'll make you welcome.
Glenn A. Baker was a guest of the Guam Visitors Bureau and Philippine Airlines.
Getting there Philippine Airlines has a fare to Guam for about $1820 return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Manila (about 8hr) and then to Guam (3hr 55min); see philippineairlines.com. You have to stay in Manila for one night on the way there and Melbourne passengers also do so on the return (own expense).
United Airlines flies non-stop (4hr 45min) from Cairns for about $840 low-season return including tax, with many airlines connecting from Sydney and Melbourne.
Staying there For accommodation information and bookings, see guam-online.com/hotels/hotels.htm.