Never heard of Kosrae? Neither had I until the local visitors bureau invited me to take a trip to its little island outpost on the eastern expanse of Micronesia. Although I've been writing Frommer's South Pacific since 1986 and have visited most of the Pacific islands south of the equator, I had never been to Micronesia and thus didn't know exactly what to expect of these small tropical islands strung between Hawaii and the Philippines. What I found harkened back to a time of peace and slow pace that is disappearing elsewhere in the Pacific.
Kosrae (pronounced "ko-SHRY") lies some 3,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, and getting there and back was like a grand tour of the western Pacific islands. The circle route was less expensive, so I flew from my home near Washington, D.C., to Guam, with a change of planes in Tokyo. Then it was on to Kosrae via Continental Airlines' daily "Island-Hopper" between Guam and Hawaii. And I do mean "hop," for we landed and deplaned briefly at the famous diving destination of Chuuk (many still call it Truk Lagoon) and at Pohnpei, capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, to which Kosrae belongs. (The hop home via Honolulu was equally interesting, with stops at Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in the Marshall Islands.)
As happens out here, we arrived early. No one was yet at the airport to greet Kosrae's only daily flight, so instead of landing on the deserted strip, the pilot took us flight-seeing around the island. Frankly, I was surprised to find any place this gorgeous north of the equator. Only 42 square miles, rugged, beach-fringed Kosrae is up there with Tahiti and Rarotonga and just a cut below Moorea and Bora Bora, which nearly everyone considers to be the world's most beautiful islands. From the east, Kosrae's mountainous outline resembled a perky breast woman in repose. It was easy to see why it's called the "Island of the Sleeping Lady."
Once on the ground I found the answer to a question I am often asked: "Where can I get away from it all, preferably in a little grass shack beside a white sand beach on a remote island?"
It's the Kosrae Village Ecolodge and Dive Resort (tel. 691/370-3483; www.kosraevillage.com), the creation of Americans Katrina Adams and Bruce Brandt and their Kosraean partner, Madison Nena. Katrina and Bruce left San Francisco in the mid-1990s and along with Madison constructed the resort entirely of pandanus thatch and other native materials to resemble a traditional Kosraean village. Their centerpiece is the island's best restaurant, which always serves a version of mangrove crab, Kosrae's favorite seafood, under its soaring ceiling. The ten guest bungalows are indeed grass shacks, albeit with hardwood floors, coffee makers, and modern, open-air bathrooms. None has a phone, however, and only one bedroom has an air conditioner. All other units are cooled by ceiling fans. That's one great thing about native construction: It's always cool under a thatch roof. You don't get the luxurious amenities of the much more expensive resorts in Fiji and French Polynesia, but these ooze old fashion tropical charm.
Both avid scuba divers, Katrina and Bruce are primarily responsible for Kosrae's unique system of mooring buoys, which mean dive boats don't damage the fringing reef by casting anchors or tying up to the 180 species of coral living in the perpetually warm, extraordinarily clear lagoon -- in which visibility can reach 200 feet. Wreck divers are drawn to sunken World War II ships and aircraft and the remains of Captain Bully's Hayes island schooner, the Lenora. The infamous Hayes was one of many rapscallions who prowled the Pacific islands for coconuts and beche-de-mer (sea slugs) in the early 19th century, often leaving in their wakes a trail of fraud, deceit and illegitimate children.
I'm not a diver, but I did pass over the Lenora while touring the Utwe-Walung Marine Park (tel. 691/370-2321; firstname.lastname@example.org), another creation of the conservation-minded Madison Nena. Stretching along the southwestern shoreline between Utwe and Walung villages, the park protects one of the Pacific's last pristine mangrove ecosystems. It's best explored in an outrigger canoe, which I did with the Kosrae Visitors Bureau's gregarious Grant Ishmael and expert local guide Tadao Wakuk (tel. 691/370-5080). We wandered in and out of the mangroves, their huge boughs often turning the narrow channels into green tunnels, and up the winding Finkol River, where we scrambled up the muddy bank to visit Tulenkun Tulenkun, Jr., the island's foremost canoe carver. Yes, Tulenkin has a double name. He still carves traditional dugout canoes by hand, albeit "with a little help from a chain saw starting out."
Tadao Wakuk was born during World War II while the Japanese still controlled Kosrae and required all local boys to be given Rising Sun first names, but his Kosraean ancestors would have been proud when the propeller popped off the canoe's outboard motor after our lunch of fresh fruits on a small reef island (including juicy tangerines, another Kosrae specialty). Fortunately we were in shallow, crystal clear water. Tadao waded out to retrieve the propeller while Grant and I pulled the canoe to a nearby islet strewn with coral rocks by some long-ago storm. Tadao made the repair by using one rock as a hammer, another as an anvil, just as his islander forebears might have done before metal tools made their way to Kosrae.
Their most remarkable achievement was construction of what is now the Lelu Ruins, a mysterious walled city where the island's rulers and their retinue lived more than 700 years ago. In all the Pacific islands, only Kosrae and Pohnpei, some 350 miles to the west, have stone structures as large and impressive as those at Lelu. Without even the wheel, they brought huge basaltic stones from the mainland to Lelu Island, off the east coast, where they intricately spliced them into houses, public plazas, and ceremonial graves. They even dug a network of canals so canoes could supply the royals. The impressive ruins are overgrown and their explanatory signs a bit weather beaten today, but that adds to the mystery. It's like discovering some prehistoric Mayan ruin in the middle of present day Lelu village.
The same apparently is true of the Menke Ruins up the Finkol River, which Kosrae's winter rains prevented me from seeing (one should never follow a mountain stream during a tropical deluge). Your hotel will arrange a guide if you decide to make that or another of Kosrae's outstanding walks, such as the all-day trek to the marvelous view atop Mount Finkol, the highest point at 2,069 feet.
You won't be climbing any mountains or hiking, diving, swimming, or drinking on Sunday, however, for Kosraens have taken the Sabbath seriously since Congregationalist missionaries arrived from Boston in 1852 to save their souls. Whitewashed churches are the largest buildings in all villages these days. I attended Sunday morning services in Malem village and was struck by the islanders' harmony. In fact, much of the service consisted of dueling choirs, each striving to outdo the other's rendition of hymns firmly rooted in Bostonian Presbyterianism. I was at a loss to understand the Kosraean words, but the music was most familiar.
Long before the missionaries set foot on Kosrae, the ancients also built a causeway across the shallow lagoon from Lelu Island to the mainland. Today it leads to Kosrae's other two hotels, both on a peninsula bordered by white sand beaches on one side, a winding mangrove channel on the other. Like those in Utwe-Walung Marine Park, this waterway is terrific for kayaking. Snorkeling is great here, too, for out on the reef is the exquisite Blue Hole, a perfectly round indentation filled with tropical fish and an occasional small shark.
I stayed in Kosrae's least expensive digs at the Pacific Treelodge Resort (tel. 691/370-7856; www.divekosrae.com), which is being whipped into shape by Mark and Alison Stephens, a young American-British couple who earlier saw diving duty in the Mediterranean and Indonesia. Although their units are the most basic on Kosrae, they do have air conditioners and cable televisions, and many of their units back up to the mangrove forest. I thoroughly enjoyed following a long boardwalk across the shady swamp to have breakfast at Bully's Restaurant back beside the channel. Unfortunately I missed Mark's Thursday sunset cruise.
Nearby, Australians Doug and Sally Beitz's Kosrae Nautilus Resort (tel. 691/370-3567; www.kosraenautilus.com) is a modern and comfortable motel whose 16 units are preferred by business travelers seeking modern comforts. Augmenting the beach across the main road, the island's only hotel swimming pool is surrounded by a covered patio in case of rain. (Commenting on the warm, humid climate, Sally said corn she planted one evening had sprouted by morning and was 6 inches tall by nightfall. "I could watch it growing," she said. "It was scary.")
The motel's Nautilus Restaurant is an air-conditioned respite for lunch, and it has the island's best pizzas. Just don't count on everything on the menu being available. I asked for Italian dressing on my salad and was told they had only Thousand Island. Such is life on a remote island with only 7,800 residents served by small village stores, whose shelves can be virtually bare depending on how long ago a cargo ship arrived. I later went to three shops in a fruitless search for orange juice. "Why don't you pick a few tangerines?" one clerk asked me.
Such are the twists and turns of life on Kosrae, which reminded me of the South Pacific islands of 30 years ago. Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, and Rarotonga can have mini-traffic jams today, but back then a pickup truck full of islanders might drive past every half hour or so out in the countryside. It's still that way on Kosrae. I only wish that I could have stayed longer to soak up the way things used to be.
Note: This trip was hosted by the Kosrae Visitors Bureau.
The hotels have their own dive shops and will take care of car and kayak rentals, snorkeling expeditions, tours of the marine park and the ruins, and guides for mountain hiking.
Getting There and Departing: Getting to Kosrae requires flying on the "island hopper" operated by Continental Micronesia, the Guam-based subsidiary of Continental Airlines (tel. 800/231-0856; www.continental.com). A Boeing 737-800 departs Honolulu three times a week and stops at Majuro and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands and Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia on its way to Guam. It turns around and repeats the route eastbound every other day except Sunday. (You cross the International Dateline, so if you leave Honolulu on a Wednesday you'll arrive in Kosrae on Thursday, and vice versa.) Continental no longer offers its money-saving Circle Micronesia fare but it could be less expensive to take a circle route; that is, flying to Kosrae through Guam and returning direct via Honolulu. You'll have to spend a night in Guam, but even with that extra cost it could be less expensive than the fare to and from Kosrae via Honolulu.
Fees: Everyone must pay a US$15 departure tax in cash at the airport prior to leaving Kosrae.
Tourist Information: Contact the Kosrae Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 659, Tofol, Kosrae, FM 96944 (tel. 691/370-2228; www.visit-kosrae.com). The Federated States of Micronesia has information about Kosrae on its visitor website www.visit-fsm.org.
When to Go: At just 360 miles north of the equator, Kosrae is always warm and humid. "All the wind is usually form the northeast and light, and superb weather for our first few days," wrote a surgeon on a French expedition in the early 19th century. "Then some rain squalls for a few days. The water temperature differs from the air temperature by only one degree." That's still true of Kosrae during the summer months from June to August when the winds are light and the seas calm, but those rain squalls are more likely to occur at night. This is the best time to go diving all around the island. Brisk northeast trade winds from November through April cause enormous amounts of rain in the mountains and frequent showers along the coast, thus limiting divers to the leeward southern and western sides of the island. On the other hand, the winter breezes make the equatorial daytime temperatures more tolerable. Whenever you go, bring an umbrella.
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