By Risa Watt - Contra Costa Times Corespondent
I have found a new cure for jet lag -- waterfalls. At the famous 100-foot tall fall in Ngardmau, I clamber onto a log behind the streaming waters to relish the sight of mist glinting gold in the late afternoon light.
I am in Palau, a Pacific nation composed of more than 500 jungled islands and atolls that lies 4,600 miles southwest of Honolulu. Palau first blipped on the tourism radar of scuba divers who raved about the islands' underwater drop-offs and monster pelagics -- sharks, schooling barracudas, and manta rays with 12-foot wingspans. Today, about 60 percent of Palau's visitors are scuba divers.
Because the diving is so phenomenal, it often overshadows the natural wonders on land. With exotic orchids, rare birds, and ancient stone monoliths, Palau could be the next great adventure frontier -- a Pacific Ocean successor to Costa Rica and Belize. "Welcome to Palau -- The Rainbow's End" says the immigration form visitors receive on arrival.
On my eight-day trip, I aim to explore this primeval paradise both above and below the waterline.
Palau has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years, settled by people of Polynesian, Malayan, and Melanesian lineage. In the past, every village had a bai (men's meetinghouse). Dating to the 1800s, Arai Bai is one of the oldest remaining in the country, located on the island of Babeldaob.
To reach it, I walk down a stone path worn smooth by centuries of passers-by. Treetops vibrate with the contralto call of biibs (fruit doves). The bai stands in a clearing. No nails hold it together, just carefully positioned joints.
Like the idols of Easter Island, Babeldaob also holds a rocky mystery -- the Ngarchelong Monoliths. The massive, four-foot markers are carved from basalt, a stone not found in this locale. No one knows how they got here or why, although legend says they once supported a bai for the gods.
That evening I head to the restaurant at North Beach Cottages for local specialties: taro soup with sand clam, kankum (like watercress) and coconut crab. Along with my meal, I sample taro wine, which at 38-proof resembles brandy because of its sharp burn. I drink it the local way, mixed with grape-flavored Tang. It's definitely an acquired taste. So is the next dinner course, featuring Palau's most notorious nosh -- fruit bat. Two cooked critters about eight inches tall repose in a steamer basket, wrapped in their wings as if dressed for Halloween. Little, pointy teeth grin at me.
Still, I'm game. I have always joked that the only contest I could win on "Survivor" would be the food challenge. Yes, bat does taste like chicken -- more precisely, overcooked stew hen. I choose a tiny morsel from near the ribs, declining a serving of black, gelatinous wing. The worst part is that the flesh sticks between your teeth. When I get back to my hotel, I floss extra diligently.
The following morning, I go kayaking through the emerald channels of a former copra plantation with Dildoseb ecoTour. After a paddle along a rocky seacoast, our group pulls into an inlet beside sacred ground. According to tradition, stones mark the resting place of the goddess who brought taro to the isles of Micronesia.
We return to a magnificent lunch prepared by Dildoseb ecoTour owner Ann Singeo. As we eat, she talks about Palau's matrilineal society: "A man becomes chief through his mother's clan. Women hold the traditional forms of wealth, such as taro patches and money beads."
Palau tradition means graciousness to guests. It seems to be a national priority to wave goodbye to departing visitors for as long as they remain in sight. Hands up, bodies swaying from the waist, Singeo and the kayak guides wave to our group. Babeldaob, the most mountainous of Palau's islands, also is laced by mighty rivers. I join Billy Takamine for a cruise down the Ngerdorch River, one of Micronesia's longest. We watch at a muddy spot for the resident crocodile, but only see her from a distance. "She's just had babies, she doesn't want to leave her nest," Takamine says.
Back on land, I meet Thor, Billy's pet fruit bat. The small creature charms us as it poses for photos dangling upside-down from our hands. "When he gets tired of visitors, he flies back to his cage and closes the door with his thumbs," Billy explains. Holding this personable little bat, I feel guilty for having capriciously snacked on one of his brethren. By the time I leave, it's raining. Even so, Billy stands in the downpour waving goodbye.
Predators in peril
Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear And it shows them pearly white "...
Five savagely white sets of jaws circle around me. As the old song "Mack the Knife" plays in my head, it helps calm me. I am 60 feet underwater at Blue Corner, one of the best-known scuba sites in Palau. I adjust my flotation so I overlap closer to my scuba buddies. "Try to look big" rates as my favorite advice when I'm being measured as potential sushi. Sharks swim so close that I see every undulation of their gills.
Will future generations of scuba divers thrill to such sights? Sharks -- the ocean's most feared predator -- are themselves in danger. Shark populations have dropped by more than 50 percent in just two decades because of the demand for shark-fin soup -- a delicacy prized in Asia, where it sells for upward of $300 per pound.To protect these predators, Palau in 2009 created the world's first shark sanctuary, banning all commercial shark fishing in its waters.
Travelers do not need to be scuba-certified -- or to cozy-up to sharks -- to enjoy Palau's aquatic Edens. Hundreds of emerald islets float amid transparent turquoise lagoons in the Rock Islands. Several companies offer guided kayak tours through the sinuous canals and mirror-still inlets.
If you're lucky, you might spot a rare dugong, a shy marine mammal like a manatee. Dugongs are no-shows on my paddle, but I do see an eagle ray about eight feet across.
Palau's most unusual swimming hole is one shared with millions of jellyfish. A unique, stingless variety inhabits several of the country's saltwater lakes that connect to the sea via narrow passages. At aptly named Jellyfish Lake, I don mask, snorkel and fins to swim through the warm, clear waters. First I encounter pairs, then dozens, then literally thousands of jellyfish, from thumbnail-size creatures to two-foot-wide behemoths. It sounds like a sci-fi movie, but actually the experience is breathtakingly beautiful. After I overcome the initial, completely irrational fear of accidentally swallowing a jellyfish through my snorkel, I become enthralled by the gentle ballet of pulsating crowns.
After eight days, my trip to Palau is finished. I arrive at the airport early and stop in the restaurant for a snack. When I leave, the waiters wave -- as vigorously as if they had known me for years. As I pass a poster announcing "Palau -- The Rainbow's End," I think about how the arc of their waving arms resembles the curve of that very rainbow.