Despite being only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, Saipan has been hot property since it was colonized by the Spanish in the mid-1500’s. The island changed hands to the Germans then the Japanese who by 1943 outnumbered the indigenous Chamorro inhabitants seven to one. Saipanese largely fought on the side of the Japanese when U.S. marines stormed the island in WWII’s bloody battle which led to 1,000 Japanese jumping to their deaths from Saipan’s inland and ocean cliffs.
Saipan could be another island in the Philippines — except it’s nowhere near the P.I. — it’s in the Northern Mariana Islands, the largest of 15 largely uninhabited U.S. commonwealth states. Saipan’s brilliant red-orange flame trees, picture-perfect tropical waters, and dramatic limestone cliffs make the island an attractive getaway despite being 1,465 miles from Tokyo, the nearest major Asian city. The island holds its own against competition from its larger neighbor, the U.S. territory of Guam, just 190 miles and 50 minutes away by plane. Saipan is the more laid-back cousin of Guam — a place where you can’t rush if you try. It’s a place to unplug (you can’t get cell service on U.S. carriers anyway) and let this tiny, exotic island in the Pacific soothe your techno-weary soul with its unpretentious beach culture, international cuisine, and fascinating history.
Korean, Chinese, and Russian tourist arrivals have been on the rise since 2010, just a year after Saipan’s thriving garment industry was completely decommissioned due to reports of exploitation of its immigrant workers. Since the U.S. Federal government imposed minimum wage and immigration laws, Saipan has reinvented itself as the perfect beach escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Manila, Hong Kong and Seoul. In fact, Saipan has 30% of the market share of Korean outbound travelers. Despite the Asian influence, Saipan is a quixotic blend of Spanish, Chamorro, and American cultures, most clearly reflected in its excellent food. Its official languages are English, Chamorro, and Carolinian, the latter two being the languages of adventurous fishermen and explorers who deftly sailed across the deepest crevasse in the ocean (yes, any ocean), the Mariana Trench.
While the island’s western coast is lined with resorts and luxury shopping, the rest of the island is a mix of impenetrable pandanus jungles, dirt roads, and rocky cliffs with views more breathtaking than the last. The moment you shed your city skin is the most this tiny island in the middle of nowhere will seduce you completely.
Families with kids of every size pile out of pick-up trucks and waste no time unpacking canopies, BBQ grills, and coolers. The kids scatter just as fast as the parents get to work on grilling dinner. Pork belly cracks and sizzles on the charcoal grill, wafting smoke across the tree-lined beach. Local interpretations of Bob Marley songs play on the radio. You slink back into your beach chair and gaze up at two acrobatic white terns taking full advantage of the powerful trade winds, which thrust the birds another 50 feet above the tree line. You toss a sliver of pickled green papaya in your mouth, savoring the vinegar and the hot pepper kick at the end. Neighboring Tinian island, just 5 miles to the south west, is famous for its spicy boonie peppers. You pull your straw hat over your head and dig your toes into the silky sand. A stiff breeze rushes through the ironwood pine and coconut palm trees, drying the sweat on your brow.
You wake to find a shirtless leather-skinned fisherman pacing the beach and staring intently into the shallow waters. After 20 minutes, he finally casts his net into the ocean. He retrieves the circular net slowly and lays out his catch on the beach. A dozen shiny white fish pop and writhe on the sand. He makes a small trench and pushes the fish into it for safe keeping.