Palau mixes a wealth of adventure with a laid-back attitude

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Booking Palau

Operators and hotels on Palau include:

Fish N Fins

Address: Box 142,Koror, Palau PW 96940

Phone: 680-488-2637

Web:www.fishnfins.com

Commission: 20%

Neco Marine

Address: Box 129, Koror, Palau PW 96940

Phone: 680-488-1755

Web:www.necomarine.com

Commission: 30%

Sam's Tours

Address: Box 7076, Koror, Palau PW 96940

Phone: 680-488-1062

Web:www.samstours.com

Commission: 20%

Palau Pacific Resort

Address: Box 308 Koror, Palau PW 96940

Phone: 680-488-2600

Web:www.panpacific.com

Rates: Ocean view room from $350

Commission: 10%

When divers first submerge into Jellyfish Lake, the water is a little murky and the hovering trees above contribute to the lack of clarity. But as they swim forward, sunlight illuminates the lake to capture a surreal moment: stingless mastiga jellyfish come into view, transparent and serene, ranging from the size of a fingertip to the palm of a hand.

Before they know it, divers have swum toward the motherload in the warm sunlight's glow, millions of jellyfish surrounding them, pulsating and nonchalant, unresponsive as there are no predators in the lake. The experience is surreal -- borderline divine, in fact -- and utterly awe-inspiring.

This is the island nation of Palau, where natural wonders raise the bar for other unspoiled destinations. An independent commonwealth comprising more than 400 islands (only eight are inhabited, by 19,000 natives), Palau is Micronesia's jewel.

Its pristine beauty, wealth of unique water- and sun-drenched activities and effortless knack for ecofriendliness attracts those seeking both adventure and relaxation.

While the TV reality show "Survivor" may have put Palau on the map when producers shot the second season there, it didn't exactly result in skyrocketing tourism arrivals from the U.S. (Continental Airlines is the only U.S. carrier that provides service to and in Micronesia, with a hub in Guam.)

Nevertheless, in line with the laid-back Palauan lifestyle, there's no rush. The steady increase in tourism suits everyone and keeps the island's leisurely pace as it should be.

A diver's paradise

Diving is the main attraction on Palau, and Jacques Cousteau wasn't bluffing when he said the island was one of the best diving spots in the world.

Serious water aficionados paid attention. In fact, Tova and Navot Borrovski, owners of local tour operator Fish N Fins, were so enthralled with the island's underwater world that they never left after they sailed here in 1993.

The Borrovskis' diving tours explore a range of approximately 40 dive sites, including the Big Drop Off, hailed as one of Palau's best, and diversity of dives, including wreck, wall, cavern and drift dives.

If clients are not certified, the crystal-clear waters make the perfect underwater paradise for snorkelers who'll find themselves among more than 1,000 species of fish, diverse sea creatures, artifacts from World War II and colorful coral reefs.

Even endangered giant clams, as much as four feet wide, make the waters plunge-worthy in Clam City.

Jellyfish Lake is a popular stop on Fish N Fins' day-trip itinerary, and spa enthusiasts will love lathering themselves at the Milky Way, a marine lake inlet where the chalk-gray sediment makes a great mud mask.

Kayaking is one of the most popular methods to navigate the waters of Palau.

Tour operator Neco Marine offers the most sought-after route in the Airai area, weaving through lush island formations to discover limestone caves. (The caves are natural formations and not the result of World War II bombing, as some tour guides claim.)

Some caves are large enough to explore inside, leaving visitors in awe of the natural erosion and coral. Protruding near the shore is a Japanese war plane propeller; the remains of the body are submerged just a few feet away.

En route to Nikko Bay, several pill boxes (or bunkers) are cleverly masked in the shrubbery where Japanese soldiers hid as lookouts. A nice way to end the tour is a quick snorkel along Rembrandt's Wall, the well-known, colorful coral formation.

On-shore adventures

Though Palau is water-centric, activities abound on land, as well. Sam's Tours offers a scenic itinerary that takes clients to historical stone monoliths and small villages in several of Palau's states on the eastern coast of Babeldaob.

The trip ends with a hike in Ngardmau, home to natural stream pools and a sublime waterfall hidden in the rain forest. When the sun hits at the right angle, a rainbow manifests in the pour.

Enthusiasts of off-the-beaten-path explorations can venture deep into the jungles and find wartime artifacts, including beer bottles, guns, shrapnel and helmets.

Clients shouldn't be surprised if their guide (ask for Malahi) stops at local homes to visit a macaque monkey who will eat dirt from your hair, or to feed caged fruit bats with mangos shaken down from a nearby tree. Sam's Tours ends the seven-hour journey with a sip of Titum, a cold fruit drink unique to the island, at one of the local markets.

Simple island motifs and decor are reflected throughout Palau Pacific Resort, the only beachfront resort on the island.

Guest rooms are large, with private terraces, and most face the ocean.

Guests can unwind in a private cabana, watch the sunset and, if they are feeling bold, try chewing betle nut. It's a traditional Palauan treat concocted of buuch nut, lime powder and tobacco, wrapped in a pepper vine leaf and known to keep indulgers relaxed.

Palauans have sworn by it since the 1700s.

For more information, visit the Palau Visitors Authority online at www.visit-palau.com or call (680) 488-1965. Or contact Burditch Marketing Communications at (323) 932-6262.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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