Marshall Islands' Majuro a diver's paradise

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MAJURO, Marshall Islands -- Traveling here is an adventure.

Imagine flying thousands of miles across open ocean in a jet from Honolulu and seeing a strip of land in the water that's about the size a crop duster would land on -- and you are, indeed, going to land there.

Picture renting a car of very dubious condition in this capital city, paying $40 cash on the spot and driving away with only a handshake as a deposit.

Envision yourself snorkeling off a yacht anchored next to a nearby deserted island, then going for a walk on that island and being chased by a wild pig.

"We're not really on the beaten path, so most of our visitors are real special-interest, like scuba divers and sportsfishermen," said Benjamin Graham, general manager of the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority. "It's an adventure-seeker kind of place."

Majuro is one of the five islands and 29 atolls that make up the Marshall Islands.

On Majuro, 23,000 people live on a half-mile-wide strip that's about 35 miles long.

Although Majuro appears to the visitor to be one long strip of land, it actually is composed of 20 or 30 atolls, some of them separated from the mainland by deepwater, shipgoing channels and others by much shallower lagoons.

Just about 10 miles from Majuro is the atoll of Arno. It is twice as big as Majuro but with only 400 people on it and makes a great place for a day trip from Majuro.

"I believe that in the future, the remoteness of the Marshall Islands will catch on," said Bill Weza, a Majuro resident and the director of food and beverage at the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort.

"I've been here three-and-a half years. I say if you don't love a place, you should leave, and I'm not leaving."

If you want undiscovered, this is about as close as you can get. In 1999, the whole nation received 1,093 visitors on holiday, according to the visitors authority.

Travel guide books pass it over. And until last year when Aloha Airlines started serving the destination once a week from Honolulu, only one other airline, Continental, served it -- and still does -- from the U.S.

This place has the kind of extremes many third-world destinations carry for the visitor: few tourists but lots of litter and the most beautiful reef and crystal-clear water you have ever seen, yet with undrinkable tap water.

But if you get out of town 20 miles or so to the end of the island at Laura, coconut palms are practically growing on top of each other; the beaches are deserted, and the water is clean and clear.

Or you can take a yacht to one of the Robinson Crusoe-type uninhabited islands across the lagoon for a picnic or an overnight camping trip.

With all the water surrounding all those tiny islands, the activities here center on the ocean.

Majuro has roughly one fishing tournament every month.

"I think we [Marshall Islands] are the only country in the world that has a national holiday for fishing, which is the first Friday of July," said Graham. The holiday is celebrated with a two-day tournament.

This is the kind of destination that is so untrammeled and friendly that the visitors authority is willing to personally plan your fishing trip for you.

"The best thing to do is call us and we can call around and find a boat. That way we make sure visitors get hooked up with the right people," said Graham.

Arranging to snorkel, dive and stay in a hotel are easy that way, too.

There are only two dive shops with boats on the island -- Bako Divers and Marshalls Dive Adventures -- and two upper-end hotels, the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort and Hotel Robert Reimers.

The Outrigger has 142 rooms with rates that range from $130 to $240 a night.

Hotel Robert Reimers has 40 rooms, including beach bungalows, with rates that range from $75 to $150 a night.

Both have good restaurants. Both pay agents 10%.

For a Marshall Islands vacation planner, call the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority at (011) 692-625-6482 or e-mail them at [email protected].

The authority also has a Web site at www.yokwe-yok.com.

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