Micronesia: the Next Cruise Discovery?

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Rock and Limestone Islands of Palau

By guest contributor Roderick Eime, editor of Adventure Cruise Guide,  in Palau and Guam.

A hitherto unknown patch of the North Pacific Ocean could well feature more frequently in cruise itineraries if the newly formed Micronesian Cruise Association (MCA) have their way.

Launched twelve months ago, the MCA have been busy exhibiting the region at trade and tourism conferences and gaining some success for the sprawling array of tiny island nations and states. Micronesia is a term applied to describe that region of the Pacific above Melanesia (PNG, New Caledonia) and to the northwest of Polynesia (Hawaii, NZ) and comprises five distinct political regions: the ‘hub’ of Guam (a US territory), the Marianas to the north, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Marshall Islands broadly across the south.

Cruise ships already visit the region on an ad hoc basis with Cunard, Princess, Hapag-Lloyd and Japanese lines making around six visits annually. Guam, with its US military grade infrastructure hosted over 4000 pax and crew from QM2 in March 2011 and February 2010, but is realistically more suited to the smaller Sun, Sea and Pacific Princesses scheduled to arrive this year.

“The challenges for us are that we are in the early stage of development, and there is limited local cruise knowhow at this time,” said Gerry Perez, a Guamanian on the current Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) board, “We must work together to streamline any current entry barriers, and build incentives for more frequent visits from cruise ships.”

One step forward is the introduction of the Star Alliance Micronesia Airpass, spearheaded by the now dominant airline in the region, United, which absorbed the previous Continental routes in the much talked about merger. United Airlines* operates a hub in Guam with regular daily connections to over 20 destinations in Asia and Micronesia.

While the move to attract more frequent visits by the big lines may be years away at this time, Micronesia is perfectly poised to accept low impact visits by vessels from the world’s growing fleet of adventure and expedition vessels. As adventure-hungry cruisers tick off current hot destinations like Papua New Guinea, the Russian Far East and Australia’s Kimberley, the array of islands in Micronesia is an obvious follow-on.

Hapag-Lloyd’s fleet of luxury expedition vessels are regular guests and Orion Expeditions are planning their own Micronesian explorations too. Unfortunately Orion’s short term plans were set back by the cancellation of their lease on the former Clelia II. Prior to this, the now defunct US small ship line, Cruise West, regularly visited Micronesia on their popular Pacific voyages.

Even away from the Hawaiian-style island of Guam with its Japanese and US-dominated hotels and resorts and all the familiar brands, the smaller locations like Palau still offer quality accommodation at properties like the smart Palau Royal Resort or more budget-friendly Palasia Hotel.

Ocean Hunter III

Expedition and dive vessel, Ocean Hunter III

To date, much of the tourism throughout Micronesia has hinged on their renowned diving locations and WWII historic sites like Peleliu. The tiny city of Koror comes alive daily with its buzzing fleet of dive boats heading out in all directions to any of the scores of mapped locations within easy reach. One of the premier operators, Fish ‘n’ Fins, even offers a superb liveaboard option with itineraries of a week or more on their Australian-built vessel, the 16-passenger Ocean Hunter III. Catering mainly to divers, the trip also includes cultural visits, land tours, hiking and kayaking. Warships wrecks, manta rays, sharks and vivid coral arrays feature prominently for keen divers of all levels.

Those with an interest in the ethnic diversity of the Micronesian culture will also be pleased to learn that the proud Chamorro people have not been completely absorbed into western ways. A visit to the Culture Park at Tumon could be mistaken for trite and superficial, but I spent some time with the ‘natives’ after our small group had left and was delighted at the depth of understanding I gained in just a few minutes.

This writer’s advice would be to try and extend your stay beyond the cruise and enjoy the locations away from crowded shore excursion days when you have time to properly experience the many different facets of this Pacific island destination.

For more information on Micronesia, visit www.magnificentmicronesia.com

The writer was hosted by United Airlines and local tourism businesses * United provides an extensive network in the Guam hub to 70 weekly nonstop flights to 10 cities in Japan. This allows additional connections to other Micronesian islands of Saipan, Rota, Yap, Palau, Truk, Pohnpei, Kwajalein, Kosrae and Majuro.  United’s hub also provides connections to Hawaii, Hong Kong, Manila and Cairns.