Kosrae: The Mysterious Paradise Island

Welcome to Kosrae

Of course Kosrae’s unofficial storyteller stutters. At least when he speaks English, which he learned — and is still learning, he says — completely from tourists visiting this 42-square mile primordial, volcanic blip hundreds of miles from the next nearest landfall in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Few things on this island, one of the four Federated States of Micronesia, are as you expect. A pristine Pacific paradise that only gets 2,000 visitors a year? Really? The unexpected is what makes it so wonderful.

When we meet Tadao Waguk’s friends or family – and they’re all over the island, including the newly-elected governor, who’s a cousin — and he can slip into his native Kosraean (Co-SHRY-an), he speaks slowly, but never stumbles.

Right now Tadao is telling me how he selects a Ka tree to carve into a long canoe. He’s one of the few people on this Micronesian island that still knows and practices the traditional way of making an outrigger canoe. Most families today prefer cars.

While a tall, straight specimen is good, it’s neither of those qualities that are the deciding factor. After all, almost all Ka trees several decades old reach at least 100 feet into the jungle’s canopy. It’s more about the tree’s spirit.

Exploring the Mangroves

The spirit of the tree that became the canoe Tadao used to take me into some of the island’s thick mangrove forests can only be called feisty. After two hours of squeezing us through impossibly tight channels that sometimes required ducking and over shallows where I look down and see the holes of the crabs that are a local delicacy, the canoe’s small engine sputtered and died. There was only one oar.

Exploring the Mangroves

Tadao was celebrating his 67th birthday the next month, but that wasn’t why I offered to paddle. My biceps were the size of his quads. But he was the one with the machete. He paddled us out of the mangroves – hacking at mangrove roots more often than on the trip out because of the quickly receding tide – and back to the marina where the only attendants I saw were a handful of the island’s mangy, misbehaved mutts.

Just before reaching the marina we passed within a cannon shot’s distance of the Leonora. Once the ship of Bully Hayes, who’s either one of the last of the pirates of the Pacific or merely a misunderstood adventurous entrepreneur, depending on whom you ask, the Leonora sank in Kosrae’s Lelu Harbor in 1874. Since it was 1) a wooden ship and 2) since Hayes salvaged enough timber from it to build the 14-foot boat he used to escape after being arrested for oppressing the island’s natives, there’s not much left of the Leonora to look at today. Still, some of the divers that come to this island – about half of the island’s visitors are certified divers — go down for a look.

Diving

I didn’t spend much time being one of those divers though. The reefs around Kosrae are among the most pristine in the world. Why scrub about in muck looking at decomposing wood beams when there are longfin spadefish, longnose butterfly fish, Moorish Idols (remember Gill from Finding Nemo?), raccoon butterfly fish, and soft and hard corals in all shapes and sizes?

Moorish Idol Zanclus Cornutus

The water is almost always a constant 84 degrees.

I tried fairly hard to keep track of the number of different fish I saw during an afternoon diving with Kosrae Nautilus Resort. I was doing good until dive master Doug, who owns the resort with his wife Sally, pointed out a piece of hard coral as big as an old school satellite dish.
Christmas  Tree Canyon, KosraeSorry, but I thought it was cooler than any fish.

I learned how to Scuba dive in Palau, another Pacific paradise. Palau is generally considered one of the world’s best places to dive. There are fish and coral formations there you can’t find anywhere else in the world. It blew my mind … but it was a horrible place for a novice diver. Talk about setting the bar high.

I’ve been diving for going on 10 years now – the Great Barrier Reef, Curacao, Bonaire, Playa del Carmen, all over the Caribbean – and Kosrae is the first place that has been able to recreate that mind-blowing experience that caused me to fall in love with diving. Diving in Kosrae is like visiting another planet … that few others visit.

It’s not like Palau’s waters are crowded, but, well, compared to Kosrae, they are. The year I visited Palau, so did 60,000 other divers. In a big year, Kosrae gets about 2,000 tourists, only about half of whom dive. Even if all of Kosrae’s annual visitors did dive, that’d still be only about eight divers a day. The island is 42-square miles and almost entirely encircled by reefs. I’ll let you do the math.

I’m not positive about this, but I think Doug and I – and his 20-something son visiting from Australia — had the entire eastern side of the island to ourselves the day we went out.

Island Life

It’s not the diving that I’m sending friends to Kosrae for or that will bring me back. It’s the relaxing. Although it can be hard to relax here since there’s so much to do.

Church SingersIn addition to diving and kayaking or canoeing through mangroves, there is serious hiking — Mt. Olum is almost 1,500 vertical feet straight up. There are also caves and ruins to explore and fafa, the island’s traditional treatment of taro, and fish soup to learn how to make. The island’s Sunday church services require some serious energy too. I didn’t want to ruin a beautiful thing so I kept quiet, but just listening to the singing — all seemingly spontaneous three-part harmony — gave me goose bumps.

And there is surfing. Not that I’m a surfer, but I still know enough about waves — and know enough to ask locals and expats — to know that they were very good when I was there. Most of the surfing isn’t beginner-friendly though.

When you do relax, which I finally felt comfortable doing after six days on the island, Kosrae’s isn’t a spread-your-towel-on-a-huge-beach kind of  relaxing. Instead it’s a this-is-about-as-close-to-the-edge-of-the-world-you-can-get kind of relaxing. There is absolutely no nightlife. There is no multiplex movie theater. There’s not even a single-screen theater. There is no spa.

Dina MishevThis might be the best place in the world to go for those who like to be their own entertainment. Being the mistress of each and every second of my day is my favorite way to relax, even if I’m not so good at leaving myself many seconds of doing nothing.

There is Internet and my room at Kosrae Nautilus Resort had air conditioning and a television – although my thatched roof lohm at Kosrae Village Ecolodge had neither … but it did have an open-air shower, hermit crabs crawling around the front porch, and a beach 15 feet away.

There is only one road. Rarely is it further than 20 feet from the ocean. The paved section is 25 miles long and pedestrians and bikes have the right of way. The unpaved section has potholes capable of swallowing school buses. No one seems to care. The village on this unpaved section can effectively only be reached by boat.

Breadfruit falling from branches arching over the road are a serious hazard. So are hens shepherding chicks across the road. No one seems to mind slowing down or stopping.

Around the island, the posted speed limit is 25, but it never specifies whether this is miles or kilometers per hour. In the U.S., obviously it’d be miles, but Kosraean cars come from all over the world. Tadao was driving me around in a Japanese Toyota minivan. That is, a Toyota mini-van made in Japan for Japanese drivers. The dials on the dash had Japanese characters on them. The speedometer was in kilometers.  My other guide had an SUV that had come to Kosrae from the U.S. Still, I don’t think I ever saw him push 25 miles an hour.

Friends on the RoadEven though the island’s population is only about 7,000, there are occasional traffic jams. Except Kosraens don’t call them traffic jams. To Kosraens, it’s just catching up with friends. Drivers or passengers see a friend or relative along the roadside. Of course they stop to chat. And chat. And chat. Most Kosraens under the age of 50 speak English, but there’s no chance of Kosraean dying out anytime soon.

Seeing a friend alongside the road, a driver stopped in front of the car I’m in. He stopped in the middle of the road.

Details

Continental Micronesia is the only way to fly to Kosrae. Getting there is the hardest part though. Once there, you don’t need to worry about any language or currency issues.  Kosrae, like the other three Federated States of Micronesia, uses the U.S. dollar. (Gas is $4.50/gallon, but tuna sashimi  is $1/pound.)

Rooms at Kosrae Nautilus Resort start at $115. Kosrae Village Ecolodge, founded by two Americans but 100% Micronesian in spirit, staff, and look, has individual cottages, all made using traditional Kosraean methods, starting at $129. While only two (of 9) cottages have air conditioning, all have fans, electricity, lights, and a mini-fridge, which usually comes stocked with fresh fruit.

Don’t come to Kosrae looking for nightlife. Don’t expect to miss it.

Most of the island’s dive operators run about $100 for a two-dive day. Dives are done from boats.

The Kosrae Visitors Center sells local handicrafts — woven baskets, shell necklaces — and is an invaluable source of information and help. Want to go hiking? They’ll find you a guide. (A guided half-day hike is about $30.)

Photo Credit: Fish, coral, singing women, and smiling kids photos provided by Kosrae Village Ecolodge.

DINA MISHEV is a randonee skier, cyclist and hiker who, in February 2009, set the world record for the most vertical feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 hours. She is a category-3 road cyclist who consistently places top 5 in the longest single-day road race in the country… {more »}

Comments

  1. Reeftraveler says:

    Wonderful piece Dina! I love the butterfly fish photo. Micronesia is high on my list of places to visit, and it looks like Kosrae could be the place.

    Like: Thumb up 1

  2. Absolutely fabulous article of home sweet home….

    Like: Thumb up 1

  3. Brandon says:

    Thanks for posting Dina. I lived on Kosrae for a spell and miss it greatly!

    Like: Thumb up 1

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