Guam tourism: food, culture and South Pacific beaches
It's worth going on this long trip to Guam. There are a few good reasons why Guam, where America begins its day, and a former Spanish colony, and the biggest island in Micronesia, is so rarely visited.
From North America or Europe, only a few airlines will take you to this US territory in the Pacific Ocean and almost every route has stops in either Honolulu, Tokyo or Seoul. And with round-trip tickets starting at $1,500, it is not exactly the cheapest place to get to either.
Once you set foot on the island, which is one third of the size of London and has year-round temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. One million Japanese tourists flock here every year for the predictable weather, white beaches and crystal-clear Pacific Ocean. They swarm the theme-park style hotel pools, beach-side wedding chapels and the luxury shopping malls that feel like an air-conditioned, less-crowded version of Fifth Avenue.
These distractions make for a happy few days away from reality, or a honeymoon, but it might be missing the point. Guam is not just about tourists offerings. The real draws are the local food and culture.
The ethnic mix of Guam's population is 40 percent indigenous Chamorro people, 25 percent Filipino and the rest is a blend of Pacific Islanders, Asians and whites. You can see, and taste, this diversity in the island's food. More than 200 years of Spanish colonialism, a Western-Pacific heritage and the current American control are stirred together for a number of unique local dishes, like the Chorizo Breakfast Bowl. The delicious mix of spicy Chorizo sausage, grilled onions, diced potatoes and rice, topped with a sunny-side-up egg, hits the spot.
The best place to order the breakfast dish, and other island staples, is the King's Restaurant, which looks like any ordinary American diner until the meal begins with a "Hafa Adai" greeting from the waiter ("hello" in Chamorro).
If the humidity and your stomach allow, the Jamaican Grill is worth a stop for lunch. The Jerk Burger is two one-quarter-pound beef patties seasoned with just about anything available in the cupboard, topped with grilled onions, tomatoes, cheese and served on an onion bun. The curry mayo will make this a spicy, sweet, and messy affair but you will be stuffed for hours.
An extreme alternative is Niji, a Japanese Restaurant inside the Hyatt Hotel which offers an opulent lunch buffet and a view of the ocean waves. If the surrounding tables filled with Japanese tourists are not enough to put you at ease over the food's authenticity, the presentation and dishes will.
Every Wednesday night, after the sun kisses the Pacific Ocean goodnight, the Chamorro Village in Hagatna comes alive. Over four acres, vendors sell authentic souvenirs and memorabilia to tourists, but what makes this place worth a visit is its popularity among the locals. They come to mingle, play music, eat and entertain with traditional island dances. They have even been known to get up from their community dining tables to participate in an impromptu electric slide.
This is also the spot for fresh coconut juice and plates of Guam-styled barbecue. The meat is marinated in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar and onions and the result is a salty but sour bite you will not soon forget.
A perfect local side dish is "red rice", which gets its color and unique smoky flavor from being cooked in water soaked with red seeds from the achiote tree. For dessert, the Philippine-inspired, brown-sugar fried Banana Lumpia is a perfect bite into a hard wrap cover to unleash the mushy and very sweet inside.
The island is just big enough that the US military presence in the north is not felt elsewhere, but small enough that a drive around the southern tip can be done in 40 minutes without stopping. But stop you should, because this is where Guam's scenic overlooks, old Spanish bridges and waterfalls are concentrated.
There are tiny villages like Umatac, nestled between steep hills and wrapped around a bay. This where many believe Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 during his famous circumnavigation. Another explorer, Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, set foot in Umatac four decades later and formally claimed the island for Spain.
The San Dionisio Church along a bumpy village road in Umatac was first built by Spanish missionaries in the late 17th Century, then burned down by Chamorro in 1684 in protest of Spanish rule. Because of a typhoon and two earthquakes, it would be rebuilt three more times, the last time in 1939 in its current place within 50 yards of the original spot.
Port Soledad, atop the southern hill of the bay, is reconstructed in parts and offers the best view over Umatac and the rugged western shoreline. It also features Betsy, a local water buffalo that only has a rope and a tree between herself and freedom.
If your interest in history extends beyond colonialism, head to Fouha Bay where a very important rock on the northern tip shoots 150 feet up in the air. Chamorros believe it to be the cradle of civilization, the last resting place for goddess Fu'una who created the world along with her brother Puntan.
Less cosmological but no less fascinating, are the "latte stones" spread all over the island. Used by the ancient indigenous people to elevate their buildings, they can only be found on the Mariana Islands and were used until the Spanish settlement used other building materials.
The island's sights can be explored by car, scooter, bike or foot. There are guide-led hiking tours from half a mile to more than six miles, and for $100 you can climb on a small yacht with two other families, most likely Japanese, and sail around the coast spotting dolphins, snorkeling and fishing. Sashimi and a cold American beer are included in the price.
Guam competes with the sheer natural beauty of Hawaii and the wealth of beaches in the Bahamas, but more than that, the island offers an authentic, delicious and culturally rich getaway you may never have known was waiting for you.