With its pristine waters, diverse landscape, rich cultural heritage and burgeoning hospitality industry, this tiny tropical island is set to be the next big thing
Author Jessica Peterson Photography Jessica Peterson
DAY THREE | You’ve booked an early Balinese-style massage at the hotel’s Spa Ayualam, in an open-air cabana overlooking the bay. You disrobe and a petite woman gets to work on the knots caused by the previous day’s adventure with the Russians. The combination of a gentle breeze, fragrant oil and the woman’s expert fingers sends you to sleep.
Having been prodded awake by your masseuse, you shower and head down to the Hilton’s Islander Terrace. The buffet bar heaves with both American breakfast food and dishes from the Far East. You fill your tray with miso soup, kimchi and oden, a stew of boiled eggs, daikon radishes and fishcakes in a dashi broth. It’s wonderful.
You’re tempted to go back to the beach, but you have a very different kind of aquatic experience in store. You hop in your car and head south, following the signs to Fish Eye Marine Park, where you’re booked for an activity they call Seawalker. It starts in a circular building at the end of a narrow pier, where you are fitted with a sort of spaceman’s helmet. Like those old diving suits, your helmet has a constant stream of air pumped in so you can breathe. Next, you descend a ladder, which takes you about 20 feet under the surface of Piti Bay. Your guide walks you out to a feeding area and hands you a clump of fish food. Immediately, you are surrounded by a rabble of impossibly bright and chummy creatures. No funny looks here.
Next, after an appetite-honing kayak trip, you head for Tumon’s Gun Beach, home to The Beach Bar & Grill. On the deck, blaring reggae provides an odd soundtrack to a view dominated by a large rusty gun (one of the island’s many reminders of its World War II battles). You start with a Beach Sunset—rum, amaretto, orange, pineapple, banana liqueur, grenadine and, uh, more rum—followed by a Tinian Beach Burger, a mammoth patty topped with cheese and bacon. Lunch over, you slide into a padded beach chair, lower your sunglasses and (yep) fall asleep.
Just next door is Lina’la’ Beach & Culture Park, the centerpiece of which is a reproduction of a traditional thatch-and-latte Chamorro village. A man with one cheek full of betelnut hunches over a flat stone, grinding noni leaf. He hands you a sample. “Mm!” you say, thinking “Ew!” A moment later, a muscular man with coarse black hair wearing only a red loincloth shimmies up a coconut tree, tilts his torso parallel to the ground, then slides down. “That looked painful,” you say. “Well,” he replies, smiling, “maybe a little.”
As the sun sets, you drive south, to the capital city of Hagåtña, where you find Chamorro Village, Guam’s largest indoor/outdoor market. Tables are piled with jewelry, paintings and straw baskets. The air is thick with the aroma of smoked meat. You head to Åsu Smokehouse and order a fiesta plate, which includes tender caramelized beef brisket, red rice and crisp cabbage slaw. Despite the large burger you tackled earlier, you eat it all.
From here, you find the only empty seat in the market’s central pavilion. A band is playing a classic rock set that, oddly, involves a tuba and a ukulele. On the dance floor, a local woman is swaying her hips beside a man in a top hat lined with tinsel. She giggles as he twirls her around. You get the feeling these two are a staple here.
The narrow arteries of Hagåtña are filling with tourists sipping coconut milk from the shell. A grinning young man poses for a picture with a coconut crab that’s about the size of a toddler. When they’re not sipping and posing, the tourists are spending. It is tchotchke heaven here, an endless array of beads, baubles and wooden carvings. You are not immune. A stocky middle-age man dressed in a loincloth and holding a spear beckons you to his shop. You walk out with a clamshell pendant.
As you’re readying yourself to leave, you spot a makeshift stage, upon which dancers with spears and grass skirts chant and sway to the furious beat of drums. Surrounded by chattering tourists, you cannot help but think of the island’s knotted jungles, its mazy reefs and half-forgotten rituals. It strikes you now just how far away from home you are, and just how happy you are to be here.
Writer JESSICA PETERSON has called Guam home for five years, but her friends still ask her which “nesia” she lives on.