Skim along beneath limestone ledges while Palauan bush warblers serenade you from the pandanus above, and plate corals and sponges whiz past below.
The islands of the South Pacific may be mere specks of land in a vast expanse of open sea, but their attendant myths are larger than lifethe Saran Wrap-clear lagoons, atolls ringed by teeming reefs, impenetrable jungle edging crescents of white sand. Set apart in their own tropical time warp, these isles are one of those rare cases where the reality actually matches the fantasy: In the Solomons you'll find dive sites so plentiful and so rarely (if ever) explored that no one has bothered to name them; in Palau, the first kayak trips have barely begun along the nation's island-clogged waterways; in Fiji, new sports-oriented resorts cater to divers, sailors, surfers, and assorted utopia-seekers. Pick your dot on the map, then follow our lead to the ultimate in island escapes.
Palau, in Micronesia, claims fame as one of the world's finest dive spotsand as the world's newest nation. The former U.N. Trust Territory marked its first year of independence in 1995. Roughly translated, this means more hotels will be paving Palauan shores and tropical forests in the very near future, so the time to visit is now. Most people go to Palau to dive their brains out; they don't come away disappointed. The 300-plus-island nation sits 800 miles southwest of Guam and about 700 miles east of the Philippines, at the meeting point of three major ocean currents that nurture a feeding frenzy of marine life. Dive on Palau's extensive barrier reef, and you might see 1,000-pound clams, anemones the size of basketballs, and fish of all kinds, from manta rays and whale sharks to surfboard-size wrasses. The largest island is 153-square-mile Babeldaob, the only place big enough for the international airport's runways. But the minute island-capital of Koror, two miles southwest, supports more than two-thirds of Palau's 15,000 population with its well-planned road system and central location. Koror links up to Babeldaob, Arakabesan, Ngercheu, Malakal, and several other islands via causeways and bridges that have all but replaced interisland commuting on outboards or canoes.
Palau's fabled dive sites, like Blue Corner and the Ngemelis Wall (with visibility up to 150 feet), are at the southern end of the barrier reef, about an hour's boat ride south of Koror. Hefty hawksbills lumber among the sea fans and tree corals of Ngemelis Wall, named "the world's best wall dive" by Jacques Cousteau. The even more popular Blue Corner teems with reef sharks and schooling barracuda. As a new nation, Palau is starting to establish conservation programs for the dive industry, but dive boats still line up to anchor at these sites like planes landing at LAX. Some locals claim that Peliliu's wrecks, about 45 minutes southwest by boat from Koror, are the best dives; others prefer the geologic formations of Siaes Tunnel, Blue Holes, and Chandelier Cave, all within an hour of Koror. You're best off simply asking your divemaster to take you to sites offering optimum conditions and the fewest people.
If you want to learn the names of all the marine life, book your dives and snorkeling trips through Fish 'N Fins (two-tank dives, $100, including lunch; 011-680-488-2637) at Palau Marina Hotel on Koror. Owner Francis Toribiong, the godfather of Palau diving, knows every olaumeyas and kesebekuu (sea anemone and moray eel). Or dive with Dexter Temengil at Palau Diving Center on Koror (two dives, $110; 680-488-2978), who'll also take you to Jellyfish Lake ($40 per person), a short boat-ride away on Eil Malk Island. The marine lake is off-limits to divers (there are noxious bacterial gases at depths below 50 feet), but you'll never get near the stuff snorkeling. Getting there is half the fun: you trek up a rocky cliff, dodging poisonous trees oozing black sap, then slip into ten inches of bug-covered silt and snake your way through a stand of slimy mangrove roots. Somewhere between the mangroves and the lake's opposite shore, you'll encounter the nonstinging Mastigiasfirst one, then ten, until, by the thousands, they're rubbing up against you like purring kittens.
To log some quality topside time, spend at least an afternoon sea kayaking. The oft-photographed Rock Islandsthose little green knobs scattered south of Kororare minor players in the diving scene, but they're prime waters for paddlers: you skim along beneath limestone ledges while Palauan bush warblers serenade you from the pandanus above, and plate corals and sponges whiz past below. Adventure Kayaking of Palau on Koror (rentals, $50-$70; one-day tours, $80; 680-488-1694) outfits day trips and guide-optional camping excursions geared for snorkeling, caving, birding, hiking, and diving. Hikers and fly-fishers should contact Lazarrenna Yosinao at Palau Island Adventures (day trips, $80; 680-488-1843) for a no-holds-barred trek to Babeldaob's Ngatpang Waterfall, a mix of four-wheel-drive off-roading, jungle hiking, birding, and freshwater minicasting.
Favored divers' digs include the laid-back bungalows at Carp Island Resort on Ngercheu, (doubles, $70-$100; 680-488-2978) and the 50-room Hotel Nikko Palau (doubles, $130-$170; 800-645-5687). On a gentle slope overlooking the Rock Islands next to Adventure Kayaking, it makes for a handy paddlers' retreat. Arakabesan's Sunrise Villa (doubles, $125; 680-488-4590) has 23 spacious rooms with refrigerators and outstanding views of the Rock Islands. Nearby, the full-service Palau Pacific Resort on Koror's only beach (doubles, $225-$270; 800-327-8585) appeals to those who seek five-star frills like Jacuzzis and princely all-you-can-eat buffets. If you prefer a live-aboard dive boat, there are several. Book the Palau Aggressor II, a 16-passenger catamaran, through Live/Dive Pacific (seven-day package, $2,225; 800-344-5662). The Sun Dancer (one-week package, $2,000-$2,200; call Peter Hughes Diving, 800-932-6237), with eight posh double cabins, cruises the length of Palau's reef. The smaller Ocean Hunter (one-week package, $2,000-$2,225; call See & Sea Travel, 800-348-9778) is a 60-foot yacht with three double cabins.
Getting There and Around:
Continental Micronesia (800-231-0856) flies from Los Angeles and San Francisco for around $1,750, with stopovers in Honolulu and Guam. In Koror, rent a car from Toyota Rent-A-Car ($75 per day; 011-680-488-2133).