The weekend before last I traveled to Saipan. It exceeded all of my wildest dreams. I credit that statement to my low expectations going into the trip, but it was an exciting trip for me nonetheless. When I put in my preferences and got my home port, I was most excited about the travel opportunities. Out of the lovely A.B. Won Pat airport, there are flights to Japan about every two hours, we have a direct flight to Australia, and to get to places like the rest of the Marianas or the Federated States of Micronesia you’re probably going to fly through Guam anyways. I had imagined frequent trips to exotic locales like Hong Kong or Laos, but that was before I faced the harsh reality of submarine life and my own laziness. So finally in my last month on Guam, assigned to squadron without any responsibilities and without anyone really caring if I showed up to work at all, I committed to finally going on a trip. I chose Saipan.
I think nearly everyone in the good ole’ U.S. of A. has heard of Saipan but would have no idea where to begin looking if presented with a map. It’s a trope for “having no idea where to being looking on a map” to be true for Americans no matter what map or location is named, but it’s a little more embarrassing when it comes to Saipan because we own the place. We won it fair and square back in World War II (as an aside, I think the boldest thing I’ve ever seen one of my fellow Americans do is wear a “Back-to-Back World War Champs” shirt in Japan), which is why I think most people had heard of it. For the record, it’s about 100 miles north of Guam. If you still don’t know where Guam is, start at New Guinea and head north until you find it. Back to Saipan, if you mention the Japanese people jumping off cliffs in the face of American invasion I think that will ring a bell with anyone at least passingly familiar with the war in the Pacific.
All of that was to say that I had no real clue what I was getting into when I decided to visit Saipan. Saipan’s web presence is not robust. In a solid afternoon of Googling the day before I left I only identified 5-6 spots I was going to try to find. After visiting Saipan that speaks more to reality than poor internet brand marketing, but my list included Suicide Cliff, Banzai Cliff, and several other places not known for massive amounts of death. Bird Island and the Botanical Gardens were also on the list. I am the sort of man who enjoys going to Botanical Gardens, and not to spoil the engrossing “Saipan Part II,” but I was to be disappointed. Out of the 3-4 flights to Saipan from Guam every day, I set off on one of the later ones in case I got stuck at “work” for longer than my now-customary one hour. Join the Navy, people. The flight on a sweet little turboprop included some cookies and a bottle of water. It was an extremely pleasant ride and I stared out over the Pacific.
Upon landing in Saipan, I was downright elated. I was so pumped to have finally traveled somewhere while stationed on Guam that everything had a sparkly sheen to it. The airport was cute, with the roof all pointy and curved like it was. The customs station was cute, how it spit you right out onto the street like that. Buoyant, I waltzed over to the car rental hut. When I entered, I smiled at all six bored-looking car rental attendants. I walked over to the first one that made eye contact and discovered the only car left was an SUV. I went for it anyway and the man was apologetic enough to give me a special rate. It wound up serving me well over the weekend so I was glad to have it.
Departing the airport with my swank new rental car, I got some of my first real impressions of Saipan. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that Saipan is very well marked, at least for the major tourist destinations. This is in contrast to Guam, where street sign technology hasn’t really made a big splash. Saipan is also tiny enough where finding your way isn’t really a problem anyways, because if you drive more than about 20 minutes you’ll probably wind up wherever you were going no matter what. That made it pretty easy to get to the Capital Hotel where I would be staying. If you’re in Saipan on a budget, the Capital Hotel is a suitable place to sleep. It’s got a lobby atrium thing and a desk clerk that isn’t too excited to see you. As I was soon to discover about the rest of Saipan, it mostly caters to an Asian clientele, as evidenced by those awesome disposable slippers I always like and the TV remote that had no English on it. That wasn’t too much of a stumbling block because once I discovered they had Al Jazeera English there wasn’t any need to change the channel.
So here I was! Landed in Saipan! Out in the world! Seeing things! Here somewhat illegally because I didn’t exactly tell squadron I was going to be leaving the island but that’s no matter! It added to the excitement! The first order of business was dinner! I set off on foot in Garapan (the main town) and I should probably continue with those first impressions I mentioned earlier. If you think Guam is run-down you haven’t been to Saipan. That’s probably unfair, as Saipan has some up-scale places. It has a few resorts right in downtown Saipan, and nearby the resorts were plenty of reputable-looking establishments servicing the resort crowd. Also, I presume, gambling is legal in Saipan, leading to at least one nice-looking if small casino. But the island has that “under-construction” feel and it’s clear not everyone is getting rich off the tourist market. I’m going to write another post one day about why I love the tropics (weather) but Saipan hit all the wickets of easygoing tropical living. The other major thought I had while wondering around and analyzing my dinner choices was that I couldn’t tell which of the massage parlors were brothels. On Guam, it’s easy: they’re all brothels. That’s not quite true, but unless you’re at a hotel spa or one or two other locations, they’re going to offer you a something extra at the end. But the massage parlors on Saipan had nicely-dressed women outside. In suits! It threw me off. I can’t report on the fact of the matter, however, because eventually I found a pizza place and then headed back to the hotel to prep for an early morning.