This breathtaking archipelago made up of hundreds of islands is arguably one of the planet’s last pieces of unspoilt paradise. Even viewed from the sky, it seems like the stuff of dreams, as vast atolls of lush jungle and limestone slowly give way to vivid white sands and vibrant turquoise sea. It’s impossibly uplifting to see a landscape so seemingly untouched by the ravages of modern travel, a feeling that is underlined on arrival when authorities ask visitors to sign the Palau Pledge promising to protect the environment during any trip.
What to do in Palau?
In a land full of bucket list inspiration, Jellyfish Lake remains a favourite with locals and visitors alike. It was closed for two years after numbers dwindled due to drought, but has now reopened and while it is some way from the estimated 20 million jellyfish of its 2005 heyday, it has lost little of its charm.
The journey to Eil Malk Island is an exhilarating boat trip past striking rocky outcrops and through impossibly blue channels teaming with sea life. The lake can only be reached after a brisk 20-minute hike through the forest inland (you will need robust footwear). Once there, simply put your belongings onto the long deck and slip in. Fins are recommended in the water as they help swimmers avoid any wild splashing or kicking that might harm the famed golden jellyfish that inhabit the lake.
With no natural predators to battle, they evolved with no sting, making it safe to snorkel around them. Sunny days bring them to the surface in abundance, but in the middle of the lake, even when it is overcast you’ll quickly feel surrounded. It’s a surreal experience, and feeling them bump against you can take some getting used to, but overall it is a wondrous thing. Only snorkelling is allowed at the lake, and you will need reef safe suncream. Amazingly it’s not the only lake of its kind in Palau, but it is the only accessible one. You will need to pay for a permit which costs $100 US per person.
Kayak and Snorkel the Rock Islands
Spend the day drifting through this magical world of limestone islets jutting out of a picture perfect ocean. You’ll soon see why it has been hailed by UNESCO as an area of outstanding value. On a good day turtles and flying fish zip past as you paddle through arguably one of the most serene places in Asia. The landscape is remarkably similar to Vietnam’s Halong Bay, but without the crush of visitors or the constant hum of tour boats. The lush foliage that tops the karst ensures a healthy variety of bird life, and there are a few caves to explore where fruit bats settle for the day. There are plenty of places in the lagoons and mangroves to moor the kayaks before taking a refreshing dip. It’s possible to hire kayaks and do a tour close to Koror, but the best – and most relaxing – way to do it is to have a speedboat take you and the kayaks further out into the area and get a local guide to cherry pick the best spots to paddle, snorkel, and dock. You will need a permit to access the Rock Islands, so it is best to book through a local operator.
Dive the Blue Corner
A scuba diver’s fantasy land, Palau offers everything from World War II wrecks to the unique Ulong Channel drift dive and the incredible Peleliu Wall, where pelagic fish come in droves. But the Blue Corner, frequently ranked among the top 5 dive sites on the planet, is the big draw. Even from the sky it is a striking image, shooting out like an arrow into the deep blue sea. Below the surface it is even more impressive: strong currents rush in from the open ocean bringing with them a kaleidoscope of fish. Here, multiple species of shark stalk their prey, Napolean Wrasse loom large and free, and a multitude of reef fish dart across a vivid forest of coral. Divers use a specially-designed reef hook, which anchors them to the reef, helping conserve air in tough conditions, whilst also ensuring no damage to the ecology. The unpredictable currents make it one for advanced divers, and it is worth investing in Nitrox certification to extend your time at the bottom. Under the right conditions and with seasoned dive guides, novices can attempt it too.
Float in the Milky Way
Charter a boat and navigate Palau on your own terms. A day trip could easily incorporate diving in the morning, a picnic on a sandbar, and kayaking in the afternoon. Take the time to stop at the Milky Way, so called for the clay-like white silt loved by locals for its detoxification properties. Essentially a mud bath at source instead of in a spa, fans insist it is such an excellent exfoliant that it leaves skin silky smooth. Be warned though, it has a strong smell, which can be off-putting for some. Located in a quiet part of the Rock Islands, the waters are calm enough to float and relax, but keep in mind there’s no beach so confidence in the water is important.
Dine Like a Local
There are plenty of eateries offering up Korean, Japanese, or American cuisine, but Palau has some pretty impressive delicacies of its own. Head to Yano’s Market, beloved by the Koror community, and take a culinary adventure as you wander from shop to shop. Seafood, freshly caught, is an obvious must but you will also find traditional favourites such as fruit bat soup, shrimp and squash fritters known as Ulkoy, sumptious coconut crab, as well as an array of wonders made from that Micronesian staple – taro. Palauans are charming, and generally love to show off the wonders of their islands so don’t be shy about asking questions or for help seeking out authentic flavours.
For a vibrant evening experience head to the International Night Market in Koror, yes it is a little touristy, but that doesn’t prevent the locals swinging by, and it shouldn’t stop you. There’s traditional dance and music, as well as handicraft and food stalls to explore. It runs every other Friday.
For a power lunch with a difference take a tour of the formidable Airai Bai, a vast traditional men’s meeting house. Usually hosted by one of the chief clansmen of Airai, it’s an unusual opportunity to learn about a side of Palauan culture that is at risk of fading. It culminates with a fantastic lunch showcasing some best-loved dishes included taro and coconut soup, steamed fish, and tapioca pudding.
Watch Birds in Paradise
Sometimes dubbed Asia’s answers to the Galapagos because of its remote location, there are a number of species on the islands that can only be found in this part of the world. Some 13 species of bird are on that list including the Palau Ground Dove and the Palau Megapode, now classified as an endangered species. Even if you’re not a committed ‘twitcher’, the Ngermeskang Bird Sanctuary offers a beautiful chance to see some rare and endemic creatures. Dedicated rangers guide visitors around the stunning reserve, and are knowledgeable about all the wildlife encounters. A great chance to feel like Sir David Attenborough if only for the afternoon.
Visit Peleliu Island
A must for history buffs as this is where the US and Japan fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific during World War II. Realising it’s strategic importance for re-claiming the region, Allied forces attacked Peleliu, which is just 13 square kilometres in size. But experts say they failed to realise their enemies – some 10,000 Japanese soldiers were garrisoned there – had carved out tunnels connecting it’s network of natural caves, transforming the island into a fortress. The Americans eventually won but the battle claimed thousands of lives on both sides. Today the tiny coral islet is a tranquil place with only one village, so it is possible to explore it and hardly see another soul. The debris and weaponry scattered around look out of place now but are a stark reminder of the brutality of its past.
Get Even Further Away From it All
Up in the northernmost reaches of Palau is a little known state called Kayangel, which has barely been touched by tourism. Only one of the islets in this area is inhabited, and even then little more than 100 people live there. This is the edge of the Pacific wilderness – few visitor’s walk these beaches, or see its lush jungle, or swim these stunning waters. It can be done as an intensive day trip, but if really getting away from it all is the aim, then it is best done over a few days. It’s possible to sleep in a homestay, to really embrace local living. Tour companies run snorkelling and dive trips to the region, as well as fishing excursions where you eat what you catch. Check the weather before you plan the trip as this part of Palau is incredibly exposed and vulnerable to the seasonal typhoons that hit much of Asia in the summer months. There’s a ranger station on the main island if you need assistance.
Seaside Sunset Dinner
Hands down the best place to see the sunset in Koror is at the Palau Pacific Resort, a vast and stylish hotel with one of the few beaches in town. For something extra special opt for one of their waterside private dinners. Served by a personal chef and waiter, guests are treated to a lavish seven course meal under a gazebo on the pier. Relax with a bottle of sparkling wine as the sun sets transforming the sky into swirls of gold, pink, red, and purple before giving way to an inky night often filled with twinkling stars. The only sounds you’ll hear are the lap of the ocean against the shore, and the sizzle of your meal being prepared by the resort’s best chefs. Every course is a treat but highlights include the grilled lobster, chilled cream of pumpkin soup with crab, and the three-flavour creme brulee.
For something even more out of the ordinary. you can opt for the ‘King and Queen’ feast, where you’ll dine on the beach surrounded by bamboo torches. A waiter presents diners with flower crowns, the traditional headdress worn by Palauan royalty and a floral necklace.
Swim with Sharks and Manta Rays
Home to the world’s first shark sanctuary and with a strong commitment to the environment and conservation, Palau offers chances to encounter wild marine life in a way that is arguably unrivalled worldwide. There is a 600,000 square kilometre ‘no take’ zone which more than 135 types of Western Pacific shark species, including tiger sharks, grey reef sharks, and whale sharks, swim through. Take advantage of this and swim, snorkel and dive here as much as possible. The fantastic Ngemelis Wall is home to sharks, turtles, rays, lionfish and an array of reef fish, while the German Channel dive is a breathtaking opportunity to see reef sharks hunting, schools of barracuda, and perhaps most humbling of all – eagle rays that swing by regularly to make a stop at their ‘cleaning-stations’. If you stay still at the bottom, some may come tantalisingly close before looping around.
There is such a bounty that even at almost every snorkel and beginner dive sites there are chances to see marine life long gone from other nations – because they failed to protect them. In many places the coral is vivid and thriving – an increasingly rare thing in Asia where dynamite fishing, pollution, and warming waters is causing an unprecedented die-off. Palau even runs an annual Shark Week, spearheaded by the indomitable Micronesian Shark Foundation, when there are dives, events, fundraisers, and educational outreach to raise awareness of the issues such as over-fishing and the devastating shark fin industry, which threaten long term survival of the majestic creatures.
Palau is best done with the help of it’s informative and kind locals, who know the best places to dine, visit, and dive. There’s no beating premium tour operator Fish’n’Fins, who have a strong commitment both to environmental protection, and community development. It helps that owners Tova and Navot Bornovski are world renowned divers who mapped many of the dive sites of Palau that are so beloved today.
Touring and diving in such remote parts of the world means being 100 percent sure of the people looking after you and providing the vessels and equipment. The Fish’n’Fins fleet is exemplary and the captains are veteran seamen. The snorkel and dive guides know when the current changes and how to avoid the high season ‘crowds’.
With more than two decades experience in the industry, the team here know every Palau hotspot intimately, and take all the stress out of diving activities. Pricing is competitive and staff go the extra mile to improve your experience.
Their fantastic kayaking trips are a must – you can opt to do the relaxed version, and have a boat take you out for the day, giving you a veritable highlights reel of adventures. There’s also a moonlit, nighttime option, which is great for couples.
Another option is to charter one of their boats for the day, complete with captain, guides for kayaking or diving, activity gear, food and drinks. It’s incredible to find a company that listens to what you want to do, and then endeavours to make it happen. So this too is well worth paying extra for.
Fish’n’Fins is a family company, but you get the impression that all staff are viewed as extended family. The firm has invested in the community and hired a number of locals across a range of ages. Ask for the fantastic guide ‘IB’ whose helpful and energetic approach really ensures visitors make the most of Palau’s treasures.
Great for families and dive groups, another big plus is that they endeavour to ensure solo travellers are not penalised with heavy extra costs, as can be the case elsewhere.
Almost every activity on the list above is possible through Fish’n’Fins and it would be hard to find a team better placed to deliver an ethical dream holiday.
Where to stay in Palau?
Palau Pacific Resort
A favourite with honeymooners and couples, as well as dive groups and families, this leading hotel in Palau remarkably manages to deliver something for everyone. Here the lagoon waters splash gently against pristine white sand, the beach is framed by coconut trees and a carpet of vibrant grass and fallen frangipangi blossom.
Set across 64 acres there is plenty of space to wonder and explore – with gardens, a lookout point, and a nature trail, while the hotel’s waters form the Palau Pacific Resort Marine Sanctuary, which was established almost 20 years ago.
As fishing is banned in the area, it is now home to sea grass, coral, reef fish, turtles, and several types of the endangered giant clam.
This ethos of respect for the local environment extends on land – the property has pledged that none of its buildings will be higher than the tallest coconut tree – as well as in the day-to-day running of the place. In a bid to conserve resources it maintains its own water supply – both from wells and stored and treated rainwater. While there are still daily buffets, which many environmentalists say exacerbate the issue of food waste, the hotel is at least sending its scraps for composting rather than to landfill. Bathroom amenities are predominantly single use plastic but they have invested in a machine that converts such material into oil, which are used for its tiki torches and some hotel equipment.
There is a 24-hour concierge and the staff make an effort to ensure a smooth stay. Advice on activities is pressure-free and they are happy to recommend alternative dining in town. There are also two shops on site, which although on the pricey side, have what you need should you forget equipment for excursions or last-minute gifts. For those that like to stay active, there are tennis courts and a fitness centre, as well as a PADI dive and watersports centre.
The resort has a collection of gorgeous villas, all recently built or renovated and perfect for special occasions. Materials are locally sourced where possible and influenced both by Palauan tradition – the roofs are structured in the A-shape commonly seen in traditional men’s meeting houses called “bai”. The over-water villas, the first of their kind in Micronesia, are impossibly romantic, with views straight out to sea and private steps that lead directly into the water. The floors even feature a glass covered cutaway section that enables guests to gaze at the fish below without leaving the comfort of the sofa. The pool villas have infinity pools, though at low tide the vista is mainly of mud flats. All these luxury properties have state-of-the-art sound and media systems, with wifi throughout, as well as a dedicated VIP service centre for private and express check-in complete with welcome drinks and a tour. The VIP centre also serves up a fantastic a la carte breakfast offering the best of Palau as well as western classics. Guests can choose whether they eat poolside, or in the private dining room. A must for foodies and a great way to start the day.
Meduu Ribtal is an excellent choice where local seafood, and island specialities are given a fine dining flourish. Most meat has been imported from the US and is of the highest quality, plus there’s a decent wine selection. Coconut Terrace is where the morning breakfast buffet, a world tour of culinary favourites from French patisserie to Chinese congee. The restaurant also hosts themed nights as well, but overall the quality is not reflective of a 5-star resort.
A popular al fresco choice is the Beach BBQ, where the day’s catch, as well as prime meat cuts, and vegetables are all flame-grilled.
If you want to spoil yourself, the Elilai Spa offers an array of treatments but the signature Milky Way Escape, which uses the hugely popular white mud from the local waters of the same name is about as indulgent as it gets. It lasts around two hours and twenty minutes, during which every inch is scrubbed and soothed, and it’s topped off with a delightful bath soak and then an utterly delicious hot stone massage. The Harmony and Nirvana massages are also popular with divers looking for R & R after facing the elements. If you’re staying in the pool villas then simply enjoy the luxury of taking just a few steps to your own private infinity pool with stunning sea views. Otherwise the main hotel infinity pool is perfectly located just a stone’s throw from the beach, and within arm’s reach of a cocktail or snack menu. Plus it has an accompanying jacuzzi to further melt away life’s stresses.
If you’re staying in one of the villas then there is a fantastic liquor cabinet at your disposal and a chance to simply enjoy drinks with your loved one under the stars on the private deck. But the Sunset Beer Garden is a nice choice for something more low key if you’re in the mood for a post excursion tipple, and the Mesekiu Waterhole Bar offers an array of vibrant cocktails poolside.
There is a wonderful Nature Trail on site which is possible to navigate alone, but having a guide opens up possibilities to learn about the local flora and fauna and understand which plants are used in traditional medicine and cuisine. There’s plenty of birdlife to spot as well. It’s a straightforward hike but ensure you have water and sun protection as the Palau heat and humidity can take its toll. The hotel’s marine sanctuary makes for a lovely kayak or stand-up paddle boarding trip as the water is so clear that just glancing down offers a window into the wonderful underwater world below. Go as close to high tide as possible (hotel staff will say if the water is getting too shallow for such an activity) to avoid harming the reef. There is usually some wind and current, but it is manageable. Rental fees start from $10/hour for kayaks – doubles are available, and $15/hour for SUP boards.
It’s not often travellers get to swim in a marine sanctuary, especially one located just metres from your room. Make the most of the excellent visibility and snorkel at high tide where it’s possible to see an array of marine life, including endangered species such as the giant clam and humphead parrotfish, to hawksbill turtles and lionfish. Make a note of low tide times as it becomes too shallow to really navigate safely or without damaging the coral. The area was affected by recent destructive typhoons, so some of the reef has died off, but there are efforts to create nurseries to revive it. If you’re a sucker for sunsets, then the beach is an excellent spot to soak it up, but for a better vantage point take the short hike to the lookout.
The on site orchid nursery is home to some 8,000 plants, some of which are used to decorate the hotel. Popular with the selfie generation for it’s visual potential, it’s also just a nice post-breakfast pit stop on a lazy day.