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Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Idyllic island makes blissful escape


Azure fish, blue-tailed lizards, turquoise waves -- Rota is full of the refreshing colors of life.

Located a few hours south of Japan, this tropical island seems a million kilometers away from the crush of city living. Blissfully, there are no shopping centers or fast-food restaurants. The only fast thing here is the sunset -- a sudden flurry of pink and gold, then night makes its dramatic entrance. Nature is the great attraction. If you like deserted shorelines, bird-watching, star-gazing and a hint of mystery, you'll enjoy this lovely island.

There are no direct flights from Japan. First the jumbo jet thunders into Saipan Airport. Most tourists go straight to their high-rise hotels; only a handful of passengers stay on and wait for the short flight to Rota. Light aircraft buzz about like honey bees, heading for the scattered islands of Micronesia.

Our plane waits on the shimmering tarmac. The pilot jumps out, prods the tail fin and gives the thumbs up. Ten minutes later, we zoom out over sapphire seas and emerald islands, flying straight for the green cliffs of Rota.

The Northern Mariana Islands are the tips of mountains that sweep up from the tremendous depths of the Pacific Ocean, and are a fascinating mix of volcano, limestone and coral. The original Chamorro islanders have seen waves of colonists come and go: Spanish, German and Japanese. Rota largely escaped the tragic battles of World War II and became a commonwealth of the U.S. in 1986, along with Saipan. Local people still speak the Chamorro language, although Tagalog and English are just as common.

The style is relaxed and the cuisine simple on Rota. The Rota Resort has attractive two-bedroom suites and an 18-hole golf course overlooking the sea. It is a Japanese hotel, but the helpful staff speak English. A shuttle bus takes visitors to the idyllic Tetepo Beach, where children can swim in safety or snorkel over the coral reef.

Serious divers can find platter corals, caves and tunnels to explore on the rocky side of the island. Both the Rota and Pau Pau hotels are close to beaches, and budget hotels are available too.

Wherever you stay, it's a good idea to hire a car or jeep. The roads are very quiet, and bouncing along the flower-filled tracks is a delightful experience. With a jeep, you can take the track up Mount Savan or go in search of the mysterious "Latte" stones. Some are hidden in vegetation by the sea.

We lost our way among a pretty tangle of morning glories and papayas. Instead, we found the dramatic As Matmos cliff, where cobalt waves fling themselves against black volcanic rock. The sea moans and sighs through deep cracks in the rocks -- a haunting place, even on the brightest day.

Easier to find is the old Taga quarry, where the Latte stones were originally cut. A dozen massive stones are still lying where they were abandoned, maybe a thousand years ago. Some lie on their backs, their faces covered with tiny ferns and plants. Others have been slowly buried by time and form gentle tomblike mounds in the grass. There is no clamor of tour guides, just the whirr of insects and the silence of the stones.

The island is about 16 km x 4 km, and the whole population could fit into two bullet trains. There are a few neat farms, but most people live in Song Song village. Local people are friendly. Drivers wave from pickup trucks, dogs open a curious eye, too hot to bark, let alone bite.

The village has the air of a frontier town about to evaporate. Low whitewashed buildings bake under the sun. The post office flies its American flag like an old empire outpost. The sleepy food store sells intriguing things like tamarind tea, gelatinous mutant coconut and yesterday's newspapers (the lead story was about snakes in Guam).

The tropical dawn is a lovely time of day. Black butterflies flap among scarlet hibiscus. Long-tailed birds shake out their feathers in the glossy trees. It's also the best time to visit the bird sanctuary that is wonderfully free of gimmicks and souvenir shops.

From a cliff path, one looks straight down onto tree tops where sea-birds are stirring to life. We saw white-tailed tropic birds, fairy terns and a gorgeous Micronesian kingfisher. Perched on a hand rail, just a few meters away, his turquoise-and-cinnamon feathers glinted in the sun. Clearly, he was thinking about breakfast, and after a while, so were we.

Over rolls and coffee, we watched a sudden downpour bouncing off the hotel terrace. Then, as if a director had shouted "Cut!," it suddenly stopped. The sun came out and a perfect rainbow arched over the glittering sea. It was the most genuine souvenir of all.

For information in English or Japanese, contact the Marianas Visitors Authority in Tokyo, (03) 3215-3180, or www.visit-marianas.com


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