Thirty years ago, at the tender age of 17, I did what many people dream of doing: I ran away from home to experience life in the South Pacific.
For a year I lived on the remote north coast of Tahiti, in a tiny thatched-roof cottage in a garden of mango trees. My seaside home was a lush sun-dappled valley protected by soaring green mountains. Each evening I fell asleep beneath an open window filled with a vast canopy of stars. At dawn I awoke to the sounds of seabirds and the buttery scent of wild plumeria. It was a paradise of almost painful sweetness that I never forgot.
Over the next 25 years I traveled the world but never returned to Tahiti. I knew that with the advent of tourist-packed jumbo jets and high-rise hotels, the world I experienced there now exists only in memory. Yet when a recent chance came to visit the islands of Palau, in the far western Pacific, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Believing the islands to be undeveloped and largely still unvisited, I hoped that they might evoke the South Pacific I had known in my boyhood.
Probably not one American in 10,000 can find Palau on a map. Which is strange, because for 50 years after we defeated Japan in World War II, America ruled these beguiling isles as part of our own vast oceanic empire, just as Germany and Spain once had.
More precisely, the U.S. Navy managed Palau. In fact, until the mid-1960s, non-military travelers needed special security clearance to visit this part of the Pacific. Today, Palau is an independent nation, and Pentagon permission is no longer needed to visit, but patience is. To get there, you literally have to chase the setting sun for an entire day.
My first stop was Koror, the balmy, ramshackle capital of the Republic of Palau, eight hours flying time beyond Hawaii. This is a real-life, working-class South Pacific seaport, where residents dress in shorts and T-shirts year-round and everybody seems to wear that cheerful, slightly sun-dazzled look that children have on sunny summer afternoons -- pleased with the sweetness of life in a warm climate. People get about mostly in old pickups or vans, driving along concrete and crushed coral roads that zigzag up and down the hills. The glinting blue Pacific is never out of sight, and most roads seem to end at a dock or jetty, with dive boats loading and uploading gear. Farther out, Taiwanese fishing vessels rock gently at anchor.
After dark, Koror is transformed into a veritable Margaritaville, as hundreds of bushed but blissfully happy divers from as far away as Sydney or San Francisco exchange tall tales with sun-bronzed locals over chilled bottles of Red Rooster, the excellent local beer. Later everyone pushes on to dinner, where, for a small town of about 15,000, there are a surprising number of good restaurants, including some serving authentic Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine.
Everywhere I went in town, I was warmly welcomed by Palauans and, most notably considering the times, especially enthusiastically as an American. In fact, after a few days, I almost felt as though I were in a tropical version of Ireland, because it seemed that every Palauan I met had a favorite aunt, brother or cousin living "in the States."
It turns out the 200-plus islands of Palau (only a dozen inhabited) are already quite well-known: Last year some 50,000 tourists visited, more than double the archipelago's population. A majority of Palau's visitors are passionate scuba divers, people who get off the plane and get right on a dive boat. These are the scuba elite, people who dive all over the globe, from the Red Sea to the Great Barrier Reef. Such divers have the purity and passion of stamp collectors, and they've made Palau one of the world's top dive sites.
And the rest of us? When I, an avid snorkeler but non-diver, turned up at a long-established dive and tour company, I was made to feel every bit as welcome as their tank-carrying customers. We were headed for Palau's most striking attraction, an amazing natural phenomenon called the Rock Islands. The collection of some 200 jungle-clad limestone islands rise up high out of Palau's lagoon, looking like immense floating emeralds. And because the shallow lagoon protecting the formations is as calm as a Swiss lake, the best way to explore them is by kayak or snorkel.
For the next six hours, we cruised in a motor boat through the serene islands, stopping wherever we wanted, to snorkel through vast coral gardens teeming with trigger fish, Moorish idols and the occasional shy sea turtle the size of luggage. But there was more -- a special cove the locals call the Milky Way. Unlike all other coves we visited, the bottom of this little bay consisted not of sand but of white limestone mud, which gave the water a milky sheen.
After informing us that the mysterious white mud made an excellent rejuvenating facial, our guide dove off the boat and down to the bottom, returning with a huge handful of the white muck, which we proceeded to coat ourselves with. The women on board said it was as soft as cold cream.
Our final stop was an ancient marine lake in the center of one of the islands that had been cut off from the sea thousands of years ago. The locals call it Jellyfish Lake because it is home to millions of non-stinging jellyfish. As the sun ducked behind a cloud, I flippered cautiously toward the middle of the lake. At first there were only a handful of the tiny white blobs below me. But the jellyfish began to appear by the thousands, some as small and bright as new dimes, others the size of tea saucers.
Anyone who's ever been stung by a jellyfish develops an instinctive reaction forever after -- to back away quickly when seeing one. But this time there were too many, and my only response was rapidly increased breathing, which, amplified by my snorkel, made me sound like Darth Vader.
But then the sun burst out, and I remembered that jellyfish simply follow the sun as it passes overhead. The scene now became utterly transformed into a lovely, beguiling ballet of snowflakes in the water. Emboldened, I reached out and touched several as they floated gently past, and found them as soft as a baby's cheek.
Sated by this undersea wonder, we prepared to return to Koror. But our guide had one more surprise for us: a submerged Japanese Zero, one of the many fighter planes that had crashed in battle during World War II. I snorkeled around the ghostly aircraft, its wings nearly buried in the soft white sand, its huge prop bent back by the impact but still intact in the glinting tropical waters. Elderly Palauans who had witnessed the crash say the pilot survived and simply swam to shore. I couldn't help but smile at the thought of being able to wrap up your part in a terrible war in so beautiful a place.
In the days that followed, I trekked through Palau's forested islands, coming across old Japanese bunkers, abandoned machine gun nests (complete with stacks of sake bottles), huge artillery cannons rusting on the forest floor and even the detached wing of a fallen American B-24 Liberator bomber.
Another day, as part of a convoy of Kodachrome-colored kayaks, I made my way through a crystal-clear channel that flowed though a complex mangrove forest in the Rock Islands. After we quietly paddled, too overwhelmed by the surrounding beauty to say anything, the forest suddenly opened onto a magnificent enclosed cove called Long Lake. Below us were brilliant coral heads, giant clams, schools of fish and sea turtles, with herons and egrets patrolling above. We beached on a small shaded sandbar for lunch. The searing tropical sun reflected off the high forest encircling the lake, magically transforming our private loch into a huge bowl of lime sherbet.
Certainly the strangest thing I found in the forests of Palau were huge circular stones, hand-carved by men, some measuring 15 feet across and weighing two tons, that had been hacked out of still larger boulders by crude stone axes. These, of course, were remnants of the famous stone money of Yap Island.
For centuries the people of Yap Island, 250 miles to the northeast, had sailed their outrigger canoes across the open ocean to Palau to quarry the quartz stone. These voyages were enormously hazardous, and unknown numbers of Yapese must have died trying to bring the largest stones back -- yet that only increased their perceived value. Even today, despite the fact that most of the stones are too heavy to lift, they are still used for some transactions, making the toe-crushing boulder bullion the most bizarre in the world.
On my penultimate day in Palau, I arose early on tiny Carp Island, one of the smaller isles that make of this island nation, to stroll along the beach one last time, while the rising sun was still soft.
At this hour, it seemed that the entire planet had yet to awaken. But not everyone had slept in. Just as I set foot on the first plank of a long wooden pier, I spotted a pair of lemon-colored stingrays in the water. As I began to walk along the pier, the little rays followed me like playful puppies. Whether it was the subtle vibrations of my feet or my moving shadow they sensed, I didn't know, but they kept me company for half an hour.
Each time I paused to swing my feet directly over them, they would dart off to deeper water, then return within a minute. When I reached the end of the pier and sat down, the little rays stopped just beneath me and started to bury themselves in the white sand.
Just then, three small black-tipped sharks patrolled past, their silvery foot-long bodies almost invisible in the water. Like a trio of adolescent boys, they tried to look menacing but failed miserably. When I tossed a pebble at them, they sped off in a blur of motion -- only their little dorsal fins jutting above the water, giving away their direction. At that moment, a sea eagle wheeling high overhead screeched loudly, as though laughing at the scene below.
The idea of a true tropical paradise seems impossible today, in a world where seemingly everything has been discovered and marketed for the masses. Yet authentic adventure can still be found, if you know where to look. Not the type of escapade associated with grave danger or great risk, but the simple schoolboy joy of waking in the morning not knowing what the day will bring; of finding the unexpected and discovering the unreported. As I sat on the little dock swinging my toes over the water, I realized that I was finally back in the South Seas, and life seemed every bit as vivid as I remembered it 30 years ago in Tahiti. Who said you can't go home again?
When Steven Knipp returned from Tahiti in 1973, he promised his parents he wouldn't run away again. When he returned from Palau in 2003, he promised his wife the same thing. Neither believed him.