REPUBLIC OF PALAU

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These beautiful green gumdrop islands are well-known to divers as perhaps the best diving in the world. Some great dive destinations offer poor snorkeling, but Palau is a snorkeler's heaven. It isn't easy to get there; it's expensive if you don't find a great package deal; but the snorkeling is sensational. It certainly is one of the top snorkeling sites in the world. Palau can be reached by flights from Guam, Manila, Taiwan, and Japan.

When you combine the beauty of the underwater reefs and fish with the blues of the water and the green of all the islands, the result is spectacular. Go now -- before the place becomes more developed.

Palau is a compact stretch of islands with only one large island in the center. The capital Koror is located on two islands connected by a new bridge. An outer reef protects all but the furthest islands, making the whole area as calm as a lake at times. The islands are mostly tiny, uninhabited, covered with small trees and rising out of the sea like gumdrops with a distinctive narrowing near the water. Some have inner fresh water lakes, others have caves and arches. Most lack beaches, but some have beautiful soft white sand beaches and dazzling turquoise water. These little islands are close to each other making it possible to island-hop to dozens in one day if you wish. The first are just a short boat trip from Koror. The longer trips can take as much as an hour from Koror. Right now most of the trips head south from Koror.

The reefs in Palau are mostly in excellent condition and offer terrific variety. You can see exotic colorful Mandarin fish right in front of your hotel, see sharks at the outer edge of the reef, drift snorkel over corals as large as a room, picnic on a deserted beach, swim with jellyfish in a freshwater lake, watch the soaring ocean birds, delight in the water's display of every shade of blue. All this in one day!

There are no more than 600 hotel rooms in Palau with only one hotel built on a good beach -- the Palau Pacific Resort. This big hotel has great snorkeling right in front and even better trips taking off from the pier next to the beach. The Carolines Resort, straight up the hill, offers gorgeous views, but requires a hike down to the beach and pier. None of Palau's hotels are budget, but the Palau Pacific is even more expensive, so try a package with Continental Micronesia which sometimes has excellent prices. Car rental is expensive and not too useful because there are few roads. You really need a boat to get around to the snorkeling sites.

EXCURSIONS

Dive boats will often include a couple of snorkelers when they have space, however, you will go to a dive site that may not be the best for snorkelers and you only get about 30 minutes for each snorkel before heading off to pick up the divers.

Snorkel trips are offered by a number of companies and usually pick you up at your hotel or pier. Some go to one site, then a quiet sandy beach for lunch and another snorkel after lunch. Others include as many as five sites in an all-day trip. You can also hire a local boat and driver/guide for $200-300 per day. These smaller boats only hold about 4 or 5 snorkelers. Consider hooking up with fellow snorkelers to share the cost of a boat with guide. Pack a picnic lunch, plenty to drink and you're off for a day you'll never forget.

We recommend Sam's Dive Tours (680) 488-1062, e-mail: samstour@palaunet.com. This is a dive shop, but very snorkeler-friendly and runs special snorkeling tours. They're great people and very accommodating. If you take a kayak trip with them, ask for Ron, the biologist, if you'd really like to learn as much as possible about this fascinating place.

Kayaks are a wonderful alternative for an all-day tour of the Rock Islands. The kayak company will transport you and the kayaks to a group of Rock Islands where you can snorkel with a guide from island to island, often including a trek to one of the jellyfish lakes. This will be a small group so the outing can be tailored to any special needs. It's quiet, peaceful and the water is usually calm as a lake, so this area is perfect for kayaks. Just be sure to cover up well since you'll get extra sun bouncing from the water. They supply plenty of drinks and you'll need the fluids.

SITES:

BLUE CORNER

This spot is on an outer edge of the reef and is at its best for snorkeling on a calm day. You'll see sharks for sure, schools of over 200 barracuda, the big Napoleon wrasse, and large schools of many kinds of reef fish from blue tangs to pyramid butterflyfish. This is the spot for action. Divers head down the drop-off, but the reef rises close to the surface, making it an unforgettable site for snorkelers. There tend to be strong currents.

Just in from the edge, a guide can show you some of the blue holes in the reef where it's possible to free dive down and through arches to the open ocean -- if you're a good diver.

JELLYFISH LAKE

There are several of these, but most tours take you to one where you need to hike up and over a steep ridge. It isn't too far, but steep enough that you'll need to hold the rope in places. There are supposedly a million nonstinging jellyfish in this small lake. They hang out together where it's sunny. Swimming through this mass of jelly is a unique experience indeed. And they definitely do not sting in spite of growing up to 6 inches.

GERMAN CHANNEL

This channel down near Blue Corner is a great place to watch for manta rays. The trip down here takes about an hour, but is gorgeous all the way.

GIANT CLAMS

Clams growing up to a meter can be seen in many places including areas where they are farmed. Whether large or small, the colors are psychedelic ranging from turquoise, to purple, to bright green, to subdued beige with intricate stripes.

CORAL GARDENS

Throughout the islands you'll find varied sites each with its own corals. Some quiet, protected areas have the soft corals with pink, orange, green, red and much more. Other sites feature huge table corals, with some corals as large as your hotel room. The dive site named 'Coral Gardens' is amazing, and is shallow enough to be a superb snorkel.

Reef fish will include angelfish, wrasses from tiny cleaner wrasses to Napoleon wrasses, butterflyfish of all kinds, trumpetfish, tangs, needlefish, the rare Mandarin fish, maybe even seahorses. Sooner or later, you're likely to see small sharks, barracuda and various pelagic fish.