Northern Mariana Islands Travel Guide
An island chain situated east of the Philippines, south of Japan, and north of the other island nations of Micronesia, the Northern Mariana Islands is the closest US territory to Asia, making it where the sun rises first in America.
Acquired as a territory after the United States took it from the Japanese in World War II, this archipelago is a curious mix of American influence and Pacific Islander tradition. Mix in war history, some great beaches, and an epic cave dive, and you have an underrated travel destination in the Pacific worth visiting.
Currency: US Dollars
Languages: English, Chamorro, Carolinian, Tagalog, Japanese, Spanish
What To Do
From a historical standpoint, the Northern Mariana Islands were at the centre of the battle for the Pacific during the Second World War. Many native Marianans and American soldiers laid down their lives to liberate this archipelago, a sacrifice that is remembered at the American Memorial Park.
Located in the village of Garapan, it is a half museum, half monument which aims to keep alive the memory of the 4,000 brave souls who gave their lives in the Marianas campaign, which freed this territory from the grip of the Japanese Empire. However, the scope of this museum isn’t America-centric, as it tells the tale of a battle which exacted heavy casualties on both sides.
When you are finished with both war memorials, take a break from the heaviness of it all in the park section of this attraction, as the views down the coast are spectacular and it also offers facilities for picnicking, swimming, and tennis.
Continue learning about the involvement of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Second World War by paying a visit to Puntan Sabaneta.
It was here where a fateful battle between American/Marianan and Japanese forces took place during the Marianas campaign. When the latter combatants lost the exchange, they elected to commit suicide by jumping off this cliff than bear the stigma they would have suffered had they surrendered. With sharp rocks and punishing surf below, it was a tragic event that underscores the horrors of war.
Active travellers wanting to get a great view of Saipan (the most populous of the Northern Mariana Islands) will want to slot in a hike up Mount Tapochau into their travel itinerary. Starting from the trailhead in American Memorial Park, you’ll have an eight-mile walk ahead of you each way.
While this doesn’t sound like much when you consider the summit of Mount Tapochau is only 1,554 feet, the heat and humidity of the Northern Mariana Islands and the fact that you’ll be sharing part of the trail on the way up with 4×4 trucks makes this trek a bit of a challenge.
You’ll be well rewarded at the top, though, as you’ll be treated to 360-degree views of the island and you’ll get to see Concrete Jesus, a statue dedicated to Christianity’s chief figure.
Divers visiting the Northern Mariana Islands will want to pencil The Grotto into their plans. A limestone cave filled with effervescent seawater, it will take your breath away with its beauty.
Take note, however, that those diving here should be trained in cave diving before attempting this site. There is potential to lose your sense of direction in places like this, which has led to numerous tragedies around the world.
Those looking for gorgeous beaches in the Northern Mariana Islands will be pleased by what they find here. With fewer tourists than other destinations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, you’ll be able to enjoy them without having to cope with too many crowds.
Managaha Island is a must visit, as it is only a short ferry ride from Saipan. A prototypical deserted island fringed by white sand beaches, swimming, snorkelling, and parasailing are popular activities here.
Note that its home bay can get crowded during peak season. Should you encounter this issue, a five-minute stroll to the back side of the island will fix it, as you’ll find fewer sunbathers there.
Back on Saipan, Micro Beach is a popular spot locals go to when they need a bit of R&R. Situated opposite the American Memorial Park, you’ll find plenty of tree shade where you can lay out a towel, negating the need to shell out money for a sun lounger and a parasol.
The water here is shallow, making it a safe place to take kids. Just be sure to come by at high tide if you want to go swimming, as it can get super shallow outside of this time of day.
What to Eat
The Northern Mariana Islands eat a diet which closely mirrors the standard American diet, with a Pacific Islander twist. With that in mind, there are a few traditional dishes which make an appearance on kitchen and restaurant tables from time to time.
Kelaguen is chief among them, as this ceviche-like meal ‘cooks’ raw shrimp/fish/beef in a bath of lemon or other citrus juices, along with coconut, green onions, and chilli peppers. Chicken is also a meat featured in this quasi-national dish, but it is marinated pre-cooked for safety reasons.
If you want to get a bit more exotic, try some Stewed Fanihi. Made from the meat of a fruit bat that has been simmered over low heat for hours, it will push you out of your cow/pig/chicken comfort zone and into a new variety of flesh you may end up liking.
For dessert, have some Apigi. A dish which is made by wrapping up coconut in banana leaves with cream and roasting it for an hour or more, it is a simple treat that will prove to the perfect ending to one of your meals on the Northern Mariana Islands.