Guam: The best place you never considered going to
The San Dionisio Church's cross in the town of Umatac. (Franz Strasser)
There are a few good reasons why Guam, a former Spanish colony and the biggest island in Micronesia, is so rarely visited from North America or Europe. Only a few airlines will take you to this US territory in the Pacific Ocean and almost every route has stops in either Honolulu, Tokyo or Seoul. And with round-trip tickets starting at $1,500, it is not exactly the cheapest place to get to either.
But you will forget the long, expensive flight once you set foot on the island, which is one third of the size of London and has year-round temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. One million Japanese tourists flock here every year for the predictable weather, white beaches and crystal-clear Pacific Ocean. They swarm the theme-park style hotel pools, beach-side wedding chapels and the luxury shopping malls that feel like an air-conditioned, less-crowded version of Fifth Avenue.
These distractions make for a happy few days away from reality, or a honeymoon, but it might be missing the point. Guam is not just about tourists offerings. The real draws are the local food and culture.
The ethnic mix of Guam's population is 40 percent indigenous Chamorro people, 25 percent Filipino and the rest is a blend of Pacific Islanders, Asians and whites. You can see, and taste, this diversity in the island's food. More than 200 years of Spanish colonialism, a Western-Pacific heritage and the current American control are stirred together for a number of unique local dishes, like the Chorizo Breakfast Bowl. The delicious mix of spicy Chorizo sausage, grilled onions, diced potatoes and rice, topped with a sunny-side-up egg, hits the spot.
The best place to order the breakfast dish, and other island staples, is the King's Restaurant, which looks like any ordinary American diner until the meal begins with a "Hafa Adai" greeting from the waiter ("hello" in Chamorro).
If the humidity and your stomach allow, the Jamaican Grill is worth a stop for lunch. The Jerk Burger is two one-quarter-pound beef patties seasoned with just about anything available in the cupboard, topped with grilled onions, tomatoes, cheese and served on an onion bun. The curry mayo will make this a spicy, sweet, and messy affair but you will be stuffed for hours.
An extreme alternative is Niji, a Japanese Restaurant inside the Hyatt Hotel which offers an opulent lunch buffet and a view of the ocean waves. If the surrounding tables filled with Japanese tourists are not enough to put you at ease over the food's authenticity, the presentation and dishes will.
Every Wednesday night, after the sun kisses the Pacific Ocean goodnight, the Chamorro Village in Hagatna comes alive. Over four acres, vendors sell authentic souvenirs and memorabilia to tourists, but what makes this place worth a visit is its popularity among the locals. They come to mingle, play music, eat and entertain with traditional island dances. They have even been known to get up from their community dining tables to participate in an impromptu electric slide.
This is also the spot for fresh coconut juice and plates of Guam-styled barbecue. The meat is marinated in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar and onions and the result is a salty but sour bite you will not soon forget.
A perfect local side dish is "red rice", which gets its colour and unique smoky flavour from being cooked in water soaked with red seeds from the achiote tree. For dessert, the Philippine-inspired, brown-sugar fried Banana Lumpia is a perfect bite into a hard wrap cover to unleash the mushy and very sweet inside.
The island is just big enough that the US military presence in the north is not felt elsewhere, but small enough that a drive around the southern tip can be done in 40 minutes without stopping. But stop you should, because this is where Guam's scenic overlooks, old Spanish bridges and waterfalls are concentrated.
There are tiny villages like Umatac, nestled between steep hills and wrapped around a bay. This where many believe Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 during his famous circumnavigation. Another explorer, Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, set foot in Umatac four decades later and formally claimed the island for Spain.
The San Dionisio Church along a bumpy village road in Umatac was first built by Spanish missionaries in the late 17th Century, then burned down by Chamorro in 1684 in protest of Spanish rule. Because of a typhoon and two earthquakes, it would be rebuilt three more times, the last time in 1939 in its current place within 50 yards of the original spot.