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Articles Blog

Saipan, Marianas

Karyn Planett

Hafadi Adai! and welcome to what is formally known as the Commonwealth of The Northern Mariana Islands. To locals, it’s simply called the CNMI. For the record, this little bit of paradise is officially a territory of the USA. And speaking of records, the Northern Marianas are identified in the Guinness Book of Records as the “most equitable climate in the world.” So, for your weather forecast, think tropical, full sun, 85 degrees with a light island breeze.

Some Facts and Stats

Saipan is 5,976 miles west of Los Angeles and 1,460 miles south of Tokyo. The island is a bit larger than Hong Kong or quite comparable to the size of San Francisco. If you’d flown here from Hawaii rather than sailing in aboard your glorious ship, it would have taken some seven hours (possibly without caviar or champagne, mind you!).

The Mariana Islands Archipelago consists of 14 main islands stretched across a swath of sea some 500 miles tip to tip. The three main islands are Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Scientists speculate these islands were formed 30 million years ago, give or take a birthday here and there. They all are volcanic in origin and form a vital link in the “Pacific Ring of Fire.” 

Most people know about the Mariana Trench, which stretches down some 36,201 feet below the surface of the seas making it the deepest water anywhere on Earth. In contrast, Mount Everest towers 29,035 feet above the Earth’s crust. Imagine! All this happened long before CNN would have been around to report it, but was the result of the Pacific Ocean Plate slamming into the Philippine Ocean Plate cracking and thrusting and carving everything in their path. 

But that’s all ancient history. Let’s look at something a bit more contemporary.

Magellan, Men of Adventure, and Missionaries 

Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, who commanded the Spanish ship Trinidad after the death of Ferdinand Magellan, is considered to be the first European to make contact with the islanders known as Chamorros, and that was in 1521. The island was formally occupied in 1668 by Catholic missionaries led by Padre Sanvitores. It was he who actually named the islands as a tribute to Spain’s Philip the IV’s widow, Mariana of Austria. At that time, there were some 75,000 islanders. Within 50 years the population had dwindled to fewer than 3,500. 

For the next 400 years, the Spaniards ruled the islands. People from neighboring Caroline Island arrived in 1815 and intermarried with the indigenous Chamorros. Scientists believe the Chamorros arrived by ocean-going canoe thousands of years ago perhaps from Indo-Malaysia. This was considered the “Latte Culture” (not to be confused with the morning gang at Starbucks) so named for the latte stones used as foundations for the houses of the upper class. These stones weighed several tons and were transported miles from the quarries. You’ll still see the latte stone depicted on the island’s flag. 

After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the islands were sold to Germany but were captured by Japan in 1914. Thousands of Japanese civilians settled here to fish the seas and harvest sugar cane. As war raged across the Pacific in the 1940s, Saipan became strategically crucial. On June 15, 1944, US Marines stormed Saipan’s beachhead. By July 9th, Saipan was under US control putting their forces within B-29 range of the Japanese coast. Many historians declare the Marianas Campaign to be the “most decisive battle of the Pacific Theatre.” Slightly more than one year later, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered all aggressive actions against the people of Japan to cease immediately. The war was over. The healing was soon to begin.

The fallen Americans and Chamorro are honored at the American Memorial Park, which is open to visitors from the world over. 

In 1975, the islanders voted to negotiate a covenant to establish a commonwealth with the US. Within three years, this was accomplished and a governor was elected. In 1986, islanders were granted US citizenship but may not vote in the presidential election.

Visitors From Near And Far 

Some 325,000 visitors annually enjoy Saipan’s world-class resorts, 14 miles of beaches, 54 miles of coastline, sportfishing, diving, and hiking. The attractions for the latter include Susupe Lake and Mt. Tapotchau, Saipan’s highest at 1,554 feet. In Saipan’s Botanical Gardens, visitors not only enjoy such offerings as the African Tulip and the Hong Kong Orchid but look to the treetops for some of the 40 species of indigenous and introduced birds including the collared kingfisher. Divers keep their eyes out for parrotfish, clownfish, turtles, and manta rays. Those with dinner in mind, fish for mahi-mahi, marlin, tuna, and barracuda. 

The guy you don’t want to bump into is the Hilitai, also known as the mangrove monitor lizard. His body is a dark green speckled mess with white and yellow dots. Large adults can measure three feet nose to tail tip. 

If all this seems not to be your cup of tea, try instead to catch a presentation of the Carolinian stick dance, shop for shell necklaces (once a form of currency), or sample some local fare. Don’t leave the island without tasting the apigigi, a dessert favorite among the 60,000 islanders featuring coconut wrapped in a banana leaf.