Guam Adventure Far but familiar: It's worth the effort to get to the western Pacific island with Micronesian soul, Hawaiian scenery, Spanish architecture and American Flag

January 21, 1996|By Edward Dufner | Edward Dufner,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Seldom have so many traveled so far to see so much.

In the vast reaches of the western Pacific, Madison Avenue and Hollywood have collided with a tropical paradise and nearly 500 years of colonial history.

The result looks like Main Street, U.S.A. -- but with shimmering turquoise lagoons, stunning cliffs and luxuriant jungles.

And like Hawaii -- with Spanish architecture.

And like a living museum of Americans' World War II valor -- with sidewalks full of Japanese tourists.

"If you're looking for something different, if you're looking for something unspoiled, if you're a person who really wants to get away from it all it's oh, so nice to get off that fast track every so often to go someplace that beautiful," says Sandra Palmer, spokeswoman for the Guam Liaison Office in Washington.

The seeker of beachfront repose will find quiet strips of white sand lapped gently by wavelets. Scuba divers paddle through those same waters, ogling the brightly hued tropical fish or, in some spots, 50-year-old wartime hulks. The sightseer steps up to a smorgasbord: breathtaking ocean vistas, the villages of the Chamorro natives, Spanish ruins.

And to think that the Stars and Stripes flutters above all this.

Moments after a merchant greets you with "hafa adai," the Chamorro salutation for "good day," you're likely to spot a Ford with a Megadeth bumper sticker outside a Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant.

A few steps from the beaches where Chamorro teen-agers race outrigger canoes is a commercial strip thick with karaoke bars and indoor target ranges. "Make it a Bud Light," a sign on a tavern commands.

Guam is a self-governing U.S. territory, population about 130,000, one of the prizes of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The location that made it an important mid-ocean coaling station also kept it off itineraries until the jet age.

Even now, perhaps only 10 percent of the 1 million or so visitors who flood the small island each year are Americans. It is a favorite among Japanese honeymooners, a la Niagara Falls.

9,000 miles away

But more adventurous American travelers are starting to seek out Guam because, well, it takes some adventuring to get there. It's roughly a 9,000-mile-trip from the East Coast, compared with just 1,500 from Japan.

"I think the allure is that Guam is not well known to mainlanders," Ms. Palmer says. "It has a very unique culture and heritage."

Which, in truth, has been suffused with American customs, or at least those popularized in film and television.

Japanese visitors, who have strict gun-control laws at home, flock to the shooting galleries to blaze away with semiautomatic weapons and soak up the "Dirty Harry" aura.

"It is something that is uniquely American," Ms. Palmer acknowledges, "and I think that when you and I visit a foreign country, we like to explore some of that country's culture and history. That's part of ours. It's like Levi's. It's like Levi's and rock and roll. It's what we're known for around the world."

Remoteness does not equal roughing it. High-rise resort hotels, with familiar Hyatt and Hilton logos, to name a few, rim the spectacular arc of Tumon Bay, just north of the capital of Agana. At the same time, veteran Pacific travelers say, Guam's charms have not attracted the crowds that stir such resentment in Hawaii.

The low-impact tourist can start savoring a Guam vacation by just lolling on the hotel patio as the sun sinks into the Philippine Sea. Listen to the gentle whispers of the palm leaves. Gaze north across Tumon Bay toward Two Lovers' Point, where, Chamorro legend holds, a star-crossed couple once plunged to their deaths when their parents forbade them to marry.

Chamorro culture can be sampled by taking bus tours around the island's perimeter or on a self-guided auto trip.

At only 212 square miles, there isn't that much of Guam to get lost in, and the north tip of the island is occupied by U.S. military installations anyway.

Swathed in a blanket of lush greenery, Guam's terrain offers surprises at every turn. Here a horseshoe bend, as the road twists round a steep-walled little canyon fronting the coast. There an incredible view from a height. And there an extraordinary rock formation looming out of a pale-emerald tidal pool.

Some modern homes are near "latte" stones -- large, two-piece pillars that Chamorros used as foundation posts for their buildings a thousand or more years ago. Now they're just limestone-and-coral stumps suggesting great age and serious purpose.

Chamorro natives showcase their heritage and traditional crafts in several spots, including a "cultural village" in the town of

Inarajan modeled on a 300-year-old traditional Chamorro hamlet, and a Chamorro marketplace and folk-art center in Agana.

At the center, visitors might see carabao, or water buffalo, which were used as a means of transportation during the Spanish colonization.

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