Northern Mariana Islands Travel Guide

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Northern Mariana Islands Information

Population: 80006

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +10

Driving side: Drivers drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Languages: English, Japanese, Korean, Chamorro, Carolinian.

Religion: Roman Catholic, indigenous beliefs.

Emergency #: Police: 911
Ambulance: 911
Fire: 911

Northern Mariana Islands Culture

The Northern Marianas is the fastest growing area in Micronesia. Roughly 75% of the native population is Chamorro, the rest Carolinian. The local culture is a hybrid of native and Spanish colonial influences, with a powerful overlay of popular American trends. English is the official language, though Chamorro and Carolinian are the native tongues and are widely spoken. Visitors will hear Japanese in most hotels and some shops. Hafa adai is the traditional greeting, though the slang term howzit is becoming nearly as common. The predominant religion of the Northern Marianas is Roman Catholic, especially among the Chamorros and Filipino immigrants. Most cultural activities center around the Catholic church and religious festivities, including annual fiestas in honor of each village's patron saint. There are also Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, Korean Presbyterian, Evangelical and Seventh-Day Adventist churches. Dance in the Marianas ranges from a Spanish-influenced cha-cha, popular among the Chamorros, to the 'stick dance,' a Carolinian import combining stick beating and foot shuffling.

Northern Mariana Islands Popular Destinations

Saipan - Saipan is the most popular destination with Japanese tourists. In recent years this has made the island the fastest-growing in Micronesia, with new golf courses and resorts popping up all around the island. Tourists and alien workers now outnumber the Saipanese, and the island has lost much of its Micronesian character. Still, Saipan has gentle beaches on its western and southern coasts, a rugged and rocky eastern coast, a hilly interior, and dramatic cliffs on the northern coast. The island is about 23km long and 8km wide. A leisurely exploration of the island could fill all of a day.

Garapan - The largest town in the commonwealth, is booming. Leveled during WWII and resettled in the 1960s, Garapan is crammed with sushi shops, karaoke clubs and other operations that cater to Japanese tourists. If you can ignore the Japanese film crews shooting television commercials, the white sands and turquoise waters of Micro Beach are among the finest in the islands. Stretching north from the beach is American Memorial Park, which features a swamp-forest bird habitat and a picnic-table human habitat, along with memorials to the Americans who died in the US invasions of Saipan and Tinian, along with a one-room WWII Museum with displays of weapons, uniforms, gas masks, photos and other war paraphernalia.

Tinian - This sleepy one-village island, just 2km south of Saipan, has escaped major tourism development and makes a good getaway if Saipan's bustle gets to be too much. Tinian is infamous for being the take-off site for the aircraft that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. San Jose, home to the island's 2100 residents, is the site of an ancient Chamorro village. Those early settlers left the village's best sight, Taga House, a large collection of latte stones said to be the foundations of the home of Taga the Great, legendary king of the ancient Chamorros. There are some good beaches on Tinian, including Kammer Beach in San Jose, and Taga Beach, just south of the village. Both have good swimming, turquoise waters and white sand. Chulu Beach, on Tinian's northwestern shore, is the site of a WWII landing by US forces and a massive ongoing archaeological dig. As you wander about the small island be sure to look out for several Japanese shrines. The airport is located several kilometers north of San Jose.

Rota - Rota, about halfway between Saipan and Guam, is just beginning to get an overflow of tourists from those larger islands, but it is still a slow-moving place. The main village, Songsong, still gets by without traffic lights or shopping centers. Located on the southwestern coast, Songsong stretches along a narrow peninsula that rises at its tip to the 143m Mt Taipingot. Songsong is littered with latte stones and the San Francisco de Borja Church boasts a turn-of-the-century bell. You can hike or 4WD to a good view of the village from a lookout just to the northeast, or make your way along the white-coral sands of Tweksberry Beach and up the trail to the top of Mt Paipingot for excellent views of the village, surrounding harbours and Sasanhaya Bay. Rota's airport is on the northeastern half of the island, about 14km from Songsong Village.

Moving Around Northern Mariana Islands

Travelers from Asia have the best air access to the Northern Marianas. There are direct flights between Saipan and Tokyo, Hong Kong and Taipei. Travelers from North America will have to connect in Guam. Travelers from Europe will likely connect at one of the four Asian gateways. Although there are occasional inter-island boats within the Marianas, it is rare to find any sort of passenger vessel going to the islands from other countries, save for the occasional private yacht. A car is the best way to get around Saipan, which has a good road system and light traffic, though you can expect to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on busy Beach Rd. There are rental agencies at the airport and in a few of the larger hotels. A car is also the best way to get around Tinian or Rota, though roads are far less extensive on the smaller islands than on Saipan. Still, you can get to the main sights without too much trouble, though you will want a high-clearance truck, or 4WD, for the more out-of-the-way spots. There are agencies at the airport and in San Jose on Tinian and at the airport and Songsong Village on Rota. Your home driving license is good for up to 30 days, but it is a good idea to bring an International Driver's License if your regular one is not in English. Driving is on the right-hand side. There is no public bus system on Saipan, though there are shuttle buses running between the major towns. Taxis are metered and privately owned. They are clearly marked and easy to find at the airport and the larger hotels. Traveling between islands means flying, and Saipan is the hub. There are several daily flights between Saipan and Tinian and between Rota and Saipan or Guam. Saipan airport is at the southern end of the island, just north of San Jose on Tinian. Rota's airport is in the north-eastern half of the island.

National festival and holidays

Annual Fiestas - Most villages have an annual fiesta in honour of their patron saint. Rota and Tinian each have one fiesta, while Saipan has six. In San Vicente in early April, in San Antonio in mid-June, at Mt Carmel Cathedral, in Chalan Kanoa, in mid-July, in San Roque in mid-August, in Tanapag in early October and in Koblerville in late October. Tinian's fiesta is held during the last weekend in April or the first weekend in May in honour of San Jose, the island's patron saint.
The largest and most popular fiesta in the Northern Marianas, however, is held on Rota on either the first or second weekend in October. The celebration, which honours San Francisco de Borja, includes a luau-like feast of Chamorro food, religious processions, music and dancing. Visitors are welcome at these annual festivals, but accommodation can be pretty hard to find while they are going on (especially during Rota's celebration).

Liberation Day Festival - The week-long Liberation Day Festival celebrates the American liberation of the islands, and ends on 4 July, US Independence Day. Festivities include a beauty pageant, nightly entertainment, games and food booths.

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