Night had just fallen in Guam as I stepped into what would become a very familiar sight over the next few days: the interior of one of the United Airlines Boeing 737s that shuttles back and forth across the Micronesian islands here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
United Flight 176: Guam to Chuuk
I had once again been lucky enough to secure an upgrade to business class for this one-hour-45-minute hop from Guam to Chuuk.
Again, though, business class on these planes isn’t much to write home about, but at least there’s a respectable amount of legroom and personal space – and sparkling wine served before departure never hurts!
Business class was almost full on this flight, and the passengers seemed to be a mix of local Guamanian and Chuukese travellers, other Micronesians heading onwards to their respective islands, and foreigners embarking on a dive trip in Chuuk’s famous treasure-filled waters. I seemed to be the only one who was “just coming along for the ride”, so to speak.
Soon after takeoff, the crew distributed the immigration forms for the Federated States of Micronesia, which I filled out with great interest, since I didn’t anticipate being back in the FSM anytime soon.
There was also a brief meal service about midway through the flight: a chicken sandwich with some salad on the side. It’s my understanding that these Island Hopper flights are operated similarly to domestic flights within the US, in the sense that business class passengers receive a light meal, while economy passengers only receive a drink service, and must buy onboard to eat anything.
Touchdown in Chuuk made for quite a heart-stopping moment. Chuuk International Airport is home to an infamously short runway, meaning that pilots must land perfectly at the end of the runway before slamming on the brakes to slow the plane down.
Therefore, during a nighttime landing on Chuuk, passengers are treated to a window view of nothing but pitch-black darkness, before the runway lights explode into view and, at the very same instant, the wheels touch down and the almighty roar of the plane’s braking system screeches to life. It’s quite unlike landing at any other airport around the world, giving passengers equal doses of shock and relief from the sudden landing and the knowledge that the plane thankfully hasn’t careened off the runway, respectively.
The Island Hopper service is basically the only scheduled commercial air service here on Chuuk, so our Boeing 737 cut a rather lonely figure as we disembarked and made our way to the main terminal.
Chuuk, By Night
Passing through FSM immigration, the official asked me how long I’d be staying on Chuuk, and wasn’t at all surprised when I said it’d only be a quick overnight stay. It seems they do indeed get their fair share of adventurers who are only here to take the Island Hopper.
The airport, which basically consists of a single building, had several signs to welcome visitors to the island of Chuuk. One was accompanied by a statue of a Chuukese warrior, while another bore the words “The Best Wreck Dive in the World”, alluding to what’s essentially the only thing that Chuuk’s tourism industry has going for it.
I had booked a one-night stay the the Blue Lagoon Dive Resort for US$110, which included round-trip airport transportation. I met my drivers without too much trouble, and after picking up another set of passengers, we began the long drive over to the Blue Lagoon.
It takes 30 minutes to drive the six kilometres between the airport, on the northwestern corner of the island, and the Blue Lagoon at the southwestern tip – that gives you some idea of the extremely poor infrastructure on this island. I was unable to see any of the island along the drive, though, because Chuuk’s main road does not come with the luxury of anything resembling street lights, and so we made the entire 30-minute journey under cover of darkness.
Finally, upon arriving at the Blue Lagoon, I quickly checked in at the front desk and was shown to my room – the staff at the hotel were nice enough, helping me with my luggage along the way. I decided to hold off on taking photos of the Blue Lagoon until the morning – for now, after a redeye flight from Hong Kong the previous night and a full day in the Guam sunshine, I just wanted to sleep!
The rooms here at the Blue Lagoon are pretty bare-bones, offering up nothing more than just the essentials. Several travel guides had lauded the Blue Lagoon as the best hotel on the island, and in fact, many had gone to great lengths to explain that you should only stay at the Blue Lagoon, because the rooms at Chuuk’s cheaper properties were known to play host to all sorts of the creepy-crawlies you’d find at an underdeveloped tropical place like this.
I was happy that my room at the Blue Lagoon had nothing of the sort!
Interestingly, it seems that every room is equipped with a container of drinking water, since the tap water is presumably not quite up to standards.
I took a quick shower and hit the hay for the night. My flight to Pohnpei was leaving at noon tomorrow, so I resolved to wake up as early as possible to get a few looks at Chuuk in the daytime.
The Next Morning
Alas, I missed my alarm clock that I had set for before sunrise, which was a regret that I hold to this day – how many more chances would I get to watch the sunrise in total tranquility from a tiny remote island like this?
Instead, I woke at around 7:30am and stepped outside to see the Blue Lagoon already bathed in sunlight. And it was absolutely gorgeous.
I walked among the towering palm trees, and made my way down to the little sandbanks that were basically my very own private beaches. Looking out at the vast Pacific Ocean, I momentarily forgot where in the world I was.
An island named Chuuk. One of the four Federated States of Micronesia, occupying the island chain of the same name. What even is this place?!
It’s that sense of the extraordinary, that special feeling of standing in a place where relatively few people have stood and ever will stand, that originally sparked – and indeed, continues to spark – my interest in visiting these remote, off-the-beaten-path destinations around the world.
After using wifi in the lobby for a while (the only spot in the hotel from which an internet connection could be accessed), I stopped by the hotel restaurant for some breakfast. The Blue Lagoon is home to dozens of cats, so I was joined by several feline friends as I enjoyed a hearty (read: artery-clogging) breakfast of fried spam and eggs.
(The lack of affordable nutritional food options is a huge problem affecting small islands like Chuuk. Islands like these – essentially tiny rocky outcroppings in the middle of the ocean – are often entirely unsuitable to agriculture, and the relatively low average income means that the imports are generally limited to cheap, highly processed foods like spam. It’s a big reason why the Pacific islands tend to have a disproportionately overweight population compared to the rest of the world.)
After breakfast, I spent another 30 minutes or so wandering around the resort grounds. The sun had risen for quite some time by now, casting a warm glow as far as the eye could see.
The main island of Chuuk is surrounded by a lagoon with several outlying islands providing cover against the ocean winds, meaning that the water around the island is impeccably calm and clear.
I couldn’t help but dip my toes in the water and contemplate the sheer vastness of the Pacific Ocean around us. I marvelled at how much I’d love to explore each and every one of the islands that lay out there, and then I came to realize the sheer futility of that task… and then I was struck by the idea that that futility was exactly what I found so all-empowering about the urge to travel far and wide.
As you can probably tell by now, when it comes to travel, I’m nothing less than a hopeless romantic.
Anyway, I was disappointed to learn from the hotel staff that we’d need to get going very soon to head back to the airport, as I was still hoping to leave the resort and explore more of Chuuk. For some reason, though, the security checkpoint at Chuuk International Airport closes one hour before the flight departs, so I had to resign myself to catching a glimpse of the rest of Chuuk along the drive back to the airport.
During this drive, it became clear to me that the beautiful Blue Lagoon dive resort is in fact a completely unfair representation of Chuuk – the island is very much a decrepit place, for lack of a better word.
There’s only one main road that goes in a circle around the island, and potholes are a dime a dozen. Every few blocks, one of the buildings seems to be falling apart, and my driver let me know that this was the more developed part of town – the road on the eastern side of the island plays host to even more dilapidated buildings.
As we passed by the buildings, there seemed to be just one of everything. One liquor store, one post office, one bank branch, and – of course – one place of worship for the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints. My driver, who was the same guy who had picked me up and showed me to my room last night, took great delight in pointing out each of these “points of interest” – that shows you just how little in the way of exciting stuff happens here on Chuuk.
I asked my driver what else there is to do on the island if I were staying for longer. His answer? Basically only two things: diving down to some of Chuuk’s incredible shipwrecks (the result of the intense conflict between Japan and the US that had taken place here as part of the Pacific theatre), or hiking through the island’s densely forested inland area and looking at what remains of the WWII-era artillery that was left on the island.
We also chatted about what life was like for the local Chuukese population here, and again, his response was along the lines of “there’s really not much going on,” which I was a little saddened by. “Most people leave the island and go to Pohnpei or Guam,” he said, “and very few of them return, besides to see family every now and then.”
And indeed, everything I had observed about Chuuk during my short time here – from the extremely limited air service to the crumbling buildings – bore testament to that fact.
Arriving curbside at Chuuk International Airport, my driver helped me with my luggage, shook my hand, and half-jokingly told me, “See you next time.” Indeed, as much as I’d like to recapture the novelty of visiting Chuuk someday, I’m really uncertain if I’ll ever find a reason to return.
As I entered the airport, I saw an intriguing plaque mounted on the wall, showing that the airport had been constructed and renovated by China in 2007. We are just everywhere, aren’t we? 😉
I collected my boarding pass from the lightly-staffed United check-in desk, and was directed to the Chuuk State Departure Fee desk to pay my US$30 departure fee. (They take Visa and MasterCard, but not American Express!)
After that, I proceeded through security and then Chuuk State exit immigration, before passing the time in the airport’s waiting room for my onward flight to the next Federated State over: Pohnpei.
Unless you’re a wreck diving enthusiast or a particularly dedicated travel junkie like myself, Chuuk is decidedly not a place that you’d have any reason to visit anytime soon. The island is run-down, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, and the only thing to do on the island besides diving and hiking is to wander around aimlessly and soak in the sheer remoteness of the place.
I’m glad I scheduled an overnight stay here, so that I could take this memory with me, but I can’t say I’m very eager to return at all. Maybe if I get my scuba diving license one day…