Welcome to the final installment of my journey onboard the United Island Hopper, and indeed of the Crazy Aeroplan Trip as a whole that I took earlier this year.
At this point I had been island-hopping for three days straight, so I was beginning to miss the outside world a little bit. And yet, it would still be another 10 hours – and four separate takeoffs and landings – before I’d find myself back in civilization in Honolulu, Hawaii.
That’s because it was now time for the “true” United Island Hopper.
Not Flight 176, which only serves Chuuk and Pohnpei from Guam.
Not Flight 133, which only makes the rounds between Honolulu, Majuro, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Guam.
No, not those pretenders – I’d now find myself onboard United Airlines Flight 155, which makes the twice-weekly journey from Guam to Honolulu via Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Kwajalein, and Majuro, with stops of about one hour on each island.
Pohnpei to Kosrae…
Arriving at Pohnpei International Airport at around noon, I went to the United Airlines check-in desk and picked up no less than four boarding passes for the journey ahead.
I hadn’t managed to secure business class upgrades for any of these flights, so instead I had strategized on the United.com website to pick economy class seats by the window in empty rows for all four flights. This meant that I’d be moving around from seat to seat in-between flights, but I thought that was worthwhile to secure some comfortable seating for the 10-hour ride.
After paying the Pohnpei departure tax of US$20, I was on my way through the makeshift security queue and into the airport’s waiting room.
Pohnpei’s airport is a little more built-up than Chuuk’s, and even features a “VIP Lounge”, although it seemed to be closed (and it didn’t look like it would accept my Priority Pass either).
The United 737 aircraft had already landed, and the passengers who were getting off in Pohnpei were just about disembarking. The captain and flight officers had also made their way into the waiting room, presumably to rest for a while in-between flying the 14-hour Island Hopper service.
Soon, it was time to board for the first segment of the journey to the easternmost Federated State: Kosrae.
(As it turns out, Flight 155 only touches three of the four Federated States: Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. The final state, Yap – arguably the most interesting state to visit thanks to its mysterious “stone money” artifacts deep in the forest – is only accessible via a separate twice-weekly flight from Guam.)
As expected, I had an entire row of seats all to myself, and immediately took up residence in Seat 29F for yet another round of captivating over-the-wing views.
It was yet another overcast day here on Pohnpei, and our views were obstructed by the dark grey clouds as we departed one of the world’s wettest inhabited regions. The skies remained grey as we broke above the cloud cover, which somewhat foreshadowed the troubles we’d have later on upon attempting to land on Kosrae.
In the meantime, I kept myself busy by looking United’s in-flight magazine, and took special interest in the route map around Guam and the Pacific islands. If I were to ever do a trip like this again, I’d have to find a way to incorporate Palau, Yap, and Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) into the journey as well.
As we began making our descent, the weather outside was looking truly menacing:
Despite the aircraft managing to break under the cloud cover and lining up with the runway at Kosrae Airport…
…the flight crew deemed it unsafe to land, and initiated a go-around!
The captain’s voice came on the PA to let us know of the inclement weather on Kosrae at the moment, which was affecting their ability to land safely. He said we’d try to go around and land once more, and if the weather still wasn’t cooperating, then we’d have no choice but to skip Kosrae entirely and proceed to Kwajalein!
The passengers – especially those that were supposed to get off in Kosrae – held their collective breaths as we lined up the aircraft with the runway and began our descent for a second time…
…only to pitch up at the last second and start climbing yet again!
…and onto Kwajalein
Wow, what an unexpected turn of events! In the end, I only managed to catch the briefest of glimpses of Kosrae, and it very much did look like landing our plane there would’ve been a very risky proposition. Unlike Chuuk and Pohnpei, Kosrae doesn’t have a lagoon or any outlying islands surrounding it, so when the tropical storms arrive, they lash the island without mercy.
Upon reading more about the Island Hopper later on, I realized that this kind of occurrence – having to skip an island entirely due to weather issues – wasn’t at all uncommon onboard United Flight 155.
However, this was scant comfort for the passengers who were supposed to get off on Kosrae, especially since many of them were part of a Japanese scuba-diving tour group, and were extremely confused as to what was going on.
I did feel pretty bad for them, since I suspect they may well have had some non-refundable hotel and diving sessions booked on Kosrae already, and now they wouldn’t be arriving on the island until tomorrow.
At this point, the crew came through the cabin to distribute some snacks and drinks. The cabin service is carefully rationed on these flights, given the challenges of supplying the Island Hopper flight with enough food and drink for all passengers for 14 hours. I was therefore treated to a few measly packs of almonds, some coffee, and some water.
The skies started to brighten up a bit as we inched further east across the Pacific Ocean, on our way to Kwajalein Atoll.
“Kwaj”, as it’s affectionately known among the military personnel stationed there, is home to a US military base, and so passengers aren’t allowed to disembark from the aircraft if they aren’t getting on or off here.
(Kwajalein is technically under the jurisdiction of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. While the atoll of Kwajalein itself is a US base, Marshallese citizens and other travellers disembarking here are actually put on a boat to the island of Ebeye, which is the major civilian population centre in this island chain. You can therefore actually book a ticket to Kwajalein if you wanted – you’d just end up on the ferry to and from Ebeye.)
Now, because Kwajalein is an active military site, any passengers onboard the United Island Hopper are prohibited from taking photos or videos when the plane is on the ground. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist snapping a few pictures upon landing, taxiing, and takeoff, purely for the sake of documenting the journey.
Just to be prudent, I won’t be posting those photos publicly here. It’s unlikely that I’ll get into any sort of trouble, but I don’t think it’s worth risking my ability to enter the US or anything like that.
Kwajalein to Majuro
Nevertheless, I will mention that after snapping a few photos of the runway upon our departure from Kwajalein, the passenger seated all the way in the window seat opposite from me on the left side of the cabin pressed her call button and snitched to the flight attendant about me!
I literally looked over at the aisle to see what the fuss was all about, and saw the passenger pointing her finger straight in my direction, as if to say, “It’s him, Officer! He’s the one who’s selling our national secrets to foreign adversaries. Get him!”
I quickly explained to the flight attendant that I only took a few photos to document the journey, but she was having none of it and insisted that I delete the photos. I begrudgingly obliged and showed her that I was deleting the last one or two photos that I had taken, before she was satisfied and decided to leave me alone – but not before issuing a stern warning that people had gotten into a lot of trouble for taking photos before.
Thankfully, that was the last I heard about that incident, although I still caught the passenger opposite me staring daggers at me on a few occasions.
Of course, I stared daggers back. No one likes a snitch after all.
Night had fallen by the time we left Kwajalein, and it was time for another snack service: this time only a cupcake. I was feeling pretty hungry by this point, and there was still another landing in Majuro and six hours of flight time before we arrived in Honolulu. I resolved to eat the biggest bowl of poke I could find when I arrived in Hawaii.
The passengers were all pretty tired by now, and the cabin was generally quiet, with the only noise being made by the confused Kosrae-bound Japanese tourists who still hadn’t disembarked – after all, they couldn’t leave the plane in Kwajalein since it was a military base, so they had to get off in Majuro and then catch the flight to Kosrae the next day, those poor souls!
It was only a short one-hour hop over to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. Normally, United Island Hopper passengers are able to get off the plane here even if they’re bound for Honolulu just to stretch their legs a bit. However, since we had already experienced some significant delays, the crew informed all of us that transiting passengers were asked to remain onboard in order to speed up the boarding process and allow us to get going quicker.
Looking back, this was probably a good time to adopt a policy of “asking for forgiveness, not permission” – several travellers had been in this situation in the past, but had gotten off to look around in Majuro nonetheless. It’s one of my great regrets from this journey, and definitely gives me a reason to do it again someday!
On the plus side, though, there was half an hour of free wifi available here on the tarmac, so I spent the time catching up on emails, first on my laptop and then on my phone.
Majuro to Honolulu
Before long, the delay-stricken Japanese scuba divers had finally disembarked, and the passengers who were joining us from Majuro were boarding the plane. I took note of quite a few missionaries dressed in Mormon garb – they really are everywhere, aren’t they?
Our take-off from Majuro afforded me the faintest of views of the atoll, which has quite a distinctive shape: it’s basically one long, flat, thin stripe of land barely a few hundred metres wide, curving around a gigantic lagoon in the middle.
I’d love to return to Majuro in the future for its unique geological features alone, and I’d definitely like to do so before the atoll gets swallowed up by rising sea levels!
We had now entered the final stretch of the journey, a five-hour flight in a northeasterly heading bound for Honolulu. It was also now that the first proper “meal” – if you can call it that – was served: a small ham and cheese sandwich with a snack bar and another packet of almonds.
I also ordered an orange juice to drink.
It was a meagre amount of sustenance, to be sure, but it ensured that I wasn’t absolutely dying of starvation!
I spent most of the time working on a blog post on my laptop, pausing every now and then to look outside the window.
The blue United Airlines wingtip was a familiar sight by now, but what truly captured my attention, here in the dead of night in the middle of the unknowably vast Pacific Ocean, was the view of the stars.
With absolutely zero light pollution out here in the open ocean, the stars shone brighter than I’ve ever seen them from anywhere in the world. I cupped my face to the window to block out all the light so I could see them more clearly as they glimmered in the distance.
Obviously there was no way to capture it properly on camera – the photo below barely does it justice – but believe me when I say that the view of the starry night, out here in the middle of nowhere, was one of my most cherished memories from the entire journey.
The cabin lights had been completely dimmed by now, so it was inevitable that I dozed off to sleep. Eventually, I was awoken by our landing in Honolulu, and felt a mixture of exhaustion, relief, and wistfulness as I was greeted with a farewell message from United’s entertainment system, signifying the end of my Island Hopper adventure.
Alas, this adventure had unceremoniously dumped me in Honolulu at the inconvenient hour of 2:50am, so I decided to take the early-morning city bus into town for the hearty portion of poke I had promised myself!
The United Island Hopper: it’s one of those famous “milk runs” that tugs at the heartstrings of aviation geeks and intrepid travellers from all over the world, and I’m so glad I had the chance to check it off my bucket list.
While it may appear at first glance to be a daunting itinerary, the truth is that anyone who has a few spare days when travelling between North America and Asia can potentially swoop down and pay a visit to the friendly people of Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.
For all the stick that we give United Airlines, there’s no denying that their Pacific island services are an essential lifeline for the small communities on these islands. Getting a glimpse of life along the Island Hopper was an incredibly fun way to spend a few days off the beaten path, and one that opened my eyes to so many new travel possibilities in the future.