The picture-perfect islands of Micronesia remain refreshingly off the radar, yet boast gorgeous beaches, unparalleled coral reefs and mysterious ruins from ancient cultures. Here's what you need to know...
Just above Papua New Guinea and to the east of the Philippines, the 600 islands of the Federated States of Micronesia stretch across the western Pacific Ocean like tiny tropical jewels in the sparkling blue waters.
Made up of four island states - Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap - Micronesia is a magical place of palm-fringed beaches, ancient ruins and some of the best dive spots in the world. And other travellers have yet to discover it.
Ringed by a coral reef, the islands of Yap are home to a rich diversity of tropical marine life and a great place to dive. The small capital of Colonia is beautifully situated on Chamorro Bay, and is home to a living history museum celebrating traditional island life.
Yap is also famous for its unique stone ‘coins’ scattered across the island, perfectly preserved traditional meeting houses, and well-preserved WWII wrecks, both on land and under the sea.
When in Yap, you must visit a jungle 'bank' and see the Rai stones: huge disks of calcite, up to four metres in diameter with a hole in the middle. This stone money was used in local transactions like dowry payments and land purchases.
Their value was based on their size and history and there are approximately 6,500 scattered across the island. The most impressive cluster is around the village of Balabat.
From November to May, large numbers of manta rays gather in Mi'il Channel, offering the chance to swim with these magnificent creatures on the southern end and western side of the island.
Located in the main town of Colonia, the Yap Living History Museum is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the unique local culture and traditions.
Museum activities include reenactments, traditional dances, live arts, cooking, storytelling, canoe sailing, weaving and handicrafts. The island is also dotted with traditional houses, including beachside faluw (meeting houses).
The Tamilyog Trail bisects the main island of Yap, offering a challenging trek through forests and across grassy highlands. The trail is a great introduction to the local flora and fauna and at its highest point offers spectacular views across the island.
Covered in dense vegetation and dotted with steep mountains, Kosrae is the most undeveloped of the main Micronesian islands and the most lightly populated. It is a popular destination for more intrepid scuba divers and hikers and has a largely ‘unspoiled’ feeling.
The substantial ruins found on nearby Lelu Island suggests that it wasn’t always that way. Archaeologists suggest the ancient city was home to 1,500 people.
At more than 2,064ft tall, Mount Finkol is the highest peak in Kosrae and home to the lowest elevation cloud forest on the planet. A challenging trail leads to the base, taking hikers through a tangle of banyan trees and on to the summit where panoramic views of the island and its fringing reef.
While not as extensive as ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei, the ruins on Lelu Island are equally impressive. Still largely covered by jungle, burial mounds and dwellings here have more of an Indian Jones feel.
The walled city was built between the 13th and 14th centuries for Kosraean royalty and can be reached by via a causeway from the main island.
Just across from the Kosrae Nautilus Resort, the Blue Hole is a 70ft-deep hole carved out the reef that offers some of the best snorkelling in Micronesia. Visibility is very good and there is an abundance of colourful coral fish and rays as well.
The Yella Valley Ka Forest on Kosrae is a dedicated conservation area and home to the last significant stand of Ka trees on the planet. The trees have umbrella shaped crowns and mossy buttressed bases and were used for making canoes.
It's not as simple as rocking up and enjoying the nature, though, so visits need to be arranged through the Kosrae Visitors Bureau.
Pohnpei is the largest island in Micronesia, with a 60-mile ring road that circles the island. Its name translates as ‘upon a stone altar’, in recognition of the stone quarried here to build Nan Madol, an ancient ceremonial centre made up of canals, temples, burial vaults and meeting house.
Known as the ‘Venice of Micronesia,’ Nan Madol is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the highlight of any visit to the region.
Constructed in a lagoon on Temwen Island, just off the east coast of Pohnpei, the ruins of Nan Mandol are one of the most extraordinary sights in the Pacific.
Consisting of a series of small artificial islands linked by a network of canals, it is divided into ritual and administrative sections the capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty until about 1628. For a time, there was speculation that it was the lost city of Atlantis.
Kepirohi is one of Micronesia's best-known waterfalls, plunging 20m into a crystal clear pool. The waterfall is reached following a stone path from the main road, lined by colourful tropical flowers. The waterfall sits within a private estate, so a small fee is expected by the landowner.
Rising 100m above the jungle, Sokehs Rock is a huge ‘volcanic plug’ made from basalt. Undeniably, it's the most striking feature of Pohnpei’s topography.
An unmarked trail leads to the face of the rock, offering panoramic views of the island and is dotted with the wrecks of Japanese Zeros from World War II.
In an island nation with no shortage of postcard-perfect islands and beaches, Chuuk is arguably the most beautiful of them all. The outer barrier reef is punctuated with idyllic sand spits dotted with coconut palms, and the lush vegetation of the larger islands are home to flocks of migratory birds and rare tropical orchard.
Life is more relaxed in Chuuk, too, with locals living in harmony with their environment, fishing and farming as they have always done. The jewel in the crown, however, is vast, shallow and devastatingly beautiful Truk (also called Chuuk) Lagoon, the best shipwreck diving destination in the world.
Ever since Jacques Cousteau’s 1969 film Lagoon of Lost Ships brought the lagoon's ghostly shipwrecks to the attention of the world, diving here tops the bucket list of every serious diver.
More than 80 hulks rest in the clear blue waters, sunk when the Americans bombed the Japanese fleet here in 1944. It’s an unnerving time capsule – with tanks, guns and vehicles sitting untouched – and a surreal home for soft corals and schools colourful tropical fish.
Reminders of the Japanese occupation are not only found under the sea, but in the jungles and shorelines of Chuuk as well. Local guides will happily lead you to old runways, command centres, gun emplacements, cave networks and hospitals and libraries.
The Japanese lighthouse, perched high atop hill overlooking the lagoon, is a popular site. As is Nefo Cave, and the well-preserved remains of a large artillery gun, found nearby.
The trek to Mount Tonaachaw is a great introduction to the nature and history of Chuuk. legend has it that the mountain is the home of the god Souwoniras.
The path is dotted with meeting houses, traditional gardens and petroglyphs etched in the exposed basalt. Take time to stop at Wichon Falls, a popular bathing spot today and throughout the history of the island.
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