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Destination: Micronesia

Rota Rooter : A new fan of this 'secret' island tells where it is and why we haven't heard of it before

July 28, 1996|DONNA MARCHETTI | Marchetti is a Cleveland-based freelance writer

SONGSONG, Northern Mariana Islands — The dirt road wound upward past a Japanese cannon peering from a hillside cave, through a rocky-walled passage sprouting delicate lavender orchids and on into fields of taro and uncultivated scrub. I was on my way to the top of Mt. Sabana, the highest point on the 35-square mile island of Rota, just northeast of Guam. Near the summit I paused at the Peace Memorial with its flags of three governments: the United States, Japan and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Rota is a part. The post-World War II memorial seemed oddly out of place here, on a road that could only be attempted with four-wheel-drive and heavy-duty axles. Although I was close to what I'd been told was the most magnificent view on the island, there was no one else on the road and I doubted that many come here.

The road ended near the top, and I got out to walk the short distance to the edge of a sheer cliff. Stretched out before me, the Pacific glimmered a deep sapphire, paling to turquoise at the island's edge. The streets of Songsong, the main village, crisscrossed the peninsula below that extended like a finger curving toward Guam, barely visible on the horizon.

In fact, it may be everybody's dream of an idyllic place--a remote, palm-fringed Pacific island surrounded by some of the clearest water in the world. Because it's a U.S. Commonwealth, a status similar to that of Puerto Rico, a stay is generally uncomplicated by health concerns, language problems or currency conversions. The official language is English; the currency is the dollar.

Yet the island is pristine, unspoiled and undiscovered by the tourist throngs. But perhaps not for long. Until the new Rota Resort and Country Club opened its doors in June 1995, accommodations were limited to a handful of small hotels that took care of the guests who trickled in, but did little to attract them. Now the Rota Resort is marketing Rota aggressively, primarily to Japanese tourists, for whom the island is only a three-hour flight away.

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Like many visitors to Rota, I had come to scuba dive. But I also found myself fascinated by the place above water: the lazy, sun-bleached villages, the tangled green of tropical forests, the plumeria-scented air. I was drawn by the atmosphere heavy with history, both ancient and modern, from mysterious stone artifacts--called latte stones--erected centuries ago by the indigenous Chamorros, to the abandoned cannons and rail tracks of the more recent war years. (The U.S. capture of the Marianas from Japan was one of the largest military operations in all of World War II.)

The island's 2,000 residents live primarily in Songsong, perched at the southwestern edge of the island on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific. Mt. Taipingot, also known as Wedding Cake Mountain because of its layered appearance and flat top, rises at the farthest point of the peninsula that cradles Sosanjaya Bay, a large, protected harbor.

Rota's western shores are lined with sandy beaches and rocky tide pools, while the east coast is ringed by sheer cliffs. Much of Rota's flora and fauna is found nowhere else on Earth.

I've made two trips to Rota, the last one in September, staying on the island's northwest side at the Coconut Village Hotel--10 duplexes, a restaurant and a pool built on the site of an old coconut plantation about five miles from Songsong. On my first visit, as I drove a mile down the cutoff marked with the hotel's name, I couldn't believe I had taken the right turn. The one-lane dirt road was so deeply pot-holed that I was afraid of breaking an axle--and I understood why my rental car seemed to have no shocks.

Yet just as I was ready to give up and go back, the small Pacific-style cottages appeared, staggered across a small ridge overlooking the water. It's an idyllic setting, quiet and beautiful, and though not the most luxurious accommodation on Rota, it was my favorite.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that Rota seems ripe for a new breed of tourist--those who want their paradise served up with a bit of luxury. On an island where a swimming pool traditionally has been considered the outer limits of pampering, the Rota Resort came almost as a shock. Owned by the SNM Corporation, which operates large hotels in Madrid and London, it offers amenities never before available on the island. I went there for a daytime visit and later for two dinners. Set high on a hillside overlooking a brilliant sea, the resort has a stunning view, an 18-hole golf course with pro shop and grill, a swimming pool with poolside bar and casual restaurant, 60 guest suites and a full service dining room.

Since my last visit, another new hotel has opened. The Rota Hotel, situated by the ocean on the road that runs between Songsong and the airport, is also large by island standards, with 32 rooms, some of them suites, and pricey!

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