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DESTINATION: YAP

Paradise, if you can find it

Talk about remote -- even Yap's souvenir T-shirts poke fun at the obscurity of this Micronesian island chain. But what a getaway for divers and daydreamers alike.

February 11, 2007|Avital Binshtock | Special to The Times

Next, we drove to a spot on the map marked "Stone Money Bank," which I envisioned as a columned building erected to protect these national treasures. In reality, Stone Money Bank was a cluster of rock coins lying against the highway's embankment. But they were indeed impressive. The largest were about 7 by 10 feet. Today the coins are used only for significant transactions such as buying a house; the U.S. dollar is the main currency.

The most stone money we saw in one place was in a narrow space between two men's houses -- large mahogany-and-bamboo huts where men regularly convene to have meetings. It's typical for unmarried adult males to sleep in men's houses every night, using logs as pillows. In Yap, sleeping on wood is almost preferable to a bed, because fabric holds in the humid heat found on the island.

Continuing our drive, we passed a rural graveyard with huge decorated crosses -- most Yapese are Christian -- and a bit later, a white church with color-stained windows. Its gable framed a vivid Crucifixion painting, with Jesus wearing a thu -- a loincloth worn by Micronesian men.

Scott directed us to his village, Toruw, a cluster of stilted huts near shore, where the village chief welcomed us. While we made small talk, Scott climbed a notched palm tree to fetch a coconut. A short distance away, pigs stood, tied on ropes. They, along with the chickens scratching around them, would be dinner sometime, I knew.

By now a heavy rain had begun, so we loaded back into the car. The day's last stop was Moon RiZE Cafe, a covered open-air restaurant with a limited but interesting Japanese menu. I ordered a soupy soba dish garnished with egg and seaweed, which I slurped contentedly while watching the tide pull out.

The restaurant's owners, Japanese expat siblings Daisuke and Sayaka Jomi, also operate an adjoining dive resort. Before we left, they persuaded Tim's family to come diving the next day. I wasn't interested, but I agreed to snorkel while the others dived.

Shortly after dawn, we were back at RiZE Diving Center. A speedboat whooshed us over azure water. And though I'd confined myself to the surface, this was by far the best underwater scenery I'd ever seen.

I gazed at a rich wonderland of psychedelic colors, brain-like coral and unusual fish species. At a certain point, the shallow ocean floor gave way to a cliff so sheer it appeared infinitely deep. The divers were exploring this teeming wall. Later they reported that they'd seen sharks, octopuses and manta rays -- a species Yap is known for.

That night, we were guests of honor at a barbecue coordinated by Joe's host family. We were again humbled by their customary generosity; they showered us with handmade purses, lavalavas (skirt-like garments) and more marmars. We dined on taro and breadfruit and drank tuba, effervescent wine made from palm sap.

The next day was our last, and we intended to spend it exploring the island, perhaps taking a hike and then dining at Mnuw, a ship-shaped restaurant that's reputedly the island's best. But during breakfast, a tropical depression took hold and fierce winds blew the bay's water inland, flooding the town and its stores. We spent the morning helping shopkeepers move wares to higher ground. The storm eventually died down, but winds kept up, and businesses stayed closed for the rest of the day, so we lazed in our hotel room.

Sometime after midnight, a taxi driver sporting a thu and a big, bare belly took us to the airport for our red-eye flight. We were relieved the extreme weather hadn't delayed our plane.

As we flew out, I thought about how I'd answer that question now: "Where the heck is Yap?" Before visiting, my answer was simple: east of the Philippines and directly north of the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea border. But after my experiences, I knew I'd never answer that way again. The question opened the door for me to say much more. It offered a chance to explain the place, its beauty and its generous people.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Little known in the Western Pacific

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to Yap, connecting service (multiple stops, change of planes) is available on Continental, Singapore, United, Northwest, Delta and American. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,780.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 691 (country code for Federated States of Micronesia), 350 (Yap's area code) and the local four-digit number.

WHERE TO STAY & EAT:

Pathways Hotel, 718 Pathways Lane, Colonia 96943; 3310, www.pathwayshotel.com. A tropical treehouse-style eco-resort with comfortable amenities, bay views and a gracious staff. Restaurant. Doubles begin at $125.

Traders' Ridge Resort, P.O. Box B, Colonia 96943; 3000, www.tradersridge.com. An inviting colonial-style property. Doubles begin at $215.

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