Concorde Travel - Travel Consultants

Home » Travel Stories » Where the Hell's Ponape (Pohnpei)?


Where the Hell's Ponape (Pohnpei)?

September, 1992.

West Caroline Islands, Federated States of Micronesia


After the Australian Ambassador had thanked Patti and Bob, the proprietors of Ponape's “The Village” hotel, he proposed a toast to the "President and people of the Federated States of Micronesia”.


Broad palm fronds, decorated with crimson hibiscus, seemed to support  the lofty nipa-thatch roof of the little hotel.  The "Tattooed Irishman Bar and Restaurant" was festive for the occasion.


The Australian Ambassador, tall and distinguished, with wine glass in hand, mingled with practiced professionalism among the guests at his Pacific Island reception. Nearby, in the hotel's small souvenir shop, a colourful tourist tee shirt proclaimed “Where the Hell's Ponape?"


An unexpected hush fell over the rowdy assembly as a local dignitary moved towards the rostrum and opened the occasion with a prayer. All heads were bowed but the solemnity of the prayer was rudely interrupted by the regular "zapp, zapp, zaaaap” of the remarkably efficient electric insect-killing device suspended from the rafters.


This colourful gathering of islanders and foreigners reminded me of a few lines I had read earlier that day. I was reading “Selected Short Stories of Somerset Maugham" and this Pacific island setting, reeked of the stuff his books are made of.


“You see, they were so naturally depraved that they couldn't be brought to see their wickedness. We had to make sins out of what they thought were natural actions. We had to make it a sin, not only to commit adultery and to lie and thieve, but to explore their bodies, and to dance and not come too church. I made it a sin for a girl to show her bosom and a sin for a man not to wear trousers. I instituted fines! Obviously the only way to make people realise that an action is sinful, is to punish them if they commit it. I fined them if they didn't come to church and fined them if they danced, I fined them if they were improperly dressed. I had a tariff, and every sin had to be paid for in money or work, and at last I made them understand."


The somewhat uncomfortable silence that followed the prayer was suddenly and unexpectedly dispelled by vulgar and riotous laughter. Ponape’s deep-seated religious fervour was abruptly replaced by the raucous sound of vigorous Australian conversation, helped along by a remarkably good supply of “Fosters" and “Victoria Bitter". It must have found its way to this far-away speck of an island with the assistance of this very ambassador.


The hushed strains of “Enya" struggled to be heard.


Although the gentlemen present, including the Ambassador himself, had been sensible enough to leave their neck-ties at home, the ladies had gone to a good deal of trouble and were wearing "frocks" appropriate to the occasion. Our ever-casual, ever-observant host, Bob, sporting a shock of white hair and an impressive heard, pondered the gathering with genuine concern. As usual, Bob was wearing a sensible and conventional collared short-sleeved shirt, white shorts and flip flops (rubber thong sandals).


This was Ponape’s high society, gathered at what is perhaps Ponape’s most socially prominent location, Patti and Bob’s “The Village” hotel.


We had decided to include this little-known island in our itinerary by way of a contrast to the “Hong Kong at the seaside", which is Honolulu, our final destination.


I was seeking simplicity and serenity, whilst my travelling companion, a Hong Kong Chinese, eagerly awaited the “action" of Waikiki. We had  discovered the perfect combination of destinations. Each of us was satisfied.


I liked Bob's style of hotel management. Being in the travel industry myself, I know that it is not good to become acquainted too quickly. After all, there was plenty of time.  It can be something of a nuisance to feel obliged to make polite conversation every time one passes a person to whom one has just been introduced.


Towards the end of the diplomatic gathering in which we found ourselves, the Ambassador offered us a drink with the compliments of the Australian Government. It was by way of compensation for the perceived inconvenience the party had caused to us hotel guests.


It didn’t take long before a particularly loud and unkempt individual became something of an embarrassment. With the number of gracious islanders present, many of us feared for his propriety. 1t was Somerset Maugham all over again!


Typhoon “Omar” had been a mixed blessing. Our departure from Hong Kong had been delayed by thirty six hours. We had been forced to omit the island of Saipan, also in Micronesia, from our itinerary. We now had two extra days for Ponape, an island which had tempted me greatly.


The overnight in Guam was unavoidable and from a traveler’s perspective, I feel that Guam can best be described as a tourist trap. The island caters for mass ­market tourism, mostly from Japan.


Towering luxury hotels line a beach which is not particularly special by Pacific Ocean standards. The overall panorama, however, with the ocean waves breaking on the distant reef and the towering cliffs, is certainly attractive.


Japanese tour groups arrive in vast numbers. Souvenir “halls” are vast and have mush­roomed along the beach, each striving to lure the visiting hordes with famous labels and tacky souvenirs.


Having discredited Guam to this extent, it must be said, however, that the hotels are luxurious. The sea and the plentiful sunshine, are sufficient ingredients to lure Japan’s wealthy rural community and city secretary girls. And, of course, honeymooners.


Typhoon “Omar” had left behind an upside-down commuter aircraft on the airport runway. The cargo terminal's enormous roof had been rolled back as if by a giant can opener. The tropical gardens of the Pacific Islands Club and the Guam Hilton had been devastated.


At the Guam Hilton a piece of timber had embedded itself in the wall of our balcony. The hotel was doing a wonderful job, taking care of a full-house, without a water supply and only an intermittent electricity supply.


A stroll through the hotel gardens, or what remained of them, revealed a secondary purpose for the swimming pool – it had become a reservoir. A battered bird cage beside the pool was without its parrot. We were glad to learn later that the bird was safely installed in the staff quarters.


At the beach we were amazed to see an elderly American couple snorkeling in the dark. Yes, snorkeling in the dark. Even if it been broad daylight, there would have been little to see following such a devastating storm.


The back-log of passengers following from the typhoon, meant that we were placed on stand-by for the flight to Ponape. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long, although there were some anxious moments.


In the delightful calm that usually follows storms, we flew via the island of Truk to Ponape. The aircraft's American captain, whose friendly voice we heard regularly over the public address, described in fascinating detail the various events that had taken place in this area during World war II. We were given some truly spectacular “flightseeing" when we flew out of Truk Lagoon, the world's largest lagoon. It was both exhilarating and alarming to be seated in such a large aircraft, a Boeing 727, and to be banking so steeply that we could peer far below at the sunken battleships, easily identifiable on the ocean floor.


The modem little airport at Ponape is on the bay, which is also the island’s harbour.


Across the still water is Ponape's distinctive backdrop of jagged peaks. They cut an impressive skyline and could best be described as Ponape's "Diamond Head". These same peaks form the magnificent view seen from the open-sided dining area and the lookout at “The Village” hotel.


It's a pleasant, fifteen minute drive through the township of Kolonia and along the coast to "The Village", certainly Ponape's most attractive place to stay.


"The Village” hotel represents the end result of a dream for Bob and Patti Arthur. They have lived on this unspoiled island for twenty one years and they chose, with great care, the site of their dream hotel.


Their efforts have been aptly rewarded by none less than the U.S. Senate.


They won the U.S. Government's first “Ecotourism" Award.


Accommodation at “The Village" comprises nipa thatch bungalows, each comfortably furnished and each very private. Set on stilts, the best bungalows have wrap-around windows, without glass, but with wire mesh. One feels enveloped by a ribbon of lush tropical greenery, a natural aviary. The sky and the ocean are the backdrop.


Tropical islands abound and a distant reef borders the splendid lagoon. One can hear the roar of the surf pounding on the reef whenever there is a prevailing breeze. This is a perfect retreat for those seeking an unspoiled natural setting and peace and quiet.


Ponape has no beaches, strange perhaps for an island with so much tropical beauty. “The Village", however, does have a pocket handkerchief beach with a delightful patch of green grass, just perfect for two. The water of the lagoon is incredibly warm, perhaps even too warm, but never-the-less it is a fine place for a swim. "The Village" has no swimming pool.


The restaurant and bar offer high standards and the menu is varied. Giant mud crabs are at the top of the list and these huge crustaceans are a real delicacy.


Three full days would seem to be the minimum length of time for a visit. This enables you to settle in and relax on the first day, doing absolutely nothing but enjoying the surroundings. If you have just arrived from Hong Kong, the contrast is incredible. On the second day you might like to go into town to admire the views across the bay. Take lunch on the verandah of the South Park Hotel.


A self-drive car is best and can easily be arranged at "The Village" reception desk.


We drove around the island. A pleasant trip over a mostly unsealed road, but rather too long unless you are feeling energetic.


In Kolonia you might like to visit the interesting little municipal museum.


Entry is free and if you are fortunate, you will be guided through the exhibits by the charming lady curator. She is a wealth of information.


On the third day you can visit something truly remarkable. As Angkor Wat is to South East Asia, so Nan Madol is to the Pacific. It is incredible that so little publicity has been given to this spectacular stone fortress.


Nan Madol is a pre-historic city, a Pacific “Venice”, approximately 65 acres in area, built by the ancient rulers of Ponape. The ruins are on a series of artificial islands separated by canals. Only the massive foundation of this “lost city", comprised of enormous basalt slabs, are visible and they have never been satisfactorily explained.


One could easily become immersed in the history of Nan Madol. Patti and Bob's son has written an interesting account of the ruins for the Continental Airlines in-flight magazine and they will gladly let you have a photocopy. The National Geographic is soon to publish an account of the site. The full day sightseeing tour of Nan Madol also includes some snorkeling on the barrier reef, a picnic on a tropical island and a swim under a thundering waterfall.


My tour, however, ended on a sour note.


When crossing a wide sand bar which obstructed our approach to Nan Madol, there was great glee among our Japanese traveling companions as we saw large turtles easing themselves out of our way. Giant stingrays appeared to “fly” through the shallows, their massive "wings" stirring up the sand on the bottom.


Standing at the prow of our little boat, I saw on the sand below, two beautiful small cowrie shells, only inches apart. I leapt into the water and managed to clutch both of them in one hand. They felt wonderful, smooth and ceramic in the warm water. The organisms inside were very much alive.


After all had admired them, I carefully placed the shells in a plastic bag together with my sun-tan lotion. I pondered how I might prevent the inevitable odour of their decay. It wasn't, however, to prove necessary. My precious cowries simply disappeared. I was very disappointed. The boatmen tried to convince me that the creatures were great climbers. They had not only been able to find their way out of the plastic bag, but had also managed to negotiate the steep sides of the boat before leaping back into the sea.


With cowries being of the snail family, I considered that with the limited time available, this was a highly unlikely explanation. With the assistance of several drinks and some jolly conversation, however, I managed to suppress my disappointment and I refrained from mentioning the sad saga to anyone.


The following morning, I could not restrain myself from raising the subject.


Were cowries really that valuable? Were they perhaps delicious? Why had they been taken from me?


Patti apologised profusely. She explained that cowries are plentiful and easy to find. They prefer, however, that there guests live by the motto of our generation, "Take only photographs and leave only footprints". I felt somewhat uncomfortable. She told me that in the past, guests had attempted to keep the shells and the foul odour of their decay penetrated guests clothing and could never be removed. The problem rested with the boatmen who, under instructions, had confiscated what I considered to be real treasure and had not told me why.


Ponape is fun. There is plenty to do and make sure you stay at least three or four nights. You can't slow down to the island's pace in anything less than this. “Nan Madol” is reason enough to make a visit. The added bonuses are ''The Village” hotel", the diving and snorkeling, the mountain climbing etc, etc.


Why not combine a little adventure with your next trip to the West Coast or Hawaii. Continental Airlines will fly you there and some very special fares are available.  For further information contact Concorde Travel at (852) 2526 3391.


Micronesia, Ponape and Hawaii. September, 1992.

Photographs taken on this trip can seen at the following link.