Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Wendy Tressel
DAY ONE | Your ceiling fan is spinning lazily as the midmorning sun slants through your windows at Palau Pacific Resort. The pool has already been taken over by kids in water wings, but beyond it is a beach laced with coconut palms that remains pristine and untrampled by tiny feet. To the sound of chirping birds, you wander down an elevated outdoor walkway to the resort’s Coconut Terrace, where you load up on croissants, fresh papaya, honeydew and pineapple from the breakfast buffet in preparation for a long day in the water.
And let’s be clear: You will be spending much of your time here in the water. A shark sanctuary and dive destination nonpareil, Palau offers 944 miles of coastline, plus coral reefs, lagoons and little mushroom-like islands so teeming with rare and beautiful fauna that they were added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites last year.
A speedboat from Fish ’n Fins, one of the major dive operators in these parts, is waiting for you at the resort dock. It ferries you to a dive center, where you admit to being more of a pool diver than a pro. “This will be like learning to walk—and then standing on the summit of Everest,” promises the attendant helping you to fill out the paperwork. “You will be ruined forever.”
Properly outfitted, you visit some of the popular dive spots around Ngemelis, a southerly member of the Rock Islands that sits like a finial on a long banister of coral reef. At Blue Corner, you pause in awe mere feet from a tremendous school of wahoo. Next up is New Drop Off, where you follow a majestic sea turtle about 40 feet underwater to where a half dozen divers have anchored themselves with reef hooks among the purple and red sea fans, holding as still as possible to observe the more elusive creatures. You begin to understand what the attendant meant about Everest.
Around lunchtime, your boat glides to a stop at an unspoiled beach dotted with picnic tables and monitor lizards. Your guide has brought a selection of traditional Palauan foods from Yano’s Market in Koror: boiled bricks of bright yellow tapioca, a whole roast parrotfish, the simmered meat of a giant clam, pork roasted in banana leaves, and a sweet mixture of pumpkin and coconut milk. Now that there aren’t hundreds of sea creatures vying for your attention, you’re shocked at how hungry you are, and devour quite a bit of the spread.
You’re practically in a meditative trance by the time you return to the resort, where you shower off the salt before wandering through progressively more jungle-like elevated walkways to the resort’s Elilai Spa. During a two-hour “frangipani body glow” treatment there, you are rubbed with lime and ginger salt and scented monoi oil while alternating between drowsing and trying to determine which bird calls and surf sounds are real and which are part of the spa’s own soundtrack.
Having to pry yourself off the massage table is made bearable only by the promise of dinner, which you have planned at Elilai Restaurant & Bar (elilai, Palauan for plumeria flower, is a popular name around here). In this charming eatery perched atop a cliff of tropical greenery, you order a tangy papaya and cucumber salad with clams and scallops from the island’s mangrove swamps, along with bread so fluffy it seems on the verge of floating off your plate, and follow it with a juicy bacon-wrapped tenderloin over potato cakes.
Perhaps because they can’t talk to each other while submerged, divers often enjoy a garrulous evening recap over a few beers. After dinner, you join them on the turquoise deck of Kramers. The more you hear, the more you’re convinced that everyone who goes diving in Palau is, in fact, ruined by it forever. And that, no matter what else happens, you have to see a shark.