Above and below the water, Pohnpei is a diverse island that remains unfettered by the trappings of mass tourism—it is truly a Micronesian jewel.
Pohnpei’s dragonback mountain range rises into the clouds forming a tropical rain forest. More than 40 rivers and 20 waterfalls, ranging from calm and pleasant to spectacular, are contained within the forest. Some are within an easy hike, while others take considerable effort and a good guide to find.
The broad inner lagoon is pocked with reefs and blue holes and scribbled with channels broad and deep. Outside the lagoon sit two picture-post card perfect atolls. It is to the North Pacific what BoraBora is to the South Pacific. Idyllic, lush and inviting.
Coming in from the south, the United Island Hopper usually takes the grand tour circumnavigating more than half of the island before heading toward mighty Sokehs Rock, the Diamond Head of the Western Pacific. We touched down in Kolonia town, where a colorful crowd is normally at the airport to greet returning Pohnpeians and visitors.
Here I rented a car and headed for the hill overlooking the harbor to Pohnrakiet. This is a village of people of Polynesian descent who hail from the outer Pohnpei state atoll of Kapingamaringi (Google that one). These folks are famous for their carvings made from mangrove wood and palm ivory, and their weavings made from palm and panadanus.
Toothed sharks, woven sea turtles and flowing mantas are all fashioned by the creative woodworkers in this village. On this day I got lucky. An adventurous palm ivory nut carver had created a nice eagle ray, and I purchased it. Pohnpei may not be the traditional shopper’s haven. There aren’t any Gucci stores here, but handicraft addicts can blow through a bank account here with ease.
My hotel was out of town and in the jungle. Simply named The Village, it is rustic and classy in a well-crafted package, and The Village has received its share of awards over the years as a haven for the eco-tourist. Each stilted and thatched bungalow sits in the jungle with its own special view of the northern lagoon islands.
The social area is the open-air dining room and Tattooed Irishman Pub. A famous gazebo has been the watering spot for many a traveler over the years.
Soon it was off to sleep with the fan quietly rotating overhead, the sounds of the jungle chirping away and visions of the Pohnpei reef planted firmly in my head.
The next morning I set out with The Village’s dive guide to head down to Manta Road. This is Pohnpei’s conribution to the excellent manta sites in Micronesia, and one of the special attractions here is the resident family of mantas includes some that are almost totally black. The divers gather at a cleaning station which has been designated a protected site to help preserve the manta behavior.
Divers must keep their distance from the station, but the mantas still swim close by. On this day, we observed an amorous manta couple—a black female and a white-bellied male. A mottled stingray also worked its way down the channel, kicking up sand and searching for mollusks.
Lunch was at a nearby island, and we ate an unusual bento of fresh tuna, condiments and rice wrapped cleverly in a banana leaf that doubled as the plate.
Our second dive was at Areu Wall, a great inner reef wall fed by currents. Here huge sea fans and soft corals thrive. But the most fun is exploring the deep cracks and crevices that have been cut into the wall over the centuries. Sponges, sea whips and lacey corals share the hideaways with billowy sea anemones and beautiful Notodoris nudibranchs.
Dense black coral trees hold jittery longnose hawkfish. Some small caves are surrounded in soft corals. This is a relaxing dive that can vary in depth, but there is so much to see in shallow water, it tends to last for a while. It will definitely fill the macro folder for digital photo buffs. At tide change, people may see mantas feeding. This is a great place for divers and snorkelers. For the next few days, we returned to the passes and inner channels and marveled at the marine life. The diving here is uncrowded, and we were normally the only boat out.
Pohnpei also has two nearby atolls, Ahnd and Pakien, best explored when the ocean flattens after trade wind season, around April or May. It’s not enough the island has some great walls, passes and reefs as part of its huge barrier reef lagoon. Offshore, it also has two amazing atolls for divers to explore.
Ahnd Atoll’s beauty, people tell me, can bring tears to the eyes. I must admit, it is stunning. A large pass, Toawoaioai Pass, opens to an inner lagoon with some of the most idyllic sand beaches in the Pacific. It is a snorkeler’s paradise where the clear waters along the pass dropoff show coral beds and golden sea fans.
Pakien Atoll is off the southwest tip of Pohnpei’s barrier reef. There is no inner lagoon passage, so all diving is done on the outer reefs. A snorkel along the edge of the reef reveals visibility well over 30 meters. Below, schools of barracuda circle in the canyons.
Ahnd beaches are accessible and idyllic. No one lives here, and the shores are sandy. The jungle is dense with lots of seabirds and even fruit bats flying overhead at all times. In the evenings, frigate birds circle the islands, coasting on the thermals that rise from the land. Ahnd’s one major pass really attracts divers. They come here because the change of tides promises such creatures as sailfish, Pacific blue marlin, all sorts of rays, yellowfin tuna, and the list goes on. Sharks include some extremely large oceanic whitetips as well as silvertips and grays. Listen for dolphins in the waters as well. This can be a swift drift depending on the tide change (check the moon phase) so some drift diving experience is a pre-requisite.
As one has to cross open ocean to get to either atoll, visit here during the calmer summer months. Few people get to dive genuine Pacific atolls and these isles off Pohnpei’s main island are an ocean world all their own.
A visit to Pohnpei must also include a dive at Palikir Pass, home to a school of at least 100 gray reef sharks who gather when the incoming tide changes. Giant grouper have been seen here and schooling eagle rays frequent the pass mouth.
This pass which, until recently was a well-kept secret surfing spot, now attracts serious wave riders when the swell hits. Palikir and the harbor passage are both world class surf spots that see many surfers visit in the Northern Hemisphere winter months.
Out of the Water
The island is lush and green. I took the time to hike up to the top of Sokehs Ridge where a panoramic view of the western coast of the island, Kolonia town, the scenic harbor and Palikir Pass can all be taken in. It used to be a pretty tough trip up here, but the new cell phone tower means the old Japanese road up the ridge is now passable thanks to the FSM Telecom crews. One merely has to park the car at the base of the old road that runs above Sokehs Village. Then you hike up a rather steep incline to the ridgetop, pausing for a rest or two and a swallow of water along the way. Some friends had offered to hike up with me, but I wanted to go it alone, choosing to hear the chatter of the white terns, as they warned me to stay away from their jungle nests. I saw wild deer tracks in some muddy sections of the road as well.
Once atop the tower area, the breeze blows and the vistas mesmerize. One can look at the rear of mighty Sokehs Rock, the island’s most impressive landmark, and down on all of the reef passages. A couple of boats were headed out into the blue to perhaps fish or dive. Surfers headed on jet skis out to the surfable passes.
On the way down, I noticed some work had been done in an area that was once a Japanese WWII defense enclave. I ventured over to find a huge complex has now been landscaped and planted with flowers. Old bunkers and building remnants can be entered and explored. Big gun emplacements are easy to reach.
In town I found another fascinating collection of war vehicles. Behind the main hardware store in a grassy field there are a lot of WWII era trucks and heavy equipment. Next to them could possibly be the largest collection of Japanese tanks anywhere. Most are intact with tracks still on and gun turrets askew. I am told there are still more nearby in the jungle. One Pohnpei resident has even fully restored one of the tanks and occasionally drives it around his construction yard.
The Pohnpeian people were occupied by the Germans, Spanish, Japanese and Americans for more than two centuries. Reminders of these eras are seen at the Spanish Wall at the baseball field, old churches and other remnants. But today, Kolonia is a bustling town, and the natural beauty of the island awaits the adventurous and discerning traveler.
Getting There: Pohnpei is serviced frequently from Guam and Hawaii by United Airlines.
Departure Tax: US$15 is payable on check-in before receiving boarding pass. Keep some extra cash; no credit cards are accepted.
Money, Banking: The U.S. dollar is the official currency. There are U.S. FDIC-insured banks operating in Pohnpei. Most major credit cards are welcome at most visitor-oriented businesses. Cash using credit cards at the banks and at ATMs can be found in Kolonia.
Time: The FSM spans two time zones. Yap and Chuuk are 10 hours ahead of GMT; Pohnpei and Kosrae are GMT +11 hours.
Telecommunications/Postal: There is a communication station run by the national government. The FSM enjoys modern, reliable telecom links worldwide. Internet services are readily available and faster than Chuuk. Most hotels have free lobby internet and some have internet service that can be accessed in the rooms.