Palau's an underwater treat


WHERE did you taste the best burger of your life?

How about the best milkshake?

What if I told you that you can find both, for under $10, in Palau, about a six-hour flight from Brisbane.

You may be thinking “that’s a long way to go for a burger”, but there’s much more to Palau, an island nation located roughly between Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, then beaut burgers and super shakes.

The country of around 21,000 people, and about 600 islands, is also renowned for its world-class dive and snorkeling sites which are now much easier for Queenslanders to reach after fledgling airline Pacific Flier recently began weekly direct flights from Brisbane to Palau.

Previously, a trip to the site of two series of American TV show Survivor took more than a day, including a stopover in either Guam or the Philippines.

But first to the burgers, which would make for a nice and easy “fill-me-up” after the overnight flight which lands at the international airport, around a 15-minute drive from the capital city, Koror, home to around 70% of the country’s population.

These aren’t your mass-produced McDonald’s or Hungry Jacks burgers.

You’ll find them being cooked up, along with some less tasty American-style fries, in a caravan in an unusual position - the carpark of the public library in the main street of town.

The locals, especially in the early hours of the morning after a night out, and divers returning from hours out amongst the reefs and islands love the Bem Ermii fare.

The van is open around 18 hours a day and you wait on the foothpath while they cook up your meal.

It’s not elaborate, but very little about Palau is.

It’s a friendly, laidback type of place where for under $100 you can get a 20-minute ride around the famous Rock Islands, which are scattered around the ocean like water droplets on a window.

The chopper, flown by an Aussie known by everyone as “Matt The Pilot”, takes off from the top of a three-storey building in the industrial part of town.

It’s an unspectacular start to a spectacular ride where Matt points out islands, reefs and sandy, white beaches of note, tells a little bit of history, sends you soaring over island hilltops and through forest-laden valleys

Although you can lie in the sun on one of the island’s beaches, it’s under the water where Palau’s holiday treats are really to be found.

Each day, groups head out from local dive shop Fish and Fins to explore World War II wrecks – there are both American and Japanese warplanes you can snorkel in and around scattered around the islands – as well as Japanese ships which were bombed in heavy fighting, especially over a two-day period in 1944.

Other snorkel and dive spots, with names such as the Big Drop Off, Shark City, Turtle Cove and Giant Clam Beach, are equal to those we have on the Great Barrier Reef but without the crowds, and coral damage, that sometimes can plague a trip to our natural wonder.

Hidden caves, underwater tunnels and blue holes are also there to be explored, but nothing these fabulous places can offer, even on the best of days, can match a trip to Jellyfish Lake.

After a boat ride of around 40 minutes from Koror, the payment of a $35 entrance fee and a short five-minute hike up a rocky track, Ongeim’l Tketau, as it’s known in the local language, is a place like no other.

The saltwater lake, around the size of two football fields, is home to an estimated 13 million stingless, transparent jellyfish - the largest around the size of a large grapefruit - which congregate predominantly in one area of the lake and move position as the sun moves across the sky.

Diving, as well as deliberately touching the jellies, isn’t permitted in Jellyfish Lake, but take your mask, fins snorkel because you’ll want to see as much as you can of such an unusual sight.

Palau’s president Johnson Toribiong is such a fan of Palau’s underwater life he tries to take half a day off each week to go spearfishing.

He also declared the country as a “shark safe haven” at the United Nations in 2009, a world-first move which is now marked with the annual Shark Week celebrations each March.

The president is a good salesman for his nation’s tourism industry through both his actions and words.

“Palau can offer super diving and fishing,” he said at the launch of Pacific Flier.

“We are a very safe place. There are no terrorists or threats against innocent people.

“We are a friendly nation.”

And don’t forget about those first-class burgers.

- Pacific Flier is offering three packages for holidaymakers wanting to sample Palau.

 The four-day Taste of Palau package from $999 per person includes return flights, accommodation and daily breakfast at the three-star Palasia Hotel and a Rock Islands tour.

There is a $1199 Short Break Adventure option which also includes a land tour of the “big island”, Babeldoab, and kayak tour.

Those wanting a bit more luxury can opt for four days at the five-star Palau Pacific Resort for $1383 per person.

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