Yaren, Nauru

Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program.
Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program.

The list of the world’s smallest countries includes some pretty interesting places. Vatican City recently welcomed a new pope, who is intriguing even non-Catholics with his forward thinking. Monaco, along the French Riviera, has long been home to the rich and the famous. But what about the third-smallest country? San Marino and Liechtenstein both come to mind, though both European countries fall farther down on the list. To find this place, you need to head to Micronesia.

Nauru is a little nation in the South Pacific that used to be called Pleasant Island. The eight-square-mile island has been ruled by the Germans, the League of Nations, the Japanese, and a trusteeship after World War II. Phosphate mining made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the 1970s. And then everything fell apart.

Phosphate rock originates from bird droppings. To mine the deposits, most of the island’s lush tropical rainforest had to be cleared. Once the supply was depleted, little remained. The island is surrounded by a reef, which prevents the creation of a seaport. Unemployment is high, with the loss of the mining industry and little tourism. And with rising sea levels—thanks to global warming—the already small island is starting to shrink.

Photo: Erimacrus (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Erimacrus (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
That doesn’t make Nauru a lost cause, though. It could even become one of your most rewarding trips, once you arrive on the hard-to-reach island. Nauru has one traffic light, which changes to allow planes to cross the road to the airport’s terminal. The Ring Road, which circles the island, can be driven in 30 minutes, but biking or walking allows you to see more. Start in Yaren, the de facto capital. Parliament House is across the street from the airport. Head west toward Aiwo, the access point for Buada Lagoon. The lagoon is the island’s only freshwater lake; the water quality is poor, but the scenery is stunning. It’s one of few areas still surrounded by lush greenery—pineapples and bananas, tomato trees and pandanus palms. After Buada Lagoon, you’ll reach Command Ridge, the highest point on the island. Japanese soldiers kept watch here during World War II, and you can still explore the communications bunker and see old guns hidden in the tall grass.

Stop for lunch at Jules on the Deck, which overlooks the calm water. Try salt-and-pepper squid or fresh mussels and oysters. And expect a friendly inquisition about your journey. Heading north again, you can see what’s leftover from the mining industry, even though much of the interior is now off-limits. Then you’ll reach Anibare Beach, the best stretch of sand on the island. Find a shady spot under a banana palm, walk along the white coral sand, and tiptoe past the rocky entrance to swim in the turquoise water.

The rest of the afternoon starts to melt away. Eventually, you’ll leave the beach. Eventually, you’ll cross the street for an Australian beer at the Bay Restaurant. And eventually, you’ll make your way past Anibare Harbour to Menen and one of the island’s two hotels. But right now, except for a few Nauru Reed Warblers, you have a South Pacific beach all to yourself. Enjoy it while you can.

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