The islands in the Pacific have dominated your travel dreams for years. You would drop everything for their empty sandbars, coconuts dangling from palm trees, and turquoise shades of water. Then you traveled to Guam and Saipan. With their high-rise hotels and duty-free shops, casinos and fast-food chains, the two United States islands didn’t resemble your vision of paradise. The islands around them are a different story, though.
Guam and Saipan are part of the Mariana Islands. The crescent-shaped archipelago sits in the North Pacific Ocean, three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines. Guam is a United States territory. Saipan, 135 miles away, is the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are a commonwealth of the United States. Bored, or perhaps disappointed, by the inauthentic vibe on the two islands, you set out to explore the smaller, surrounding ones. Tinian was your first stop. You learned about Chamorro culture and the world wars. Now you’re continuing on to Rota, where you’ve been promised the gorgeous scenery about which you dream.
Like the other Northern Mariana Islands, Rota was claimed by Spain, Germany, and Japan, before becoming part of the United States commonwealth. But the Friendly Island was never developed. Caves are still full of Chamorro and Spanish artifacts. Japanese sugar mills are long overgrown. Hiking trails wind through dense green forests. Empty, white-sand beaches are lined with palm trees and a few small guesthouses. The underwater visibility, off of those beaches, is excellent. While a small-town atmosphere and a slow pace are still immediately evident in the little villages.
You arrive on Rota with plans to hike rocky Mount Taipingot, nicknamed Wedding Cake Mountain, since it actually looks like a layer cake. You want to snorkel above Japanese shipwrecks and go sea walking—since you don’t need a scuba-diving certification to do so—just three meters under the water. And you hope to have one of those gorgeous beaches, maybe Teteto, all to yourself, at least for a little while.
Your first stop is the Swimming Hole, though. If little Rota is famous for one thing, it’s its natural swimming pool. This spot isn’t far from the airport. It’s on the west coast near Mochong’s own beach and latte stone house sites. It’s where ocean water crashes over black lava rocks, which have created a safe pool. Not surprisingly, no one is there. You strip down to your bathing suit, kick off your flip-flops, and wade into the cool water. Rota is better than any dream.