Short but sweet

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am

ONE OF THE frustrations of Hong Kong is finding the perfect short break from its shores. Sure, there are plenty of great destinations within what should be easy reach - but airline schedules and monopolies mean you often don't get enough time on the ground to justify the expense.

Welcome to the stunning and often underrated Micronesian island of Guam. Smart scheduling, direct flights and the two-hour time difference mean you can squeeze the most out of a long weekend. You can leave Chek Lap Kok late on Friday night, be relaxing on the beach in Guam by 7am the next morning ... and be back home by about 10pm on Monday.

The four-hour flight is relatively long, but you'll forget all about it once you step outside Agana airport: it's set on a hill overlooking the sea, and offers a first fabulous glimpse of the island's famously clear, coral-filled waters. The airport is only 10 minutes from the main tourist area of Tumon Bay, which means no traffic jams enroute to the hotel. So, within 40 minutes of touching down, you can already have marked out your sun lounge and be opening your holiday novel.

Unlike the incessant flurry of activity that marks many Southeast Asian destinations, Guam - with a population of just 150,000 people - is relaxed and mellow. It's a dichotomy of modern tourist haven, with all the mod cons (large, modern hotels, top luxury brands and amusement parks) and laid-back Pacific island.

Guam is the largest of the Mariana archipelago - but it takes only four hours to drive around. And it's definitely worth hiring a car. The cost of a 15-minute taxi ride - despite the novelty of cruising in an old Cadillac or Chevrolet - can be the same as a day's rental (from US$25).

The island - blessed with year-round temperatures of about 27 degrees Celsius - has an unusual history that's reflected in its people. The original inhabitants, the Chamorro, make up the majority of the population, despite a turbulent history marked by more than 200 years of Spanish rule and more than 100 years as a US territory. Today, residents hail from Spain, the Philippines, Mexico and the US. During the second world war, Guam was the only part of the US that was occupied by Japan. There's not much in the way of old architecture or ruins, but nature provides plenty to be in awe of.

Although it's an isolated and unique part of the US, Guam has embraced American kitsch - not unlike Hawaii, in some respects. It's hard to miss the 'Polynesian' dancers in grass skirts who entertain at huge dinner/dance shows, in beachside huts and on the streets.

And then there's the food. Every chain of American fast and not-so-fast food (including Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, TGI Friday's, Outback Steakhouse and Tony Roma's) is available. There's a huge choice of restaurants, many of which cater to Asian tastes, but most stick to the American big-is-better formula of ribs, steaks and salads. Get your fill of hot dogs, burgers and prime beef because seafood is expensive (live Maine lobster from US$70 per 500g) or, disappointingly, frozen, unless you take in one of the island's huge seafood buffets at the major hotels. Book ahead.

For a taste of American Pacific cuisine, try Sam Choy's (1245 Pale San Vitores Rd, Suite 450, Tumon, tel: [1] 671 649 6637), a chain made famous in Hawaii. For about US$100, you and your partner will be served more than you could possibly eat - plus a bottle of Californian wine and over-the-top American service. On the water, the Outrigger Guam Resort's beach cafe (1255 Pale San Vitores Rd, Tumon, tel: [1] 671 649 9000) has great value all-American burgers and fries (from US$6.95).

And it just wouldn't be kitsch without lots of wet and wild entertainment. Just about every form of amusement - from the latest video-arcade games to aquariums, waterslide parks, dog racing and boat tours - are within easy reach. A big drawcard is the Atlantis submarine (tel: [1] 671 646 5516), which allows you a close encounter with reef fish for US$78.

Throw fun-loving Japanese and Korean tourists into the mix (most of whom seem to be having the time of their lives) and you've got something that borders on Fantasy Island. Not exactly hip, but those too-cool-for-school types might benefit from leaving their pessimism in their luggage and throwing themselves into Tropicana for a while. If you do, you'll find genuine warmth from locals who are only too happy to point you in the right direction.

But be warned: entry prices at many of the attractions and tours are high. Although Guam is a perfect place for families, the expense of many activities can be off-putting. For example, a 20-minute Sea Walker tour - in which you can venture seven metres underwater wearing a modern version of the original divers' gear, with huge helmets and line-supplied air - costs US$85. Look for packages that include entry or offer discounts to attractions. Or just stick to a good, old-fashioned beach break. Or enjoy the facilities of the hotels, most of which have beach access and pools.

But for those with the cash to splurge, Guam offers much more than sunbathing. It's a tax-free shopping haven, with a wide choice of designer goods, including Christian Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. Free trolley buses shuttle retail-therapy enthusiasts from most major hotels to the main shopping malls, including Micronesia Mall, which houses Macy's, and the designer boutiques.

Sports lovers are well-catered for, too. The island boasts seven professional golf courses, most of which are 18-hole. A round at the 18-hole Talofofo Golf Resort, designed by nine US pro golfers, including Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, costs US$130 on weekdays and US$170 at weekends.

But diving is probably Guam's biggest drawcard, with underwater visibility of more than 30 metres, thriving reefs, centuries-old wrecks and submerged second world war memorials, providing spectacular sites for beginners and experienced divers. A two-dive boat trip that takes in the island's signature site the Blue Hole (a volcanic formation that plunges 100 metres through a reef shelf) costs US$95 per person and includes lunch, hotel transfers and equipment, through Guam Tropical Dive Station (tel: [1] 671 477 2774). It's popular, so you'd be advised to arrange all dives before you arrive in Guam. Cocos Island, about 3km off Guam's southern tip, is a beach lover's paradise, with pristine beaches, lagoons, a reef all around, and plenty of water sports. Avoid the tour groups with a bit of independent travel. Take the ferry from Merizo and make your own way.

For the less active, Fai Fai Powder Sand Beach, marked by a rusting Japanese artillery piece, has the unusual distinction of tiny star-shaped sand (yes, it is natural). Small and tucked away, it's a good place to unwind, but has become a tour group destination. If tours are your thing, you can visit the beach, go for a walk in the jungle, watch a lunch dance show and use snorkelling equipment for US$65 (GIT Tours, tel: [1] 671 649 2311).

A couple of interesting detours are the Chamorro Village (Marine Drive, Hagatna), a purpose-built centre that offers a taste of local culture, food and, of course, souvenirs. Yokoi's Cave, a 10-minute walk from Talofofo Falls, is a must for history vultures. It was the home of Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi who, unaware that the second world war had ended, remained there for 28 years until farmers discovered him in 1972.

Thankfully, not all holidays need be marked by sunstroke and athletic over-exertion. And night owls need not feel left out. All you need to meet locals is a smile - and once you do, you'll realise their unhurried daytime demeanour lasts well into the night ... and the next morning.

If you enjoy good live tunes and a casual drink, don't miss the Fishbowl Bar and Lounge (Acanta Mall, Tumon, tel: [1] 671 649 1291), which is the jam centre for local musicians. A five-piece jazz and funk band plays on Saturday nights, with a string of sensational guest vocalists. As well, there are pool tables and reasonably priced drinks (from US$2.50 for a bottle of beer).

Locals shake their thangs at gay club Denial (Fountain Plaza, Tumon, tel [1] 671 646 2526), which pumps out the latest R&B, and is home to the finest 'humping' dancers in Guam. Beware of the cocktails, some of which contain five shots of hard liquor coloured with a dash of Coke.

With this sort of local assistance, you should have no problems chilling out on the beach the next day ... just don't forget to apply the sunscreen.

A two-night package at the Marriott Hotel including breakfast at $3,090 twin share with an optional range of activity packages priced from $730-$1,450 is available from A golfer's package, including one round and two nights' accommodation at the Outrigger Resort, is available for $4,290 per person from Continental Holidays on 2524 6178. Our writer flew courtesy of Continental Micronesia airlines (which flies to Agana Mondays and Fridays at 10.55pm, returning to Hong Kong Mondays and Fridays at 7.10pm), and stayed at the five-star Outrigger Guam Resort (1255 Pale San Vitores Rd, Tumon, tel: [1] 671 649 9000).