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Guam, US territory: The US island closer than Hawaii

TIME : 2016/2/26 15:59:06

Ghosts and shooting galleries are part of the rare mix of attractions in Guam, writes Paul Chai.

If you arrive in a new destination at night and head straight to bed, when you wake up it's like Christmas. A whole new destination has been given to you – but when I stepped outside in Guam on the first day my gift seemed like a pair of the proverbial unwanted socks.

The main strip of Tumon Bay is blandly familiar, duty-free shops and chain brands white-washing away any island personality.

It quickly became evident that this dot in the Pacific was where east and west collide, a town where large numbers of Japanese and Korean tourists (nearly 90 per cent combined) come to sample the guns and glamour of the good ol' US of A. So, shooting galleries line the streets with touts soliciting you come and fire weapons.

But three days is like an eternity in travel so I set about changing my opinion, and I decided to use the local culture of the Chamorro people – rather than the culture of consumerism – as my guide.

The Chamorro first inhabited the islands about 3500 years ago. They have weathered three centuries of Spanish colonisation and attempted genocide, American rule since the end of the 19th century, and a short but brutal Japanese occupation during World War II .

Hagatna is just a short drive from Tumon Bay. It's a small capital of just a thousand people and you can tour it quickly, but keep an eye out as there are some great finds. In a side street, I spy a tunnel carved into the side of the pale rock and a sign identifies it as a Japanese war tunnel, several of which link up inside the hillside and are free for you to explore and check out the pirouetting Pontiff, a statue of Pope St John Paul II opposite, which rotates 360 degrees each day so he can bless every part of the island. 

The Spanish Bridge that was built  about1800 and now has a bronze statue of Guam's famous mermaid, La Sirena, a legendary woman who loved the water so much she sprouted fins. But truth-be-told I am searching for the microbrewery named in her honour. The Mermaid Tavern is a pub-dive bar that serves killer Spanish Garlic Shrimp, huge prawns in a slick of paprika, garlic and sherry, a perfect foil for their pale ale. 

Food is always a great cultural diving board. Over the next couple of days, I discover the tinaktak burger at Pika's cafe, arguably the best local joint on the island. Tinaktak, a traditional dish of ground beef cooked in coconut milk has been turned into a burger, where coconut milk is ladled over a beef patty during grilling.

Another staple, a shrimp patty popular at local markets, has been put between bread at Meskla Dos, a new gourmet burger joint that has patrons queuing out the door. The Uhang Shrimp Burger is a shrimp burger coated in panko crumbs and topped with spicy tartare sauce. 

The night markets during the week are a perfect showcase for the Polynesian-inspired street food. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the Chamorro Village in Hagatna throws a touristy fiesta of food and traditional dance but for better, cheaper street treats try the Mangilao Thursday Night Market in the interior.

On my final day I travel through the south of the island. At Talafofo Falls Resort Park I climb into the claustrophobic hole that was home to Japanese soldier Yokoi Shoichi for 28 years. Unaware the war had ended, Shoichi emerged from his hand-dug cave in 1972 and returned to Japan. 

Further south, Fort Nuestra Senora de la Soledad is a Spanish relic and the best point to admire the scoop of bay at Umatac, an area celebrated as Magellan'slanding point. 

I meet up with Myong, who takes me to the supposedly haunted White Lady Bridge, where the tale goes that a Spanish officer took a young Chamorro bride in the 1600s and was cruel to her, making her fetch water for him from the nearby fresh mountain stream. One nightthe small sliver of moon was inadequate to light her path, she lost her footing and drowned in the stream.

Now locals say you can see her ghostly figure clad in her wedding gown near the White Lady Bridge during a new moon or a storm. 

Myong drops me back in Tumon with some nightlife suggestions, all of them non-descript frontages in strip malls I had walked past for two days but, like my initial view of Guam, I just needed to look harder.

As I walk into Porky's, the bartenders shout me a warm "Hello" and the local crowd downs shots in front of a live band. There is more live music next door in Green Lizard, a tiki bar for Guam's military set (the island is home to a US Naval and Air Force base). The squaddies are a welcoming crowd and I find myself on a table with a Marine on shore leave from Okinawa, who has my initial look of disappointment from a few days ago. I drag him to my final bar tip, Abandon Ship a packed nautical-themed place across the road. Over a couple of beers I share my cultural itinerary with my newfound friend. Just a few days of digging has turned me from a Guam sceptic into an unlikely ambassador – turns out it was a pair of socks that fit me quiet well.




Philippine Airlines and United Airlines fly to Guam via Manila. 


Double rooms at the Outrigger Guam Resort start from $250. The resort is right on the beach at Tumon Bay.


Join the queue out the door of burger joint Meskla Dos (413 A&B N. Marine Corps Drive, Tamuning; Grab a Chamorro breakfast sausage or tinaktak burger at Pika's Café . Try the fried parrot fish at Proa Restaurant (Ypao Beach Pale San Vitores Rd, Tamuning; Grab a beer brewed on the premises of the Mermaid Tavern and Grille (140 Aspinall Ave., Suite 101, Hagatna;