Guam is the biggest island in Micronesia, with the largest urban population, the most foreign tourists and the heaviest military presence. It is a brash Hawaiian mini-me, with beaches backed by high rise hotels and glitzy shopping malls; US naval and airforce bases are thrown in too. For Waikiki read Tumon Bay and Tamuning, for Pearl Harbor read Andersen and Apra. Guam is not an independent country, it is an unincorporated territory of the United States (under US jurisdiction but denied democratic rights). It likes to advertise itself as “America’s western border”, proud that it is, as the T-shirt slogans say, “where America’s day begins”. In practice that means it is also the frontline of potential conflict with North Korea.
Guam and Hawaii are the bookends of US influence over the Pacific islands. The main interchange for local flights to various other islands, this is the end of the line for the United Airlines Flight 154 island hopper that starts in Honolulu. That is 7.5 hours away by direct flight; it is fully 13 hours from Los Angeles, the same as from London to Tokyo, such is America’s security reach.
Historically, Guam has been part of the Mariana Islands, whose first inhabitants were the Chamorro people, originating from south-east Asia. But here Chamorro culture has been suppressed by successive colonialists, the Spanish for almost 400 years and then the Americans since 1898, when it was split from what became the Northern Mariana Islands. It was invaded and occupied by the Japanese just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor but was recaptured thirty-one months later. There are still warning signs of unexploded ordinance around today.
A third of the island is now given over to Andersen Air Force Base in the north and Naval Base Guam at Apra in the south-west; a further third is inaccessible to civilians, foreign or local, as it is reserved for future expansion by the US military. That is why Kim Jong Un singled out Guam, 3,402 kilometres from Pyongyang, as the place he would attack to hurt America now he says he has the capability of launching nuclear missiles that far. It is also why at the start of 2018 I was caught unawares lying on the beach here when a deep and loud rumble heralded the flight just above the height of the hotels of three US Stealth Bombers. Design icons; $2 billion apiece; radar defying; nuclear capable; scary as hell. One crashed here in 2008.
Guam’s commercial airport is small but modern, full of high end stores and high speed internet. We passed through immigration and got our hafa adai customary welcome with no questions asked, even with a North Korean stamp in our passports. It is not far to the main action, where most of the 160,000 residents live and tourists hang out, found half way up the west coast.
Tumon Bay is a lovely 1.5km curve of white sand beach protected by a coral reef just out to sea, enclosing calm and warm shallow waters for messing about. There are a dozen or so hotels, including a Westin at one end, a Hyatt in the middle, and a Hilton on the farthest point. As many flights arrive overnight they tend to be unusually flexible in permitting very early check-ins. All have decent restaurants and bars (virgin piña coladas are quite the thing), loungers and pools facing the ocean. Oddly, many if not all these hotels have wedding chapels edging on to the beach. You get the picture.
Just set back is the main drag, Tamuning, running parallel to the beach down a hill of neon lights where you will find Hawaiian institutions such as a T Galleria mall (near the Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton), half a dozen ABC Stores (supermarkets, pharmacies and tourist supplies all rolled together) and an Eggs ‘n’ Things (try the Loco Moco).
There is also a fun fair. And several shooting ranges; you could have a go in Hollywood Shooting or Western Frontier Village, where you can take the “Gun Maniac Course” for $110, firing any six different weapons with twelve rounds each. And quite a few strip clubs, including 4Play and Foxy. Walking alone one night, a hawker trying to drum up business for his joint near the Westin inadvertently summed up the whole vibe by calling out to me: “Hey, man. We have everything you need right here: tacos, guns and strippers.”
Another quirk of Guam is that it is by far and away the world’s biggest consumer of spam; though spam has been popular throughout Micronesia since World War Two, Guamanians eat as much as 16 cans per person per year. You can get everything from spam fritters to spam onigiri (two thick slabs either side of a ball of rice, all wrapped in seaweed). Coincidentally, there is also a high obesity rate.
Despite its corporate America away-day feel, there have never been that many US tourists in Guam, about 60,000 a year or roughly 1% of those who go to Hawaii, and it is too soon to know what will happen to these numbers since North Korea’s ire has cranked up. Soon after Kim Jong Un threatened to create “an enveloping fire” around the island, President Donald Trump rang Governor Eddie Calvo, who subsequently released a transcript of the call on his Facebook page.
Trump: “I have to tell you, you have become extremely famous all over the world. They are talking about Guam; and they’re talking about you.” And when it comes to tourism, he added: “I can say this: You’re going to go up, like, tenfold with the expenditure of no money.”
Calvo agreed: “It’s a paradise. We got 95 per cent occupancy and after all this stuff calms down, we’re going to have 110 per cent occupancy.”
Trump: “You just went to 110, I think.”
In fact, Guam has an occupancy rate of about 80%. In any case, about 1.5m foreigners do come here on holiday every year: approximately 750,000 from Japan and another half million from South Korea.
Guam is 50km long and never more than 20km wide, and while large by standards of the region, it doesn’t take long to drive around, not least because two-thirds is inaccessible, and there really aren’t that many sights to detain you along the way. There are plenty of places to rent a car.
Just north of Tamuning with good views back over Tumon Bay is Two Lovers Point, which is widely marketed locally and is basically a viewing platform on the cliff edge just beyond one of the hotel wedding chapels. Near here is the Micronesia Mall.
The next bay south is Agana. It is much quieter than Tumon, served by a not very good Sheraton. Another 10km farther south still is Hagana, the capital. Its main attraction is the Sengsong Chamorro Village with its collection of stalls that comprise the night food markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The top local dish is kelaguen: marinated chicken or raw shrimp. They also love BBQ here; try the beef brisket (wet or dry) at Asu Smokehouse. Behind here facing the gorgeous green sea up on a plinth is a novelty replica Statue of Liberty standing just 2m tall.
Beyond here is a collection of government buildings called the Governor’s Complex. Behind them on a cliff with panoramic views all the way up and down the west coast is the Latte of Freedom. Lattes are two-piece stone pillars that the Chamorros for centuries erected as the foundation of traditional buildings and that style was copied for this 25m tall concrete structure which opened in 2010. It has an observation deck where a plaque declares its purpose to be “to stand boldly as America’s Western gatepost from Asia and the Pacific Rim”.
A scenic road runs around the south coast, passing through several pretty villages, beside some lovely beaches, and up numerous hillsides offering great views. On the east coast are two heavily promoted restaurants: McKrauts (German, popular with locals, excellent bratwurst, basks under the slogan “not healthy but tasty”) and Jeff’s Pirates Cove (sic; popular with Asian tourists).
Guam is in the part of the Pacific known as Typhoon Alley. The season runs from September to February, though the country is in a constant state of Condition 4 Readiness: that destructive winds could occur within 72 hours. There are also active volcanoes.
If mainstream US holiday resorts, if populated mostly by Asians, are not your thing, then there is not that much for you in Guam, though we found it a good place to recharge on the beach and reconnect with the world between trips to more exotic spots in Micronesia. Its very oddness is itself entertaining for a few days, and the combination of Stealth Bombers and threats from North Korea certainly adds piquancy.