© By Robert W. Bone
Colonia, Yap, Federated States of Micronesia --
Divers know Yap, I found out recently -- at least those
ones with the freedom to indulge their sport to the
fullest. They've been going there for years.
"Sure. You just fly from Hawaii to Guam and turn
left," one scuba devotee said. "Great place; beautiful
"The mantas are awesome," said a younger man.
"And the girls aren't bad either," he added with a
I had touched down at Yap a couple of times in
travels through Micronesia, but never left the plane
there until recently. I recalled reading in an old
National Geographic something about large, heavy stone
money with holes in the middle. I vaguely wondered how
that would pay for a gin and tonic, and whether the
change would come in small perforated pebbles.
Now in the 21st century, and in contrast to some
other places, Yap has definitely not gone all out
for tourism, and that low-key approach to the industry
is certainly part of its charm. It's a place with strong
cultural traditions, however, and an apparent
willingness to share this with travelers who take Yap
the way they find it.
Some find it startling right from the outset. You
may have read about South Seas islands where travelers
are met by smiling young women, dressed only in grass
skirts and nothing at all above the waist. In most
places in the world, that has now been relegated to the
mists of history.
But not in Yap.
The Yap Tourist Bureau often sends out a couple
of young women to the airport in just that sort of
traditional garb. After clearing Customs, tall newcomers
bend down to receive the garland of flowers around their
necks, and many manage to mumble a heartfelt "thank you"
before straightening up again.
Those colorful skirts are full and thick, by the
way. Right-minded Yapese ladies
think it’s disgraceful to show a hint of thigh.
all women in Yap run around bare breasted. Yet do you
see them now and then, and not just while in costume.
Soon enough, it just becomes an ordinary part of the
The men present their own unique picture, when
you realize that many seem to be carrying purses. These
turn out to be woven baskets, the principal purpose of
which is to hold betel nuts and their associated
accouterments -- usually powdered lime. Given the
opportunity, many Yapese will chew this mildly narcotic
mixture all day long, turning their mouths bright red
and converting nearby waste baskets or any convenient
bushes into colorful spittoons.
There turns out to be plenty to do in a few days
in Yap. Diving, snorkeling, and fishing are tops, of
course. The giant mantas are a protected species, and
underwater tours will guarantee you will see lots of
them. There's a dive site called Manta Ray Valley,
which is a "cleaning station" for hundreds of these
large, gentle beasts. Here they present themselves to
tiny fish called the cleaner wrasse. It's a classic
symbiotic relationship in which the wrasses pick
annoying parasites off the skin of the mantas.
Some mantas fly through the water with wingspans
of 12 feet or more, flirting with each other and the
divers who invade their domain. In contrast to other
places in the world, the mantas of Yap have no season.
They can be found here dependably all year long.
Divers count hundreds of species of other fish in
other areas, and debates run among them as to whether
they see more varieties or greater overall numbers in
Yap as opposed to Palau, an island 250 miles to the
south of Yap. Both are now considered among the very top
dive sites in the world.
includes a few ruins left over from World War II, when
Yap was occupied by the Japanese. It was bombed several
times, but U.S. invasion plans in 1945 were eventually
cancelled. After the war, the entire Seventh Fleet was
anchored for a time in the lagoon, near the Yap island
The island of Palau figures prominently in the
history of Yap, and as a result, so does a colorful
American trader who ran things hereabouts for nearly
three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth
century. A popular book, "His Majesty O'Keefe" published
some years ago outlines the story. It was later made
into a cinematic potboiler starring Burt Lancaster.
According to most accounts, David O'Keefe of
Baltimore was shipwrecked on Yap, where he was nursed
back to health by a local shaman, and then discovered
the way to literally make money on Yap.
For hundreds of years, Yapese sailors had been
sailing over the treacherous route to Palau to bring
back to their chiefs a tribute from a product which does
not exist on Yap -- large pieces of shiny calcite. These
they quarried on Palau, and then carved into round
pieces, with a hole in the middle to make it easier to
carry. In time, these raai, as they are called, came to
be thought of as of money.
The heavy pieces may change ownership from time
to time, but they are seldom physically moved. Everyone
knows who currently owns a particular raai. For
day-to-day expenses today, though, Yapese now use the
O'Keefe discovered that he could persuade the
islanders to harvest the lucrative copra (dried
coconuts) and then-coveted beche de mer (sea cucumbers)
in exchange for his transporting raai on much larger and
more reliable ships than the canoes the Yapese were
using. A flamboyant character, O'Keefe became rich, and
dominated the economy of Yap until he disappeared in a
storm at sea in 1901. The ruins of his house on a small
island are now a tourist attraction.
There is talk of buried treasure on O'Keefe's
island, but locals in a position to know much about it
remain mum on the subject. The remains of O'Keefe's
trading post, however, have been turned into a popular
bar in the town of Colonia, the seat of the state
government. (You can buy a copy of "His Majesty O’Keefe"
And as far as the raai are
concerned, they can be seen all over the island today,
often lined up in "banks" along stone pathways in the
villages throughout Yap.
They’re worth money, all
right. But none are for sale.
IF YOU GO
Yap, one of four states in
the Federated States of Micronesia, can be reached from
Hawaii via jet service on Continental Micronesia (known
as "Air Mike"), a subsidiary of Continental Airlines,
via Guam. Hawaii-Guam flights are daily, 8 hours elapsed
time; Guam-Yap service is currently twice a week, one
hour elapsed time. (Frequent flyers may notice that the
three-letter airport designator for Yap is the only one
that spells out the entire name of the place.) A valid
passport is required.
There are a half dozen
comfortable hotels on the island of Yap (also known as
Yap Proper), notably Traders Ridge Resort (http://www.tradersridgeresort.com),
the Pathways Hotel (http://www.pathwayshotel.com), the
ESA Bay View Hotel (http://www.esayap.com)and the Manta
Ray Bay Hotel (http://www.mantaray.com). There is only
one hotel on the primitive outer island of Ulithi, the
well-managed Ulithi Adventure Resort (Falalop Ulithi,
Yap, FSM 96943, email: email@example.com).
Ulithi is reached from Yap Proper via Pacific Missionary
Aviation. It is known as the home of a large turtle
More information on Yap
can be had from Continental Micronesia, phone (800)
591-6599, (http://continental.com), Continental Airline
Vacations (800) 555, (http://www.coolvacations.com) or
from the Yap Visitors Bureau, Colonia, Yap, FSM 96943,
phone (691) 350-2298, website