Former capital of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, Saipan (pop. 62,392) is the current capital of the Commonwealth. This small island (14 mi/22 km long and 5 mi/8 km wide) is modern and somewhat overbuilt, but its marine sports, excellent golf courses and active nightlife draw visitors (primarily Japanese) year-round.

The island is a jumble of Micronesian, Spanish, Japanese and U.S. influences. The western side of the island is given over to tourists, and the islanders protect their privacy on the eastern side. Each of Saipan's eight towns has a different feel from the others. Chalan Kanoa, for example, has a Spanish feel, yet it has Japanese Shinto shrines, and the people use traditional Micronesian water cisterns. By contrast, the largest town, Garapan, on Micro Beach, feels as if it were Tokyo's Ginza dropped on the Jersey Shore of the U.S. You'll find Tiffany's or Chanel next door to karaoke bars with Asian "hostesses." (The government has cracked down on street prostitution, fearing the tarnishing of Saipan's image as a family resort.) In seaside Garapan, you'll find a few historical sights. Visit the old Japanese prison, the red sugarcane locomotive (once used for hauling cane to the sugar mill in Chalan Kanoa), the bell tower and the ruins of a Japanese hospital. Also worth a visit are the two botanical gardens and the Saipan International House of Prayer, crafted in Japan and brought to the island (we found it incredibly peaceful). You can also go windsurfing on Micro Beach and swimming at the Blue Grotto. (Ask residents about the unusual tides before swimming in the grotto.)

With various battle shrines scattered about and rusted U.S. tanks still stuck on the beach, Saipan has been the focus of pilgrimages by both U.S. and Japanese war veterans. Banzai Cliff is where many Japanese families, some pushing their children before them, committed suicide rather than be captured at the end of World War II. At nearby Suicide Cliff, hundreds of Japanese soldiers plunged to their deaths rather than surrender. A visit to both of these cliffs is a moving experience, especially in the presence of Japanese visitors mourning relatives.

We enjoyed the drive along Beach Road to see the beautiful scenery along the western coast. Excursions can be made to Bird Island and Managaha Island. Both islets have good spots for swimming, diving and snorkeling, and Managaha's lagoon is littered with war wreckage: planes, ships and guns. Also on Managaha are some Japanese guns used for coastal defense and the grave of Chief Aghurub, an important Chamorro chieftain. If diving and snorkeling are not among your passions, then take advantage of the commercial submarine Sirena. 65 mi/100 km north of Rota.

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