Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Enjoying Palau

We have been in Palau for 3-4 weeks now. I have been really remiss in not posting, but we just been so busy!!

We have settled in at Sam's Tours--one of the most yacht-friendly non-yacht businesses we have encountered in 7 years of cruising. For $35 we joined the Royal Belau Yacht Club (essentially based at Sam's), which entitles us to use the dinghy dock, trash disposal, hot water showers, secure bike rack, AND get a 10% discount at dive shop and the bar/restaurant. We joined on arrival, and have contracted for a nicely-maintained mooring for $50/mo.

Sam's is primarily a dive operator, but they also arrange eco-tours, etc. They are incredibly busy in the mornings and late afternoons. But once the divers are away in the dive boats, by about 9:30 in the morning, it is a great place to hang out. The managers and helpers--when they aren't overwhelmed by their diver-handling duties--are incredibly friendly and helpful. They have already several times gone out of their way to help us out.

The anchorage is in a nice setting--we are essentially in one of Palau's quirky "Rock Islands" and surrounded by nature, in a fairly protected (but deep) location. It has fairly clear water, and is swimable. In fact there is a cave dive (Chandelier Cave) located right next to the mooring field, and in the late afternoons, there are 2-3 dive boats hanging outside the cave waiting for divers to return.

They speak Palauan and English here, and use the U.S. dollar as their currency. When Americans check in on their boats, they are asked, "How long would you like to stay?" other words, like the Marshall Islands, no visa hassles. (not so for non-Americans, unfortunately).

Sam's/RBYC is also a secure and easy place to have mail packages sent. Like the Marshalls, Palau has a U.S. Post Office zip code, and so you can have mail sent from the U.S. via USPS. Priority Mail packages don't cost very much to send, and they get here normally in a week to 10 days.

We have been hearing about the grocery stores here ever since we started reading up on Palau. There are 3 big stores, well stocked with both American and world-wide goods. There is a fairly large Asian contingent in Palau, so lots of small Asian stores as well. Due to the flourishing tourism business, daily flights bring daily replenishment of the veggies. So there seems to always be reasonably fresh-looking broccoli and lettuce on the shelves, and usually some decent tomatoes.

There are also two American brand hardware stores here... a Do-It-Best and an Ace, both well stocked.

There are several restaurants within easy walking distance of the anchorage, and "town" is a $5 taxi ride away, with a few more restaurants. So between eating out and eating in, we've been eating quite well!!

"Town" is, unfortunately not in easy walking distance of the anchorage. At high tide you could get there by long dinghy ride, but there are no dinghy dock facilities there. The alternatives are a $5 taxi ride each way (for up to 4 people), bicycles, or hitch a ride with Sam's on their morning run to pick up divers from the hotels. We have unloaded the folding bikes we bought in Hawaii (for the first time in 3 years!), and have been using them for getting around. Our friends on Carina bought a pair of bikes from another cruiser who was leaving. Jerry on Challenger bought a bike from a local store for about $150. The rest of the cruisers here have been carpooling with taxis, or occasionally walking. (Usually you only try to walk once, then you take an air-conditioned taxi).

We have great pay-as-you go internet in the anchorage. But the downside is that it's not cheap, and it's very slow. With the booming tourism business here, the internet pipeline is not adequate to accommodate the number of people trying to connect. In the middle of the day, even with a strong wifi signal, you are lucky to get a fairly complex page like Amazon to even complete loading. Forget trying to download ANYTHING bigger than 100Kb.

There seems to be no magic way around the speed issue, except to get up and do your internet business in the middle of the night. For this, the worst internet service we've had since the Marquesas, we pay about $1.25 per hour (via $10 for 7 hour scratch-off cards). If you buy your scratch-off cards in bulk (10 at a time), the price comes down to $8 per 7 hours. Due to the slow speeds, even getting up at 6am to do my surfing, I burned through $80 in a week, and have contemplated going on a monthly plan at $175 per month (unlimited time)! This is one reason I haven't been blogging or Facebooking much! Not only is it expensive, everything on the internet takes 2-5 times longer to complete.

I have heard that the Palau government is trying to upgrade their internet trunk line, but I haven't heard any hard dates, so it's probably "not this year". So we are stuck with the situation until we move on to the Philippines in September. I've heard the internet is better and easier there.

Another downside to Palau is that everything in general is a little pricey on a cruiser's budget. This is due to Palau being a tourist destination, plus being way out in the Western Pacific. It's not quite as bad as French Polynesia, but similar to Hawaii and big-city-American prices. The prices wouldn't be shocking for someone flying in from the U.S., but with the very cheap Philippines just over the horizon, some of our cruiser friends are complaining. Some examples... meals out are $7-25, with around $8-10 the norm. Liquor is probably the worst--there must be some hefty liquor taxes here. The cheapest bottle of wine you can find in a grocery store (what would be a $4 bottle in the U.S.) is about $12. We have yet to find any boxed wine. The cheapest beer we have found is $1.05 per can, and that's Milwaukee's Best or Japanese Asahi. They have a local micro-brewery that brews some really nice beer, and that's $1.75/can. Hard liquor is outrageous--the cheapest most rot-gut vodka is about $25 per bottle (what would be $5-7 in the U.S.), and everything else is more expensive.

A third major downside to Palau is that non-American visitors are only given a one-month visa, and then must extend monthly at about $100 per month per person. So our non-American cruising buddies are only staying a month and then moving on to the Philippines.

It seems like everyone on this cruising route is heading for the Philippines. The cruiser grapevine says that, if you avoid the bad spots (like Zamboanga, a hotbed of Muslim separatist activity), it's a great cruising destination and very inexpensive to cruise, and to get work done on your boat. Somewhat like Venezuela was before it (recently) got so bad.

This is long enough... I'll stop here and get this off before I get re-prioritized. I promise to fill in some more in the next few days.