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The Mariana Islands were lightly inhabited by the Chamorro people back in the 1520s when Magellan rocked up and claimed them for Spain. The Spanish sold the islands to Germany in 1899; the Germans lost them 20 years later to Japan; and the Japanese didn't fare much better, violently relinquishing their hold on the islands to the USA during WWII. Now, the Northern Mariana Islands are a territory of the United States, while the Japanese happily flock to the islands as tourists (after Guam, Saipan is their most popular destination). Meanwhile, the Chamorro have been more or less drawn out of the picture, so there is little cultural authenticity in the Marianas. But the photo-taking, scuba-diving travellers who spend their holidays here are not particularly disturbed by this fact. Saipan's and Tinian's collection of WWII wreckages make for extraordinary diving - that and the lush coral aquascapes.
The first European exploration of the area was that led by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who landed on nearby Guam and claimed the islands for Spain. Three days after he had arrived, Magellan fled the archipelago under attack - a portentous beginning to its relationship with the Spanish. The islands were then considered by Spain to be annexed, and therefore under their governance, from the Philippines, as part of the Spanish East Indies.
After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and sold the rest of the Marianas (along with the Caroline and Marshall Islands) to Germany. Japan declared war on Germany during World War I and invaded the Northern Marianas. In 1919, the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations, awarded the islands to Japan by mandate.
Near the end of World War II, the United States military invaded the Mariana Islands on June 15, 1944, beginning with the Battle of Saipan, which ended on July 9 with the Japanese commander committing seppuku (a traditional Japanese form of ritual suicide).
After Japan's defeat, the islands were administered by the United States as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands; thus, defense and foreign affairs are the responsibility of the United States. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence, but instead to forge closer links with the United States. Negotiations for territorial status began in 1972. A covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the U.S. was approved in 1975. A new government and constitution went into effect in 1978. Similar to other U.S. territories, the islands do not have representation in the U.S. Senate, but are represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate (beginning January 2009 for the CNMI) who may vote in committee but not on the House floor
The Northern Mariana Islands, together with Guam to the south, compose the Mariana Islands. The southern islands are limestone, with level terraces and fringing coral reefs. The northern islands are volcanic, with active volcanoes on Anatahan, Pagan and Agrihan. The volcano on Agrihan has the highest elevation at 965 metres. Anatahan Volcano is a small volcanic island 130 kilometres north of Saipan. It is about 10 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. Anatahan began erupting suddenly from its east crater on May 10, 2003, at about 6:00pm. It has since alternated between eruptive and calm periods. On April 6, 2005, large quantities of ash and rock were ejected, causing a large, black cloud to drift south over Saipan and Tinian.
These islands have some great diving and reefs to explore. There are 18 dive sites to explore including the famous Grotto, voted the second best cavern diving site in the world by Skin Diver Magazine. Also scattered around the island are several World War II relics, including several B-29 bombers, Japanese bombers and sunken ships. Remember there are a lot of unexploded ordinances in the water making it smart to follow the policy of look and don't touch. For people that are not dive certified snorkeling and Sea Walking are also options. Sea Walking is a good and safe option for people that want to go 3 meters deep but are not dive certified.
Relax on some stunning white sand beaches. The beaches are also a good place to do other activities as well. Such as jet skiing, wind surfing or parasailing. Remember that some of the beaches can get very crowded during the Japanese, Korean and Chinese national holidays.
Tired of eating in every night? Check out the ocean at night by taking a dinner cruise. Most of the cruises include good food, live music and dancing. This is a great way to see an amazing sunset over the island. Here is a list of companies that offer dinner cruise service:
The biggest festival on the tiny island of Tinian takes place during two February days on Tachogna Beach. Many of the most talented singers on the Northern Mariana Islands entertain the visitors, who can sample homemade dishes prepared by some of Tinian’s most gifted cooks. The festival’s highlight is the hot pepper eating competition where participants battle to see who can best handle Tinian’s famous donni sali hot peppers. The Katdun Pika Cooking Competition awards prizes to the cooks who prepare the most delicious dishes using this unique ingredient.
No Micronesian beach volleyball event has been held for more consecutive years than this February competition between some of the world’s finest beach volleyball players. Professional and amateur beach volleyball players arrive from throughout the United States, South Korea, Japan, and as far away as Italy. The event also features exhibition matches, beach volleyball clinics, and raffle tickets.
This Rota festival may rank among the most recent on the Northern Mariana Islands, but it already ranks among the island’s most popular events. San Isidro Fiesta, a celebration of Sinapalo’s patron saint, coincides with this four-day mid-March festival for the sweet potato. Visitors can attend a two-day workshop on the care and growing of this humble vegetable or watch a cooking competition determining the tastiest sweet potato dishes on the island.
The central ball field at the American Memorial Park is the location of this celebration of food and kites held each March. There are three categories purchased kites can win, three categories for handmade kites, and two more awards both purchased and handmade kites can win. All competing kites must remain in the air for at least five minutes. The festival also features face painting, carnival games, and plenty of food.
The Saipan Fishermen’s Association sponsors this Saturday annual fishing competition held in mid-April. Each year, more than 100 fishers depart from Smiling Cove Marina in about 30 to 40 boats on early Saturday morning, returning with their catches in early evening. Anglers come from throughout Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to win prizes in up to five different categories.
This three-day Sususpe Civic Center beachfront festival centers around the bright red flame trees in full blossom around Saipan in late April. This festival is also a showcase of the best Northern Mariana Islands dance troupes, musicians, visual artists, and food vendors.
Each May, Saipan’s American Memorial Park hosts this popular food and drink festival for three Saturday evenings in a row. In addition to the wide array of food Saipan’s leading hotels and restaurants prepare for the occasion, the festival also features bartending and cooking competitions as well as music from performers from across Saipan and the world.
On the Northern Mariana Islands, Christmas is a month-long celebration beginning on December 1, when a huge Christmas tree with beautiful lights is unveiled along the Paseo de Marianas. Schoolchildren take part in costume and float competitions. Tents are set up for games, food, and entertainment each Saturday leading up to Christmas. A mochitsuki festival dedicated to Japanese rice cakes is also held on December 22.
The climate on the Northern Mariana Islands is characterised by tropical conditions with little variation regarding temperatures, and a distinct wet season. Average daytime temperatures hoover around 29 °C and the highest recorded temperatures are just a few degrees at most islands. At night, temperatures drop to a balmy 23 °C with a record low of 19 °C at Saipan! The wet season last from July to October, with August and September seeing the most rain. During December to May, conditions are much drier but occasional downpours during the late afternoon are still normal. During the wet season, tropical storms and even cyclones are a real possibility.
Saipan International Airport (SPN) in the capital is the main gateway to Northern Mariana Islands. There are direct connections with several Asian countries. From South Korea, there are flights from Seoul and Busan with Asiana while from Japan, there are direct flights with Northwest Airlines from Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.
On top of the regular flights, there are many seasonal charters from China (Air China from Beijing, China Eastern and Spring Air from Shanghai and China Southern from Guangzhou) and Taiwan (EVA Air from Taipei).
Saipan, Rota and Tinian all have harbor facilities for yachts.
Renting a car is great option of getting around Saipan which has a fairly extensive roadnetwork and relatively few cars. Most roads are tarred as well. This also applies to most roads on Rota and Tinian, although some back roads might require you to rent a 4wd car. You can rent cars at the respective airport or major towns and hotels. Traffic drives on the right and your national driver's licence (in English) or an international driving permit is required.
Shuttle buses travel between major towns and hotels. There are no scheduled passengers services and taxis are very expensive but abundant.
There is a ferry between Tinian and Saipan taking slightly less than an hour one way.
The same visa waiver program as for the United States applies, though also visitors of Taiwan and Hong Kong are added to the list.
Additionally, the Northern Mariana Islands (along with Guam) participates in the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program. This program allows visa-free entry up to 45 days for citizens of Brunei, Malaysia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan (only on non-stop flights from Taiwan), & Hong Kong provided they have a valid passport, proof of return/onward travel, and is only valid to those arriving on commercial, scheduled flights. Citizens of some countries that are eligible for the federal Visa Waiver Program—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, & the United Kingdom—are also allowed entry under the Guam-CNMI VWP and may enter under either program. Travel to other regions of the US outside CNMI & Guam under the Guam-CNMI V.W.P. is not allowed. Residents of Hong Kong must present a valid HK permanent identity card and are allowed entry with either a Hong Kong S.A.R. passport or British National (Overseas) passport. Residents of Taiwan must present a valid R.O.C. National Identification Card in addition to an R.O.C. passport. Citizens of Russia are eligible for parole (essentially the same as visa-free travel) to enter the Northern Marianas Islands (but not Guam). Because of differences in entry requirements, a full immigration check is done when traveling to/from Guam.
Note that people from the following countries, can not enter the Northern Mariana Islands at all (so also no visa is granted whatsoever):
Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Fujian Province of China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Details about the above and more information about applying for a visa, check the Marianas website.
See also Money Matters
The US Dollar, or "greenback", is the national currency of the Northern Mariana Islands. One dollar consists of 100 cents. Frequently used coins are the penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢) and quarter (25¢). 50¢ and $1 coins also exist, but are rarely used. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are rarely used.
U.S. citizens can work freely without needing a permit; however citizens of most other nations need a permit from the Department of Labor. Most businesses prefer to employ Filipinos, and also citizens of Thailand, China, South Korea and Bangladesh.
Northern Marianas College is Saipan's community college option, and they have satellite campuses on Tinian and Rota. Public and private schools are also available for children from preschool age to high school.
English is the official language and universally spoken, but 86% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, including the native languages Chamorro and Carolinian. Basic Japanese is also spoken by many in the tourist industry. Tagalog, Chinese and Korean are also used widely.
While all American and Japanese favorites are readily available, local Chamorro food (or touristy versions of it) is also offered in speciality restaurants. Filipino, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Italian and Mexican dishes are also widely available. Most of the hotels have expensive but good quality restaurants, especially Hyatt Regency in Garapan, Aqua Resort in Tanapag, Pacific Islands Club in San Antonio.But you can also find good quality restaurants not only in hotels, one of this is : "The Coffee Room N-106" in Garapan. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and Winchell's Donuts are all available.
Saipan's accommodation options are concentrated towards giant package hotels. Rack rates are often ludicrous but heavy discounts are available, especially outside the Japanese holiday seasons. Cheap motels are few, hostels are nonexistent, and camping is not recommended due to security concerns. Options are even more limited on Tinian and Rota.
The main beers available in Saipan establishments are Budweiser and Miller products, usually sold in bottles only. However, a few places do serve Fosters or Victoria Bitter on tap, and a few have Miller Lite on tap as well. Other brands widely sold are San Miguel (Philippines), Tsingtao (China), Sapporo (Japan, bottled in Canada), and Corona (Mexico). Plenty of stores on Saipan have low-priced, good quality wine available, and there are plenty of harder drinks as well as mixers available everywhere.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to the Northern Mariana Islands. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B and tuberculosis are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccinations, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
People have reported their cars being broken into in Saipan's tourist areas, and some people have also had their apartments or hotel rooms burgled. Don't leave valuables lying around and use common sense when walking around tourist areas, especially at night. That said, Saipan is safer than a lot of other destinations, with muggings and other violent crimes against tourists being extremely rare.
Natural hazards include active volcanoes on Pagan and Agrihan, and typhoons (especially August to November).
Internet access is widely available. The top level domain for the Northern Marianas is .mp.
See also International Telephone Calls
The Northern Marianas are part of the North American dialing plan. The country code is 1, and the local area code is 670.
Mail is handled by the U.S. Postal Service; the state code is MP and the postal code is 96950. The main post office branch is in Chalan Kanoa, other branches are in Capitol Hill as well as Tinian and Rota. Most hotels can send mail for you. DHL and FedEx also offer courier services.
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