Island Hopping in Micronesia

20 March 2014

Oceania. Preparing for my Pacific travels, I tried to get a better mental map of these dozen, scattered island nations, plus many territories and dependencies. Other than Hawaii and Easter Island (Rapa Nui), I'd not visited any Pacific islands.

For starters, I needed to stop calling it all the "South Pacific" because a huge part is north of the equator. "Oceania" or just "Pacific Islands" are better overall terms, no matter how deeply ingrained is the old title from Michener echoed by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Based on geography, culture, linguistics, archeology, DNA, and ethnic appearance, Oceania gets divided into three regions:

Micronesia (a band mostly north of the equator, east of Philippines);

Polynesia (the triangle reaches up to Hawaii but most islands are in the classic South Pacific);

Melanesia (south of Micronesia and north-northeast of Australia).

These three groupings are widely accepted, but not everybody agrees on the exact boundaries so they debate placement of borderline islands like Nauru and Fiji. And a few people want to treat the continent of Australia as if it were a Pacific island and thus part of Oceania, but let's not.

So how do I begin to explore this vast area? My plan is to spend time in a few island countries each year, or, in other words, do some periodic "island hopping."

My United 737 Island Hopper at Chuuk in route
to Pohnpei then on to more islands and atolls.
Island hoping. Flying around Polynesia can be tricky, sometimes requiring either long flights via Auckland or unreliable, amateur airlines with dicey planes and bad schedules.

However, happily, across the U.S.-linked islands of Micronesia, a couple of days each week United flies its "Island Hopper" route with a comfortable Boeing 737. It was ideal for my journey.

United transports tons of tourists nonstop to its hub in Guam from eight cities in Japan (and that tells you how much Japanese visitors dominate Micronesia) as well as from Honolulu, Hong Kong, Cairns, and Manila.

United's "Island Hopper" and other Micronesia routes

So I took advantage of probably the most efficient, pleasant island hopping route I'll ever get in Oceania. (This map of my four destinations omits short stopovers at islands where I stretched my legs at the airport.)

My Micro Trio
The three independent countries along my route ― careful not to confuse the country of (Federated States of) Micronesia with the larger region called Micronesia ― have far more in common than I knew when I bought my tickets.

All three countries...
  • were under Spanish rule followed by German rule;
  • were taken by Japan in WWI when Japan sided with the good guys;
  • thus were under Japanese rule for three decades not just in WWII;
  • were the scene of major battles during WWII;
  • were next US administered as a Trust Territory until independence;
  • became independent not long ago (1986-94);
  • are among the smallest and least populated countries on earth;
  • are members of the United Nations;
  • use the US dollar as their currency;
  • use English as an official language;
  • grant the US exclusive military access;
  • and, in return, are the only sovereign countries that are "associated states" with the US (under COFA, the Compact of Free Association) whereby the US provides
    • all national defense,
    • economic assistance,
    • full access to various US domestic social welfare programs,
    • no visa requirement to travel, work, or live in the US,
    • and too many other surprising odds and ends to list here.

Adding the US territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas makes this region the biggest contiguous cluster of American-oriented islands in the Pacific beyond Hawaii, even if, as I came to find out, the tremendous throngs of Japanese tourists are having an impact.

 Country   Population   GDP pc   Density
per Sq Mile
 Guam (US) 163,000 $15,000 830 209 541
 Palau   21,000     8,500   46 177 459
 Micronesia (FSM)   101,000     2,300 410 271 702
 Marshall Islands   56,000     2,900 886   70 181

Guam, the US territory, is more populated and more affluent by far than the three countries nearby. And, despite the many similarities in the bullets above, little Palau is doing much better economically than are the two countries to the east (and that helps explain why Palau declined to join the Federated States of Micronesia). It is in Palau where I start my island hopping in Micronesia. See next post.

Seldom visited Nauru and Kiribati are also often included in the region called Micronesia but they are not on United's route. See the map below. I visited Nauru and Kiribati in 2015.

Island Hopping in the Pacific