Saipan Is the Most Beautiful U.S. Island You May Not Know

By: Suzie Dundas  | 

Saipan
Isleta Maigo Fahang (Bird Island) is just one of the many stunning vistas off Saipan Island in the Northern Mariana Islands. Yuri Smityuk/TASS/via Getty Images

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Saipan. It's part of the Northern Mariana Islands commonwealth of the United States, in the western Pacific Ocean. That puts it at least 5,900 miles (9,495 kilometers) away from the continental U.S.

Truthfully, almost no one in the world had heard of Saipan until World War II — though its history goes back more than 3,500 years. A 2013 study published in American Journal of Human Biology suggests that Saipan and the Mariana Islands were inhabited well before most other Pacific Ocean islands. That means humans were already building a society on Saipan more than 1,000 years before ancient Egypt's Cleopatra was born.

So what else don't we know about Saipan, one of the most remote places on the planet you can visit without needing a passport (if you're a U.S. citizen, of course)?

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1. It's Beautiful

Think about everything that makes Hawaii so stunning: white-sand beaches, epic hiking through jungles and fantastic ocean views. Now subtract around 90 percent of the tourists and that's Saipan. The Marianas (including Saipan, Tinian and Rota) received almost 425,000 visitors in 2019. By comparison, the islands of Hawaii welcomed approximately 10.5 million — more than 20 times as many travelers in the same year. That leaves a lot of empty beaches for travelers willing to trek to the remote islands of the Pacific.

Saipan
In this aerial image, debris of the United States M4 Sherman tank remains at shallow water off Chalan Kanoa beach in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands.
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

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2. Saipan Is a Giant Volcano

Like the Hawaiian Islands, Saipan was formed millions of years ago by an underwater volcano. The pressure of two tectonic plates pushing against each other eventually caused a volcanic eruption, and over time, the buildup from repeated eruptions formed an island. Eventually, floating coral larvae became stuck on the island, piling up to create a coral reef.

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3. The U.S. "Won" the Island During WWII

Though Saipan's history goes back thousands of years, it didn't play a role on the global stage until WWII.

Rule over the Mariana Islands jumped from country to country starting in the mid-1600s. The first country to occupy the island was Spain, which ruled the island from 1565 to 1899, though the U.S. took control after the Spanish-American War. It eventually fell under Germany control from 1899 to 1914, but then was taken by Japan during WWI, which saw it as a barrier to foreign invaders from the East.

During WWII, the U.S. and Allied forces invaded, and the Japanese lost the nearly monthlong Battle of Saipan. The U.S. occupied the island and installed a military air base there, which became a turning point in WWII. Having a base so close to Japan meant the Allies could fly the U.S. Army's long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers to strike Japan directly.

Battle of Saipan
American troops land on the beaches of Saipan Island during the Battle of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, June 1944.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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4. You Can Snorkel on Military Relics

As with most battle sites, post-conflict cleanup wasn't top of mind immediately after one side laid down arms. Near Saipan, the U.S. left several Sherman tanks in the ocean just offshore. Complete with gun turrets, the tanks are still sitting in about 10 feet (3 meters) of water in the reefs off the island's southwest coast, easy for exploring and diving.

But the tanks aren't your only option for historical scuba diving or snorkeling. Along Saipan's underwater WWII Maritime Heritage Trail, divers will find two sunken Japanese airplanes, two U.S. airplanes, various merchant ships and several landing vehicles (that apparently didn't do their jobs very well). There's also the wreck of the 500-foot-long (152-meter-long) Shoan Maru, a Japanese naval ship that sits in only about 30 feet (9 meters) of water. Though intrepid divers may want to instead poke through the "junk" at the underwater WWII trash pile, which includes pieces of airplanes, Jeeps and whatever else the Navy didn't feel like carrying home.

Shoan Maru
Archaeologists are surveying a sunken auxiliary vessel, presumably the torpedoed Shoan Maru, on the Maritime Heritage Trail, Battle of Saipan in Tanapag Lagoon.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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5. The Chamorro Are the Indigenous People

The word Chamorro is derived from the name of the island's last ruling family before the Spanish invasion. The Chamorro language is very similar to the languages spoken on South Pacific islands populated by peoples from Southeast Asia, leading linguists to believe Saipan's first inhabitants also came from Southeast Asia (Malaysia, likely). It's a matriarchal culture with its own myths and origin stories, values and cuisine. Many of the best Chamorro dishes are very similar to Malaysian dishes, like kelaguen (similar to ceviche or Tahitian poisson cru) and pancit (seafood noodles).

Chamorro
A village scene depicts the difference in caste through body language and building structures of the Chamorro people from the late 1600s.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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6. Saipan Is Part of Micronesia

The Northern Mariana Islands (which includes the 14 islands of the Mariana Archipelago; Saipan is the biggest) are officially called "the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands" and are a U.S. territory. That, along with Guam and the Marshall Islands (both U.S. territories); Palau; the 33 islands of the Republic of Kiribati; the Republic of Nauru (the world's smallest republic), and the Federated States of Micronesia, make up the region of the world known as "Micronesia."

Nesia means "island," thus "Micronesia" means "small islands." Polynesia, which generally includes the islands in a triangle shape around Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, means "many islands." Melanesia includes everything else that you probably thought was part of Polynesia: the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, New Caledonia (part of France) and Vanuatu. Melanesia means "black islands," or islands of darker-skinned people, in reference to the darker skin tone of many of the island's inhabitants.

Micronesia
Saipan and the Mariana Islands are part of Micronesia.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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7. It's Close to the Deepest Point on Earth

Saipan is relatively close to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth. To reach the ocean floor, you'd have to travel more than 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) below the surface (for reference, Mount Everest is just over 29,000 feet [8,839 meters]). Despite the complete lack of light, insanely high pressure and freezing cold water temperatures, some animals are able to live in the trench's depths. Some of the alien-like creatures who live in the mysterious chasm include the "Benthocodon Jellyfish," goblin sharks and the ominously named "zombie worm."

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