If you’ve never heard of Kosrae, it’s not surprising.
It’s the easternmost of the 607 islands dotted across a million square miles of ocean that make up the Federated States of Micronesia (called simply, FSM). It truly is in the middle of nowhere …. 2,800 miles southwest of Hawaii, 1,500 miles east of Guam and a scant five degrees north of the Equator.
Though many islands in this part of the world are flat atolls, Kosrae (pronounced ko-shrye) has tall, serrated mountains and looks like a mini Hawaii or Tahiti. It’s tiny, shaped like a triangle and barely 15 miles across at its widest. But it also has to compete with its better known cousins, Palau, Yap and Chuuk (formerly known as Truk).
The very fact that most people miss Kosrae is why it’s special. Untouched. Unspoiled. The kind of place you say, “Gee, wish I had gone there 20 years ago;” except 20 years ago is now.
There’s a story dating back to WWII that says it all. Back at the end of the war, when the occupying Japanese force was ordered to kill the locals, the soldiers warned them instead, then mingled with them so nobody would consider shooting. Wander into someone’s yard and you risk being invited to dinner, or at least being showered with food to take home.
Heck, even the feral cats here are friendly.
Admittedly, Kosrae is not easy to reach … nine hours on the United island hopper jet from Hawaii. But remoteness is what preserves Kosrae’s charm.
You don’t come here to lie on the beach … there isn’t much, frankly. And you don’t come to do the latest pseudo adventure … no ziplines, no downhill bike rides. Or to shop … not a single craft shop on the island. What you do here is scuba dive, immerse yourself into the culture. And meet the locals.
Jet-to-Boat in 30 Mintutes Flat
Okay, you won’t be able to do this many other places, if any.
Arrival jet to dive site in 30 minutes.
Customs took 20 seconds and a guy from Kosrae Village Ecolodge was waiting for me. We grabbed my hand luggage (only carry-on with mask and minimal gear … someone else picked up my suitcase) and took off for the dock.
Half an hour later, scuba gear on, I watched the jet that brought me take off for the next island.
And I have the photos to prove it.
The Coral Garden
Our plan one afternoon was to try and find some giant plates of coral I had seen growing among the roots of mangrove trees in Kosrae’s Utwe Biosphere Reserve. This is a massive protected mangrove and underwater park in Kosrae.
Coral growing among mangrove roots. Really? We absolutely had to go find it to dive, or at least snorkel.
On a rising tide, we carefully edged the Kosrae Village Ecolodge shallow draft catamaran through the shallows and began our search. Up and down we went, but no plates of coral.
However, by the mouth of a channel where tides bring swift currents and nutrients, we found a coral garden … finger, castle and boulder coral, all in miniature and swarming with hundreds, maybe thousands of fish of every imaginable type. There were chromis in three colors, squirrel fish, pipefish, batfish and giant oysters the size of softballs.
I haven’t seen a spread like this since Irian Jaya, the other half of Papua New Guinea. It reminded me of the best of the Caribbean, circa 1970.
All in barely three to five feet of water. A snorkeler’s paradise.
Honestly, I often think snorkelers get the short end of the stick, not being able to dive down to the really good stuff.
But here, in shallow water, is a chance for non-divers to see what all the fuss is about.
We never did find those plates. But we stumbled on so much more.
Eat Like a Local
“The local women are out hunting slugs. Would you like to see?” an island friend asked me a day or two after I had arrived.
Game to try just about anything that is not still moving, I figured, sure, why not.
It was low tide and the two inch deep water seemed to spread forever, studded with coral rocks that had been worn smooth by countless waves.
Louisa Musrasrik was already part way out to a rise where the coral rocks, when submerged, form a shallow reef. The islanders walk these reefs from the time they are toddlers, so she, at 66, was sure-footed.
By the time I caught up, she had already found half a dozen round, shallow, cone shaped critters that sure didn’t look like any slugs I knew, but they could easily be pried from the rocks with your fingers.
“I cut them into tiny pieces and boil them for a long time.” Louisa said. “You need a crab, also. For flavor. Then I add coconut cream and a bit of salt.”
Then came the invitation I was waiting for.
“Come back this afternoon and you can eat some.”
And five hours later, we did return to a pot of creamy broth studded with tiny bits. They were a bit chewy but tender, like bites of calamari and thoroughly infused with the flavor of the coconut.
Other Local Foods
If you want it fresh and local here, forget anything except stuff from the sea. All other meats … beef, pork, chicken … are imported from the U.S.
So in my search for tidbits barely out of the ocean, I ate clams on the half shell, sponge innards, crab and, of course, fish.
I found Kenye Ismael and her sister sitting on a huge, horizontal mangrove tree root, digging in the wet sand at the edge of the shore one morning. Just inches down, there were dozens of clams the size of ping pong balls. Kenye would unearth one, wash it with fresh water, slit it open with her knife and squeeze on a bit of lime juice.
“That black stuff,” she said, pointing to a black collar on the raw meat, “is good for your stomach. It’s okay to eat.”
And so we did.
The clams were tender, slightly sweet and slightly salty, with a hint of the sea.
From here, I went to meet Ruth Skilling, who was calf deep in water under a concrete causeway dock sifting through eel grass for sponges, a local delicacy. The sponges … palm sized, knotted tubular things were everywhere.
Ruth split one open with a knife and deftly pulled out the beige innards, which we doused with lime so we could eat it on the spot.
The small ones are salty with a sharp aftertaste that lingers on the sides of your tongue. The large ones are definitely fishy … a bit like sea urchin roe.
As for the fish, of course, I had tuna sashimi every chance I could get.
But the best meal I had all week was something that looked to me a bit like yellowtail snapper and is what locals call rabbitfish. It had just been caught in a net. The cook at Kosrae Village Ecolodge pan fried it and served it with slices of lime.
Double, no triple yum.
What is That Furry Thing in the Fridge?
Well, most folks would recognize the husked coconut in the refrigerator of their cottage at Kosrae Village Ecolodge.
But over the years, enough people have asked, some slightly alarmed, that Katrina Adams and Bruce Brandt, owners of KVR, as the locals call the resort, have devoted an entire page in their welcome booklet to coconut knowledge.
That furry thing?
It’s a “drinking coconut.”
Coconut water, it turns out, is the Pacific’s answer to Gatorade. It’s full of electrolytes, digests easily and actually can be better for you than plain water if you need to replenish your minerals.
Inside the young coconut is the nearly clear “water” which, left to mature, will turn into the white coconut meat that people know.
On Kosrae, most young coconuts are gold. Inside is the hairy husk, which the locals can chop away in what seems seconds, but is way harder to do than it looks.
Once you get the hair off, you find three eyes. Puncture one, insert a straw and you are good to go.
And if you are lucky, the young coconut will also have a thin layer of meat that is soft and makes a great snack.
More coconut lore?
I grew up in South Florida eating coconuts and never knew about srimite, otherwise known as coconut endosperm.
It’s to a developing coconut what a yolk is to a growing baby chick … the source of nourishment for the young, growing plant.
When the coconut has turned brown and just begun to sprout is when the srimite forms. It’s white and sort of cottony, loaded with nutrients (one site lists potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, protein, sugar and of course, fat) and seriously tasty. It’s just about the first thing I ask for every time I return to Kosrae.
More Things to Do
There are plenty of other things to do on Kosrae. There are hikes to ruins, eco tours, a museum, a clam farm, a bird cave, this huge banyan tree that’s big enough for you to hike a trail through its roots, several killer waterfalls and a neat sunset cruise. You can go pig hunting if you prefer, or fishing. And, interestingly, don’t miss church, where the local women, dressed in white lace, sing four part harmony in their language. It is truly beautiful.
I did most of it (though not the pig hunt). And in a week, I still didn’t cover everything I wanted to do.
Though scuba diving is what draws many visitors to Kosrae, there’s plenty more to do. Here’s a rundown:
* Wiya bird cave where thousands of swiftlets cloud the sky at dawn and dusk.
* Sipyen Waterfall, where it’s likely you and your guide will be the only people enjoying the cool cascading water and its crystal clear pool.
* Kosrae State Museum with its brief history of foreign occupation of the island and models of traditional homes.
* Kayaking through any number of channels through local mangrove forests, including a guided tour by outrigger canoe with a jungle expert.
* Menka Ruins, a fascinating four-mile hike through the jungle to ancient ruins. The focus here is traditional medicine from local plants.
* Lelu Ruins, literally located behind a convenience store and easy to reach, this was the home of the island royalty from the 13th Century to the early 1900s. What’s left today are 20 foot tall walls of huge basalt stones, burial tombs, ceremonial pounding stones and signs to explain it all.
* Yela Forest, which encompasses 86 preserved acres of Ka trees, tall hardwoods used by locals to make outrigger canoes. The forest walk through 100-foot-tall trees with 50-foot-wide buttresses is breathtaking.
* Kava drinking, not a ceremony but a chance to drink this mildly stimulating stuff with the locals.
* Sunset cruise with Pacific Tree Lodge Resort on Thursdays.
* Fishing, which involves deep sea trolling with hand lines. Don’t laugh, one man caught a 300-lb. blue marlin.
* Home stay where you spend a night with a local family.
Except for fishing, which runs about $100 per person and diving, which averages $109 – $145 for two tanks and lunch, most tours cost between $2 and $50. – Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
There are three hotels used by tourists on Kosrae. All three have dive shops that offer dive packages, scuba equipment and nitrox:
* Kosrae Village Ecolodge & Dive Resort (KVR,) with nine traditional style bamboo and palm thatch bungalows just feet from the crashing surf; electricity and hot water, but no air conditioning (except for one cottage) or telephones. www.kosraevillage.com
* Pacific Treelodge Resort, with six rooms that have air conditioning. This sits at the edge of one of the most picturesque mangrove swamps of Kosrae with a boardwalk through the mangrove and an open air restaurant over a river. www.divekosrae.com/resort/
* Kosrae Nautilus Resort, with air conditioned restaurant and 18 rooms that have air conditioning, TV and telephone plus internet access. It also has a swimming pool and is across the street from a beach. http://kosraenautilus.com/
- Car rentals are available and there is an internet cafe on island. The island uses U.S. currency and U.S. electrical outlets.
- Average air temperature is 85 degrees, but with extremely high humidity. Average water temperature is in the low 80s year round. The trade winds blow November to mid-June, bringing cool breezes, but limiting scuba diving. Summer (July – Sept.) brings calm water, little wind and the best conditions for diving.
- United Airlines is the only airline serving Kosrae, via an island hopper from Guam or Hawaii, (www.continental.com) two days a week each way.
- For general information, contact Kosrae Office of Tourism, www.kosrae.com. — YC
For videos of island life on Kosrae, check out these videos:
A local boy playing his ukulele: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZSiYw8S10w
Local women singing four part harmony in church: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuVgHzP6enU
Kava drinking: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHgIuqG7f4c
Want to taste Kosrae yourself? Check out this delectable recipe for Mangrove Crab Salad Yvette brought back from Kosrae.