The end is near! With 962,266 lifetime flight miles, there were only a few things left that I wanted to do before making Million Miler. The United Island Hopper being one of them. With five stops in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia, UA Flight 154 is often considered to be the ultimate #avgeek trip-of-a-lifetime, that is until and unless you’re crazy enough to sign up for it twice.
My day started at around 7am (island time) in Honolulu. I know that sounds pretty early, but it was a surprising reprieve given the completely inhumane 5:35am departure I experienced on my first island hopper adventure. No clue why the plane leaves later now, but hey, I’ll take it. I flew out to Honolulu the day before, as one should do to catch the island hopper, then headed to Waikiki, rented a paddle board and spent much of the afternoon catching waves; by no means the worst way to spend an 18 hour layover. The view of Diamond Head at sunset enjoyed with a Kona brew in hand didn’t exactly suck either.
My first stop after leisurely checking in at HNL was Starbucks to grab some food. As a previous island hopper survivor, I knew this was pretty important. Food on the plane is sparse. There are other words to describe the food, but if you’ve ever had a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich paired with airplane coffee you know where this could be headed. Trust me. Go to Starbucks!
Boarding was rather uneventfully but I did happen to notice the large collection of United logo bags the mechanic sitting in 7c had on board with him. Of course as everyone already knows the island hopper always travels with a mechanic and I’ll let your imagination run wild as to reasons why. There’s also a relief crew of pilots seated in row 1.
I was seated a little further back in 29A. I can explain. When I booked my tickets lets just say there were some discrepancies on united.com regarding aircraft configuration. My itinerary showed a 737-800, however the seat map only had enough rows for 737-700. Three phone calls to United did little to clear up that mystery and seatguru.com didn’t really help either. Why care? I knew from unfortunate experience that there is a window missing in economy plus and it moves depending on which aircraft you’re on. Out of the seats what were left available I didn’t want to chance it. It turns out I made a good call. 737-800. Row 11. The only thing worse than spending 14 hours in economy, is spending 14 hours in economy (plus) without a window, especially on this flight. Row 29 turned out to be good choice though. It was far enough back to get a good view without a lot of obstruction, but I still snapped some good wing shots for ThirtySixThousand. I also ended up with an awesome new friend seated in 29B.
We took off from the reef at HNL, and after a few turns we were on our way out across the Pacific on another adventure.
Centrally located approximately 2,000 away from Hawaii, Japan, and Australia, the Republic of the Marshall islands redefines the middle of nowhere. Either that, or it’s the center of the Pacific Rim’s Universe. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. At 5 hours in, the first sight of land as we approached Majuro literally took my breath away, for a second time. Long narrow fringes of land extend to the horizon, encircling vibrant blue lagoons.
The Airport in Majuro is strategically placed on a section of atoll just wide enough to accommodate a runway. The length of the atoll however is a different story. After two times now flying into this place, I still haven’t determined exactly how big it is, but I’m pretty sure the answer is huge.
After several hours spent at altitude in an environment kept just above freezing, deplaning in Majuro was like stepping into a sauna. I was also pretty excited about stretching my legs. There’s a big sign welcoming you to the islands that you can take a picture with, and a small lounge for transiting passengers. Among other things, they sell beer there.
If for whatever reason you decide to not get off the plane, you get to participate in the security ritual, where everyone on one side of the plane moves to the other and has to identify their bags. Don’t worry about missing out on this though; unless you have a written note from the U.S. government, everyone on board gets to play at the next stop.
Upon decent into Kwajalein an announcement was made kindly asking us to not take any pictures as it is still an active US military base. Funny, how I missed that announcement the first time, but I’ll take that to mean I probably shouldn’t be posting that shit on the internet. Luckily there’s Google for that.
Shortly after my first island hopping experience I remember sitting next to a rather drunk man on the plane between Guam and Manila. He told me about how used to be a private contractor at Kwaj, and that he’d lived on the north side of the atoll. “It’s beautiful there,” he said, crying into his beer, seemingly pining to go back like a character straight out of LOST. It was a little weird.
I initially had the same impression though. Kwajalein was incredibly beautiful. I don’t know if was that magic time of day or particles left over from former nuclear testing, but I swear the island sparkled. Lush green grass, gentle trade winds blowing through the coconut trees. The place looked like a freaking park. It certainly did not seem to be the most sinister place in paradise. Quite the opposite in fact.
My second impression was a little different. When we landed, I noticed the green grass was now brown, perhaps an indication that it hadn’t rained in a while, and from my perspective sitting on the other side of the plane, I saw that the paint was peeling on some of the government structures. What before had seemed almost dreamlike now appeared to be very real.
Of course there’s more to Kwajalein Atoll than just the military base that occupies Kwajalein Island. The atoll is one of the largest in the world, made up of several smaller islands and a lot of coral reef. A short ferry ride away (or I guess a long walk at low tide) is the settlement of Ebeye, where about 15,000 people live on an area that’s roughly 80 acres; by all accounts a stark contrast to conditions on the military base. However, I don’t really know for sure. It’s not exactly the easiest place to visit. Maybe someday…
Another funny thing I noticed about Kwajalein is that nobody really likes to talk about what goes on there. Again, there’s Google and Wikipedia. Once the venue for one of the most famous World War II naval battles, it has since been used primarily for anti-ballistic weapons testing. It’s location in the middle of the Pacific also makes it prime real estate for both the military and private companies like SpaceX to launch all sorts of stuff, having a choice between polar and equatorial orbits. Kwajalein is a pretty fascinating place.
If you like short field take offs and landings, the second half of the island hopper is for you. #Avgeek tip of the day- if you’re wondering how long a runway is there’s an easy way to find out. Have you ever noticed the big black square signs with numbers on them out on the tarmac? They indicate the length of remaining runway, in thousands of feet. Add both sides of the sign, multiply by 1,000, and there’s your answer. I didn’t count one longer than 6,000 ft. and the internet confirmed it. Buckle up.
The first of these really short runways is on the small island of Kosrae, Federated States of Micronisia (FSM). On days that the island hopper skips a certain island, this is the one. Famous for the “sleeping lady” mountain formation and some of the sweetest tangerines in the world which after two trips I still haven’t been able to get my hands on, that’s pretty much it.
The quaint little open air terminal where I spent 40 minutes on the ground last time has been “upgraded” to a drab cinder block holding cell; not among the changes that I like, but at least it was air conditioned.
Out of the three stops in Micronesia, Pohnpei looks to be the true gem. If there was one place I’d really like to spend more time aside from the Marshalls, this would be it. From the air it’s reminiscent of a Mo’orea or a Roratonga- a beautiful, lush, emerald green aisle surrounded by a turquoise lagoon and a barrier reef. There’s Nan Modal, an ancient city made up of such large monoliths that local legend states a dragon might have moved them there, and beautiful Kepirohi Waterfalls; Two things definitely worth going back to see.
Pohnpei has the nicest terminal of all the stops, indicating a relatively fair amount of tourism compared with the other islands. Sadly the vintage Continental Micronesia poster I’d fallen in love with on my first trip had been ripped off the wall, but there was an interesting poster about shark tourism. I normally try to avoid them, but apparently there is thriving industry propped up by those who want to go swimming with the creatures. Who knew?
While we were all standing around I was engaged in conversation by one of the pilots. Nice guy. “So where are you headed today?” Me: “Guam” “Why not the direct flight?” “I don’t know, this one seemed more interesting,” I responded with an awkward smile. He kind of shrugged non-judgmentally and somehow seemed to have got me. “Ok”. Despite having just been successfully outed as an #avgeek, I passed on the opportunity to ask any aviation related questions and instead we talked about surfing. Pohnpei is home to P-pass (Palikir Pass), a legendary reef-break and Micronesia’s answer to Teahupo’o and Cloudbreak. “Yeah, it was right under my approach,” one of the other pilot chimed in. “WORLD. CLASS.” I take it he would know. Even though he’s Guam-based, he still keeps two boards in Honolulu. While I wouldn’t exactly use the terms tube ride and barreling when describing my own surfing prowess, I guess there’s always that to live up to someday.
The island(s) of Chuuk are the final stop before Guam. That’s right, islands…lots of them! All clustered together inside of a huge lagoon framed by perhaps the most gorgeous barrier reef of them all. On my last island hopper adventure, I think I got the best photos of the trip here as we descended through a batch of rainbows towards the airport. The lagoon below is filled with all sorts of interesting stuff left over from another famous World War II battle. Unsurprisingly a lot of people come here to wreck dive. This time instead of rainbows, there was just rain, and the cool dive map from the airport which I was looking forward to checking out again, also ripped off the wall. In other news, the infamous airport motel appears to have undergone renovations, however I still don’t think I want to stay there.
Yay! Finally! Don’t get me wrong, the island hopper is about as much fun as you can have sitting for 14 hours in economy, but it’ still…14 hours in United economy (best case scenario domestic first if you’re so inclined). After landing in Guam, it took about 2 minutes to clear US Customs, I caught a cab to the Hyatt, and was on the beach just in time for sundown. It was nice to finally get my toes in the sand, after having been teased for much of the day. The water was as warm as a bath, and getting to swim in the Philippine Sea was the best reward I can think of after a long day crossing the Pacific.
Next week I go back to Guam, this time on the direct flight. I don’t anticipate anything interesting happening. Let’s hope for the best. Shortly thereafter, I’m taking my entire family to Australia, and somewhere out over the Pacific, between Sydney and San Francisco, I’ll become a Million Miler.
As I think back on this most recent trip, The Marshall Islands stands out as one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever been. The delicately placed ribbons of land stretched across the Pacific as far as the eye can see has had me spending a lot of time in contemplation of the geopolitical climate that would make somebody think it was a good idea to blow up a nuke in such a serene paradise. I mean the place is stunning. With an economy now largely propped up by US foreign aid and the rent we pay for use of Kwajalein, I can’t help but wonder what makes one coral atoll in the middle of the ocean more worthy of a Park Hyatt or an Intercontinental than another. The people there are certainly among the nicest I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s the former nuclear testing, but then that argument doesn’t really hold up given the case of French Polynesia, where the powers that be there also decided it was a good idea to blow holes in the reef. What if the likes of Emirates or Etihad flew here? I mean, what’s so special about the Maldives? (I guess I’ll let you know when we visit there in October). Perhaps, just maybe, though, certain places are best left untouched and off the map, only to be served 3 times a week by United Airlines.