Guam on down!

The famous greeting meets visitors as they walk through and out of the airport into the bright Guam sunshine.

What's in Guam, you ask?

Perhaps you have heard of its sandy beaches, golf courses and profusion of shopping outlets. Yet because we, Filipinos, have the same kind of places here, we have hardly considered vacationing on this island located in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

We think: we have giant malls everywhere and commercial clusters constantly sprouting up in our neighborhoods. As if those were not enough, we spend a weekend in Hong Kong or Bangkok for more shopping and dining adventures. For golf destinations and beaches - well, need we fly elsewhere than our own islands?

Guam, however, offers a unique brand of adventure. Historical and cultural similarities with the Philippines aside, this fifth territory of the United States grew and developed with its own personality - one that has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

A report from the Guam Visitors Bureau says: "More tourists visited Guam in 2015 than any other year in the history of tourism on Guam. With a recorded 1,409,033 visitors landing on Guam to enjoy our gorgeous sunsets and white, sandy beaches, 2015 shatters the old record of 1,381,513 set in 1997."

And Filipinos are starting to arrive in droves. "While Guam's second largest market of Korea saw an increase of 25.6 percent, arrivals from the Philippines shined bright with a 125.2 percent spike over the previous year," a GVB report on March 2016 arrivals says. "The boost in arrivals from Guam's neighboring country can be attributed to the launch of Cebu Pacific Air's flight service to Guam, as well as continued support of flights from United Airlines and Philippine Airlines. GVB's Research Department also released its updated Philippine visitor profile, which shows travelers from Guam's growing market generally are older, affluent, married and have a primary mission to shop tax-free in Guam."

Cebu Pacific now flies four times weekly to Guam. At the route's inaugural ceremonies last March 15, Alex Reyes, general manager for the long haul division of Cebu Pacific, said that with their airline's fares lower to as much as about 80 percent than others, Guam has become accessible to more Filipinos today.

And because it is only three and a half hours away by air, it is now possible to fly to Guam for weekend jaunts with family or friends!

More 'pun' in Guam

A 'punny' thing happened on our way to Guam. Our travel group made up of mostly of wordsmiths, it became an exercise of pun-slinging - even the corny suggestions eliciting groaning laughs all around.

Did we find Guam "Guamazing?" Were there "Guamamelas and Guammi bears" around? One thing is sure, fans of either Guam of Thrones or Bubble Guam will find something to do in this island paradise. After all, as first-timers among us discovered, Guam is not quite one expects.

First impressions? We, Filipinos, will immediately feel at home because of the weather similarities, but we will certainly notice how fresh the air is and how less frenetic it feels compared to Metro Manila. We might even say it is like some of our regional cities, but for the kind of dining and shopping choices we will see around.

Guam is as Western as any US territory can get, yet uniquely set in its traditional ways. It has a proliferation of hotels and glitzy resorts, entertainment hubs and shopping destinations - most of them a stone's throw from wondrous nature.

Any time is a good time to go because the weather is placid most of the time - December to June is dry season, while July to November are rainy. Just like the Philippines, the coolest months of the year are January and February. Anytime you choose to visit, you will find something to thrill and maybe even amuse you.

Strange yet so familiar

There's a carabao named Betty at the Chamorro Village, and she is ready to pose with you for just a dollar.

Those of us who are familiar with this farm animal will likely be amazed by other factoids that will remind us of our own history. Just like our country, Guam was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan and colonized in 1565 by Gen. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The island was subsequently ruled by Spain from its government hub based in the Philippines. It was also colonized for 300 years, and so Catholicism is strong, but was later ceded to the United States by Spain.

In the centers of commerce, it may appear as if little of the territory's ethnic culture remains. The Chamorros, Guam's indigenous people, settled the island approximately 4,000 years ago. The Chamorro culture shares similarities with other indigenous cultures in Micronesia.

The population of Guam consists mostly of Chamorro, followed by Filipino, white and other ethnicities. Food in Guam, then, is just as interesting a mix of culinary traditions. Not to be missed are the barbecues, whether in the popular Jamaican Grill, beach-side dinner sorties complete with cultural show, or in the Chamorro Village, a must-visit every Wednesday, where stalls hawking local fare are set up for those who get hubgry or thirsty or hot during souvenir shopping.

Japanese tourists reportedly flock to Guam to shop, play golf and go diving or fishing. The place is a thriving tourist destination - tourism, in fact, is its top industry, GVB says - and no wonder: all those things combined make Guam the unique place it is.

As GVB itself declares in its website, "Whether you're looking to experience a thrilling adventure on land or at sea, unravel 4,000 years of intriguing history, shop for the latest fashion and trends, taste our famous chicken kelaguen and red rice, or just wind down beneath some shady palm trees, Guam is waiting for you."

Tax-free shopping galore

If you are a shopaholic with luxury in mind, Guam presents a coterie of your upscale friends, from Chanel to Cartier, Gucci to Bottega, Louis Vuitton to Marc Jacobs, among so many more. In other words, you don't have to go to Europe or mainland America to find these objects of desire, but just jump on a plane and be there in three and a half hours.

If it is a bargain your prefer, whether for high-end goods or for kitsch, you can hie off to those most American of commercial hives, Ross Dress for Less and Macy's. They have outlets and mall galore in Guam.

If you want even more bargains, there is K mart, open 24 hours, or the al fresco markets for arts and crafts, souvenirs and odds and ends at the Chamorro Village. All tax- free. And they call it "relaxed shopping" since the malls are, typical of Guam architecture, low buildings with manageable spaces.

Some of the best places to shop are Guam Premier Outlets (GPO) and Micronesia Mall in Tamuning, T-Galleria Mall and Tumon Sands Plaza in Tumon.

Before you fill up those bags, however, you may want to sate your mind with stories of this multicultural oasis - their legends and a history that sounds so much like ours, but not really.

And, in between, fill up your tummy with all kinds of international fare, from Brazilian jerk chicken and ribs to Japanese sushi, Filipino comfort food to Western or Continental flavors. Guam is a haven of bold flavors, and its barbecue - fresh off the grill - is not to be missed.

Other things to do

Come May 18 to 21, Guam will host the Pacific Asia Travel Association or PATA Annual Summit 2016, with the theme "Exploring the Secrets of the Blue Continent." This will be held at the Dusit Thani Guam Resort in Tumon.

Speaking of Tumon, GVB's Mark Manglon, marketing manager, Philippines and Russia Markets, says this area has best beaches for swimming and snorkeling.

In Guam's Tamuning, meanwhile, are must-see sites like Two Lovers' Point, which offers a great view of the ocean and a love story, to boot.

Guam's capital, HagAtAa, is ideal for fishing adventures. Also located in the city is Fort Santa Agueda and Latte Stone Park, which are historical and cultural sites.

How to get around

Taxis are readily available at key points. Free shuttle buses from hotels to malls and back are also ideal transport as they are touristy and convenient. One may also hire private transportation. Visit www.visitguam.com for more information and itinerary tips.

Source: Tribune