Saipan is the largest island in the Northern Marianas, a U.S. Commonwealth territory in the West Pacific near Guam (also part of the overall Mariana Islands chain). Saipan is also one of the most rapidly growing islands in the Pacific, due to unique immigration laws and tax status. No-one on Saipan pays Federal income tax and the island controls its own immigration (something the Bush administration has been trying to change since 09-11-01, despite the fact the suicide attackers had never been to Saipan).

The island of Saipan itself is divided into villages, the largest of which are Garapan, Chalan Kanoa and Susupe. Other villages include Tanapag, San Roque, Puerto Rico, Navy Hill, Chinatown, Gualo Rai, Chalan Kiya, San Jose, Capitol Hill, San Vicente, Koblerville, Kagman, and As Lito. The largest ethnic group on island is thought to be Filipinos. Other groups include Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Micronesians, mainland Americans, and Bangladeshis.

The original inhabitants of the Marianas, the Chamorros, are thought to have arrived by boat from the Philippines over a thousand years ago and lived peacefully as a hunter and gatherer society until the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. While the Europeans were on the shore some islanders snuck on board the ships and helped themselves to clothing, food and tools (in exchange for basic supplies the Spanish helped themselves to on shore). This prompted Ferdinand Magellan, leader of the expedition, to name the islands "Islas De Los Ladrones", meaning, "Islands Of Thieves" and to claim the Marianas for Spain, leading to the question - who were the REAL thieves?

While the Spanish were in "control" of the islands (a convenient stopover point between Spain's other colonies in Mexico and the Philippines) they forced everyone to convert to Catholicism and to adopt Spanish names, native names being too dificult for the colonial masters to pronounce. In order to keep a closer eye on everyone, the colonists made everyone suffer the further humiliation of packing up and moving to Guam, leaving behind their ancestral homelands. While the Chamorros were off in the southern island of Guam, the northern Marianas were resettled by people from the Caroline islands.

Eventually in the late 1800s Spain, as a result of the Spanish-American War handed Guam over to the U.S. and the Northern islands of Saipan, Tinian, Rota and some smaller uninhabited islands over to Germany. Most Chamorros were permitted to move back to their home islands but a lot of ownership records had been destroyed, adding to the confusion (a similar incident happened after the islands had been handed over to the Japanese in the early 20th century). Land ownership disputes, especially between Chamorros and Carolinians, are still pretty common to this day.

The main business district of Garapan (called "Little Tokyo" during the Japanese administration because of the shrines, bathhouses and restaurants) was almost completely destroyed during World War 2 but rebuilt during the subsequent American administration (Saipan was used as headquarters for the U.S.-administered U.N. Pacific Trust Territory). Saipan, Tinian, Rota and the Northern Islands opted for U.S. Commonwealth status during the 1970s and currently use American currency, stamps, telephone area codes and zip codes (670 and 96950-53, respectively) and the American judicial system (administered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco).

The largest industry on the island is tourism, Japan being the major market and bringing in thousands of tourists and millions of yen per year. After tourism is the (controversial) garment industry, importing cloth and workers from China and exporting the finished products duty-and tax-free into the U.S. Mainland, to be sold at Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy stores around the country (complete with "Made in U.S.A." tags).

There are some great diving spots nearby, including The Grotto, a huge limestone cave that leads out to the sea. There are plenty of colorful coral reefs around as well as artifacts from the Battle Of Saipan (submerged tanks, airplanes and the like). Golf is immensely popular with many of the Japanese and Koreans who come here on vacation. Saipan is also a popular wedding and honeymoon destination. Another popular pasttime is tandem sky-diving, parachuting onto a baseball field while surrounded by blue sea, clear skies and some of the most steady weather in the world (Saipan made the Guinness Book Of Records a few years ago for just that, temperatures rarely if at all exceeding 77-88 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the reason many Japanese film crews come down to the islands in the winter!

Nearby Tinian island is where the Enola Gay bomber took off for Japan (the loading pits for "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" as well as the airstrips are still viewable, that is when the U.S. Military aren't using the northern half of Tinian to practice invading Afghanistan, etc.). Tinian is also home to a brand-new casino and four star hotel, built by Chinese investors. Aviator Amelia Earhart was thought to have been last seen in the area as well. DHL founder Larry Hillblom lived and died here, setting off some legendary court battles as to who controlled his estate - his relatives, the government, or the dozens of young, barely legal women in the Philippines and Thailand he allegedly impregnated (just remember that next time you're shipping a package).

Here's my list of things to see and do on Saipan:

Best Hotel: Hyatt Regency
Best Resort: Pacific Islands Club
Best beach: Micro Beach or the tiny Managaha island nearby
Best diving: The Grotto
Best way to have an adventure/meet people/get drunk for under $10.00: Saipan Hash House Harriers(
Most expensive drink: Guinness, $7 a can
Best restaurant: Serena ("Continental" cuisine, assuming that does not refer to airline food), Hotel Nikko; Capricciossa (Italian), La Fiesta Mall;
Thai Spicy Noodle House(Thai), near PIC
Best Buffet: Magellan Room at PIC or Aqua Resort Club
Best bar: Hamilton's bar and restaurant, Sam's for live music and food or VFW Post for cheap beer.
Best coffee shop: Coffee Care (great menu and ambience!)
Best (and only) dance club: GIG Disco
Best (and only) movie theater: Hollywood Theater Complex, near Price Costco
Best (and only) bookstore: Bestseller, Joeten Plaza, Susupe
Best theme bar: Hard Rock Cafe, in the DFS Mall
Best shopping: DFS Mall, Garapan
Best day trip from Saipan: Tinian
Best view: Mt. Tapochau

Sources: my own personal experiences (I've lived on Saipan 3 years) and the stories of others

Further reading: (no, I don't agree with everything there, but there's a couple of good points)

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