There's a story, possibly apocryphal, about a federal drug agent who was stationed on a tropical island near Guam -- and every time she called headquarters back in D.C., the conversation would begin like this.
"I'm calling from Saipan. Yes, we have an office there. Because it's part of America."
Indeed, Saipan is part of America -- it's the most populated of the Northern Mariana Islands, an insular chain with a complicated history that became administered by the U.S. after World War II, and has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1978.
Indeed again, as everyone who's lived there can tell you, most mainland Americans don't know any of that. Regrettably, the ones who do are probably aware of the island -- which is in Micronesia, just north of Guam, south of Japan, east of the Philippines and west of Hawaii -- due to its tainted reputation stemming from a political scandal involving a certain Texan who later appeared on Dancing With The Stars.
Certainly, life on a tropical island has problems, as does life anywhere. Sometimes, like with that dancing Texan, it's just that the problems are a little more unusual.
But know this: at least in Saipan, you'll experience those unusual problems in a setting that is quite spectacularly beautiful, with beaches, scuba diving, golf, festivals, hiking, history, wildlife (some of which has been eaten into near-extinction, much of which hasn't), still more beaches, a charmingly weird mascot and year-round temperatures in the 80s.
Development is heaviest along Saipan's coast, as you can see in this aerial view by Mark D. Robertson
A spot called Forbidden Island, which, despite the ominous name, is a favorite for local hikers. Photo by Mark D. Robertson
Bird Island is another hiking destination. Photo by Mike Ronesia
Speaking of birds, here's a beautiful kingfisher. This is not one of the species that's been nearly cooked out of existence. Photo by Leslie Ware
Every spring, Saipan's flame trees bloom bright orange -- these were captured at a place called Suicide Cliff by local photographer by Leslie Ware.
The name in this case is apt; it's one of two cliffs from which Japanese civilians and soldiers -- many of whom had lived on the island before the war -- jumped to their deaths in 1944, rather than be captured by American troops.
Artists and dancers from all over Micronesia come for the yearly Flame Tree Festival.
Athletic folks are known to enjoy a sunset paddle. Outrigger canoeing is a traditional activity in the Marianas; in fact, it's thought that these islands were first populated by long-distance canoers. Photo by Mike Ronesia
Not many people get to see Saipan this time of day. Mark D. Robertson
took the photo at sunrise.
Other early risers like to golf. Yes, this is one of Saipan's oceanside golf courses. That's right, we said one of. Photo via My Marianas
For the more relaxing sort: This is Managaha, a white sand beach-fringed island a short boat ride away from Saipan proper. Photo by Mike Ronesia
There are also big resorts for people who prefer to enjoy the tropics with a lot of comfort. Photo Flickr
A government map will give you an overview. And allow you to judge for yourself what some say, which is that Saipan, beautiful as it is, is shaped a little bit like Godzilla. Photo: WikiMedia
Saipan's underwater world is rich and amazing -- because of this, plus warm water and great visibility, the scuba diving is superb. Photo by Mike Ronesia
Seriously superb. This is called the "bait ball."
But, hey, it's winter. We know what you are really after right about now. Photo by Mike Ronesia
And more beach. Photo: WikiMedia
Oh, no, it's getting to be time to leave. Better take one last boat trip. Temperatures in Saipan, by the way, are remarkably steady year-round, generally in the 80s. Flickr
Beautiful? It's not everyone's cup of tea
. But we've got a real fondness for Saipan's mascot, the Saipanda, which we like to think is as quirky and charming as the island itself. You can pick up Saipanda souveniers at the airport. And for those flying back to the mainland, you've got quite a haul ahead of you; it'll take you about $2500 and one full day to get back to the East Coast. Photo: Wikimedia
Thanks to photographers Mark D. Robertson, Leslie Ware and Mike Ronesia for your photos.