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Going gaga in Guam.

I REMEMBER the first time I was invited to visit Guam. It was about two years ago, and the invitation was from Cebu Pacific (www.cebupacificair.com), which, at the time, had just included in its route the United States territory in the Pacific and was eager to promote its service to the leisure market around these parts.

Swamped with deadlines and not altogether too keen on leaving one tropical environment for another, I passed on the offer to Gianna Maniego, a dear friend and a fellow journalist who's been my travel buddy on not a few lifestyle-oriented media junkets. At the time, she had just begun her weekly column for BusinessMirror, and I've always been predisposed to visiting, preferrably in the fall/winter months, places that look as far removed from what my daily reality has been for half a century now: sunshine, heat, humidity and tropicana aesthetics. Hong Kong versus Bali, Indonesia? No contest: It will always be that former colony of the British Empire south of mainland China.

Late-November the Guam Visitors Bureau (www.visitguam.com) and Cebu Pacific, which has emerged as the country's largest airline after upending the local travel industry with compelling value offerings, partnered once again to bring members of the lifestyle media to experience what Guam has become known for: a tiny dot on the map where people go to escape for a long weekend and take advantage of the territory's duty-free status and outlet stores stuffed with merchandise at ridiculously low prices. Yes, a shopping destination that can rival that shopper's paradise known as Hong Kong.

When I received the invitation from Cebu Pacific, and notwithstanding the fact that I'm the least emotionally equipped person to bring to a shopping spree, I said yes.

After an early-morning flight that took some five hours, give or take, we arrived in Guam, and it felt-to me at least-like we hadn't really left the Philippines. The sun was out and blazing, coconut trees everywhere were dancing in the wind that mercifully somewhat diffused the the tropical heat, and there was a smattering of Filipino voices overheard that were not from our party. Which, then again, should surprise no one: not only is the Philippines one of Guam's six major toursim markets, but Filipinos also comprise nearly 30 percent of this US territory's population of 173,000.

And a US territory, it is: you would have to secure a US visa to visit Guam, and that would cost you a hell lot more than a pretty peso-and which, by the way, doesn't guarantee visa approval, just an interview at the US Embassy. If luck is on your side, you're granted a visa that gives you entry not only to Guam but also to the US mainland; a few in our party were given a 'Guam Only' visa, which still is obviously better than being roundly denied and seeing those few thousands of hard-earned money amount to absolutely nothing. It's a sticking point that representatives from the Guam Visitors Bureau acknowledged over a luncheon with the media group, and they continue to be in discussion with various agencies of the US government on the matter.

Our home for the duration of our Guam visit was the Sheraton Laguna Hotel on the territory's western shore in Tamuning, the hotel rising off the shoreline into a massive modern pyramid-like structure, a sight to behold from afar and no less impressive within. Modern and efficient, all the rooms feature balconies that afford spectacular views of the sea, the island and also the hotel's man-made lagoon and infinity pool. But what truly delighted me were the twin beds, which had a gentle firmness that was good for my bad back. Nonetheless, they also had an incredible dreamy softness, and we felt blissfully coccooned whenever we retired for the night.

The hotel has several F and B outlets, including The Point, a classy lobby lounge that offers some devilish cocktails to enjoy with piano music (their mojito with a sprinkling of Splenda was so good, we easily finished off three glasses); La Cascata, where we had a sumptuous breakfast throughout our stay; and Bayside BBQ, where we had dinner one night enjoying not only the all-you-can-eat Chamorro-style barbecue but also a Chamorro dance show. (More mouthwatering meaty delights can be had at Churrasco, a Brazilian steakhouse and salad bar on Pale San Vitores Road in Tumon where you're given round red and green cards as a visual guide to the service staff on whether you want more of the meaty goodness or you're done; you won't be able to resist chunks of the scrummy Alcatra de Pimenta or Peppered Top Sirloin Steak.)

There are many other things to be enjoyed in Guam, not the least of them being popular tourist spots and attractions, including the truly show-stopping Las Vegas-style show at The Sandcastle, also in Tumon, with tigers, acrobats, dancers and magicians/illusionists, and which has been voted as 'Guam's No. 1 tour'; and Taotao Tasi, a cultural dinner show and sensory sensation replete with unlimited scrummies, drums, singers, fire dancers and some unnerving/exhilarating swordplay, staged in Gun Beach, Tamuning.

Decidedly quieter tours include the Adventure River Boat Cruise at the Valley of the Latte, which will have you traveling down the languid Talofofo and Ugum Rivers while a guide provides a lively telling of bits and pieces of Guam's history, culture, people and wildlife, with a stop for lunch at a living Chamorro village with an enchanting botanical garden and demonstrations of centuries-old traditions in basket weaving and canoe making; and a visit to the T. Stell Newman Visitor Center at the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, which doubles as a bookstore and an interactive museum that tells the story of Guam's role during the years of the last world war. The large black-and-white photos of death and devastation wrought by Pacific Theater of World War II were a sobering reminder that, beyond people, Guam and the Philippines shared the horrors of that ugly time in history. The best way to get out of the somber mood that a trip to the T. Stell Newman Visitor Center invariably brings is, of course, to plunge right back into what makes an increasing number of tourists drawn to Guam: shopping.

While not exactly like Hong Kong, where everywhere you turn is a shop-'til-you-drop madness begging to happen, Guam does have clusters of retail havens that attract tourists and everybody else with pricey luxury merchandise and global brands at outlet-store prices. On our first day, while I stayed at the hotel to do a bit of editing, everybody else in our group made the trip to Tumon, where there's a concentration of retail therapy whatever your budget, from the upscale (Tiffany and Co., Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Bally, Gucci, Dunhill, Coach and so on) to your garden-variety labels (LeSportsac, Gap, Levi's, Cole Haan, etcetera). I did join the shopping tours to Ross, Micronesia Mall, Macy's and Kmart, the last bearing the distinction of being the biggest Kmart in the world-and open for 24 hours every single day of the year.

No, that's not a typo: 24 hours.

'Who shops at three o'clock in the morning?!' I asked with no small measure of incredulity when I first learned of the 24/7 operation.

On our last day in Guam, I was incredulous no longer as I waited in the long cashier line. I had nothing more than a nice 2018 wall calendar, a pair of walking shoes, wireless earbuds and two 200-piece bags of Snickers mini bars for my purchase. We had arrived a little before 10 pm the night before, and it was already 1 am. People, young and old, locals and tourists alike, were still streaming into Kmart.

Good-bye, incredulity.
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:1U0GU
Date:Jan 10, 2018
Words:1412
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