The Marshall Islands comprises over a thousand flat coral islands of white sand beaches and turquoise lagoons. There's pristine diving and lush tropical greenery, and the Marshallese people retain many of their pre-colonial crafts and traditions, especially on the outer islands.
You can still watch outrigger canoes zipping around the lagoons, though these days you're as likely as not to find a VCR in that little grass shack and Coke replacing coconut milk as many islanders' drink of choice - the Marshall Islands, like most of the Pacific, is getting in the pop culture loop.
The flipside to the paradise picture is that many of the Marshallese still struggle with the after-effects of the 20th century's nastiest technology. Several of the islands - the Bikini Atoll in particular - served as testing sites for atomic bombs through the 1960s, and many of their inhabitants have suffered from radiation poisoning, while their home islands remain too contaminated to be resettled. And yet, despite these hardships, you'll find the Marshallese exceptionally welcoming and their culture and identity alive and well.
Full country name: Republic of the Marshall Islands
Area: 70 sq km
Capital City: Majuro
Language: English, Japanese, Marshallese
Religion: Christian (predominantly Protestant)
Government: Constitutional government in free association with the US
Head of State: President Kessai H. Note
GDP: US$110 million
GDP per capita: US$1,830
Annual Growth: 1.5%
Major Industries: Copra, fish, tourism, craft items, offshore banking (embryonic).
Major Trading Partners: US, Japan
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Visas: Visas are required for most visitors; upon arrival visitors can obtain a 30-day entry permit that can be extended twice, for a maximum stay of 90 days, for 10.00 per extension. If you are a holding visa issued in Macao, China, entry will be refused. U.S citizens do not require a visa
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +12
Dialling Code: 692
Electricity: 110V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Imperial
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Currency: United States Dollar
By international standards, travel in the Marshalls is relatively cheap, though by those same standards you'll be getting what you pay for. Most accommodations tend toward the austere, and there's not a whole lot to splurge on, food-wise, even if you wanted to. Restaurants don't exist outside the major atolls, and official hostelries are almost as scarce. Business-class hotels (of which there are few) all run over US$100 per night; the one resort in the country has rates more than double that. Budget travelers should be able to get by on US$50 per day, but that doesn't leave much room for things like scuba diving and island hopping. You'll have more fun if you plan on spending closer to US$100 daily.
There are banks in all the major tourist areas, and credit cards are becoming increasingly more widely accepted. Neither tipping nor bargaining is customary in the Marshall Islands, though the barter system is sometimes beneficial when looking for a place to stay or eat or a ride to a particular destination.
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Arno is the closest atoll to Majuro, just 15km (9 mi) away. It has 133 islands, two airstrips and nearly 1700 people. The Longar area is famous for its 'love school', where young women were once taught how to perfect their sexual techniques.
The waters off Longar Point are known for superb deep-sea fishing; marlin, yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi and sailfish abound. About 4500kg (10,000lbs) of tuna and reef fish caught nearby are sold on Majuro each month, thanks in part to a Japanese-funded upgrade of the islands' fishing industry.
A US military presence is all over Kwajalein Atoll, a missile-testing range operated by the US Department of Defense. The world's largest coral atoll, Kwajalein includes 97 islands with a total land mass of just 17 sq km (6.5 sq mi) that surround an immense 2850 sq km (1100 sq mi) lagoon.
The lagoon is the target and splashdown point for intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, 6700km (4200 mi) away. The tests generally occur at night, often lighting up the sky with a brilliant display of explosions, burning debris and sonic booms.
Majuro is the most Westernised of the Marshall Islands, but there's still a lot that can be learned about life in the islands from a visit. You can grasp what it's like to live on a ribbon of land so narrow that, as often as not, you can see the ocean on both sides.
Most visitors to the Marshalls get only as far as Majuro Atoll, the nation's political and economic centre. Home to nearly half its population, the atoll has 57 small islets, the largest of which are connected by a single 55km (35mi) stretch of paved road.
Mejit is a single, tiny coral island with a population of about 450 people. It's a beautiful island of lush taro patches and an abundance of coconut, breadfruit and pandanus trees. Mejit has a small freshwater lake, a rarity in the Marshalls, that makes for a lovely (if algae-ful) swim.
California Beach on the northwest side of the island is tops for swimming and snorkelling, and the waters around the island are prime for fishing. Best of all, and unlike the other Marshalls, Mejit has no poisonous fish. The island is also known for its pandanus-leaf mats, woven by the Mejit women, and for the quality of its schools.
Since Mejit doesn't have a protective lagoon, fishing and the unloading of boats can be perilous, especially in November and December when the winds kick up.
Wotje, the main island of Wotje Atoll, is peppered from one end to the other with WWII remains. Huge Japanese-built structures loom out of the jungle - some bombed out, others still habitable. Right in the centre of the village is a large Japanese gun that can still be moved on its pivot. The lagoon is also full of wreckage, including a few ships of interest to wreck divers.
The lagoon beaches of Wotje Island are beautiful and relatively clean. Those of the nearby smaller islands are even better, as they're mostly deserted, and you can walk right over to them at low tide. Known as the 'Marshallese garden centre', Wotje's abundant produce is due to topsoil shipped over from Japan.
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