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Introducing Marshall Islands

The air is tangy with sea salt on the thousand or so slender, flat coral islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Living on these narrow strips of land between ocean and lagoon, the Marshallese are expert fishers and navigators, having long been reliant on the sea.

Local faces reflect the islands' history. In the late 1700s, after 2000 years of isolation, these Micronesian islands were variously visited, settled, colonised or occupied by British, Russians, Germans, Japanese and Americans (at first by missionaries, later by defence forces). Today the more developed atolls have a sense of all these influences, with well-stocked stores carrying international groceries, restaurants serving the food of several nations, and basketball courts on many street corners. On the quieter backstreets the Marshallese continue to live in family compounds, surrounded by flowers. The two main atolls have quite different characters. While it's Westernised, the capital, Majuro Atoll, retains much of the languid feel of the tropics. In contrast, Kwajalein Atoll is leased to the US military for missile testing and is virtually closed to nonmilitary visitors, its local workers shuttled to the wall-to-wall tenements of Ebeye.

The RMI's charm lies in its outer islands which - except for the traumatic nuclear history of some - still retain the pristine feel of the tropical Pacific. If you have only a few days to spend here, don't run your schedule too tightly alongside that of Air Marshall Islands (AMI) - it generally serves outer atolls just once weekly, and delays of up to many days are common. You can still get a feel for the classic Robinson Crusoe lifestyle by visiting one of the small islands in Majuro Atoll, though divers often bypass Majuro and head straight to Bikini for WWII wreck-diving or Rongelap for nature-diving.