The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is currently undergoing massive change as its fiscally challenged capital Saipan painfully comes to terms with the loss of its lucrative Japanese tour market. But travel trends come and go; the charm of the islands endures. It's therefore your mission, should you accept it, to seek out the best of the CNMI.
At first glance, Saipan can seem like a package-tour nightmare, a place where Chamorro culture has devolved, tour buses constantly patrol the sights, and solitude seems hard to come by. But catch the island at the right time and at the right angle (in the right place) and you'll be rewarded with some poignant experiences: flame trees in bloom; melancholy historical sights; turquoise waters and white sands; and fine diving and snorkelling. At some stage, you will need respite, though, and that's waiting just south of Saipan in the form of Tinian. This is a somniferous island, tiny in size but claiming a mighty chapter in world history: American B-29s flew from here to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Tinian, for the most part, has escaped major development (although it does have an ostentatious casino) and its natural charms remain intact, like lovely beaches and rewarding hikes. But the real jewel in the CNMI chain is beautiful Rota. Actually, Rota is the Diamond Tiara of the Marianas, the crowning glory, an island punctuated by a hilly interior, small farms, good spring water, enough deer to maintain a hunting season and fiery orange sunsets that light the evening skies. And a more friendly place you'd be hard-pressed to find; by the time you've finished with Rota, your arm will be sore from waving and your heart will be sore from having to leave.