By Cynthia Dial
For Mabuhay, in-flight magazine for Philippine Airlines
Forget the classic visions of Christmas as a winter wonderland. Think beyond the jingling bells on sleighs plowing through the snow and the crackling of log fires while hot mugs of cocoa are sipped. Instead, envision holiday time in Guam where toes are snuggled into the sand, not snow boots, and the small island’s traditional sense of family envelops locals and guests alike in a welcoming warmth more comforting than any crackling fire.
In synch with its island location, December in Guam showcases all that is uniquely special about this tiny Pacific getaway – 30 miles long and four to nine miles wide (translation: ¾ the size of Singapore) – whose largest ethnic groups are native Chamorros at 37 percent, followed by a 26 percent Filipino population.
Guam is all about family, but never more so than during the holidays. “Håfa adai” you’re graciously greeted upon arrival. It means ‘hello.’ As one transplanted resident said of this celebratory season: “Guam’s festivities usher in the Christmas spirit, even though the weather doesn’t. It’s the season when you may not know everyone at a gathering, but you still feel like you’re family.”
So, follow me through the seasonal scene that is Guam.
People’s procession – December 8 is a national holiday in honor of Guam’s patron saint, Santa Marian Kamalen. As most of Guam’s Chamorro and Filipino population are Roman Catholic, thousands flock to Hagåtña’s Cathedral-Basilica to participate in the processional loop around the island’s capital. Led by the revered 300-year-old wooden statue of the saint, this is the only time the “real” statue is displayed outdoors. While the island is known for its religious festivals honoring the patron saints of Guam’s 19 villages, this gathering is by far the largest. Tip: Arrive early if you wish to join the 3:30 p.m. rosary and novena inside the cathedral, preceding the 4 p.m. procession.
Just add water – Sporting some of the year’s best weather, December is a bit cooler, lower in humidity and features average temps of 85F. For surfers there’s a special perk, as the month’s higher winds and larger waves serve up “Christmas surf.” With the daily promise of great waves somewhere on the island, surfing is one of Guam’s prime attractions. Here’s some inside info: A good beach for beginners is Inarajan Bay; Talofofo Beach has consistently good surf along its black sand shore and Malesso Beach’s exposed coral reefs and oversized wave action best appeals to the xtreme sport crowd. Tip: Surfing schools (as well as rental equipment) are plentiful in the tourist areas of Tumon and Hagåtña.
Warm days, cool deals – Does your Christmas list include such high-end brands as Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo? If your head’s nodding as quickly as your toes are tapping, go to T Galleria and Tumon Sands Plaza, both stylish backdrops for top-of-the-line retail therapy. The best news for the shop-till-you-drop crowd is that the peak of Shop Guam Festival 2014 coincides with the month of December. Running November 1, 2014 through January 12, 2015 and noted as the Western Pacific’s biggest annual shopping event, Guam’s legendary tax-free shopping is additionally enhanced with more than 200 special offers and discounts for retail, dining and entertainment. Tip: Festival coupon booklets and mobile app shopping guides are widely distributed and available in six languages.
Lights, cameras, action – If Christmas is about bright lights and shiny surprises that knock your stockings off, Guam doesn’t disappoint. Colorful lights, decorated trees, delectable sweets and contagious holiday cheer appear like surround-sound from the Government House in Hagåtña to the island’s shopping areas, including Tuman Shopping District and Micronesia Mall. This is the time of year when the island’s spirit is in high-octane mod, illustrated by such made-only-in-Guam moments as encounters with Mr. and Mrs. Claus (perhaps in tropical shirts and shorts) and Santa’s arrival (possibly by caribou). It’s said parts of the island are so well lit, inflight passengers can see the light displays when landing at the airport during the holidays. Tip: Don’t miss Wednesday Night’s Market in Chamorro Village for its food, souvenirs, fellowship and fun – a festive kick-off to the season.
Postcard to the Pole – Dear Santa: “Isle be seeing you.”