Guam Is Suddenly in the News. But What Is It Like to Travel There?

Tumon Bay in Tamuning, Guam. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On a nub-like point on the west coast of Guam stands a monument built as the Statue of Liberty’s Pacific counterpart. The Latte of Freedom, which opened in 2010, is an 80-foot-tall concrete structure, shaped like a mushroom with an upturned top. It’s a homage to the island’s famous lattes (pronounced LAH-tees), two-piece stone pillars that, for centuries, the indigenous Chamorros erected as the foundation of traditional buildings. In the observation deck inside the Latte of Freedom’s capstone, a plaque explains its cultural roots and announces its modern-day purpose: “to stand boldly as America’s Western gatepost from Asia and the Pacific Rim.”

Until last week, despite its status as a U.S. territory, Guam was an afterthought for most Americans, an obscurity out in the vast blue part of the globe. When news broke that North Korea was considering an attack on the island, stateside media outlets proffered maps and explainers on basic details. It is 30 miles long, with a population of about 160,000. It has been a U.S. territory since 1898, ceded by the Spanish after the Spanish-American War. And it is of strategic importance: 4,000 miles west of Honolulu, about half that distance from Pyongyang, and it is home to both Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam.

But it is also a gatepost with dual roles, a place of both watchful vigilance but also heartfelt hospitality, welcoming travelers and immigrants alike — just not many Americans. Last year, a record-setting 1.53 million tourists came here — mostly from Japan (746,000) and South Korea (550,000). Arrivals this year have been on a strong pace, with hotel occupancy at 85.7 percent, according to Josh Tyquiengco of the Guam Visitors Bureau — higher than average (if not quite the 95 percent that Eddie Calvo, the governor of Guam, recently claimed in a conversation with President Trump). Since the territory became headline news, there have been scattered cancellations, though not enough to affect the overall industry, Mr. Tyquiengco said.

Strikingly, though, Guam may be the U.S.’smost popular tourist destination that Americans themselves don’t see in substantial numbers. About 63,000 people from the mainland states visited last year, a smaller number than Kauai, Hawaii’s fourth-largest island, gets in a typical month. When I traveled to Guam in 2014, while researching a book about the U.S. territories, the woman selling tickets at the Latte Stone of Freedom assumed I was from the nearest military base, and was visibly surprised to learn that I was a sightseer from the States.

Since that trip, though, I’ve been telling everyone I know: Even if you can’t find Guam on a map, book a flight. Soak up the sun, explore the back roads, eat well and learn some new things about a probably unfamiliar slice of U.S. history.

Most tourists head straight to Tamuning, along the reef-calmed waterfront of Tumon Bay. It hits all the familiar island-vacation themes: white-sand beaches, high-rise hotels, duty-free shopping malls. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe and two separate Louis Vuitton stores. Here, the island’s very Americanness is part of the appeal, packaged for easy consumption: stacks of pancakes at Eggs ’n Things, fleets of rental muscle cars, shooting ranges with names like Western Frontier Village and Hollywood Shooting. I stopped by the latter range one afternoon, and the owner tried to talk me into the Rambo Course, which starts with an M16 and ends with a shotgun. I settled for a conversation with the Russian and Korean customers considering the menu of options and posing for pictures while wearing the lobby’s selection of leather-fringed jackets and cowboy hats.

For a deeper look at Guam’s history and cultural complexity, though, you’ll need to get out of Tamuning. My own road trip came courtesy of two Chamorro men, Carl Blas and Tony Duenas, both of them former police officers wearing Harley-Davidson T-shirts and eager to share stories about their island. With Mr. Blas at the wheel of his pickup truck, we headed northeast along Marine Corps Drive. The atmosphere and architecture shifted quickly, high-rise bustle giving way to a tropical suburbia of chain stores and subdivisions, and then to long stretches of low, snarled jungle interspersed with ranch-style houses and quiet strip malls. A campaign sign promoted a political candidate, his logo a stylized latte stone adorned with stars and stripes and a traditional proa boat.

In the village of Yigo, we stopped at the nondescript but friendly Michelle’s Coffee Shop for a hearty, satisfying breakfast of Chamorro sausage, rice and eggs. Before we got back in the truck, Mr. Blas pointed out a T-shaped concrete monument at the edge of the parking lot.

“Did you notice that when we came in?” he asked with a knowing smile.

I hadn’t. I walked to the street to read the words painted on the front: “Battle Of Yigo. 7 August 1944. US Army.”

If Guamanians were generally unconcerned by North Korea’s bluster — Mr. Blas and others I’ve spoken to recently have offered a mix of stoicism and wry fatalism — it’s because they have been on the front lines before, for some in living memory. Japanese forces attacked Guam on Dec. 8, 1941, and took over the island two days later, occupying the territory until the summer of 1944. The war stills scars the collective memory and the landscape. In some areas, signs warn that lingering unexploded ordnance “can still be found anywhere on the island.”

As we drove around the island, we frequently stopped at sites that filled in the story. At the Pacific War Museum, Mr. Duenas pointed out a photo of his uncle, Father Jesus Baza Duenas, a Catholic priest who was part of the Chamorro resistance, and Mr. Blas searched for his grandfather’s name on a list of prisoners of war. On the south end of the island, we lingered silently for a few minutes at Asan Bay, where American troops came storming back, on July 21, 1944. Liberation Day is a big deal here, with a carnival and a parade featuring any American liberators still able to make the trip; this year, there have been two.

Mr. Blas and Mr. Duenas also pointed to signs of Guam’s long postwar rebirth, not just the gleaming buildings of Tamuning or the new subdivisions going up, but also a cultural revival. Mr. Blas told me that when he was in high school, students were suspended for three days if they spoke Chamorro; now, the language is a required part of the public-school curriculum. In Hagåtña, a long-planned Guam Museum was in the works; it opened in November 2016.

About a block from where the museum now stands is the Chamorro Village, which opened in 1994 as a place for local vendors to sell crafts, art and food. Take a stroll through market on a Wednesday night, when it’s crowded with families, and it’s clear that the main attraction is eating.

If you want to see a Guamanian beam with pride, ask about the food. You’ll hear their family recipes for favorite foods like kelaguen, a flavorful dish of chopped chicken or other meat marinated with lemon and other seasonings; dinanche, a hot-pepper paste; and lumpia, a type of egg roll thought to have been introduced by Guam’s Filipino community. You’ll hear boasts about restaurants like Proa and Meskla Chamoru Fusion Bistro, which put their own spin on local classics.

Mostly, though, you’ll hear about barbecue, a topic as unavoidable as the heady smoked-meat haze at the Chamorro Village. (A local company called Tunu even makes a line of barbecue lifestyle shirts and hats.) It’s traditionally made with a vinegar- and soy sauce-based marinade that gives the meat a subtle but distinct flavor. This is what I ended up chattering about to friends back in the States with you-you’ve-gotta-go-there fervor: the chicken at Meskla, the jerk adobo ribs at Jamaican Grill, and, most of all, the dry-rubbed, irresistibly tender brisket at Asu Smokehouse, in the Chamorro Village.

Guamanian barbecue is typically served with Spanish rice and coleslaw, the whole package showcasing the island’s cultural traditions — Chamorro, Spanish, Japanese and American. It’s an edible history lesson, a Micronesian version of the American polyglot ideal.