PALAU – Never in my life did I imagine being served gefilte fish on a remote
Pacific island. But that’s exactly what happened on Palau, an archipelago
renowned for scuba diving and snorkeling in blue-green waters, the unrivaled
natural beauty of hundreds of mangrovecovered, limestone Rock Islands... and as
the setting for Survivor, the reality TV show.
Palau’s waters are also
treasures of World War II naval wrecks, and perhaps the bloodiest battle of the
Pacific was fought on Peleliu Island.
But let me backtrack a bit to set
I was invited here by the Palau Visitors Authority and had
long dreamed of setting foot on one of these dreamy Pacific islands. (Palau is a
constitutional republic in free association with the United States. Its currency
is the US dollar).
When I also heard that two Israelis, Navot and Tova
Harel Bornovski, were living and working here, I said to myself, “That’s gotta
be a story!”
Yes, I know, there are Israelis everywhere, so what’s the big deal?
Well, yes, Israelis are everywhere, but the Bornovskis’ story is pretty special,
given how they got here and the fact that Tova is also president of the
Micronesian Shark Foundation and an accomplished cook, with a book combining
Mediterranean and Palauan recipes.
My itinerary took me from Los Angeles,
via Honolulu and Guam, and then on to Koror, Palau’s main town, where things go
at a much slower pace and locals fishing off the rocks will invite total
strangers to share a fish barbecue with them.
On the final leg of my
journey, from Guam to Koror, it was night, so all I could see through the
aircraft’s window was total darkness.
Then, as if magically, a handful of
small lights appeared in the black of night: It was Palau International Airport,
a “toy” airport, I like to call it, which was all so refreshing and innocent in
a way. I mean the smallness of it all after long airport lines and hurried,
lastminute departures leading up to our arrival.
During the short bus
ride into the town of Koror itself, I tried to make out some of it in the
Koror’s main street, a two-lane, paved road sprinkled with palms,
was planted with modest houses and small stores.
We passed Reng-Marie’s
Beauty Clinic next to Palau Curtains & General Merchandise in a worn,
As we continued down the street, I saw a laundromat
and a few restaurants, including one with an illuminated sign above a corrugated
awning that read, “I Love Noodles,” a red heart substituting the word for
At one point, I could see a group of people seated in what looked
like a church meeting.
It felt good to finally get to the five-star Palau
Pacific Resort, with the kind of white beaches made for postcards.
slept well most of the night, but at around 4 a.m. I was awakened by what
sounded like someone taking a shower in an adjoining room.
At 4 in the
morning? This needed some checking into, so I got out of bed, and as I walked
past the doorway leading to my balcony, I realized that the water was coming
I opened the balcony door, stepped into the warm night, and
discovered a huge downpour, one of those island storms so common in this part of
I stood in my shorts, taking it all in as a lone hotel
employee carrying an umbrella arranged chairs under an awning at the outside bar
about 20 yards away.
“Welcome to Palau,” I whispered to myself in sheer
By daybreak the rain had slowed down, but it was still raining
lightly. Of course, it was also sunny. Not surprising, given the fact that
Palau’s average annual temperature hovers around a balmy 82 degrees.
it all came together for me: All that rain and all that sunshine have blessed
Palau with so many rainbows, that it’s no wonder it claims “Rainbow’s End” as
its official motto.
Palau’s eco-consciousness reflects its natural
beauty, which is easy to enjoy in so many ways, such as Jelly Fish Lake, where I
swam with jelly fish; the Milky Way, a hidden lake whose water looks like it was
mixed with milk and where white deposits are said to act like beauty cream;
Ngellil Nature Island Resort, a pristine, eight-room hideaway where sweet orange
coconuts grow alongside thatched huts; and Carp Island Resort, where I awakened
to a spectacular sunrise.
Meanwhile, breakfast awaited me in Palau
Pacific Resort’s dining room, where an invisible “fourth wall” opened up to
island breezes and the beach.
A chef was making omelettes to order with a
friendly “Good morning,” and there were all sorts of delicious pastries and
croissants, plus plenty of coffee.
Because of all the Japanese tourists –
Palau is about a four-hour flight from Tokyo – the group I was with got used to
seeing a lot of rice and tofu wherever we went.
We had a big day ahead of
us: Some of us were going scuba diving, and others (like me) would
Our destination, Blue Corner Reef, about 25 miles from Koror at
the northwest end of Ngemelis Island, is one of the world’s premier dive sites,
with a 60- foot-wide plateau and an incredible 1,000-foot drop! With my
soon-to-be-meeting with the Bornovskis at the back of my mind, we took off in a
tarpaulin-covered speedboat after getting fitted with gear, zipping along
bumpety-bump around Palau’s Rock Islands.
Some of them are spread out
over the calm waters like a giant string of pearls, while others, standing
alone, take on the appearance of giant mushrooms, and all are covered with a
green canopy of vegetation.
But it wasn’t only the Rock Islands that
impressed us – it was the color of the water, which varied from an artist’s
palette of deep blue to aqua-green.
Sometimes our guide would slow down
to thread his way through a narrow passage, which provided a better look at
small, sandy beaches perfect for dropping anchor and having lunch.
was just what we did on one of the islands, which I’d describe as a kind of park
in the middle of the ocean with tree-covered picnic benches, basic toilet
facilities – and a resident community of wild chickens to keep us company! After
lunch, we could walk along the beach or just sit in the warm water by the
When we reached Blue Corner, other divers were already in the
water. Once we got in, a chorus of “Wow!” went up in reaction to all the
As I looked down through my snorkel mask, I imagined that I
was swimming on top of a mountain – and I was, since the reef has a 1,000-foot
drop! I saw enormous sea fans with giant corkscrew twists of every conceivable
shape and size, and I swam with fish that looked like some mysterious hand had
colored them with wild abandon.
Two fish really caught my attention,
bright-yellow “friends,” I’ll call them, which played tag with each other in and
out of the corals.
When the divers came up, they told of being attached
to a thin rope wound up on anchoring loops hooked to the edge of the reef
Their 10-minute “drift dive” required very little kicking, as the
current did most of the work for them. They saw thousands of fish, including
barracuda and mackerel, and white- and black-tipped sharks, some no more than 20
feet away. Someone in our group who’s been diving for 26 years said it was his
best dive ever.
By late afternoon, we headed back to Koror, and my hosts
dropped me off on a dock in Koror at Fish ‘n Fins, the Bornovskis’ dive center.
The place was humming with activity as a group of divers watched a video of
their dives on a monitor.
I sat down in front of Barracuda, Tova’s
informal restaurant, which had a window for service, a few tables and chairs
dockside, and a first-class menu, shaped like a sailboat, with Mediterranean,
Greek, Italian and Israeli items, including felafel, foccacia sandwiches,
paninis, salade Nicoise, all sorts of burgers and fish and desserts such as figs
and ice cream and apple delight.
Nearby was one of Fish ’n Fins’
live-aboards, the 95- foot Ocean Hunter III
, which takes avid divers out for up
to a week or more of diving.
Tova greeted me and said, “I have a surprise
She disappeared briefly and then came back with the surprise I
never expected on Palau – a tray of gefilte fish prepared with native reef fish.
She served it with chrein and fish jelly.
Next was a platter of warm pita
sliced into squares, accompanied by flavorful Israeli classics – felafel,
humous, babaganoush, Moroccan pumpkin dip and eggplant in balsamic and
Her cookbook, Taste of Rainbow’s End
, is a reflection of
Palauan cooking with European and Asian tastes.
cooking, she noted, tends to be rather bland, since it focuses on true tastes
and few spices.
”You don’t disguise anything,” she said. “You really eat
the ‘real thing.’” So here I was, having felafel on Palau, and I thought to
myself: “I’m dreaming. This must be Tel Aviv!” No, it wasn’t, it was Palau. So
one of the first things I wondered was how she and Navot got here.
spent a year in Palau in 1986 to 1987,” Tova said, “crewing on the first
live-aboard in Palau, and we totally fell in love with the island.”
the Palau live-aboard ceased sailing, the couple returned to Israel, where Navot
studied for an engineering degree at the Technion. (He is both a mechanical
engineer and a ship engineer.) Tova, who is also trained as an Israeli tour
guide, speaks Hebrew, English, French, German, Spanish, Palauan and “can manage
As fate would have it, an opportunity opened up to run a
live-aboard on Palau, and they decided to return.
“We sold everything,”
Tova recalled. “We took loans, we flew to Florida and bought our first boat,
Ocean Hunter I,
a 60-foot motor sailor.”
By then, the Bornovskis had two
of their four children, Yarden, who was four, and Udi, who was three.
sailed with the children through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and through
the Pacific to Palau,” she said, “and since 1993 we’re here.”
In 1998 the
couple bought Fish ’n Fins from Francis Toribiong, a famed member of the
International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and the brother of Johnson Toribiong,
Palau’s current president.
In the intervening years, the Bornovskis and
Fish ’n Fins have become synonymous with Palau’s prized reputation as a
world-renowned dive site.
I walked through Ocean Hunter III
and found it
to be very comfortable, with nine spacious cabins that can hold 16 people. The
boat also has a lounge, a sun deck with two Jacuzzis, a camera room for those
taking underwater photos and a dining room with “gourmet cuisine,” Tova
Divers come from “all over,” she said, including a few couples
from Israel on their honeymoon.
Besides diving and snorkeling, Fish ’n
Fins offers kayaking, bird watching, ATV tours around the island and World War
“In 2000,” said Navot, who was born on Kibbutz Merhavia, the
home of Golda Meir, “we found the USS Perry
, the only US ship that sank in Palau
during World War II. It was very exciting.”
Last June, Fish ’n
Fins held the 10th-Annual Wrexpedition to dive and explore World War II
And during my own kayaking trip, I came right up to a sunken
Japanese seaplane submerged in shallow water, its wingspan easily visible near
the shady edge of a Rock Island.
The Bornovskis’ third and fourth
children were born on Palau and have Palauan middle names: Liam Lmall, 16, and
15-year-old Gayle Dilmowais (“Girl of Dawn” in Palauan).
Yarden, who is now 23, studies medicine in Italy, and their son Udi, 21, is in
college in British Columbia.
All their children, Tova noted with pride,
“have the easy island personality.” And, being Palauan at heart, they are
divers, too, the two oldest being certified instructors.
Liam is also a
member of the Palau swim team and, coached by Navot, took part in the Israeli
Maccabiah Games two years ago, single-handedly representing Palau, plus being
the youngest swimmer at the games.
On the question of Jewish life here,
Tova noted that there have been other Jews on Palau, but they usually come to
work under contract for a year or two and then leave.
“Since we’re the
only Israeli or Jewish people [on the island],”she said, “I made a vow that for
my kids, for tradition every Friday night we have a family dinner and we light
the candles, and I bake hallot.”
Tova’s father, Yitzhak Kallenberg, was
the mayor of the Israeli town Tivon for 17 years and later was sent to Vienna by
the Jewish Agency to manage the huge wave of Russian Jews coming out of the
Soviet Union. Navot’s mother, Dganit, was born on Kibbutz Ma’abarot.
is also deeply involved in shark preservation and education as the president of
the Micronesian Shark Foundation.
Palau, which was the first nation in
the world to declare itself a shark sanctuary in 2009, has a shark “nursery,” a
protected area of the sea surrounded by Rock Islands that can be seen by
I kayaked there with a group and chanced to see two baby sharks up
close, gray in color and maybe 15 inches long, darting by us in shallow
Shark parents, we were told by our guide, go out to open sea after
depositing their young here, and the young eventually follow.
stresses the need for shark protection in talks she gives around the
“Sharks are in a losing battle,” she said. “They’re the kings of
the ocean. “They started 100 million years before the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are
long gone. Sharks are still here, but they’re going to perish because of
That’s the major reason that they’re disappearing from our
planet, from our oceans, and it’s very sad.”
On my second visit to Fish
’n Fins, I caught Tova stepping off a boat after taking a visiting UNESCO
delegation on a dive to see how sharks are monitored with acoustic sensors.
UNESCO is considering declaring Palau a World Heritage Site.
today,” Tova said, “we were diving and we saw this one shark that had no dorsal
fin, and it looked like somebody cut it.”
Navot believes that Palau also
offers an additional allure for Jewish visitors.
“I think that nowadays,
with growing tension in the world, with Jewish and Israeli people not welcome in
many countries and facing danger, Palau is a great escape because it’s very
friendly, very safe. You can fly here directly from the US,” said Navot. “You
don’t stop in any countries that are not comfortable to be in. So for the US
market and the Israeli market and Europe, I think it’s a very good
Joining me over pita and felafel, Navot also reflected on the
warm political relations between Palau and Israel.
In two weeks’ time, he
said, a group of Israeli radiologists would be arriving to do a seminar at the
local hospital – their third visit. Israeli ophthalmologists have also visited
Palau to do eye surgeries, in one case partially restoring the sight of a baby
who was born blind.
All this work leaves a good impression about Jews in
general, not just Israelis, because “for a lot of people in this region, Jewish
and Israeli is the same,” he said.
But beyond everything else, said
Navot, living in Palau is paradise. “It’s a good place, very quiet; people are
very polite, very friendly. They deserve a lot of credit for what they’re doing
here.”George Medovoy writes on travel at