I paddled my kayak right and left, rolling up and over waves on a sunny day out at sea off El Nido, a municipality in the far north-west of the island of Palawan in the Philippines. On reaching a small gap between two limestone rocks, I ducked and passed through an opening so narrow I almost collided with a couple kayaking out. On the other side was Small Lagoon, a hidden pool with waters so green and limpid you could see everything that lay beneath.
‘Hello? Hello, anyone home?’ I shouted. Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs that resembled a cathedral rising up from below, I expected to hear the echo of my voice amid the silence. Instead, I was greeted with a ‘Shhhh’ from a man just feet away from me. ‘There’s a turtle,’ he said, pointing at a moving shape.
True enough, there he was: a large sea green turtle bobbing his little head, slowly making his way to the surface like he was performing a languorous breaststroke, paddling with his speckled flippers. He swam next to my kayak for a good few minutes before disappearing, probably to feed on a seagrass bed at the bottom of the lagoon. Above, a yellow-throated leafbird perched on a tree, mimicking the songs of other birds.
Having been born in the Philippines, I have spent many a summer holiday on its islands. It used to be that Palawan was an intrepid traveller’s secret, the unsurprising inspiration for Alex Garland’s The Beach. Over the years, I have visited my fair share of desert islands, from the Maldives to Zanzibar, and I can honestly say that nowhere else has such a spectacularly beautiful and diverse landscape. The whole archipelago is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, noted for its sustainable development and conservation efforts.
Yet, while a spirit of the new and uncharted endures, Palawan is hardly a secret anymore: Bond and Bourne have both been filmed here and just last year, it became home to Banwa Private Island, the world’s most expensive resort – a fast change of pace considering that until recently, visitors were limited to a just a handful of humble accommodation options.
Coming in at $100,000 a night, a stay at Banwa promises access to your own 15-acre island resort, accommodating up to 48 guests at any one time. Each of the resort’s 12 garden rooms and six beachfront villas has its own jacuzzi, infinity pool and butler service, and then there’s the residential suite, perched at the island’s highest point. There’s also an island concierge, a team of private chefs, unlimited spa treatments and access to the resort’s yacht fleet.
Other equally upscale but less eye-wateringly expensive properties have appeared, such as the newly-renovated Pangulasian Island (part of El Nido Resorts) which I visited shortly after its reopening in December. From Lio Airport, it was a short buggy ride to the pier, followed by a 15-minute speedboat ride to the private island. Once on board, I passed Bacuit Bay, hemmed in by jagged cliffs and jungle-covered limestone outcrops like curved sleeping giants. After a few minutes, Pangulasian opened up before me: a forest-green island on a gold stretch of sandy beach, where waves painted the sea from blue to green in one broad stroke.
There are 42 villas, all with a private balcony either on the beach or on stilts above the forest, or with a private pool. On my first day, Jana, the on-site activity coordinator, arranged my included activities and tours, ranging from island-hopping excursions and guided snorkelling to sunset hikes.
My first port of call was nearby Snake Island. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not called that because there are lots of snakes,’ my guide John said as he docked our paraw, a traditional outrigger boat, near the beach. ‘Look at the sandbar,’ he added, pointing at the shore, lapped by water on both sides, giving it the appearance of floating in the middle of the sea. ‘You see how it bends and curves? That’s why it’s named after the snake.’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘But Turtle Island is called Turtle Island because there are plenty of turtles there, right?’
‘Yes,’ he replied with a slow smile.
Before I disembarked, an enterprising vendor on a kayak approached our paraw. ‘Would you like some fresh buko, ma’am?’ he asked, gesturing at the green coconuts on his floating corner shop. Aside from the tropical fruit, his canoe was stocked with Coca-Cola, San Miguel beer, local rum and even ice cream, including Oreo, Toblerone, Crunch and Kit Kat flavours, all kept in an insulated cooling bag.
On pausing to chat a while with Ronnie, the vendor, I learned that plastic straws and single-use plastics aren’t allowed across El Nido; he has to purchase special bamboo straws for the coconut juice. Nor is Ronnie allowed to sell bottled water or any other drinks in containers using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and other plastics. In 2017, the local government issued a no-plastics ordinance and, ever since, tourists have been encouraged to bring their own reusable water bottles.
Waving farewell to Ronnie, I meandered the length of Snake Island’s beach until I reached another island, marked by a solitary nipa hut; a thatched, stilted structure housing a charming cafe. A group of friends were having lunch on a narrow sandbar, relaxing around a blue table decorated with banana leaves and lined with crabs, mussels, fish and, this being the Philippines, a mountain of white rice.
But the sealife here isn’t just for eating. A few days later, on another adventure, I snorkelled by Shimizu Island and West Miniloc, to see the glory of the underwater world for myself as I watched a floating stalk of seagrass vie for the attention of red snapper, striped black-and-white damselfish and parrot fish in shades of blue, pink and orange.
That afternoon, I headed off to private Entalula Beach, owned by El Nido Resorts, to dine on a picnic of grilled fish, chicken and vegetables, overlooking a beach with powdery sand so blindingly white I had to shield my eyes every time I walked on it. This visit cemented it as my favourite beach in the world.
With more than 100 white sandy beaches in El Nido, there is a beach here for everyone. My personal favourites include Secret Beach in Matinloc, concealed by cliffs and accessible only by swimming through a narrow crevice; Hidden Beach, surrounded by limestone rock formations and resembling an oversized infinity pool; and Helicopter Island (also known as Dilumacad Island), with its 300-yard swathe of white sand beach covered in shards of rare blue coral.
One morning, I decided to charter a paraw for a visit to Big Lagoon, a natural swimming pool enclosed by soaring limestone cliffs and one of the area’s greatest treasures. It often gets busy, but at 8am when tour boats hadn’t yet made their way to the sight, it was empty.
What a joy to have a whole lagoon to myself! I kayaked and swam and listened to egrets sing their morning song as I watched them flit from one fern to another.
Back on dry land, I hiked to the top of Pangulasian Island overlooking the Bacuit archipelago to spy the tapestry of electric blue and sea foam-green seas and the imposing limestone outcrops riddled with karst cliffs.
To end my trip, I visited El Nido Town, packed with funky bars and restaurants, including Happiness, the Pangolin and Sava Beach Bar; and finally I had dinner on the beach at Pangulasian. The sky was dark and the moon looked like a queen encircled by a crown of fairy lights. Even at night, when its colour had faded, El Nido was still beautiful.
While you're there...
When planning a holiday to Palawan, travellers with limited time often ask which is better: El Nido or Coron, in the Calamian Islands of northern Palawan? There is no straight answer. The two areas share similar topographies, although it is true that there are more upmarket accommodation options in El Nido, while Coron has more to offer divers, with its Japanese shipwrecks from the Second World War and some immaculate reefs.
The best way is to do both. Coron can be reached by water from El Nido, on a banca, or traditional outrigger boat. Tribal Adventures offers a private full-day banca and kayak trip of the northwest coast of Coron Island, taking in attractions away from the tourist crowds, including hidden lagoons, snorkelling sites, secret beaches and lakes.
Highlights include Siete Pecados Marine Park, a snorkelling site with a rich spread of coral and marine life; Hidden Lagoon, so hidden you will practically have the place all to yourself; Banon Beach, a classic desert island; Lake Kayangan, a gorgeous lagoon rimmed with coral and the greenest waters you will ever see; and Kayangan Cave, where you will be rewarded with views of the shimmering lagoon, framed by trees and dotted with wooden boats in whites, blues and pinks.
• Tribal Adventures (0063 36 288 3207; tribaladventures.com) is offering a full-day Ultimate Coron Banca and Kayak tour, costing from 5,072Php (about Dh365) per person for a group of four or 9,581Php per person for a solo trip.
• The best time to go is the dry season, between Nov and Apr. May and Nov offer good value for money.
Philippine perks and quirks
There are some things every visitor to the these islands needs to know about. Here are six of them.
Jeepneys: The king of the road, the jeepney is the main mode of public transport in the Philippines. Fashioned out of US military jeeps left behind by American soldiers after the Second World War, these buses are airbrushed in bright colours and decorated with chrome miniature horses and paintings of religious images, such as the Virgin Mary or the Santo Nino.
Bahay kubo: Also known as a nipa hut, this is a traditional thatched-roof stilt house made of bamboo and nipa (a type of palm). It is so iconic that it inspired an eponymous local folk song that every Filipino child knows by heart.
Parol: A three-dimensional star-shaped Christmas lantern, the parol signifies the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger where Christ was born. Families hang their parols by their front door or window as early as September. The tradition is considered even more important than the Christmas tree.
Sorbetes: Also known as ‘dirty ice cream’, this is a Filipino version of the dessert made from carabao milk, served in tiny scoops on sugar cones and peddled from colourful street carts. Flavours include chocolate, mango, ube (purple yam) and, my favourite, cheese.
Balut: Sold as street food, balut is a fertilised duck embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. Yes, it sounds rather unappealing, but many locals swear by it. First-time visitors to the Philippines should be braced for a good-natured culinary dare from locals.
Tricycle: The Filipino equivalent of the Thai tuk-tuk, the tricycle is an auto rickshaw and, like the jeepney, a common means of public transport. Found in most cities and towns here, especially in rural areas, the roofed sidecar designated for passengers comes affixed to a motorcycle.
The Sunday Telegraph