By Shamus Sillar
Boracay in the Philippines might be set on party mode most of the time, but the pace in spectacular Palawan – sometimes referred to as the country’s “last frontier” – is more mellow by far. No wonder the turtles love it.
Here are some of the reasons we did, too.
Landing at El Nido in the Philippine province of Palawan is a treat. There’s not much to the airport: a modest strip of tarmac in a dry, scrubby field. Just a few metres beyond that, though, lies a pretty beach and the azure waters of Bacuit Bay. It augurs well.
After a short wait at the airport terminal (read: wooden hut), including free drinks and snacks, an air-conditioned jeepney arrives to drive us down to the aforementioned beach – a three-minute trip.
From there, we walk along a timber pier and hop aboard a banca. Bancas are the iconic local motorboats of the Philippines, invariably painted blue and white, with large bamboo outriggers. They glide effortlessly through the water while you perch on a bench seat, taking in the sea breezes.
Our destination is Lagen Island Resort, 50 minutes away. If you’ve heard that holiday travel in the Philippines is a case of “planes, trains and automobiles”, I’m not here to dispel the rumour – not after a taxi to Manila’s domestic airport, a 75-minute flight to El Nido, the jeepney ride and the banca (on top of the original flight from Singapore).
But it’s hardly arduous travel. Each leg is short, and you’re surrounded by tropical splendour for most of the time. In any case, you certainly feel like you’re getting away from it all, which is the whole point, right?
Palawan Island is narrow and long – 425km long, in fact – and we’ve arrived not far from its northernmost tip. El Nido is the name of the municipality, but for travellers it more commonly refers to El Nido Resorts, the collection of three luxury escapes tucked away on various tiny islands of stunning Bacuit Bay. (There’s a fourth resort in the stable, over on the eastern side of the Palawan peninsula.)
Our three-night stay is at Lagen Island Resort, a line of cottages sitting astride a calm lagoon with expansive views out to the bay. It’s a peaceful place: hornbills swoop from the cliffs early in the morning; parrotfish weave through the water below our balcony. In the resort’s main complex, there’s a swimming pool (you can swim in the lagoon too, though do wear long sleeves as there can be jellyfish about), spa suite, kids’ room, massage cabana and water-sports centre.
Food isn’t the main focus of the resort but it’s generally very good – barbecued seafood is an obvious highlight and is always on offer in some form. Most meals are buffet-style, which works well for families.
Miniloc Island Resort has a similar lagoon layout to Lagen but is skewed a little more towards a younger demographic. One morning, we take a banca there for breakfast and a snorkelling experience that includes hand-feeding a school of large jack fish, just off the pier.
El Nido’s most recent addition is Pangulasian Island Resort. It differs from the others by being located directly on a long sandy beach rather than in a rocky cove. Rates are higher here than at the other resorts, and not just because it’s newer; these aren’t cottages but villas with super-luxurious touches – several have their own pool.
There’s a strong emphasis on environmental protection at El Nido Resorts: on arrival, you’re handed an eco-friendly bag for storing rubbish; children’s stories with a “green” message are left on our kids’ beds each night; and the focus in the kitchen is on sustainable ingredients.
The Water Sports
Before all the jet-ski enthusiasts get too excited, note that the preferred water sports in this placid part of the world are the quiet (and eco-friendly) ones: sailing, diving, windsurfing, snorkelling and kayaking. Hurrah for that. The only motors you’ll hear are those propelling the bancas.
One must-do activity if you’re staying at Lagen is the early morning walk-and-kayak combo that sees you first take a 20-minute pre-breakfast hike through a thick grove of jungle behind the resort, ending at a deserted beach ringed by vertical cliffs. From there, it’s a short but stunning kayak ride home. On my morning, the ocean was a millpond – perfect paddling conditions. There was the surprise appearance of a friend from the deep, too, who emerged directly behind my kayak with a loud snort. (My relief upon registering that the creature was a huge but innocuous turtle – rather than, say, a killer whale or The Kraken – was palpable.)
Another great place to kayak is in Big and Small Lagoons. You’ll see this on offer as one of the many side-trips from Lagen and the other resorts. Don’t miss out: it’s a magical place. Highly recommended, too, is unique Snake Island, with an exposed sand spit that you can walk along at low tide.
Other water activities available through El Nido Resorts include cave tours, mangrove river tours and bird-watching. There’s also the ubiquitous sunset cruise; Bacuit Bay does a mighty sunset.
The Beach Clubs
Think “beach club” and you’ll likely imagine the beautiful people gathered in a chic steel-and-glass pavilion on the sand, with DJs, cocktails and expensive menus.
In this neck of the woods, they’re a lot less sophisticated. (Hurrah again!) We visited two of the clubs that are reserved for guests of El Nido Resorts: one on Dibuluan Island, the other on Entalula Island. These are places that a city office- worker daydreams about during the slow afternoon shift: aqua-blue waters, crushed-coral beaches, angled coconut palms. Club facilities include a few daybeds for lazing on, a small menu of drinks and sometimes food, and the aforementioned water sports offerings.
This notion of a low-key beach club can even be reduced to its elemental level. The El Nido team will arrange for a boat to take you and your family to a deserted beach and deposit you there with nothing but the whooshing tide and a light breeze for company. (If you wish, they’ll also leave a picnic feast of barbecued fish, prawns and steaks, and an Esky of soft drinks and beer.) When we get left at our stretch of unsullied sand, my elder daughter is so excited by what’s happening that she literally canters, like a horse, for 15 minutes from one end of the small beach to the other.
From the band of villagers who greet us with a folk song when our plane lands at El Nido to the cheeky blokes operating the bancas, the locals are incredibly amiable. Even our various taxi drivers in Manila make a mockery of that city’s hard-round-the-edges reputation by being the nicest blokes ever to strap on a seatbelt. (Not that they did.)
Our two girls are given particular attention, especially on the final night at Lagen when a troupe performs the tinikling. This famous Philippine dance involves someone skipping in and out of two bamboo poles that are being clapped together from end to end. The leader of the troupe takes the girls under her wing and shows them all the steps; soon they’re squealing as they leap to avoid the clanging poles, and the rest of the resort’s guests look on in laughter.
Their father, meanwhile, has been making the most of the sunset happy hour and would struggle to step over a stationary bamboo pole, let alone two moving ones.
As many as seven airlines ply the route between Singapore and Manila. We flew Cebu Pacific, and the schedule worked perfectly: a 10.35am departure from Changi had us touching down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 2pm; the return journey left Manila at 1.25pm and arrived in Singapore just before 5pm. (There are multiple Cebu Pacific flights each day if those times aren’t convenient.)
The inflight experience was satisfying, too, from the well-compiled magazine, Smile, to the crew’s emphasis not only on comfort and safety but on fun (including occasional games where you can win prizes).
Flights are very well priced, too, with promotional fares from as little as S$49 one way between Singapore and Manila. The airline also flies to other cities in the Philippines, with daily flights to Cebu and Clark, and thrice-weekly flights to Iloilo.
A night at Lagen Island Resort starts from around S$450, including round-trip boat transfers from the airport, breakfast, and the use of snorkelling gear and kayaks. Return flights from Manila on the 50-seater plane operated by Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI) are approximately $300 per adult, with cheaper rates for children and infants. Accommodation at any of the four El Nido Resorts, plus flights, can be booked online at elnidoresorts.com .
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