If you’re like me, you probably have a list of top travel destinations you wish to visit in the next few years – maybe even in your lifetime. Mine has been a long list, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore many of them already. But such lists are meant to evolve, extend. Such was the case when we moved to Hong Kong and received repeated suggestions to visit Palawan in the Philippines. I remember raising an eyebrow and scrunching up my face a bit (I’m sure in a less-than-flattering manner) – where?
Palawan is a sprawling archipelago in southwest Philippines, just north of Malaysia, comprising more than 1700 islands. It’s the largest province in the Philippines, with a disproportionately sparse population (nice!). Unless you have spent significant time in Asia, you have probably never heard of it. Which is truly a shame. Then again, I (selfishly) admit I’m glad Palawan has remained under the radar!
If you have heard of Palawan, it may be due to it being named the Condé Nast Traveler 2014 Reader’s Choice Top Island in the World. Or perhaps it’s because its 8.2-kilometer-long Underground River in Puerto Princesa (Palawan’s capital), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was recently crowned as one of the New7Wonders of Nature. So…maybe the secret is actually no longer that well-kept.
Still, one area within Palawan is gaining attention but still remains relatively off the beaten path for most – El Nido.
The charming experience of El Nido begins upon check-in for your connecting flight in Manila, when you will be graciously handed wooden boarding passes (a small but pretty cool detail). Upon arrival in El Nido, you’ll be greeted by an amusing visual cacophony of a minibus that putters along to a slightly bizarre but pleasant little outdoor lounge, where you can refresh with some local treats set to the tones of a slightly cheesy but sweet welcome chorus.
I suggest booking at the newest and most luxurious El Nido Resort at Pangulasian Island (although there are also several other budget-spanning, eco-resort options in the area). You will be escorted across the nearby beach to your motorboat transfer (perhaps even private, as was the case for us). This is one of those points in time when the hectic world as you may know it will blissfully slip away within moments, tucked away into a remote part of your brain. You’ll be whisked off into warm ocean breezes and depending on your timing, you may even be treated to a fortuitous sunset cruise.
The now-iconic landscape of El Nido is truly breathtaking. Amidst wide-open expanses of ocean jut gorgeous, jagged limestone rock formations and karst cliffs that dramatically pierce the horizon.
Reveling in the light that dances across the water and drapes the islands, you can’t help but plant a perma-smile on your face. After about 30 minutes, your boat edges around one tip of Pangulasian Island, and you dock just in time to see the sky turn trademark shades of rose, crimson, and violet. Magical.
A number of the lovely staff of El Nido Pangulasian assemble to greet you and carry out the trifecta of resort welcome rituals – a necklace strung with fresh flowers, a cool scented towel, and a juice blend to refresh. After an easy check-in process and a brief overview of El Nido’s environmentally-focused efforts, a golf cart transports you to your villa of choice (forest canopy, beach, or pool). Spacious and well-appointed with beach-contemporary decor and modern amenities, the villas ensure you will enjoy a comfortable stay. I suggest the pool villas for their relative seclusion (still just steps from the beach) and of course, the option of a cool, relaxing dip in the pool after a day of snorkeling, scuba-diving, kayaking, hiking, island-hopping, or whatever may (or may not) be on your roster of activities.
Beyond the creature comforts of the resort, Pangulasian Island is an ideally located perch within El Nido. A stunning blend of white sand beach and forest, this private ‘Island of the Sun’ is graced with views of both sunrise and sunset and is within easy reach of other islands to explore.
But the best part? Breakfast-to-snorkel time of about 1 minute. You can indulge in breakfast, walk right into the ocean, and immerse in the marine life-rich house reef just steps (or rather a few swim strokes) from shore. Honestly, it’s awesome. You could easily lose yourself for a couple hours navigating around the reef (and possibly some jellyfish, so just keep your wits about you).
The resort offers a few ‘gratis’ perks that showcase its natural assets. Most impressive is the sunrise snorkel with sharks (yep, you read that correctly!). Well worth the early rise (this coming from a non-morning person), a quick boat transfer drops you into an area known for its blacktip reef sharks. The film Jaws forever ruined many of us on general perceptions of sharks, to the point that their mere shape hovering in the distance may send shivers down your spine. But blacktip reef sharks are not dangerous and honestly will be more skittish about you than the other way around. Which means that you’ll need to be in a very small group to ensure sightings. Mark and I were very lucky to have only 2 other snorkelers with us, another resort guest and our guide. Within about 15 minutes of descending into the water, we were swimming with about 20 sharks. Exhilarating! Kinda crazy. Very, very cool.
An absolute must-do activity in El Nido is island hopping. The resort includes some group excursions in your rate, including one to the most popular Big and Small Lagoons on Miniloc Island. The latter is actually more interesting, so be sure to thoroughly explore its nooks and crannies by kayak.
But I highly suggest spending a very reasonable, 10 or 15,000 Philippine pesos (a few hundred USD) extra and hiring a private boat for a day instead. This helps ensure a more peaceful and authentic experience, as well as greater control over timing and destinations (and some really delicious coconut cookies and iced tea along the way). Enjoy a local tradition and request a bangka boat. They’re just as emblematic of the area as the rock formations and quite a bit of fun, albeit a bit noisy.
Between the astonishing natural beauty and our amicable, knowledgeable crew led by Fritz, we decided to extend our initial half-day excursion to a full day. Truth be told, you could spend days upon days exploring the seemingly endless islands, but alas, we had to limit ourselves. No matter – Fritz expertly curated highlights for us and introduced us to the trademark emerald lagoons, pristine beaches, and lush greenery of the area. The water is so crystal-clear and a luscious shade of blue-green, you can’t jump in soon enough.
The best part of the day for me was our first stop, Secret Beach on Matinloc Island. Not surprisingly, the name is now just a name, as it is in fact very well-known and on almost everyone’s itinerary. Still, the dramatic swim required to enter the sinkhole leading to the beach is one of those mini-adventures that will assuredly etch itself into your memory. Absolutely fantastic. Alex Garland, author of the novel-cum-film The Beach supposedly drew his inspiration from this very spot (although the movie was filmed in Thailand).
Matinloc Shrine on another part of the island is an abandoned, ever-so-creepy site dotted with furniture left behind from another era and scattered religious symbols and statues. You may be tempted to wander through the empty rooms if you’re into that type of thing, but you’re here mostly for the lovely views from the cliffs overlooking nearby Tapiutan Island and beyond, just a short climb away.
Binangkulan, a (wonderfully) infrequently visited spot, boasts characteristic aquamarine waters for snorkeling, largely untouched beaches, a mini-hike amidst vibrant green trees, and in our case, a short visit with a group of die-hard bird’s nest harvesters. Bird’s nest is considered a health-inducing delicacy (despite its bird-spit origins) in several parts of Asia including El Nido (el nido translates to ‘nest’) and is harvested mostly from caves. Beyond my comprehension as it doesn’t offer a particularly interesting flavor and has questionable impact on the livelihood of the birds, it regardless has an immensely loyal fanbase with demand far exceeding supply, which has led to exorbitant prices. To each his own. And environmental issues aside, these men were gentle, kind, and proud of their wares.
Surrounded by sheer cliffs, Cadlao Lagoon offers another tranquil spot terrific for snorkeling or kayaking. For a change of pace, we attempted the latter, which went well until I disembarked to enjoy the water and clumsily climbed back in, only to soon realize that I had just been wading near this creature below! Cringeworthy to see floating by with all those tentacles and bubbles forming on top, fortunately these guys generally keep to themselves. You’ll also come across many beautifully translucent, luminescent comb jellies, which are essentially harmless. And you may feel occasional, temporary minor stinging when snorkeling in El Nido’s waters – more like a sharp tingle – but this is likely due to stinging algae (not jellyfish).
As it turns out, El Nido holds many ‘secrets’, one more of which is the Secret Lagoon (also known as the Hidden Lagoon) on Miniloc Island. Instead of swimming through the crevice that leads to it, you crawl through it and enter thermal waters that feel like a glorious hot tub – with impressive sheer limestone walls as your backdrop, believed to be the result of the collapse of a former cave. A perfect end to a day of island hopping.
On one of your afternoons, be sure to do the ~45-minute (each way), moderately challenging hike (mostly due to the heat) up to the viewing platform on Pangulasian Island. Your reward? Stunning, true panoramic views over the island and its surroundings. Time your hike to arrive just before sunset, and you’ll be treated to a glorious lightshow.
Throughout your stay, remember that you’re here primarily for the scenery. Unfortunately, the one disappointment about El Nido is the quality of the resort cuisine, which is generally lacking and overpriced. The Friday evening barbecue is not bad, though, and the resort could take a lesson from itself and generally focus more on high-quality ingredients, simply prepared. Skeptical about the accompanying cultural show, I was pleasantly surprised, as it was entertaining and featured local tinikling dance that became more intricate as the performance progressed – akin to a Filipino version of intense jump roping but with bamboo sticks.
For the rest of your holiday, with the exception of the breakfast buffet (included in your rate and with plenty of options), I recommend eating at the pool bar, which offers basic poolside grub that is both better than that of the ‘fine dining’ restaurant and more reasonably priced. Snag a table closest to the water for the best views and cool breezes. They also feature some pretty stellar mocktails for when you need a little ‘juicing up’.
After you’ve explored as much as possible for the few days you are likely in the area, treat yourself to a coconut oil-enhanced Filipino hilot massage at the intimate spa. Be sure to book in advance, as there is only one spa villa (with two massage tables). And take time to just relax in your villa – the homemade in-room treats and sweets make it that much easier to never leave.
My only regret? Not allowing more time for our El Nido adventure. Two full days is simply not enough. This is one of the few island locales I have visited that has inspired more than a few daydreams and to which I am eager to return. And I will. So should you (or at least visit once)!
Special thanks to Fritz, our fabulous island-hopping guide, and his whole crew, for their enthusiasm and expertise. It made our trip truly special!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography
Some underwater images were captured by Mark or Fritz, and all ‘couple’s shots’ are courtesy of Fritz or other lovely El Nido Resort staff.
A few practical notes about traveling to El Nido:
The best time to visit El Nido is between the months of March-May, before the rainy season begins and while the waters remain calm.
Fair warning – it does take some effort and a hearty dose of travel patience to make the trek there, even from Hong Kong. A 2-hour flight from Hong Kong to Manila is the easy part. But when the friendly folks at El Nido resorts advise you to build in a 4-hour layover for your connecting flight from Manila to El Nido, best to heed such wise words. The bus ride from the main airport to the private airport for El Nido Resorts (and also the other luxury resort, Amanpulo) is…an experience. It may take dramatically longer than you expect due to traffic, and your driver may drop you on the opposite side of a highway for you to cross over a bridge with your (hopefully light) luggage in tow. This being the friendly Philippines, at least you can expect a kind stranger to offer assistance. By the way, taking a taxi is a less attractive option, as demand seems to outweigh supply.
Thankfully, the modest El Nido airport lounge is air-conditioned and offers WiFi (albeit a bit slow) and a taste of the kind hospitality you can expect throughout your stay. Get that work email under control in the lounge, because once you’re (finally) in El Nido, all that nonsense will just need to be swept to the side!
Connecting flights to/from El Nido are frequently delayed. Our outbound connection to El Nido was rescheduled an hour later than originally planned, which we were notified about the day prior. When I expressed some disappointment with this change, the generous folks at El Nido comped us with a couple’s massage at the resort – an unexpected and welcome touch (and the massage was terrific).
Also, once you board your brief flight to El Nido, you can expect to sit on the tarmac for a puzzling amount of time. Think of it as time to absorb the somewhat bizarre ‘graveyard’ sections of the airport where old planes are stored in various states of disrepair. Don’t get put off by this strange ‘museum’ of sorts – those planes have nothing to do with yours, I swear!
Deep yoga breaths – I promise, it’s all well worth it!