Visiting the Palawan islands is like journeying to the fairy tale land of Oz. An exotic paradise in the Far East, it was discovered only in 1979. Its pearly-white shores, beautiful blue lagoons, incredible landforms and a rich marine biodiversity; makes the perfect rest and relaxation haven in the lap of nature. The exclusive island resorts offer privacy and seclusion, making Palawan an attractive destination of the global affluent.
Palawan – The Land of Oz
The Palawan archipelago is a cluster of 1780 islands and islets in the south west of Philippines. It is accessed by air or ferries directly from Manila or Lio Airport near El Nido. Popular destinations in the region are the El Nido coastal town, Taytay, Puerto Princesa, San Vincente fishing village and the many islands in Bacuit Bay.
There are so many attractions that travelling the Palawan archipielago calls for careful planning to make the best of your itinerary. From visiting dive sites in the coral rich waters to swimming in quiet lagoons or taking walks in solitary splendour on pristine beaches, Palawan is for those seeking an out-of-the-world travel experience. Actress Rachel Weisz has likened Palawan to Emerald City, the capital of the fantasy Land of Oz. And it takes a journey to this paradise to perceive it!
Many claims to fame
The 2010 series of the ₱1000 currency note featuring the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Palawan is truly an ecological hotspot, with the oldest, largest and most diverse rainforests in Southeast Asia. It is recognized internationally as a region of global biodiversity ranking among the 15 most endemic eco-regions in the world. Palawan also boasts of UNESCO world heritage sites in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It is no wonder that this idyllic archipelago is voted the ‘Best Island in the World’ the second time running by Travel & Leisure magazine, and amongst ‘The Best Islands in the World Outside the U.S’ by Conde Nast Traveler.
If this weren’t enough to entice you, there’s more. The island resorts have already made their mark on the global hospitality map, with many international and Asian awards to their credit. The resorts are known for their one-of-a-kind services in luxury and bespoke travel, all with a sustainable underpinning.
Resorts: Why the affluent converge in Palawan Island
The Palawan luxury resorts are world-class. Set in an exotic location, with a one island – one resort formula, guests are offered exclusivity. The waters and beaches are protected from fishing vessels and mainstream tourists, a boon for travellers seeking a holiday time alone. The focus on upscale travel embraces the need for seclusion and consummate privacy. Most of these whisper-quiet private island retreats air lift their guests or bring them in by boat. At the same time, with ten private air strips in the region, the average luxury traveller has a sense of being connected to the outside world while having the privilege of geographic seclusion.
Word of mouth stories of decadent holidaying have attracted the affluent. The lure of walking on long stretches of deserted white-sand beaches fringed with swaying coconut palms, watching sunrise over alfresco breakfast and sunsets in a tranquil setting, is a big draw for the city-weary global elite. The charm of frolicking away from the public eye, splashing around in shallow waters or wandering amidst limestone islands, is beyond price for the discerning traveller.
Proximity to dive sites, access to breathtaking views and picnic lunches featuring exquisitely crafted French and world cuisine, what more could you ask? With some of the best trained staff at service, an island resort stay at Palawan is the ultimate urban detox.
The El Nido Resorts at Miniloc Island, Lagen Island, Pangulasian Island and Apulit Island have the best of location advantage, set in the El Nido–Taytay marine protected area. Amanpulo Resort on Pamalican Island however remains the most exclusive, favoured by world’s celebrities. I heard Bill Gates had come here to Amanpulo beach resort to holiday with his family in 2015, when he came to Manila for a business interest.
Where nature defines your holiday
Holiday plans in Palawan may begin with thoughts of retreat and relaxation but give way to adventure and fun. Surrounded by nature at its native best, even the most laid back traveller is drawn out to explore the amazing vistas beyond his retreat. Quaint karst limestone cliffs and odd-shape islands emerging out of the sea, tunnelled lagoons and underground rivers, ‘secret’ beaches juxtaposed with the vibrancy of El Nido town and night life; Palawan indeed offers a wholesome experience in the heart of nature.
The “last ecological frontier”
In Palawan, I felt I had reached the last ecological frontiers in the Pacific. This south-western fringe of Philippines has remained untamed even today with 70% of island area covered with dense jungles. Its coastal and marine ecosystems include dynamic coral habitat, enchanting lagoons and a spectacular marine biodiversity. Mountain ranges carpeted with thick forests, unique caves and sheer drop-offs, towering marble cliffs and stunning landforms, there is so much to enchant you. With the imagery overload to the senses, one can appreciate why many movies have chosen to film in this location.
The discovery of the Palawan group of islands has inspired a whole new generation of divers and academic enthusiasts. Access to scores of diving sites with professional support has made snorkelling and diving as much a leisure pursuit as a study of the marine ecosystem. Advanced divers also have the privilege of wreck diving off Miniloc, where hundreds of ships had sunk during the naval wars of 1942–1943.
Palawan is a photographer’s Utopia. The region’s geographic wonders and scenic beauty have spawned a breed of photography zealots who cannot have their fill of capturing Palawan. Whether amateur or professionally driven, nature has inspired some of the best photographic images captured for posterity. I cannot even begin to imagine what drone photography could do!
From quaint island names, to secret lagoons and private infinity pools
Islands here are named for their physical attributes. Palawan Island has its name from the Spanish “piragua” because of its top-view likeness to a closed umbrella. Snake Island is named for its natural “S” shaped sandbar that wiggles like a long snake through the bay, during low tides. Helicopter Island takes its name from the limestone cliffs covering the tiny island that resemble a helicopter when viewed from a distance. Coron Island is named in the indigenous dialect meaning “enclosed”, for its lagoons are surrounded by soaring limestone cliffs. The tropical fruit banana may not be grown here, but nevertheless inspires the naming of an Island for its physical similarity to a banana when seen from a boat.
Beaches are secluded with many tiny islands sporting secret beaches hidden by jagged coves or even incoming tides. Lagoon swimming is an incredible experience for its crystal clear often shallow waters, the floor much like the tiles of your swimming pool. The colour of water reflects the lush vegetation around you. Emerald green or turquoise blue, the jury is still out on this one!
Why El Nido and Taytay take the prize
The El Nido town is a part of the El Nido-Taytay managed resource protected area. It encompasses limestone cliffs, beaches, mangrove swamps, lagoons, and a thriving ecosystem both terrestrial and marine. This makes El Nido the logical gateway to local indulgence. Romantic boat rides, swimming in ‘secret beaches’, snorkelling and scuba diving in shallow coral gardens off the beach; or simply island hopping. There are myriad activities to choose from, with scores of island sites close to El Nido.
The Dilumacad Underwater Tunnel, another of El Nido wonders, cannot fail to enthral the advanced diver, looking for a adrenalin-high experience. True to its namesake, it is a 35-40 m long underwater tunnel at 12 m depth offering a unique experience for any diver.
El Nido is also the nerve-centre of the local community, with an organized chaos of buildings and eateries edging right up to the beach. At night, the little town comes alive with tourists flocking to savour the seafood cuisine and dine out by the beach. The food here is a medley, although the Mexican and Spanish is somewhat eclipsed with gourmet French. I would suggest doing your homework and settling for your priority, ambience or food!
Capping the stay with the Subterranean River
My brief stay ended with a snapshot of the Puerto Princesa Underground River on the way back. This was a guided boat tour gliding along dark waters below low ceiling limestone caves. The amazing natural wonder is located in the Saint Paul Mountain Range north-west of Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan Province. The subterranean river itself is 8.2 km long, beginning at an altitude of 100m and flowing underground to emerge directly into Saint Paul’s Bay.
‘Minimum impact’ is a way of life
Although many of the Pacific rainforests have suffered extensive deforestation, the Palawan rainforests remain intact even today. However, with tourist inflow and potential damage to the ecological heritage sites, the government has adopted an ecological watch with minimum impact a policy priority. A fine balance is maintained between protective restrictions and compensating for ecological loss and future restoration. So islands like the Shimizu and other sites are planned for a few years closure, to give time for the rehabilitation of the coral sites. A remarkable policy indeed, that needs to be applauded and supported.
In Palawan, sustainable tourism is the mantra, with resorts and local communities working together to conserve the rare tropical ecosystem. Water sports equipments are non-motorised, and boats are kayaks, local bankas, yachts and smaller ships.
Give it back to nature!
The entire community has joined hands with the government to have minimum impact, while successfully balancing people, planet and profits. So when you are Palawan, give it back to nature. Go beyond the mandatory conservation fee of P200 and do your bit to protect the ecosystem. This is a place where you will want to visit again.