You might have heard of the world-famous Boracay tourist island in the Philippines, which, at the time of writing, has been closed by the government for rehabilitation. Fret not if that was your target for your next beach adventure this summer, because the country has a bunch of other destinations. Island hopping has never been so fun as when you do it in the Philippines!
Overall fun rating: ★★★★☆
Change your idea of island hopping in Palawan, the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier.” The main island stretches 450km long but only 50km wide, and scattered on its northern and southern tips are several uninhabited landmasses. That being said, much of the main island is covered with dense forests and many of the beaches are still untouched. Palawan is one of the most breathtaking islands that I’ve explored so far. The only downside in this Asian paradise is the long travel time: while it’s an hour away from Manila by air, getting to the best spots via road travel will eat up at least half of your day (a one-way trip to El Nido is around 6 hours long!), so consider dedicating a day just for traveling, and bringing snacks and toys to keep the kids content.
Before we begin our island hopping, we first arrive at Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital that also serves as the transport hub of the province. Many family travelers stay in the city for a day or two, before they head to the beach destinations of El Nido and Coron.
Puerto Princesa City is huge: it covers an area of over 2,300 sqkm, so the travel time on a regular countryside tour is about 30 minutes to an hour in between stops. There are travel agencies for that, or you can opt to rent a tuk-tuk (PHP 600 for a group of 3) if you want a DIY tour before your flight out of the island. The stops include the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PHP 80 entrance fee), which breeds several species of freshwater and saltwater crocodiles endemic to the Philippines. The other places of interest are the Palawan Butterfly Garden, and Baker’s Hill where you can sate your cravings for sweets and tasty baked concoctions before your main journey.
Your second day in the city should be a tour of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the “New7Wonders of Nature”. Its world-famous feature is an underground river situated in a limestone karst mountain range. The park is home to almost a thousand species of flora and fauna, making it an important ecosystem on the Asian continent.
The town of El Nido is named after the edible nests of the swiftlet bird, found in the many limestone cliffs there. These geological formations offer a spectacular green vista against everything blue and white in the view: the sea, sand, and sky.
The town proper is quite densely populated and the ongoing construction of hotels and tourist establishments hamper the view of the cliffs. But wait until you get to the port area, where a fleet of light boats dots the beach, bringing that excitement before your island hopping journey. There are local tours known by letters A to D, each having a combination of islands.
The lagoons of Miniloc Island (in Tour A) are among the most Instagrammable features of El Nido, complete with all the shades of blue. There you can exhaust yourself kayaking or snorkeling, or just sitting in awe of the paradisiacal glory that made El Nido one of the best beach destinations chosen by CNNGo. Also in Tour A is Shimizu, Island where you can swim with schools of fish and explore the underwater scenery full of radiant corals and marine life.
The other tours have equally interesting activities. In Tour B, you’ll visit Cudugnon Caves, a historical site that houses pottery from Chinese merchants from the Song Dynasty. Tour C is secretive with its Hidden Beach and Secret Beach, aptly named because of their remoteness. Tour D brings you to Cadlao Island, the largest in the Bacuit archipelago that surrounds El Nido.
Suggested itinerary: A day after arriving at Puerto Princesa, take the Underground River tour (or the Honda Bay tour) first as it needs a whole day to finish. Make a 3am road trip to El Nido (PHP 600 round-trip to Puerto Princesa) and spend your days there doing a combination of the island-hopping tours. You can opt to go to Coron (2 hours by boat from El Nido). Make your return journey to Puerto Princesa at night (ETA 10.30pm), and do the city tour the following day before heading back to Manila or Cebu.
Where to stay
Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa (Puerto Princesa City)
From PHP 7,000 per night (deluxe room for two) to PHP 11,100 per night (Palawan executive suite for families) www.sheridanbeachresort.com (+6348 434 1448, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Aziza Paradise Hotel (Puerto Princesa City)
From PHP 7,300 per night (deluxe room for two) to PHP 9,400 per night (presidential suite for families). www.azizaparadisehotel.ph (+6348 434 2405, email@example.com)
The El Nido Overlooking Hotel
From PHP 7,900 per night (pool villa for two) to PHP 15,250 (deluxe villa for families). www.el-nido-overlooking.com (+63916 631 7078, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Karst Bay Travel & Tours Puerto Princesa and El Nido +63905 229 1618, www.facebook.com/karstbay, email@example.com
Legendary Tours Palawan www.legendarytours.com.ph, +6348 434 4270, firstname.lastname@example.org
*PHP 8.16 = RMB 1.00 (as of May 2018)