Up next, the unspoiled, much buzzed about, Philippine island paradise of Palawan. We were heading to El Nido at the northern part of the Palawan island.
Palawan is ranked #14 out of 100 best beaches in the world accordingly to CNN. Considered “the last frontier” of the Philippines. It is also the source of inspiration for the author Alex Garland. You might know him as the guy who wrote the novel-turned movie, The Beach. So despite it being filmed in Thailand and making the Phi Phi islands commercially popular, the real hidden paradise of The Beach is in El Nido.
Peter had been in touch with our friends Greg and Nadia for months trying to orchestrate a trip together over the Chinese New Year, a long 4-day weekend for Singaporeans, where Greg and Nadia live. Greg was the ring-leader pushing for El Nido and we all obliged his idea without batting an eye.
We met Greg and Nadia, along with Andrew, bright and early at the airport in Manila where we would all board our short one-hour flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital city of the island of Palawan.
We landed, collected our baggage, and bucked-up in our hired van that would drive us five-hours through tumultuous roads of roller-coaster bends, drops and curves to El Nido. All of us would get slammed into the side of the van or our neighbor as each turn was made. The one drawback of traveling to El Nido is that it is a pain to get too. Most vacationers want to disembark a plane and be at their destination without wasting much time.
However, it’s this terrible road and concerted efforts that travelers must take to get to El Nido which has kept it somewhat under-developed and relatively secluded to other island paradises in Asia. Unless you have a strong aversion to roller coasters, its worth the effort and car sickness induced ride. And with the buzz that El Nido will be getting its own international airport one can only assume that things are going to rapidly change in terms of crowds and development. Now is a good time to go.
Below is our esteemed driver. That monkey would get a swingin as we took sharp turns.
We made a couple stops along the way for bathroom and snacks.
I can’t be entirely sure what is going on in the below picture, but I think Greg is imitating how he and Nadia slammed into each other on the last turn. Andrew’s thumbs up is letting him know he saw and heard it. Peter is concerned about his eye that just got punched by a van seat. Nadia’s like, “It’s cool. I might have a mild concussion”
After 5 hours of motion-sick induced driving we arrived at our hostel for the night, Rovic’s Tourist Hotel. Towels twisted into swan art gives a clue as to what type of place we were staying at.
We checked in and reconvened at the beach which was conveniently located a minute walk from our hotel. Once we all sat down together the pre-sunrise flight and long drive memories started to dissipate. We toasted our first beers.
We made it! Let the vacation begin.
From there we enjoyed the warm sea, cold beers, and dazzling sunset of El Nido central.
Shortly after these picture were taken we were kicked out because of a private party that was being held for the crew and cast of Survivor Israel, which had just wrapped. (note: sign Peter and I up for Survivor)
That night for dinner we selected the Italian restaurant, Altrove. It’s one of the more popular restaurants in the area so we were given a number and instructed to wait around till we were called for seating. While we waited we entertained ourselves with stories and cold beers. The food and service in the restaurant did not disappoint and like the island itself, the wait was worth it.
After dinner we strolled over to Habibi Restaurant for a night cap before calling it a night after a long, albeit fantastic first day.
The next day our adventure really began.
We booked a couple nights on a live-aboard boat with a company called Secret Cruise.
Most people visiting El Nido take day-trips around the Bacuit Bay from El Nido Pier to visit the various beaches, lagoons and reefs. Secret Cruise’s philosophy is that while cruising and sleeping on their boat, you can see secret attractions unreachable by El Nido day-trips while beating the other boats to the popular spots in the morning and being the last to leave in the evening. It sounded perfect.
In the morning we checked-in for Secret Cruise and were joined by some other Americans.
Mark and Rachel, a fun, down to earth couple from Wisconsin living and working in China. Rachel is a psychologist at a top school in China so discussions with her were both fascinating and enthralling.
Shelly and Mark, a sweet and lovely couple from Wisconsin who were meeting up with Mark and Rachel. The previous year they traveled together to Thailand and this year El Nido was their rendezvous spot. Unfortunately for their group, food poisoning had reared its ugly head and seemed to be taking each of them out one-by-one. Out to sea with food poisoning is as terrible as it sounds, but they were troopers and made the best out of a bad situation. A trip like this is once-in-a-lifetime and not something you want to cancel.
Janice rounded out our group. She’s from Scotland but now resides in Beijing. She was recently married and had a Scottish wedding and a Chinese wedding so we had all kinds of things to talk about. She was really sweet and a really fun addition. Peter and I are going to get in touch with her when we travel to Beijing.
After checking in we all boarded our transfer boat that glided us out to our new home for the next couple nights. We were all smiling big, thankful for our health and for not suffering a terrible combination of windy waters and food poisoning. Our American boat-mates had instilled a new appreciation for our health.
About 45 minutes after leaving El Nido proper we passed a sheer limestone cliff wall and nestled in a calm corner of the Bascuit Bay. We came across our banka boat (local slang for outrigger) that had been remodeled into a floating hotel. This would be our home. The boat is made liveable with onboard chefs, staff, beds, dining and common areas, bathroom and a small bar. It’s not a yacht , but more “boat-roughing it,” if you will.
When we reached the boat, I think we were all pretty thrilled with the accommodations and surrounding beauty.
If you are a hammock lover. Prepare for hammock envy.
Once we were settled into our “bedrooms,” or boat-beds, we toasted to our live-aboard situation and took some swims.
During the daytime we were taken by a separate smaller boat to various surrounding areas to explore coves, lagoons, caves, and secret beaches. These activities also included snorkeling and kayaking.
We started our activities off with a bang with some snorkeling and kayaking on Miniloc Island. We visited the descriptively named “Small Lagoon.” The snorkeling was poor with not many fish coming out to play, but the kayaking in that setting was utterly bedazzling. The towering black limestone cliffs dwarfing the crystal clear translucent blue sea made for a wonderful contrast for the eyes.
While in the lagoon we tied our kayaks together and took the opportunity to swim around in the oasis of perfection. Afterwords we visited the neighboring “Big Lagoon” where we continued our water activities before our boat took us back to to our floating hotel.
If you have been following along you know about our love for sunsets, especially when we get to enjoy them from a front row seat on the sea. While traveling in Indonesia for the past few weeks we had been spoiled, but El Nido was going to give those Balinese sunsets a run for their money.
The setting we were in made for a perfect sunset location. Anchored on the water with nothing around us by sea, sky, and sharp cliffs. We all gathered at the front of the boat with sundowners in hand while we sat with unobstructed panoramic views. No music. Just the water lapping against the boat and the unique stillness only a sunset at sea can bring.
After sunset we were served dinner on the roof of the boat where we ate, mingled, and finally tossed on some tunes courtesy of Andrew’s phone filled with crunk.
After dinner our entire group moved things down to the lower deck for more socializing.
I was captivated by the conversations I was having with Rachael, the clinical psychologist, when I excused myself and headed to the restroom. It was nighttime and I started walking in the direction I was familiar with when Rachael told me going the other way was quicker. I changed my direction and the next thing I knew I was under water.
I walked right off the boat.
It was the strangest and one of the most out of body experiences I have ever had. One second I’m on the boat, the next completely under water and disoriented. It happened so fast that my mind couldn’t catch up to where my body had just landed. The front of the boat doesn’t have any lights so that area was extremely dark at night, lit only be starlight. The architecture of the boat can cause an illusion of boat floor, especially when you can barely see anything.
With that being said, I was the only one to walk off the boat. Of course.
Where I walked off was on the left side inbetween the white storage cabinets and the wooden front deck. Even in this picture it looks like the boat extends past the white cabinets. Nope, that’s all water with no railing.
I came up for air. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I remain eerily calm in high stress or dramatic situations. At that moment I didn’t want to cause a scene or freak everyone out so I calmly called out in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Help. I need help.”
The drop was about 5 feet so I couldn’t get back on board. In the meanwhile Rachael had gone over to Peter and let him know, “Your wife just went overboard.” Seconds later, Peter’s arm was extended into the sea and he pulled me back onto the boat.
After I was safely back on board all I could do was laugh at myself. Rachael being a caring and empathetic person was concerned, “Are you ok? Are you ok? I’m so sorry.” Then I felt bad that she might have felt any responsibility for what had happened. All was good. Except for getting a little dinged up on the fall down. Peter had a swagger to his step from his rescue.
I have wondered a handful of times what Rachael’s clinical analysis of me might be after that event occurred. On second thought…
After all the excitement we all retreated to our beds.
It was a magical sleep on the sea with a night sky blanketed with galaxies of stars. There were times throughout the night that I would wake up and stare out into the sky and thank my lucky stars to be exactly where I was in that moment. Those lucky stars were shining bright.
One morning on the boat I woke up early with the boys. Andrew and Greg had decided that they wanted to swim over to the closest island for sunrise. Peter and I kayaked separately so Greg and Andrew only had to swim one way, which was a challenge in and of itself.
The guys did an inspiring job swimming with only one hiccup.
Halfway through a quiet swim both men cried out like shrieking women, “JELLIES!”
They were swimming right through tens of thousands of small jellyfish. Greg had stopped swimming and was splashing the water around him like a madman, trying to get the jellyfish to go away. At one point he yelled, “Its a Jelly-Wall! I can’t do it!” Andrew encouraged him, “You can do it buddy. Keep going.” They forged ahead despite being stung numerous times. Talk about a wake-up call.
The rest of the day consisted of taking a jumper boat over to various surrounding islands for exploring. This is when we all realized that the hype of El Nido is very real.
After the morning activities we ventured back to our boat hotel for lunch. We said goodbye to our American friends who had only booked one night on the boat and welcomed a new friend, Becky, a lovely British woman living in Hong Kong with her fiance where they run a surf school together. What a cool life!
After lunch we headed back out to sea en route to a small beach inlet that led to a cave called Cudugnon which boasts makeshift rock-climbing.
Andrew made his way to the top while Peter gently asked me to not spider climb up the jagged rocks. He felt like after the overboard boat situation, I had already escaped death once. Plus, Greg, a successful insurance man, did a great job convincing us of the inherent dangers of climbing that facade. We were so far from any civilization and the ground floor wasn’t sandy, but layered with jagged, razor sharp rocks making any fall near certain injury. We made a deal and I only went half-way. It’s all about compromise. Peter and Greg discussed their newly formed risk tolerances after turning 30.
We visited Snake Island, one of the more dramatic sceneries of the day. Two parallel islands are connected by an s-shaped sandbar that can be crossed during low tide. One island is populated by thick mangrove forest while the other has a viewpoint well worth hiking to the top.
In the first picture below, Greg got this great shot of Peter and I from the viewpoint. Beach strolling love bugs.
After a full day of exploring, with salt in our hair, sand in our toes, and bodies tanned and warm we cruised to our anchored abode.
Just in time for sundowners we settled in at the front of the boat. Andrew took to some diving off the front which kept all of us with cameras busy trying to nail the perfect action sunset shot.
We all had another fun-filled evening of socializing on the boat without any overboard antics. Probably because Peter stood behind me like this all night.
Our last day on the boat was a short one. We got up early and headed out for a couple stops, the first being the much talked about “Secret Beach” of Matinloc Island.
Aptly named secret beach because the only way to access it is by a small opening in a towering limestone cliff that conceals this slice of paradise. Allegedly this is the specific location for the inspiration of the novel, The Beach. What do you think? Would you swim through that small opening with waves rolling in?
Our entire group dove into the warm water and made our way through without any mishaps. On the other side was island life at its finest. The water becomes shallow rather quickly and then you are able to wade your way to a small patch of white sand beach. The beach is engulfed in limestone cliffs that are decorated with vibrant, emerald green vegetation. We had the entire secret beach to ourselves. It was true that staying on the boat allowed us to get to far-away and popular places before the crowds flood in. Secret Beach is notorious for no longer being that secret and is typically filled with tourists. For us, it couldn’t have felt more isolated which was a magical experience in and of itself.
Here is a shot of the opening from the other side. When the water level goes up then swimmers are fully submerged while swimming through.
While we had this bit of perfection to ourselves, Greg graciously did a photoshoot for the group.
In the picture below can you take a wild guess who the singer, actress, model is?
That’s my girl Nadia, ever so graceful. Me on the other hand, I’ve got the “man overboard” grace.
Up next we visited Star Beach which proved to be a perfect spot for swimming with a long stretch of white sand and clear water. Again, we had the entire beach to ourselves. The guys entertained themselves with the frisbee. A dog appeared at the beach and then swam across to the adjacent island. Life was good.
Note to self: No more jumping pictures. Or come up with a better technique.
Our Motley Crew gathered up and headed back for lunch. We found out the guy on the left is involved in an underground bare-knuckle fighting cartel. This information in no way surprised us. It only confirmed information that we already suspected. Look at him. We nicknamed him 42 based on our estimates of how many people he had killed with his glare alone.
Here’s a better angle.
We had a couple hours before we took our transfer boat back to the main area of El Nido so we jumped on the kayaks and took them over to a nearby island where the boys did some cliff diving and we all explored the unchartered land.
Shimizu Island, named after a Japanese diver that tragically drowned in an underwater tunnel, proved to be just as picturesque as all the others. There just isn’t a bad view in the Bacuit Bay and the water color, no IG filter needed.
I recommend a picture idea for Andrew to upload to his Tinder profile.
After exploring the area we headed back to our boat where we feasted on lunch. It was with surprise and pure joy that an ice-cream boat showed up shortly after we ate.
We were all packed and set to go after an adventurous time on the boat.
The owner of Secret Cruise, a French guy named Rudy showed up to take our transfer boat back with us. The guys were a little irritated with him because even though the trip was fantastic, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. For example the floating hotel was supposed to cruise to various locations around Bacuit Bay each night when in fact it was anchored in one spot the entire time and utilized small boats for daily excursions.
Rudy had caught wind that we were displeased and came onboard to do damage control.
On the trip back an uncomfortable silence set in. Me, not one to be good at awkward silence situations, while Peter is the king of it, chatted him up with, “You know you really should consider getting some lights on the front of the boat. It’s really dark at night and potentially dangerous. Someone could end up overboard.” I followed up this statement with this question, “Why do you think the French don’t like Americans?” In hindsight awkward silence might have been better.
It turned out that Rudy’s cruise boat had a broken engine so instead of fixing it or communicating this fact to his guests, he kept advertising his cruise boat as one and engaged in bait-and-switch tactics upon arrival. Everyone we met on the boat thought it was a scoundrel move and unfortunately, Rudy, the owner, took no responsibility whatsoever. Even his staff rolled his eyes at what he was doing, but Rudy was defensive regarding his falsified advertising. He has such a great concept but it seems that he is getting in the way of its own success.
We made it back to El Nido proper and checked into Coral Bay Resort on Corong Corong Beach. The hotel is located right on the beach so we were able to watch the sunset from the quiet leafy patio, toes in the sand.
After sunset we walked along the beach to a restaurant where we had a very similar dining experience to the one in Nusa Lebongan at Waroeng Boemboe. We all ordered at the same time, but each meal was spaced out in intervals. Some of us received the completely wrong order. We ordered beers which took forever to be delivered. Upon further questioning we found out they ran out and needed to go the shop to buy more. Service is different everywhere. In the US service is a big deal. The cornerstone of business. The customer is always right. In El Nido there isn’t a method to the madness and there is such a depressed apathy to customer service everywhere we went – it made an impact on all four of us which we discussed in our recaps of El Nido. But you know what El Nido? You are so pretty, it doesn’t even matter.
Our last day we rented scooters and motored over to Nacpan Beach, but not without a little drama.
While Peter and I were scooting along we encountered a flat tire on a dirt rode in a small village. The gang was ahead of us so didn’t realize we had gone missing. Peter and I started to walk up the dirt road with the bike when we came across a man that motioned us to follow him. The next thing we knew we were at his home/shop where he began to fix our tire using some sort of old school method that I have never seen. It involved fire, compression, handmade devices and burning of rubber.
Our friends had discovered we weren’t behind them and circled back and rejoined us while we got our tire fixed. We met the generous man’s family and I instantly made friends with his children.
We thanked the man and asked him how much. In these situations, they really have you over a barrel so Peter was bracing for the worst. He would charge local prices which came to the US equivalent of $1.40. He wouldn’t accept a penny more. You hear these sorts of folklore while traveling where villagers take you in and treat you well with good intentions. Quite the opposite of greed that runs rampant in developed and developing cities of the world.
Tire fixed and we were off once again.
Just as we were about to get to our destination our scooter took on another flat tire. The other one. Once again we were approached and the same method was used to fix the other tire. We were in a more populated tourist area this time so men were in discussions on who would fix the tire, who would get a commission for finding us first and whose tools would they use at what costs. Back to reality.
We relaxed and grabbed lunch on Nacpan Island while Peter tended to getting the second tire fixed. We continued the common theme of gorgeous scenery.
The above island is the private island belonging to none other than the beloved champion boxer, Manny Pacquiao. I once went to a boxing afterparty at the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas courtesy of my friend Lisa. Manny Pacquiao led the party with onstage karaoke all night long. It was baffling to see this guy box his heart out then shortly thereafter sing his heart out. Some people are super human. I sent Lisa this picture with this caption, “Manny Pacquiao’s private island. How much do you think the karaoke goes off at this place?”
Greg and Nadia were going to relax at the beach the rest of the day. Andrew, Peter, and I headed out to do a hike at Nagkalit waterfalls.
The entrance to the hike starts at a small village where we were approached by a young woman to guide us to the falls for a small fee. We obliged figuring it was easier rather than getting lost. It was an easy hike and really beautiful with random encounters of flora and fauna.
About 40 minutes later we made it to the waterfall which was rather dried up. It was like Vicotria Falls all over again! The hike was still fun and allowed us some good exercise and fun conversations with Andrew about gender roles.
We all met back at the hotel where we headed out for our last night together. After some research we discovered a neighboring beach, Marimegmeg, known for epic sunsets. We settled in at Las Cabanas where we sat on the beach and enjoyed our last El Nido sunset together. We toasted our sundowners to a successful and well done trip together.
For dinner we opted for Italian at Mezzanine restaurant where we encountered good food and again very long waits. We thoroughly enjoyed each others company knowing we were heading our separate ways in the morning.
The next morning we climbed back into the van that would take us that brutal five hour drive to the airport. I’m not sure if knowing what we were getting ourselves into made it better or worse.
We said our good-byes to Nadia and Greg and thanked them for a most wonderful trip with promises to do it again.
Thanks to Greg who organized a lot of this trip and provided all of us with really beautiful pictures that capture the essence of El Nido. You can check out his award winning photos here.
Andrew, Peter, and I were heading back to Manila for a few days until Peter and I left for Cambodia. It would be the first time all year that we traveled on our own, but it wouldn’t be the last time we were joined by friends.
El Nido was a trip of a lifetime. I will never forget the magical feel of sleeping under the stars while out to sea with old and new friends.