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There’s always a reason to keep traveling, for each step we take out of the city is a chance to redefine our standards of the ultimate destination, be it an urban escape, a cultural hub or a tropical getaway. With the advent of discounted airfares and multiple accommodation options, the search for paradise on earth has become a personal encounter for every traveler. For this one, it’s been found just an hour out of Manila.
Located on the northernmost tip of the province of Palawan, the town of El Nido is a nest of calm and tranquility scattered across 45 islands and islets, marked from afar by towering rock and limestone cliffs and the deep blue waters of the sea. Armed with two powerful and intelligent cameras from Panasonic’s Lumix Line, we set out to capture in images and words what many have chosen as “the Best Beach and Island destination in the Philippines.”
Arriving and lodging in style
The quickest and most direct way to El Nido is by plane – Island Transvoyager Inc. flies tourists to the town twice a day in style using a 19-seater Dornier aircraft. I arrived on the hangar early that morning and was treated to drinks and pastries like a first-class passenger on an airline lounge. Only after a filling snack did we surrender our wooden boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Lio Airport.
With us flying were guests of the El Nido Resorts, touted as the best choice in accommodation while in town. For the ultimate experience, choose from the seaside cottages of their resorts in Miniloc, Lagen and Pangulasian and enjoy pampering and activities to your heart’s content.
Other fabulous options also reside on the beaches of the town proper. The El Nido Garden Beach Hotel lies on the edge of the town beach and offers relaxing cottages and chalets along with pools and spa services. Rosanna’s Pension along Calle Hama, meanwhile, has a multi-storey complex of rooms with balconies and a commanding view of the beachfront.
For those on a budget, try Estrella’s Pension along Rizal St. with its simple interiors hidden behind full glass doors, or Antonio Village Pension and Cafe on Caalan Beach for a serene and quiet dwelling away from the buzz of the town proper.
Vacation is about choices
We arrived on a wet morning with an overcast sky but that did not deter any of the locals from making sure we had the best during our stay, nor us from taking the time to capture the essence of El Nido. For starters, we head out to sea for a tour of some of the islands of Bacuit Bay. Thankfully, one of our cameras was meant for water activities so we were able to savor the rough albeit fun boat ride.
The 45 islands and islets of El Nido are home to over 100 species of birds (16 of which are endemic to Palawan), over 800 species of fish, as well as species of endangered sea turtles and marine mammals. When touring around, you can choose from one of three tours that will take you to a group of breathtaking destinations minutes away from each other. I myself had my fill of beaches and snorkeling sites when we went island-hopping, so who can blame you if you choose to avail of all three tours, one for each day of your stay? Just remember to be at the port at exactly 9 AM, or the boat will leave without you.
Aside from swimming around, visitors can also kayak around the calmer waters of El Nido, like in the majestic lagoons of Miniloc or the Cathedral Cave in Pinasil. Or for something more furious, try windsurfing by the beach, as the breeze passing by El Nido never dies or breaks. Don’t hope for motorized water sports, though, as El Nido is inside a protected area so such activities are highly discouraged.
Snorkeling is also a very common activity in El Nido, as it is home to schools that nest in the town’s sanctuaries, mangrove fields and reefs. But why snorkel when you can learn to dive and get up close with groupers and rays in over 20 dive sites scattered around the bay? Dive shops are available across the beach for interested participants. Just make sure you’re fit to dive and you’ll be assured of a fun day out in the open sea.
For those who wish to keep their feet on the ground, try climbing up the limestone cliffs surrounding El Nido Town, for a sweaty but intimate experience with the sky and a relaxing view of the town and the bay. Nearby Cadlao Island, the largest in Bacuit Bay, is also a favored trekking destination, with a route passing through lagoons, mangroves and pools for that posttrek pampering.
Upon arriving in town before sunset, we decided to test the hand skills of the locals with a relaxing session at Lucelle’s Spa at Calle Real. Nothing beats a full-body massage to end a tiring but fulfilling day.
Tastes across the seas
Tani Distal and his Swiss wife Judith welcomed us one afternoon for a hearty snack at their abode – a cafe-turned restaurant cum souvenir shop known as the El Nido Boutique & Artcafé. An institution along Sirena St., the Boutique was instrumental in the start of the eco-friendly drive that El Nido employs today, having started the production of recyclable bags in town. The Boutique also proudly produces its own line of shirts and postcards, and sells everything from local souvenirs to gadgets and accessories.
The Artcafé, meanwhile, started as a coffee shop in 2000 before it started serving meals and entertainment years later to both locals and tourists. The couple take pride in serving organic fruits and vegetables from their very own farm, which I had the luck of trying in their El Nido Salad with mango and roasted cashew nuts. The Café also serves different kinds of pizza (a bestseller is their signature Artcafé Pizza), bowls of fish and chips (called “the Original,” as it was the first dish they ever served), as well as international dishes like Tikka Masala and Rösti.
For lunch or dinner, head out either to Balikaw Aplaya or Sea Slugs. Both beachside restaurants serve the freshest catch of seafood served different ways – grilled, steamed, fried, buttered, stuffed, etc. Pair your plateful of squid with a serving of lobster for lunch, then have buttered shrimp and grilled fish for dinner. All these meals will be served hot and savory while the waves come splashing on the fine, sandy beachfront of town, with drinks ranging from tangy fruit shakes to naughty cocktails as your company for the meal.
El Nido was named after the nests of swiftlets that the Chinese use to cook their famous Oriental soup. Such a precious commodity leaves the town daily for the consumption of the cities in the country and abroad. Before long, I too had to leave my paradise behind, also for the city. Cameras stored and notebooks tucked, I left the nest both too early and too late. I merely rest in the consolation that paradise was just a swift flight away.
The Big Lagoon in Miniloc Island is a geological formation called a “sinkhole,” where erosion by the sun, water and winds eroded the roof of the cave that it used to be. Tour boats pass by the Big Lagoon during high tide, but kayaks can enter the formation even when the tide is low. The calm waters and bloom make it a habitat and resting place for numerous plants and animals, most notably the Palawan hornbill, sea eagles, a few reef sharks and a number of sea turtles.
Entalula Beach is famous for its powdery white sand, crystal clear waters and picturesque shoreline, as well as the different species of fi sh that reside along its reefs. Aside from being a great snorkeling site, the beach is also a favorite spot for watersports like Hobie Cat sailing, kayaking, snorkeling, windsurfi ng, and non-water activities like rock climbing. Part of the beach is privately owned, so tour boats dock on a separate area to unload visitors.
“Pinagbuyutan,” in the local language, is said to mean “where love was consummated,” making it a perfect romantic destination for couples. The island features a sandy cove and a snorkeling site, and is dotted by fruit-bearing coconut trees. If lucky, some locals would be in the island to chop the leaves off the trees and visitors can ask for young coconut that have fallen from the trees for free. Pinagbuyutan Island is commonly the last stop for the island-hopping tour.
Snake Island got its name not because it is inhabited by snakes, but because of the S-shaped sandbar that snakes its way from the island to the mainland, formed by two opposing currents that meet and deposit sand at the meeting point. When the tide is low, visitors can walk across the sandbar from one end to the other. Snake Island is home to carnivorous plant species like the pitcher plant and the devil’s gut, and is a valuable source of Palawan mangkono, a hardwood endemic to Palawan.
Cudugnon Cave is an archaeological site where bones and other artifacts are found, said to have been the property of a cave-dwelling tribe that inhabited the area. Getting inside the cave is through a small opening by the beach, which opens into a giant cavern that lets minimal light pass through. According to some guides, the cave was also used as a hiding place by the Japanese during World War II, and also housed malaria-stricken patients as a quarantine area.