An ominous gloom veils the islands—scraggy limestone columns that pierce the sea—rendering these and the tangle of mangroves and boulders that skirt them silhouettes in gray. Drizzle and a feeble wind ruin the calm of Palawan’s Bacuit Bay and kick up sea spray that parches our lips with the saltiest brine. My photographer Jomari Dela Cruz and I worry out loud that we might have nothing to show for our travails.
But as Lagen Cove comes into view, the rain ceases and the clouds part. Here at El Nido Resorts is where the sun comes to stay.
Colors begin to reveal themselves. The towering limestone formations that are these islands—sculptural wonders crafted by waves and wind—change shape and hue with every angle and vantage. Wreathing these islands are verdant canopies that sprouts and blooms from all possible crevices and crannies. Roots snake down from above and weave themselves into the rock itself. The sun shines so bright that the fine white sand that fringes the nestled cove glows incandescent. Yet there is no need for shade. The fairer among the international visitors among us—I overhear Russian, American, British and Korean accents, to name a few—bask and revel in this muchsought- after balmy weather. Their complexion turn rosy and freckled. As for Jomari and I, the gentle sea breeze refreshes us even as the sun’s rays glazes our skin to a taut bronzed sheen. Clearly, this weather is what our Filipino skin is evolved for.
From our motorized trimaran, we transfer to a smaller speed boat that allows us to dock at the cove’s turquoise-colored shallows. We pass by Lagen’s signature rock outcrop that stands guard at the center of the breakwater’s mouth. Stout and burly Silver Jackfish, each well over a meter in length, mill about awaiting handouts from the tourists. Anywhere else, these would be a fisherman’s catch and a gourmand’s dinner. Here, these fish are regularly feted by the rich and famous.
The head of the pier serves as the resort’s Marine Sports Center where wetsuits, goggles, flippers, life vests and other gear stand ready for the guests’ needs. After all, El Nido is certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) as a five-star scuba diving destination. Immediately past the Marine Sports Center are Lagen’s iconic Water Cottages flanking both sides of the pier. Borne on stilts above the pristine waters of the cove, these cottages echo the traditional bahay kubo and take after those of Miniloc Cove, the first of El Nido Resorts’ four beach cove facilities. And just like those in Miniloc, these cottages contain all the modern luxuries expected of a posh tourist destination. But in contrast to Miniloc’s original rustic huts made from thatched kogon roofs and lumber walls and floors, Lagen’s cottages fuse the continental certitude of shingled roofs a nd solid Pozzolan walls with the tropical aesthetic.
Other accommodations at Lagen Resort include the Beachfront Cottages with their stunning view of the sea, the clustered Forest Rooms situated at the foot of Lagen’s lush tropical vegetation and the palatial luxury of the Forest Suites with their commanding vantage of the island. All these facilities possess Lagen Resort’s trademark blend of cosmopolitan luxuries and island feel.
In contrast, Miniloc offers Seaview Rooms, also built on stilts above water; Garden Cottages surrounded by tropical plants; Cliff Cottages constructed on the rock face that offer a panoramic view of the resort and Bacuit Bay; Beachside Rooms located right in front of Miniloc’s white sand beach; and Deluxe Seaview Rooms that feature solar panels above their thatched roofs. Combining lumber and rock riprap walls covered with vines, thatched roofs and white sand walkways, all these accommodations are consistent with Miniloc’s more organic feel.
For its part, Apulit Resort, El Nido’s third cove facility (formerly known as Club Noah), highlights its impressively long white sand beach front. It also features rustic Water Cottages with thatched kogon roofs.
Lybanor Godio, Director of Operations and General Manager of El Nido Resorts, notes, “The resorts have different personalities to cater to different markets. Miniloc is your active island getaway. Lagen is your tropical island sanctuary and Apulit is your tropical island retreat.”
Noel Barrameda, Resident Manager of Miniloc Island Resort, concurs, noting that Miniloc “is closer to nature.”
At Lagen, quite a number of the cottages’ and suites’ residents brighten the scenery with curvaceous bodies clad in the most stylish bikinis. But it is what flies on wings and not what struts on legs that turns my head. Swiftlets dart from their seaside nests at cliff sides and from the pier’s underbelly to swoop down and skim over the resort’s expansive 25-meter swimming pool to splash some fresh water upon themselves. Called balinsasayaw by locals, swiftlets are renowned for their edible nests. It is these that give El Nido its name; nido is what the Spanish call this oriental culinary delicacy used in soups. So precious are these nests that El Nido Resort posts guards to protect these from poachers.
Just above the cottages and cabanas, a pair of enormous hornbills glide from tree to tree as butterflies flitter about the bougainvillea blooms that overflow from flowerboxes. Everywhere, nature casually resides amongst us at Lagen. The wild are not lost intruders at this most exclusive and civilized of getaways; they are at home in this resort that blends modern hospitality with their island’s natural beauty.
To one side of the pool is the spa cabana veiled in white gossamer where one can have a massage while sea breeze wafts through. To the other is the bar cabana where we chill while drinking ice cold beer poured on frosted mugs as Jomari and I watch the sun set from our beach front seats. These cool drinks stoke our appetite for a dinner buffet to come.
Overlooking the pool with the island’s limestone walls to its back is the Clubhouse Restaurant which offers a sumptuous buffet as well as ala carte items. Most unforgettable is the freshly caught seafood grilled or panfried before us and huge capiz shellfish—a rare and delicate treat anywhere else but seasonally available in Palawan. Capiz fuses the flavors and textures of scallops and mussels. Topped with Lagen Resort Head Chef Demi Macasalabang’s Kilpatrick Sauce—a blend of Worcestershire and tomato sauce—I find them irresistible.
These dishes are guilt-free in more ways than one. Besides providing healthy yet still sinfully delicious choices, Chef Demi reveals, “We get as much of our produce such as vegetables, fruits, pork and tilapia from the resort’s own organic farms.”
Mike Prado, Sous Chef for Miniloc Resort, adds, “Palawan is the only place for good seafood—the freshest of the fresh.” I can taste the distinct character of each of El Nido’s cove resorts even in the cuisine they offer. Though all offer a fusion of Filipino and international fare, Miniloc slants more to native dishes while Lagen emphasizes a more continental approach. Chef Mike notes, “We want other nationalities to enjoy Filipino food. Nothing beats Pinoy. We bring Filipino food to another level.”
Cuisine made from the freshest catch prepared by world class chefs and a luxurious resort in the midst of untrammeled natural wonder—and that’s just the Lagen Cove. Just off in the distance—a short boat ride away—are numerous must-see locations and must-do activities.
Most recently a location for the spy thriller movie The Bourne Legacy, El Nido never fails to provide a dramatic and spectacular backdrop. The Amazing Race, the French and Swedish franchises of Survivor and Korea’s Muhan Dojeon are just some of the many reality television series that film here. At El Nido, everyone can be the star of their own adventure.
Our guide counsels us that the Big and Small Lagoons—both hemmed on all sides by overgrown canyon walls save a narrow entrance—are best appreciated by kayak during mid-mornings and mid-afternoons when the tides are just right and we plan our day accordingly. We find paddling here or anywhere else in Palawan a breeze as the many islands shelter these waters from any strong waves and currents.
Outside the Small Lagoon our guides shows us ideal spots for snorkeling. Even the non-swimmers among us enjoy themselves by simply donning the life vests along with flippers and goggles. Underwater, I discover whole fields of stag horn coral, huge fan coral formations and brain coral in the most psychedelic colors as I tail iridescently colored parrotfish, cherubic boxfish and dueling damselfish—all larger than anywhere else I’ve been. Taking a closer look, I spy the bright blue lips of giant clams thoroughly embedded into the corals and sea urchins lodging themselves among crevices. I only have to stare at any direction for the abundance of life to reveal itself.
Paddling into the Big Lagoon we find a floating stage at the very center. Looking around the high canyon walls with its dense foliage, I imagine these would make an amphitheater with good acoustics. Lybanor reveals that at Christmastime, she hires a string quartet to play onstage by nightfall as guests gather round on boats for an enthralling performance.
“Visiting the Lagoons is a must for first time El Nido Resorts guests. Experience the diversity of marine life by simply snorkeling in front of the resorts. Definitely a visit of the caves in Apulit,” Lybanor advises.
Entering Cudugnon Cave, we slip through its narrow opening using a specific technique our guide carefully shows us. Inside is a surreal experience of seeing sunlight pierce the cracks on the cave’s ceiling and illuminate the curving interiors. On the other hand, the Cathedral Cave has a tall yawning mouth shaped like a Gothic arch. Flooded with seawater, it is best enjoyed snorkeling.
At Entalula Island where we have our lunch, there are numerous activities available such as hobie cat sailing, windsurfing and kayaking as well as sunbathing.
I decide to try my hand at rock climbing for the first time. I gain a new appreciation for the Palawan’s unique geology up close and personal. Separate from the rest of the Philippine tectonic plate, Palawan is part of the Sunda tectonic plate of which Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Guilin in China, and Krabi in Thailand are a part of, hence the similarity of the limestone islands in all these locations. These might seem irrelevant trivia to some, but as I claw my fingers and jab my toes at the crevices that characterize these rock formations for dear life while dangling several stories above ground, I become intimate with El Nido’s unique geography.
With so many activities to do, we learn that El Nido Resorts plan to add even more. Lybanor reveals, “We are continuously working on improving our service to ensure that all our guests have a wonderful stay in the resorts. This includes developing new activities especially for our repeat guests. All guests will experience something new every time they visit the islands. We are building a gym and spa at Lagen, upgrading our facilities and amenities which includes adding television in all the rooms. We are also offering new activities like cave exploration around the island and nature walk with our Environment Officer.”
She adds, “Apulit will now have a swimming pool and adventure activities like Apulit Cross Rock Scramble and Rappel. This will showcase the dramatic limestones and will offer the best view of the entire cove. We renovated Miniloc clubhouse last year and we are refurbishing the cottages this year. We will also introduce an outrigger canoe for the big lagoon tours.”
The new premium
El Nido Resorts currently operates cove facilities at Lagen, Miniloc and Apulit. A fourth, Pangulasian Resort, is slated for a soft launching sometime this year.
“Pangulasian is going to be our most luxurious island resort—if not the Philippines’ most luxurious resort. All the rooms are villas. Some with private plunge pools, others with a spectacular view of the bay. Pangulasian guests can enjoy almost one kilometer of pristine white beach. The island is very unique because the island itself [has] a trail that will bring you to a deck with a 360-degree view of Bacuit Bay. We are also developing activities that are exclusive to Pangulasian guests,” Lybanor confides.
Facilities include Beach Villas, Canopy Villas perched 18 meters high on the forest canopy, Pool Villas each with their own swimming pool, and the premium Kalaw Villas that have their own secluded cove. Other features include an infinity pool, a gym, spa as well as forest trails and dive spots.
The recent growth and further commitment to environmental best practices of El Nido Resorts coincides with Ayala Land Inc. taking over a controlling stake in the company that owns and operates the upscale resort.
Lybanor enthuses, “The new majority stockholder bring with them an excellent record on environmental design and strong corporate social responsibility. Development will scale up, but the challenge to remain focused on sustainability will be a challenge that the new team is ready for.”
Life constantly is in the process of building this paradise. If it had its way, the sea would have eroded these limestone islands long ago with its ceaseless waves. Already the cliff sides are fluted and fractured by rain. But corals not only shelter these islands from the surf; they build its white sand beaches from their very bones. Mangrove trees collect sediments that would otherwise wash away. And the forest that blankets the tops of these isles builds soil and shelters them from erosion. To care for the web of life is to ensure the continued existence of these islands.
El Nido is the home of hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green sea turtles; marine mammals such as dugong and dolphins; giant clams as well as over 100 species of corals and 813 species of fish; swiftlets, herons and hornbills. Each specie not only essential to the delicate web of life here; without them, El Nido simply ceases to be.
From bags for visitors to take home their non-biodegradable trash with them, to solar panels on kogon thatched roofs that power their cottages and checklists for them to help monitor rare and endangered wildlife, El Nido Resorts involves its guests in its environmental efforts. Nature Walks conducted by the resort’s Environment Officer offers an enjoyable way to learn. Guests are educated on how to care for the environment with signs that prohibit the collection of shells and sand and to avoid touching wildlife. Even the airlines that we take to and from Manila and El Nido—Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI)—require flyers a minimum donation for tree planting efforts to offset the carbon emitted by their airplanes. This mirrors El Nido’s own Conservation Fees which it remits to the local government’s Protected Area Office.
El Nido knows that protecting the environment necessitates uplifting the lives of locals so that they do not damage it with their activities. Already, El Nido resorts is the area’s biggest employer as it focuses on employing locals. Sourcing organically farmed produce from the resort’s own farms not only uplifts local farmers, it also cuts greenhouse gas emissions on transporting and importing goods.
Many of the locals trace their roots to the indigenous Tagbanua while others clearly count among their descendants the Chinese traders and Spanish settlers who long ago made Palawan their home. To uplift the community is to preserve this heritage. At the resort, the local staff greet us with their heartfelt smiles and pamper with their genuine concern.
For its part, government safeguards the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines. Coast Guard patrol boats, conspicuous at El Nido town’s port, safeguard the area from poachers. The provincial government enlists locals with its Bantay Gubat (Forest Guardians) and Bantay Dagat (Sea Guardians).
Just as important as the visible efforts of El Nido Resorts for the environment are those that visitors cannot see. Discreetly tucked away from each resort facility are energy efficient and quiet power plants and desalination plants and rainwater catchment systems that lessen dependence on precious water sources. Located well away from the coves and other natural wonders is the resort’s own state of the art Materials Recovery Facility that recycles its own waste. There is no garbage to be seen; the few if any that may wash up are dutifully picked up by resort staff as well as conscientious locals. There are no noisy jetskis and other motor sports that pollute and disturb wildlife. It is white snapper, not grouper, that is on the menu; the latter has declined and the resort is allowing this species to recover. And there is nothing in bad taste. No crowds and no noise. Nature is allowed to be.
More than a beauty I admire, El Nido is an emotional rapture I experience. It simply takes my breath away and leaves me speechless. And I am not alone. Noel confides that many other guests feel this way. “I love it every time guests feel sad to leave that they cry. I have seen many women and children crying as we sing our goodbye songs. I have also seen some men who got sentimental during departure. There are those who stay in touch after their visit. Some even send photos of their pets,” he reveals.
Clearly, this is paradise.
I have not died and gone to heaven. Far from being an escape, this much sought- after vacation destination of the world’s most glamorous is a confrontation with the truth. For me, a Filipino, this is absolute reality. These are our isles before want, waste and the artifice of all our petty suburban concerns overcame them. I imagine every island, every cove and every port in our nation—be it Baseco’s seashore shanties or Boracay’s over-commercialized beachside bars—was once an unspoiled paradise like this. This is how life ought to be. A visit to El Nido is more than a dream come true; it is a moment of lucidity, a wakeup call to what needs nurturing and revival. I live the dream.