Princesa Garden Island: A Gift of Timing and Pleasant Surprises

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Finally, the lights went out. Amidst palm trees and with the dewy grass beneath our feet, the sky, at last, was in plain view, glistening with tiny dots scattered all across a black canvas. It was stunning. The clouds certainly picked the right moment to play hooky. Blanketed in stars and enveloped by the cool sea breeze, we sipped red wine and engaged in playful conversation—a perfect way to spend our final night in the world’s most beautiful island.

The Firefly Tour, a show of nature’s Christmas lights

The obsession with the heavens began a few hours earlier on the Firefly tour, as we floated across a calm river bordered by mangroves. It was pitch black and, quite frankly, a little terrifying. Despite the guide’s efforts to dispel our fears, somehow the thought of a rather grumpy crocodile launching itself at our tiny, paddle-powered boat kept resurfacing.

In between bouts of terror, however, were moments of awe and wonder. Every few meters, a tree would blink into life, nature’s Christmas lights hard at work. The synchronization of the illumination was truly impressive, giving us an impression that there was a large entity at work, rather than a combination of fascinating little beetle-like creatures. On a few occasions a solitary scout would blink above our vessel, before flying back to warn the rest of the group of the incoming onslaught of curious humans. Shortly after, there’d be fierce illumination on a tree nearby.

Lost in the cosmos

And then there was the inescapable expanse of the stars above. With the moon as the only source of light, the sky was free to display its oft-ignored masterpiece. The guide pointed out a few constellations to grab our attention, explaining how the cluster of heavenly bodies could be obscured by the bright lights of the city, with smog effectively dimming the shine of the stars.

How right he was! In a world of moving billboards, smartphones, and tablets, we’re all too busy looking down and around, anyway, unappreciative of the stellar show up there.

There was something compelling about getting lost in the cosmos, no different from the feeling of standing atop a mountain—a humbling feeling of insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The short trip was a visual treat, continuing a trend that looked highly unlikely the night before.

Grill Night at Rice restaurant

Right in the middle of a sumptuous dinner at Rice restaurant, on the previous evening, the rain had started pouring. The wet weather plaguing Puerto Princesa, Palawan, was on a roll and looked set to continue. Certainly not the ideal condition for a trip to an island paradise.

But that wasn’t really much of a concern at the time. It was Grill Night at the Rice restaurant and a plate of tuna kebabs, pork barbecues, tuna steak, grilled vegetables, and corn on the cob had our complete attention.

The meal had gotten off to a flying start with a salmon ceviche, a mackerel ceviche, and an explosive tuna mango tartare, of which there were irresistible seconds. The curious mix of the sweetness of the mango, alongside the potency of the ginger, required further investigation.

The main event—the grilled delights—didn’t disappoint either. Once again, the tuna varieties stood out, with grilled vegetables in pesto proving an ideal companion.

The next round consisted of a more international array of choices. Filipino pork sisig, Korean pork ribs, and Chinese Yang Chow fried rice—a killer mix of sweet, salty, and a palette cleanser.

The exclamation came at the end, with two servings of delightfully refreshing shot glass coconut panna cottas topped with apple cinnamon. There was no chance the weather could dampen the mood after such a meal. We spent the rest of the evening settling into our garden suite.

Environment-friendly luxury

Much like the rooms we’d had a chance to see, the wooden accents were exquisitely placed, every detail carefully positioned. A king-sized bed took center stage, facing a clear view of the garden and the nearby pool. A lavish jacuzzi waited in the spacious bathroom, separated by a pathway of stones to a rain shower.

The entire room screamed luxury, but in a tasteful, and strangely homey, way. Particularly impressive was how some of the fixtures in the room were created from materials obtained from the construction of the sprawling four-hectare property. In fact, it was a trend throughout the resort, the effect of a deliberate plan to mitigate the impact on the environment.

Right at the lobby, where we were earlier welcomed with much fanfare—a shell necklace, refreshments, and a performance of traditional instruments—stood a beautiful wall made from coral obtained in the formation of the island paradise. Aside from taking considerable effort in maximizing all the materials acquired in the construction area, the resort also harnessed solar energy for its hot water. We were told that in the near future, a desalination process would be in place, as well, in order to utilize abundant seawater for maintaining the expanse’s greenery and numerous pools.

It was deeply encouraging to know that in the capital of an island that relies so heavily on natural beauty, there are shining examples of how to reduce negative environmental impact. With the forthcoming opening of a new international airport, the island is primed for an explosion of even more tourists in the coming months. Princesa Garden Island is already readying a sizable expansion to accommodate the influx. The hope is that preserving the precious nature of the environment remains vital to plans amidst the inevitable surge of construction and development all across the city.

The following day we awoke to the pleasant surprise of the morning sun creeping into the room. After a weeklong streak of pesky rains, and all indications pointing to more of the same, it was a remarkable stroke of luck, particularly since this was the only full day we had in the resort.

Given the circumstance, there was little time to waste. Breakfast was back in the Rice restaurant, where a light meal of croissants and cereals quickly turned into heavy indulgence as we saw the restaurant’s unique take on tapa and tocino—morning staples in the Filipino diet. Instead of the generally sweet flavor attributed to the dishes, these went down the more savory route, highlighting the quality and softness of the meat.

A much-coveted beach experience

Still feeling heavy from the longer-than-expected early feast, we soon made a trip to the nearby sandbar. We crossed the elevated wooden path, walking past the small group of water villas, and strode onto the 500-meter long floating bridge. It took less than ten minutes to eventually reach a patch of white sand exposed in the middle of the water. With the sun blazing down, the cool sea a few steps away, and only one other individual to share it all with, it was the beach experience we had been craving, but were afraid the weather wouldn’t accommodate.

To top it off, there was a cluster of gigantic starfish just hanging out near the path of entry, the ideal welcome and farewell group in the little sandy oasis.

Not long after, we turned from visitors to spectators. Settling into the hammock of the sea-facing Bamboo Villa, a clear view of the sandbar in the distance, and surrounded by calm water reflecting the fluffy clouds above, the view was quite simply serene. Swaying ever so delicately from side to side, the sound of water gently crashing onto the foundation of stilts, it was difficult not to get lulled into relaxation.

Golden Elephant’s Thai cuisine

But just as the curtain to dreamland started peeling back, the outdoor jacuzzi came alive, bringing reality rushing back, strangely, to a version usually reserved for a deep slumber. It took a moment to reacquaint with the surroundings of Bamboo accents and artwork, and tree slabs used as beautiful wooden countertops. Shaking off the cobwebs, an introduction to Golden Elephant’s fine Thai cuisine was on the cards.

Just a short walk away, the restaurant was also situated right above the water, supported by stilts. And just like from the hammock, the view from where we enjoyed lunch was exquisite. Of course, a sampling of their Pad Thai was first on the agenda, and it certainly did not disappoint. Juicier than the usual versions, accented with a subtle kick of spiciness, it was a real refreshing take on a classic dish.

Soon, the catch of the day was on the table, a deep-fried Lapu-Lapu (grouper) cradled in a rich garlic sauce and topped with herbs. The freshness of the fish beautifully balanced the potency of the flavor. To round out the Thai experience, a classic beef in red curry was the ideal punctuation.

The Princesa Garden Island experience

The day had gone on without a hitch, with the elements surprisingly coming together to give us the ideal Princesa Garden Island experience. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was another pleasant twist in store. Iris, who had been showing us around, had taken the liberty of booking us a tour to see the Fireflies on Iwahig river later that evening. As it turned out, it was a night to remember.

After quite a full day taking in the resort and one of Puerto Princesa’s natural attractions, the following morning was the beginning of our trip back to Metro Manila. But before we bid our goodbyes, we made sure to take in our surroundings one last time. With buko (coconut) shakes in hand, our bodies slightly submerged in the water, we indulgently lounged in the pool area for hours as the sun blazed down for a second straight day. The mood was simply to bask in the state of complete relaxation. If we could only bottle the feeling, and unleash it in times of particularly heavy spells of traffic back in the country’s capital.

Our stay ended with one last meal—an Italian sendoff at Tomato and Basil. Joined once again by Iris, we related the previous evening’s adventures over barbecue chicken pizza and a Princesa Garden marinara. The homemade dough stood out immediately, followed closely by the subtle mix of each topping’s flavor. Coupled with the full-flavored tomato base of the pasta, and the accent of the shrimp, the two dishes combined quite neatly. Fittingly, it highlighted the fact that although the sensational views of the island paradise stood out, the culinary experience was equally remarkable.

On this happy note we grudgingly bid adieu, but not without expressing gratitude for the lucky break in weather, and all the pleasant surprises along the way.

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