asianTraveler zigzags through the hills of Palawan and discovers the many wonders of Sabang.
The sun, it turns out, sets not on sea as we expected, but behind the mountains on the opposite side. Backlit by the sunset’s golden glow, wisps of clouds hover low over the lush towering peaks cradling the small sitio called Sabang.
It came to me, as I stayed there for days, that everything in this small community draws its appeal from its subtle, unassuming beauty. Sabang Beach, a long stretch of sand of the faintest brown, never gets too crowded any time of the day. It seemed to me the best way to experience this 1.5-kilometer stretch is to walk from one end to the next as the sun rises on its right side, breaking the dark and cold night with a gentle warm glow.
Inside one of these mountains over which the day breaks, there is a wonder that beguiles visitors, so much so that some decide to stay.
From childhood adventures to a home
This was the case for a family who, after multiple visits to this natural wonder, ended up making a home for themselves and for countless others who have come to see it.
“Since we were kids, we would always come here to go to the Underground River. There was still no electricity before. We would rent one of the huts by the beach and stay there,” says Jacqueline Tan, Managing Director of Sheridan Resort and Spa, a sprawling beachfront property in Sabang.
Tan has lost count of the exact number of times she has been to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, named in 2011 as the New Seven Wonders of Nature. “Twenty or thirty times, since I was about 10 years old,” the 26-year-old estimates.
Tan used to trek from the beach through three mountains to get to the river’s entrance, reaching it in two hours. This, however, was years ago when the Underground River was still a largely untapped tourism destination.
But with the recent global spotlight, Palawan’s local government has enforced a stricter system to protect the river. Only 900 tourists are accommodated per day by government-sanctioned motorized bancas (boats). Permits have to be secured beforehand as well.
Sharon Stone and a strip of bacon
The banca I was in crossed the entire length of Sabang Beach and slipped into one of the coves, at the back of which was the world-renowned wonder, which I was to finally see that day. Before this, I had clung to the image of a dark, eerie passageway that reeked of bat dung – not the most pleasant of stereotypes, I understand. I was in for a surprise.
The Underground River snakes through eight kilometers, but only less than a third of this distance is accessible to tourists. The route takes 40 minutes, passing through the cave system’s highest chamber at 65 meters, the waters underneath going as deep as 30 feet.
Mostly limestone with some quartz portions, the formations took millions of years to evolve to their current shape. In 2011, scientists found fossilized remains of an extinct species of sea cow, estimated to be 20 million years old.
But see the fossil I did not, because it was located deeper into the river not covered by our route, but I saw a flurry of interesting things nonetheless.
“Welcome to the fruit and vegetable section ladies and gentlemen,” our boatman’s booming voice pierced the silence as our paddleboat waded noiselessly into the passageway.
This, it turns out, was the locals’ way of making sense of the voluminous abstract formations that enclosed the river – a brilliant treat for laymen like me who would otherwise have found the mounds indecipherable, and, in a way, forgettable. And interestingly, they did look like the things they were supposed to be – carrots, an upside-down corn, a clump of cacao beans, only that they were as big as the average human. Some were a silky tan, others a rough gray.
Soon, our boatman was pointing to what was supposed to be a giant mushroom, a strip of bacon, half the face of Jesus Christ, and a woman with shapely legs that the locals called, and aptly so, Sharon Stone.
The least I expected was for the ride to be amusing, but I was impressed by the locals’ creative flair.
Finding and staying
If one indeed stays here long enough and lets his or her imagination wander, then perhaps there can never be one visit too many, as is the case with Tan and her family.
“Palawan is my favorite place in the Philippines because it’s relaxing and laid back,” she says.
An avid traveler herself, she says the perfect vacation would be one where “you think of nothing except to have fun and to relax your mind. It’s where you are most peaceful.”
This is the same quality that Tan has lent to her family’s resort. What started as an acquisition meant for staff retreats turned into an eco-luxurious respite for travelers from the world over.
“Our location may be out of nowhere and it’s hard for people to come here, but Sheridan has that personal touch and sophistication that travelers will appreciate,” Tan says.
It takes almost two hours of zigzag roads from Puerto Princesa’s city proper to reach Sabang. But such is the community’s charm that not only Tan and her family have made it their home.
“I am a Filipina,” smiles Sheridan’s amiable Spa Consultant Yuni, who hails from Indonesia. She has been with Sheridan for the past two years, infusing authentic and traditional Indonesian healing techniques to Sheridan’s Nature Spa.
She recalls her first time to travel to Sabang: “The road to the resort was long and winding and bumpy, but then I reached this place and the view just melted all the anxiety away. It’s beautiful.” The roads have since been repaired, making the scenic journey smoother and faster.
Sustainable tourism, responsible luxury
Sheridan has built around Palawan’s inherent beauty and complemented it: there’s not a shortage of open green spaces and breezy courtyards, and at the center of the property is a 340-foot-long swimming pool, the longest so far in Palawan. The rooms follow a simple yet striking Asian contemporary style – a characteristic brown finish that may very well be its homage to the golden hue of Sabang Beach’s sand.
Sheridan also gives back to its environment whatever luxury it offers its clients. The resort has begun tapping alternative power sources such as solar panels and wind turbines to augment Sabang’s limited electrical supply. Also, the greens served on its kitchens come from its organic farm, where fruit trees, ornamental plants and herbs are grown. It has also become a source of employment for the community.
“We make sure to employ at least one person per household here in Sabang,” says Farm Manager Rey Terraza.
Terraza is particularly proud of their black rice production: “Black rice is very important for us. Everything in it is put to use after the rice has been harvested. Aside from food, we use some of its parts as fertilizer, fuel for our mechanical drier and food for the livestock.”
Dining at Sheridan therefore means feasting on fresh homegrown produce, such as those in the Shrimp and Watermelon Salad with Cilantro. The rest on offer at the resort’s South Sea Restaurant are a tasty mix of local and international fusion cuisine: the Lemon-Scented Verbena Soup was a rich yet refreshing prelude to the perfectly cooked Herb Crusted Salmon. Meanwhile, the Beef Sirloin Medallion is another flavorful option for those who love their red meat.
One can wash it all down with the healthy and zesty green mango shake, or as is perfect for late nights by the beach, the signature South Sea Cocktail with dark rum, Torani strawberry, coconut, and pineapple and orange juice.
Between delectable food, comfortable beds and stunning vistas – be they of underground rivers, placid beaches, or sunsets over mountain silhouettes, Sheridan has given Sabang another wonder to call its own.
Go on a Sabang Ecotourism Adventure
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is not Sabang’s only adventure must-see. Not far are equally worthy waters to cruise past or else see from above.
Tread a jungle trail on an ATV. Beginners and experienced riders will love the adrenaline rush and scenic views of driving along Palawan’s rugged landscape on a four-wheel drive.
Zip your way across the West Philippine Sea. One of the more scenic zip lines in the Philippines, the one at Sabang takes you through a 15-minute trek to one of the mountains, your jump-off point to a 1.5-minute ride over the ocean into an islet on the other side. Eight hundred meters long and 150 feet at its highest, the ride gives you ample time to take in Palawan’s spendid beauty from as high as one of its famous limestone cliffs.
Paddle across the Sabang River along centuries-old mangrove trees. A scenic paddleboat tour takes you through the lush mangrove forest surrounding the Sabang River, home to four species of mangrove trees, blue and orange species of crabs, the Palawan bearcat, tamilok (woodworm), kingfisher, woodpecker, otters, wild boars, and other animals. A natural filter, mangroves sustain life and keep the seas pristine. They are also a nesting ground of freshwater and saltwater aquatic life, such as eel, milkfish and grouper. A community-led effort, this cruise supports projects for the preservation of Palawan’s mangrove forests, which number over 48,000 hectares, one of the richest in the Philippines.