The first time I was in El Nido was for the premiere of French filmmaker and environmental activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary Planet Ocean, a beautifully shot but very disturbing glimpse of how the world’s oceans are dying and our marine resources dwindling.
The second time was for a long weekend — to get out of Manila and chill, do some snorkeling and reading on the beach while having mojitos or frozen margaritas before lunch, and swim with baby black-tip sharks.
The problem with going to a place like El Nido or other islands in Palawan is you never want to go back to the city or see an office desk ever again, or make a decision other than whether to order a watermelon or a mango shake while lying on the white sand with the sun beating on your back. You never want to make any choice bigger than whether to go snorkeling or diving, whether today’s book will be Orhan Pamuk or something totally opposite like David Mitchell’s.
Palawan has its share of high-end island resorts and in El Nido the poshest and most luxurious is Pangulasian Resort, which is one of four islands owned by El Nido Resorts (the other three are Lagen, Miniloc and Apulit).
Located in Bacuit Bay, Pangulasian is also known as “island of the sun” because you can see from here both sunrise and sunset. It has a 750-meter stretch of white-sand beach and guests have the island all to themselves — it’s secluded and quiet, and everything you need is a phone call to the reception desk away.
I love the design of the villas! They’re tropical chic and Filipino with their thatched roofs looking like an elevated bahay kubo. The rugs are made of abaca and seagrass, and the beds are a romantic four-poster with muslin fabric. And there’s a surprise for you once you open the closet of the huge bathroom (I mean, the bathroom alone is like one hotel room). Inside the closet are hats of all sizes, the biggest having flaps that will shade you up to your midriff if you pull it down!
Pangulasian has 42 villas, some of them beachfront — literally 10 steps from the shore and almost completely hidden when viewed from the water — while others are set on higher ground so you get sweeping views of Bacuit Bay. Facilities include a boutique, library, a restaurant and bar, an infinity pool with beach bar, a spa, and scuba diving and marine sports shops. There is also a hiking trail that leads to a view deck up on the hill from where you can watch the sunrise.
Because it’s exclusive in both location and size, the service at the resort is personal — they know you by name, they arrange everything for you, boat tours to Snake Island, Secret Beach, Big and Small Lagoons, kayaking to the mangroves, picnic lunch on a secluded island like they did the last time I was there.
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On his second day at Pangulasian Island Resort two years ago, filmmaker and Good Planet Foundation founder Yann Arthus-Bertrand boarded a helicopter and flew over El Nido. He was suffering from jet lag, but there are two things Yann can never resist: aerial photography and the ocean.
For an hour and a half, his pilot flew him between the limestone cliffs of El Nido, a managed resource-protected area 238 kilometers from provincial capital Puerto Princesa.
He shot the poblacion (town proper) with its backpacker lodges and houses hugging the cliffs, which is perhaps the only place in El Nido that will remind you that even the remotest places get discovered soon enough and once they do it can get pretty tight.
He filmed deserted beaches, mangroves and forests, small fishing communities, boats on the water. My favorite picture of his is of a girl drying fish and looking up to the chopper in her yellow t-shirt and grinning. It’ as if she’s saying, “What you consider a vacation paradise is everyday life for me, but hey, glad you’re flying over my skies this morning.”
Yann is very passionate about his film Planet Ocean— just as he is generous. The film is free of copyrights; it can be shown and distributed for free by NGOs, TV stations, corporations and governments — because Yann wants his message to be spread and to provoke action. Also, because the film is a recipient of the same kind of generosity from outstanding underwater cinematographers from outlets such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel, friends who gave their work gratis to be used in his documentary.
The luxury watch company Omega funded the film, which cost 1.6 million euros, a modest sum really for such a documentary (one can only imagine the logistics and costs of shooting underwater and in the air in various parts of the globe, from Asia to South America, Africa and Europe) and this amount is only because 50 percent of the film’s images were given free by other filmmakers.
There is not a single product placement by Omega in this documentary, but its connection to the ocean goes back to more than a century — its first diver’s watch went as deep as 16 meters; today it can go down to 600 meters below the water’s surface.
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On my first trip to El Nido, I unexpectedly met again two friends that I had known for some years. The first was Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts’ director of sustainability. She’s the one who makes sure that everything about Pangulasian Resort is in keeping with green practices — from its recycling to its no-plastics rule (the villas and rooms have refillable water bottles; the toiletries are in refillable containers).
I first met Marigs when Pangulasian did not yet exist — it was still under construction. I was doing a story on the newly acquired hospitality division of Ayala Land which would be the four El Nido Resorts formerly owned by Ten Knots.
We were in a boardroom in Makati surrounded by office buildings, and it couldn’t have been far more removed from what Pangulasian would eventually become — a resort that would be the most environment-friendly in the country.
I got in touch again with Marigs last week and told her, “You know, I haven’t written about El Nido and I’ve had wonderful experiences there.” She said she had seen my story on Coron (another of Palawan’s rock-star destinations) on the blog and was “green with envy,” hoping I’d do the same with El Nido.
There is a strong rivalry between these two islands in Palawan (which by themselves have several islands!). Coron and El Nido are both famous for their limestone cliffs and caves, lagoons, white-sand beaches, marine sanctuaries and dive sites.
Although Coron has the World War 2 shipwrecks for diving, El Nido has Hollywood bragging rights. Bourne Legacy’s last scenes were shot there (three-fourths of the film were shot in Manila). And no matter how much I try to persuade friends working in Pangulasian to give me details of Jeremy Renner (aka Jason Bourne) and Rachel Weiss’ stay there, they wouldn’t! What can I say, I have stubborn and annoying friends with integrity — and probably non-disclosure contracts!
Back to the rivalry between Coron and El Nido — fortunately, we don’t have to choose. We can go to both (or to Puerto Princesa) anytime, they’re only about an hour’s flight away from Manila. But remember that Palawan has 1,870 islands spread vertically in the West Philippine Sea (no, it’s not South China Sea — it never was) and the province has three airports. Apparently many tourists, including locals, end up at the wrong airport and it’s easier to go back to Manila and fly again than to take the 16-hour boat ride between the two or to Puerto Princesa.
Marigs said, “Long before there was ‘Palawan’ the brand, there was ‘El Nido.’ I guess it’s fair to say that El Nido cut the ribbon for tourism in Palawan, especially the brand of tourism the entire province is known for now, which is nature-based. El Nido the island set the bar for natural attractions, while El Nido Resorts set the benchmark for guest experience.”
The second friend I ran into was Melanie Espina-Alvarez, wife of former congressman of EL Nido Tony Alvarez. The funny thing is that I was on a boat wearing a hat and big, black shades when this lady came on board and said, “Tanya Lara?” I looked up — she was wearing shades too and had a towel on her head (the sun was so unforgiving that afternoon). As soon as she said her name, I knew her.
Ironically, I first met Mel not in sunny Palawan or Manila, but in the dead of winter in Berlin and then we traveled together to Moscow where it was bitterly colder. And now here we were, halfway around the world, our faces covered from the sun, on a speedboat in El Nido to go kayaking alongside the mangroves.
Mel is an avid diver. She told me that Bacuit Bay in El Nido is a protected marine area, which means fishing is not allowed, and it’s ideal for beginning divers because the bay is mostly calm, being surrounded by islands so there are no strong currents or big waves.
Plus, El Nido is an easy takeoff point to the dive sites, her favorites being North Rock, South Miniloc and Popolcan Forest.
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You’ve heard often enough how El Nido is so beautiful with its towering limestone cliffs, how the beaches are gorgeous and deserted, but you’re never really prepared just how shockingly blue and at turns green and clear the water is.
The only city experience I can think of that approximates this jaw-dropping awe — and one I can relate to because I’m a city girl — would be seeing Paris for the first time in your life: that slow walk from the Trocadero metro, down the steps and seeing the Eiffel Tower rising before your eyes, or that 1.9-kilometer stroll on Champs Elyseés flanked by horse-chestnut trees all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.
“The question that we are encouraging everyone to ask is, how do I enjoy El Nido’s sights and make sure that my grandchildren see them, too? Or for those not reproductively inclined, how do I make sure that when I return 10 years from now, these natural features remain this way or even more robust?” Marigs said.
In today’s world of drones and GoPros, you’ve seen the pictures on Instagram, seen the videos on Youtube. For me, it’s like I’m discovering my own country online. In April this year, after I went snorkeling in Balicasag island, I was talking to someone who was here in March and I took him to Boracay. After I told him about Balicasag, he said, “You’re so lucky you live in paradise.”
Living in flood- and traffic-prone Manila — “paradise” is not the first word I’d use to describe life here. But maybe that’s why we have all these islands to escape to.
El Nido and Coron, these two islands are what move travelers to vote Palawan as “the best island in the world” and El Nido to have the world’s best beaches. There are live-aboard boat tours that drift aimlessly through Palawan — Robinson Crusoe-type where people sail, swim, dive and camp out for the night on the shore — no Internet, no electricity but plenty of beers apparently — and eat what they and the boatmen catch from the sea.
They’re perfectly happy with that. Just the sun shining, the blue sea, schools of fish underwater, a book to read on the beach, grains of sand washing at their feet, and a tent for the night for a week or even two. And it’s paradise.
I think it would be very hard to say that of any other place in the world.