A wall of cloud the same shade as The Philippines’ beloved purple yams looms in front of our motorised bangka, or double outrigger canoe. It is, quite literally, a dark and stormy night.
The tipping point of the eminent deluge is nigh but sunshine is incongruously enveloping our boat, so I wave away the heavy-duty yellow ponchos being dispatched to passengers. For what’s a bit of water when you’re motoring towards paradise?
Lagen Island, a 45-minute bangka ride from tiny Lio airport, is tucked within Bacuit Bay in northern Palawan, an island that droops like a long strip of coconut nearly all the way to Borneo. There’s nothing between Palawan and Vietnam except a whole lot of South China Sea and the low-lying Spratly Islands, snagged in an ongoing territorial dispute.
The Bacuit archipelago’s jungle-thatched limestone islets and aquarium-blue waters remind me of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, minus the crowds and jostling junks. Instead, we’re the only vessel pulling up in front of Lagen Island Resort, which features 18 covetable overwater cottages as well as land-based rooms tucked at the base of a seemingly impenetrable mountain that’s home to long-tailed macaques. The property is one of four in the El Nido Resorts portfolio owned by the Ayalas, one of the country’s richest families. We will also visit the sister property on Miniloc Island. Pangulasian Island is also in the El Nido municipality while Apulit Island sits off Palawan’s east coast. If I were rich (stays aren’t exactly cheap) or famous (they feel like the ultimate hideaway), I’d swan around all four.
A smaller boat ferries us to the pier where the sound of music reaches our ears. At the open-air reception area, we run the gauntlet of staff strumming guitars, banging drums, rattling a tambourine and raising their voices in a welcome song. Here, the country’s troubles, the politics and other disasters seem to belong to a parallel universe. We are in a hedonistic bubble that I hope doesn’t burst any time soon.
The resort works to keep the outside world from making an impact on this environment, offering low-impact activities (snorkelling, diving, kayaking and island-hopping) that pivot around the forget-me-not blue waters. These outings can be planned for those slabs of the day when you can bear to drag yourself away from admiring the shallow cove and the surrounding cliffs, especially if you’re installed in a super-swish Water Cottage. You could also spend time checking out the resort’s foliage for birds, such as the Palawan hornbill I spot roosting in a tree right near the pool on my final day.
My favourite activity by far is island-hopping. We board another bangka for our big day out and zoom across the bay to find Miniloc Island’s Big Lagoon, nosing our way between limestone walls softened by tufts of false yucca, begonias and orchids to find the sinkhole that formed when a cave’s roof collapsed eons ago.
The area’s limestone cliffs are frequented by swiftlets that build nests (a prized delicacy in Asia) on its crags, leading to the municipality’s name. El Nido is Spanish for “the nest”.
Around the corner is the Small Lagoon, with an entrance so tight you must squeeze through it in a kayak. Once inside the not-so-secret lagoon, we’re entranced by the emerald waters of a deep corner pool and slip from the kayak to float on our backs. This also blocks out the splashing of other day-trippers who return to their bangkas to find barbecue lunches sizzling on the decks. Local entrepreneurs paddle up to sell cold drinks and coconuts. Some aboard our bangka snap up a frosty beer before we cruise to another spot near the sister El Nido resort on Miniloc.
We plop into the water wearing snorkels. What’s below the surface easily ranks among the world’s best snorkelling. I’m obsessed with the technicolour mantles of the giant clams, the waving fingers of the sea anemones and the clown fish with which they share a symbiotic relationship.
Closer to shore, the water is roiling with a large school of jack fish. On the pier noticeboard, others note they have sighted a spotted lobster, squid and turtles.
After lunch, we zip past Pangulasian Island and its resort to Snake Island, named after the sinuous sandbar that can make it feel like you’re walking on water when you stroll from the bangka to the island to conquer its hilltop lookout.
It’s a short hop from here to Cudugnon Cave on Palawan’s mainland. We wriggle feet-first through a hole, which is a manoeuvre not for the claustrophobic, and drop into a chamber that’s as spooky as anything in Stranger Things. Speaking of strange feelings, deja vu strikes as we scramble out of the cave. Those bruiser clouds are back again although nothing, it seems, can rain on Palawan’s parade.