Life does not get much better than when you are island-hopping near the town of El Nido, on the island of Palawan in the far west of the Philippines. Sheer limestone cliffs encase beautiful white sand beaches, waters teem with brightly-coloured fish and pink sunsets provide the backdrop for seafront barbecues.
The Philippines has, for the time being, avoided the tourist influx invading its South East Asian neighbours, like Thailand and Vietnam. But for those who venture there, the beaches and scenery rival anywhere else in the region, yet with far fewer visitors. El Nido is the classic example. It is perhaps best known as one of the settings for the Robin Crusoe-themed game show Survivor.
It is not quite off-the-beaten-track, but compared to Thailand’s Phuket or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, the archipelago of islands surrounding El Nido offer the increasingly rare opportunity to find yourself alone on a palm-fringed beach.
To get to these islands, you can either hire your own boat or take one of several tours from the town. Once there, you can easily spend your days lazing around on the white sands and dipping into the crystal-clear waters, or messing about in motorboats and kayaks, stopping to have lunch in an isolated cove.
Some tours take you to the rocks where locals make their living by collecting birds’ nests for the manufacture of birds’ nest soup (a Chinese delicacy and how El Nido, Spanish for “the nest”, got its name).
One of the draws of Palawan lies under the water; divers will see colourful reef fish, corals and perhaps turtles, dolphins and white-tipped sharks.
North of El Nido are the Calamian islands, with a number of wrecks to explore. As an amateur, most of my experience has been confined to purposely-sunk fishing boats in easy-to-reach locations, but in the Calamians, even fairly inexperienced divers can navigate their way inside World War II Japanese warships sunk by the US Navy in the 1940s. On the second deck of one ship, I floated past an old car. It had folded in on itself and there was a little clownfish swimming out from the chassis.
El Nido has so far escaped the tourist hordes because getting there takes time and effort. There are direct flights from Manila to Coron in the Calamians, but then it is another six or seven hours to El Nido by boat. Alternatively, you can fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa -- Palawan’s largest city -- but it is another five hour taxi or bus ride up from there.
The exclusive resorts use several small airline services linking Manila to a little airfield overlooking the bay. Although the flights are available to non-guests, that option, like the resorts themselves, is pricey (about 6,400 Philippine pesos one way), while the Coron/Puerto Princesa alternatives are often less than 2,000 pesos). It may be worth it though, for the amazing aerial views of the archipelago.