The Philippine island of Palawan isn’t short of admirers. There’s Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer, who described the little-known island as the most beautiful place he had ever explored. Then there’s Alex Garland, the author who took inspiration from Palawan’s palm-fringed beaches, hidden lagoons and coral reefs and turned it into novel The Beach, which was later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, the world’s media are taking notice. For two years in a row, Palawan has been voted the best island on Earth by readers of Travel + Leisure, one of America’s most influential travel magazines – and has been chosen as the backdrop to Hollywood films including The World is Not Enough and The Bourne Legacy. No wonder: there are powder-white beaches, blue skies and sea and diverse marine life.
It has all the hallmarks of a paradise but, arguably, so do the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. So what makes Palawan different from other identikit tropical idylls? It’s paradise with personality. Yes, it ticks all the classic desert-island boxes, but it has splashes of local colour too: folklore, such as shape-shifting monsters and “white ladies”, woven into the fabric of history, the excitement and chaos of 5am Simbang Gabi (night mass) leading up to Christmas, and chickens and pigs going about their own business. Palawan remains relatively unspoilt and, thankfully, Thailand-style tourist hordes haven’t yet descended. This is where you can still have an entire island all to yourself, and where the evening skies are so clear that when you look up at night, the Great Square of Pegasus, the upside-down winged horse, is always in full view.
I was born in the Philippines and spent many summers by the beach. I can honestly say that Palawan is the country’s best island. And the world’s? Quite possibly. Work has taken me to my fair share of icing-sugar white-sand beaches and resorts across the globe. And while they’ve all been marvellous and well-appointed, I’ve always thought that Palawan’s rustic authenticity sets it apart.
From stylish and luxurious to cosy and tranquil, there’s a resort for everyone in this idyllic archipelago. But if you absolutely must have the best accommodation then the choice is easy: it’s Amanpulo. Getting here is done in James Bond fashion: turbo-props whisk you to the resort, which faces the atoll-studded Sulu Sea. Once you touch down, you’re driven to your beachfront, treetop or hillside casita in a golf buggy. Make no mistake: this is not your typical fly-and-flop destination. You’ll be kept busy by your very own recreation manager, who sits you down and devises an itinerary based on your specifications, which can be as lazy or as adventurous as you want.
On my visit, I didn’t even feel compelled to read a book. Instead, I swam with large hawksbill sea turtles; I learned to kitesurf with a professional surfer who taught me how to drag myself across the sea like Wonder Woman in training until I was finally able to glide over the water for a triumphant second; I went fishing for snapper and grouper and trolled for wahoo, tuna and mackerel; I ate with my hands, devouring crabs and green mangoes served on banana leaves; I revelled in my first magnified sightings of Mars, Venus and the moon’s craters.
One day, I went on a wildlife walk and spotted a Palawan flying fox. It hung upside down from the branch of a palm tree and slowly opened its brown wings. To my surprise, a round and furry chestnut face revealed itself. It may have been the heat, but I could have sworn it smiled before stifling a yawn and closing its eyes for a midday siesta. “It looks like a fox but it’s actually a fruit bat,” whispered my guide Aljor, who, unable to contain his excitement, was bobbing up and down as if he’d seen a unicorn. “It’s listed as vulnerable, so there aren’t many around.”
Here, nature is the protagonist. Monitor lizards roam the island freely. I once spied a 6ft-long lizard by a wood-fired pizza oven, where it likes to hang out in the hope of getting fed leftovers. It’s normal to see the blue-grey Tabon scrubfowl, the pied imperial pigeon and the crimson-eyed spangled drongo flitting from one tree branch to the next by one’s balcony. Then, of course, there are the century-old green sea turtles swimming leisurely through the sea close to the shore.
Another day, I hopped on a speedboat from Amanpulo to neighbouring Manamoc to hike up Mt English to the highest point on the island. At 722ft, the mountain is no Kilimanjaro, but it wasn’t exactly a doddle for me, either. To get there, my guides Rio and Marvin and I had to pass through the local village lined with nipa huts and a number of more modern concrete houses. We stopped at a sari-sari store, a hole-in-the-wall corner shop, and stocked up on snacks. As we walked further along the road, the rows of stilt houses gave way to paddy fields and carabaos.
“I live close by and forgot something. Do you mind if we pop in quickly?” Marvin asked.
“Sure, we’re in no rush,” I replied. We made a detour to a small compound and entered a gate fashioned out of bamboo. As we walked in, local turkeys known as pabos came clucking towards us. On one end was a garden filled with pink hibiscus, dapo orchids, red roses and trees ripe with santol, mango, jack fruit and guava.
We pressed on and hiked up a valley covered with tall grass. Underfoot was soft, mossy forest floor speckled with flowers, the path later climbing steeply on a stony ridge with sweeping views of the sea, which changed colour from deep blue to aquamarine depending on where you looked.
It was a hard, rocky climb through the scrub before we broke out on to the open summit. Now I remembered why I had sacrificed a morning on the beach. Oh, what a view! The great emerald swathe of Pamalican Island, with its thick blanket of forest and the hazy grey islands just off the coast. Right before me was the best island in the world. “See that small plot over there,” Rio said, as she pointed to a patch of empty land. “That’s where I’d like to build a holiday home.”
I nodded: “Me too.”
Island Life: the Philippines’ top beaches
This tiny gem of an island is the Manileno’s beach of choice and, alongside Palawan, the country’s top tourist draw. It’s landed on many a best beaches list and, as a result, has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. The main attraction is White Beach, a three-mile stretch of soft sand overlooking an ocean dotted with romantic paraws, or outrigger sailboats. After picture-perfect sunsets, some live music breaks out and performers spin and twirl batons ablaze with fire. Life on the island is one big party so, at times, it can get busy. But, in comparison with Koh Samui, it’s relatively relaxed.
El Nido is often in the spotlight but neighbouring municipality Coron in Palawan has equally awe-inspiring white-sand beaches and volcanic limestone cliffs that hunker over lagoons. The photos you see on postcards of darting cliffs encasing the Twin Lagoons are actually of Coron and not of El Nido.
This is a good base from where to island-hop around the Calamian Group of Islands’ beautiful beaches, lakes and lagoons. Stop at Kayangan Lake, the country’s cleanest lake encircled by huge granite rock formations; Twin Lagoons, where access to the second lagoon is through a small crevice underneath a rock; Maquinit Hot Spring, one of the few saltwater hot springs in the world; snorkelling site Siete Pecados; and Coron Town. Stay at Club Paradise, an island-resort surrounded by limestone karst scenery and tropical jungle.
This long and narrow island is at the heart of the Visayan Islands and plays a central role in the region’s economy. It’s no surprise then that it is easy to get to, with dozens of daily domestic flights from Manila and several flights from Asian hubs that fly directly into the capital, Cebu City. Just off the coast are a number of upscale, family-focused hotels. The beaches here are rather underwhelming, so best hire a boat to take you out to the islands in the Bohol Strait, where powder-white sand and coconut trees decorate the beaches. If you’re feeling adventurous, travel four hours by car to the port of Maya, where small boats make the 10-minute journey to Malapascua Island, which abounds with beautiful sandy bays, including dazzlingly white Bounty Beach and, for divers, thresher sharks.
The teardrop-shaped island is considered the country’s best surf spot, but there’s more to the island than world-famous surf breaks. If you’re not a keen surfer, book an island-hopping excursion instead. Stops include Dako, a large island where coconut palms back a crescent of white sand on its southernmost tip; Guyam Island, a small uninhibited islet which you can have all to yourself for the day; and Naked Island, an stunning expanse of white sand that’s devoid of any vegetation save for a few baby palm trees. Base yourself at Dedon Island Resort (dedonisland.com), a private resort made up of nine Filipino-style villas decorated with covetable hand-woven rattan furniture.
Stopover: Insider’s Manila
Manila can be chaotic and spiritual, dirty and divine, gritty and gorgeous all at once, writes Carlos Celdran.
Here’s a taste of Manila – a destination in its own right and not just a stopover.
Where to drink
A Malate institution, the Oarhouse (oarhousepub.com) has an impressive drinks menu, which features a selection of local and imported beers and spirits. It’s served up some of Manila’s best pub grub since 1977. Fish and chips, Schnitzel with fried onions and grilled Schublig are just some of the tasty dishes on offer. The bar is often packed with artists, journalists, academics and regulars who the waiters know by name.
Where to eat
Set inside a maze of converted shipping containers, the Shipyard (578 General Malvar St, Malate) features murals, upcycled wooden tables, metal chairs and Tivoli lights. Doner, tacos and fried chicken feature on the menu. For the brave and curious, try Filipino street food, such as isaw (chicken intestines), kwek-kwek (battered fried quail eggs) and sisig (sizzling pig face).
Where to stay
The Henry (thehenryhotel.com) is the hippest hotel in Manila right now. Located on a busy street in Pasay City, the hotel is a collection of mid-20th-century wooden homes converted into a boutique hotel. It evokes old world Manila glamour with vintage tiles, clawfoot bathtubs, hardwood floors and large Spanish-style windows. Next door is a shop, above, art gallery and fashion atelier.
What to do
The Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, Rizal is an oasis of art and ecology ironically overlooking the toxic mess that is Metro Manila. Established in 2010 by art collector and neurologist, Dr Joven Cuanang, the museum also has a library, wellness academy, garden and bistro. Marvel at the collection of native and contemporary Filipino art, snack on a Vigan Longganisa pizza and while the afternoon away on one of the poster beds in the garden.
Where to shop
Escolta Street was Manila’s most fashionable business address up until residents and businesses moved to glitzy Makati in the Nineties. But lately, the city’s former “Queen of Streets” has been experiencing a renaissance. At the centre of it all is The First United Building, home of artist-run galleries The Hub: Make Lab and 98B COLLABoratory. Shop for shirts at Ponderosa Hall, sip on coconut and coffee blends at The Den or get a haircut at Folk barber shop. End the day with dinner and drinks at Fred’s Revolucion.
Carlos Celdran is a performance artist and tour guide based in Manila. carlos celdranwalks.wordpress.com
– Sunday Telegraph