Palawan's Unspoiled Secret
One Philippine beach town is toeing the green line before tossing up tourist-filled resorts. JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN lives to tell the tale of why you should visit sustainable San Vicente—just not too many of you, please. Photographed by RICHARD MARKS.
Published on Mar 3, 2016
"Are you sure you want us to take the door off the plane, mam?"
Marissa, the mayor's assistant, asked me after our truck had skidded onto the airstrip and discharged us directly under the wing of a six-seater Cessna surrounded by no fewer than a dozen downright jovial people waiting partly to help but mostly to watch us take flight.
Uh, definitely. In fact, there's no way we're getting in that plane unless the door is off. We want to stick our heads out over the ocean. We require a doorless Cessna.
Out came the power tools and off came the door. Being able to risk your life with such easy abandon is one of the thrills of charting the lesser-visited reaches of the Wild-Wild-West Philippines, but it's also a perk of being an official guest of a mayor eager for you to properly see all the unspoiled paradisiacal potential her town could unlock if only the right eco-minded developers snapped up the keys. Palawan Island is probably on your go-to list (if you haven't been there already), but I doubt you've heard of San Vicente, San Vic to locals and the initiated—and that's partly because the mayor hasn't wanted you to.
Just one of San Vicente's undeveloped shorelines.
If that sounds counterintuitive, I should explain that this mayor, savvy and super green, is one Maria Carmela "Pie" Alvarez, who in 2010 became the youngest person ever elected to that post in the Philippines, at 21, while wrapping up her bachelor's in international business administration with concentrations in environmental technology and global marketing management at Babson College across the globe in Boston. After graduation, she took over a municipality that, despite sitting between Palawan's capital, Puerto Princesa, and the resort-filled karsts of El Nido, was and remains almost entirely undeveloped—only 10,000 tourists visited in 2014. See, no one wants it to become another Boracay. Rather, Pie's got a master plan for a self-sustaining, eco-friendly beach haven that will maximize San Vic's hit list: the country's longest continuous stretch of seashore (the 14.7 kilometer aptly named Long Beach); 22 lovely outlying islands and their marine sanctuaries teeming with dolphins, dugongs and turtles; butterfly, bird and bat refuges; plus waterfalls, mangroves and the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.
We launched our San Vicente immersion one sunny morn in a speedboat from Pagdanan Bay on the northern edge of a fishing village, zooming out towards Exotic Island. Any lethargic muddleheadedness I'd had due to the early hour was zapped on the approach by the sheer, shiny beauty of the place. The crisp waters overlapped in maybe 37 jewel-toned hues between one rocky, forested isle and our destination, Exotic, with a white-sand bib to which the anchors of a handful of rainbow-colored paraws were tethered like charms on a necklace. We puttered up on a sandbar and I needed a moment before I could disembark. I realized that I had wanted to be in this exact spot my entire life and had never known it.
A childlike expedition of the island saw us clambering over striped shale and zigzagged rocks. Some guys were spearfishing in the coral with one hand-hewn spike; our intrepid photographer, Richard, grabbed a mask and swam out to join them. I splashed around with two little girls among the outriggers and then bathed in the sun until our captain rustled us to depart for the next stop.
Spearfishing net profits, on Exotic Island.
I was sad, but for naught. Because the next stop waseven better. German Island. A perfect promontory of sand, ringed by coral and topped by a little gazebo, a big grill and woven palm hammocks strung between the tree trunks, four in a row. In the sun it's hot and bright, in the shade it's cool and breezy, and how the place manages a natural 10-degree temperature swing is beyond me. As we pulled in, captain pointed out a sea turtle chilling in the water; while on land, we played with the cleanest beach puppies you'll ever have the pleasure to cuddle. Our third isle of this hop was called Paradise—a bit of a stretch as it is just a wee patch of sand dripping off a hill of rocks, but I was glad we'd gone there last because it made it slightly easier to head back to the mainland.
As did the allure of that doorless Cessna. Richard conferred with the pilot about the ideal seat so as to get the best shots but also not to die. That the plane needs a shockingly brief taxi is good news, since the runway, now 1.4 kilometers, is still only half built. Then we were up in the sky, circling south over the three islets we had cruised to and fro all day. Wind whipping and wailing through the cabin, it was straight up the coastline of Long Beach, and my mind's eye could picture the swirls of beach umbrellas that one day will stagger up its shore.
German Island's palm-draped perfection.
Besides that, there was little need for imagination, because the water proved so clear from even that height that we could see the sea grass fluttering below its surface. (Richard could probably see it more clearly, what with his camera and entire torso hanging out of the plane.) Soon we were over El Nido's famous emerald-flecked towers, watching figurine-sized resort guests take their last dips of the day. By this point the melting sun was casting everything in a shimmering silver. Pie, we uncovered your buried treasure.
ALONE MOTORBIKE, ridden by a couple, drove by against a horizon intruded on from the right by a mountain, the melting sun reflecting on the receding shoreline. Under cover of the violet and magenta sky, a family emerged from the brush of Long Beach. Mom, dad, grandma, five boys and a little girl. They were going to fish and we were going to follow. The light was perfect, the mom was friendly and the boys were hams. The fishing net was tied to two stakes. Dad took one stake thigh-deep out into the ocean, placed the end in the sand, and dragged it forward, while one of his sons holding the other stake at shore followed along, near-parallel. Every 30 meters or so, the dad would loop back in and they'd gather the net on the sand to see what they'd snagged. The first catch yielded six fish, the next three, fewer or none. I was glad when the mom told me the family does this for quality time, not for survival—though, yes, they were going to eat those fish.
Hamming it up on Long Beach.
Still, in this municipality of 30,000, nearly half fish for a living. Regulating sustainable fishing has been a challenge, as has flood-proofing: new rules call for setting every structure at least 50 meters back from the high-water line (in a town this quiet, you can still hear the rolling of the ocean from three times as far away) and elevating all living quarters above the ground floor. The master plan, conceived with green-geared architecture and urban planning firm Palafox, also zones to ensure that indigenous heritage is protected, pedestrians and bikers have space to roam, and new homes and resorts are as sustainable and as solar- and wind-powered as possible. "I try to emulate the best of where I've been," says idealist Pie, "and mix them together."
One of those places is right in her backyard—Boayan Island, a 20-minute speedboat ride off the coast of San Vic. Robinson Crusoe is an overplayed trope in travel writing, but Ditchay Roxas and her husband Philippe Girardeau really have lived that dream here. In 1989, they built stilted, wooden living quarters and a kitchen, connected by boardwalks, under cover of a clutch of trees, between two hills on a patch of land whose backside extends to a rocky black beach pounded by the rough waves of the open ocean and whose expansive front deck faces a long, parabolic cove, all powdery white sands and crystalline waters, obviously.
Beyond preserving 11 hectares of brushland and virgin forest for wildlife including eagles, orioles, giant monitor lizards, scrub fowl and monkeys, the couple, who raised their daughter here full time for more than a decade from 1996, have worked with the developer who now owns the rights to the island to regenerate the oncebountiful coral in the bay that was lost to dynamite fishing. One tactic: planting vetiver roots, which grow down three meters, clean the soil and filter the water. A snorkel into the aquatic garden, guided by one of the local free-divers who help tend it, reveals a maze of new hard and soft coral plantings to which fish of all breeds have been returning. Turning Boayan into a marine reserve has been a boon to the environment and the economy. Over a multicourse lunch prepared by Ditchay that includes stuffed fish tenderly steamed in coconut milk, Philippe explains that fish who flock to and breed in a safe haven create spillover outside of it, enabling locals to "fish the interest, not the capital investment." Anyway, it hasn't gone unnoticed to Pie and her San Vic boosters that a pristine, blooming, coral dive site is tourism gold.
Northwestern Palawan by Plane.
IN FACT, these environs are chockablock with appealing dive sites, to which Richard is lured serendipitously when we happen upon a dive master from the Puerto Princesa-based Aquaholics. Our crew takes me, in the meantime, for a snorkel on a vast reef near Port Barton, the most commercial sector of San Vic, and then we cruise over to a village on an island so the guys can buy fish ("it's cheaper than on the mainland") while I buy our plane tickets for a domestic flight later in the week. Even as I type this, I realize how ridiculous it sounds, all the via phone while on a boat in the middle of the ocean in the Philippines. When I first started traveling, in Europe, in a much more basic variation of this seat-of-the-pants way nearly two decades ago, I never possibly could have conceived of any part of this situation. But here I was, bobbing in the middle of a glaring juxtaposition, grateful to have cell tower coverage while praying that no one else would come to take advantage of it and turn this nowheresville into somewhere.
Back to German Island, which is blissfully empty at this hour. The crew and I have the island to ourselves for a spell and I pretend like it's ours forever; they cleave the fish and prep lunch while I claim one of those gorgeous hammocks that were calling out to me the other day, bask in just the right ray of sun peeking through the palm canopy, and open my book for the first time in four days. And then Richard is back and his eyes are shining bright. It seems on three dives he's explored the Alburgen wreck, a merchant vessel that sunk 26 meters 23 years ago, and seen a slew of baby barracuda, cleaner shrimp, lionfish, parrot fish, humpback grouper and oddly colored clown fish—oh, and four sea turtles. There's a fourth dive site nearby, but he's satisfied. "Each of those dives was better than any I've ever done in Thailand," he grins. After a huge lunch, I too want to swim with a turtle.
Said the plane to the longtail boat, let's race!
Having seen several out in this channel (there's another rocky island some 250 meters across the water), the photographer leads the way. After a bit, he turns back towards German Island—maybe to fix his mask in shallower ground? I'm not sure but I think he's coming back but then he isn’t and all of a sudden I'm too far from home and the current is too strong and I’m trying to adjust my mask and the snorkel breaks off. Great. I’m treading water aggressively against the unyielding tide, which is killing my sprained knee, trying not to swallow all of the seawater in the world while taking a clear assessment of my situation. I can't see a soul on German Island, so trying to call for help would only waste energy. I definitely cannot swim back. (I should've swum back before!) OK. I probably can make it to that other island. It doesn't have a beach, but the current will just wash me up on the rocks. I can cling to rocks and not drown and wait to get picked up. Do not panic. You panic, you drown. Attempting to right my mask once more, I dive down… And come face to face with a grown sea turtle.
It's an eerily beautiful moment of tranquility, each of us gently flapping our limbs in what is admittedly gorgeous, clear, if imminently deadly, water. Well, hey, mission accomplished: I came out here to see a big-ass turtle and I have so I guess I can die now.
Daylight's long goodbye over Long Beach.
But, when I surface, a boat has appeared. I nearly drown in my sigh of relief. It's about 30 meters away but the captain has already dived into the water and is fastapproaching. Salvation. "There's a turtle! Right here!" I gasp. "Also... Drowning. Mask broke. I'm swimming to your boat, OK?" I take off doggy-paddling before he can answer. Scrambling aboard, I encounter a confused mate and then, as they climb back in back from their leisurely, non-death-defying snorkel, four chill passengers. "Oh,hey, where'd you come from?" says one of the Germans, laughing, as an American jokes, "We saw you out there when we sailed in but thought you were a sea turtle."
The boat, which these guys had hired at Port Barton, delivers me back to German Island, following in the wake of its captain, who, merman that he is, actually can swim through this powerful tide. En route, I see Richard on shore signaling me the thumbs up. Yeah, thanks, buddy. Now I'm all good.
Well, I can't be too mad. I am the one who said one of the thrills of off-the-map adventures is the implicit permission to risk your life. But thank goodness this random boat was here at the right moment to save it—in a palpable twist of responsible tourism. "Protecting the environment doesn't mean you cannot go," Philippe had told us. No, it just means finding the right balance between nowheresville and somewhere.
Until the San Vicente airport is completed, you'll have to fly into Puerto Princesa from Manila, via AirAsia Zest, Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines, and hire a car—or book a ride with your hotel—for the three-hour drive to San Vic.
This region really is untouched. The loads of lovely resorts up north in El Nido are about an hour's drive or boat ride away; the best bet in San Vicente is: Secret Paradise Resort & Turtle Sanctuary Six bungalows and two rooms run by a couple who cook your meals and actively preserve the four beaches their property spans. Turtle Bay, Sitio Barongbong, Port Barton; +63 999 880 2480.
Aquaholics Daytrip dive excursions and SSI certification classes. Unit 4, Alimar Building, Rizal Avenue Extension, Bancao Bancao, Puerto Princesa City; +63 919 991 6282; contact firstname.lastname@example.org for prices.