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Coast to Coast

Island-hopping between Palawan’s El Nido and Coron, pristine beaches are trumped only by the Technicolor marine life that thrives beyond their shores. Eloise Basuki tests her sea legs to find that this protected pocket of the Philippines isn’t just an ecological wonder, but also a place that somehow feels like home. Photographs by Leigh Griffiths

Published on Jun 7, 2018

Three sharks are doing figure eights in the glassy water beneath my dangling feet. Perched on the deck of my overwater cottage, one of a series that skirts the bay of
Ayala Land’s Apulit Island Resort, I watch the graceful trio dance circles through a school of tiny, sparkling fish. The predators are trying to confuse and divide the sheepish shoal with the aim of cornering an unlucky stray: potential lunch.

Docking on Isla Blanca, a reef-fringed island 20 minutes from Ayala Land's Apulit Island Resort.

Guests at Apulit can rappel from the sky-high cross, a legacy from the property's former owners, down the 60-meter vertical limestone cliff. 

I wasn’t counting on dodging hungry sharks on what I had imagined to be a sun-kissed, bikini-clad, island-hopping tour of northern Palawan, but my frustratingly always cool, calm and collected partner, Leigh, waves off my concerns. “The sharks have no interest in you or your toes,” he tells me flatly, and the Apulit porters, who have come to deliver our bags from our just-arrived boat, back up his theory. These are blacktip reef sharks and, each about the size of my forearm, are just babies; the much bigger and slightly more deadly mothers have, curiously, never been sighted in Apulit’s waters, despite always laying their eggs in this spot by the resort’s cottages. Satisfied with the green light from the porters, Leigh jumps into the water. I stare at him, mouth agape. He asks me to throw him a snorkeling mask.

As a Pisces, an Australian and a beach lover from birth, I’m familiar with sharks—albeit more hostile ones—and I’ve done my fair share of snorkeling the world’s oceans. But the stories that visitors to Palawan recall are colored with rainbow corals, neon schools of fish and water so electric-blue that I can’t quite recollect the same scenes from anywhere I’ve been.

I’ve come to see the seas of northern Palawan because, despite facing the same environmental wrath of climate change and pollution of many ecological havens, the forward-thinking attitude of the local government and local sustainability initiatives are acting like a protective cloak on its natural wonders. From a castaway isle off of El Nido that is thriving with stunning wildlife, I’ll head across the deep blue, passing untouched lands and pockets still populated with indigenous tribes, all the way to Coron, where tour companies and the community are coming together to ensure the growing industry doesn’t cannibalize its draw.

THE WARM APULIT WELCOME—a traditional song, a chilled juice, a woven palm necklace, a cheerful reminder to minimize your footprint—precedes a jam-packed schedule of activities. On land there’s rock-climbing; rappelling from the giant cross that looms up on a clifftop; and a jungle hike into Apulit’s interior. On sea there’s sunset kayaking: a boat to Isla Blanca, named for its sugar-white sands; and snorkeling at Nabat Reef, to spot flame scallops, lionfish and neon nudibranchs.

Inside a breezy Apulit water cottage.

Snorkel, kayak or paddleboard from Apulit’s beach.

Piqued by the sight of those finned “friends” by our cottage, we set out on foot to find more of the island’s wild residents. On a nature walk with the resort’s environment officer, Maxine Gail Fabroa, we amble along the two-kilometer stretch of coast spotting crooning collared kingfishers, lithe monitor lizards, a nimble gang of endemic Palawan squirrels, a lone moray eel, and a blue-spotted stingray fluttering in the shallow shore.

A blue spotted stingray close to shore.

Maxine credits the thriving bounty of wildlife here to El Nido’s strong sustainability efforts. Last year, the El Nido government implemented a region-wide ban of all single-use plastics. All of Ayala Land’s El Nido Resorts have implemented eco-friendly initiatives throughout its properties, including solar panels, sourcing local ingredients for their menus, installing mooring buoys to prevent coral damage from anchoring boats, and using on-site sewage treatment plants to handle all wastewater.

With the temporary closure of Boracay still freshly reeling across the Philippines, Apulit and El Nido at large are committed to preventing the same environmental damage from occurring here. “Boracay now has a lot of green algae on the water,” Maxine says. “We don’t want this to happen to our resort—no, no, no. We also have our own desalination plant so we don’t have to compete with locals by taking their ground water.”

El Nido and Boracay both became major tourist hubs around the same time in the 1980s, but these days, at least before the current visitor ban in Boracay, tourism numbers have grown worlds apart: in 2017, 2 million tourists visited the tiny 1,000-hectare island of Boracay, compared to 200,000 to the 92,000-hectare region of El Nido. “El Nido is just not as accessible,” Maxine says. For decades, the island’s only airport was in Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital, before El Nido’s opened in 2002. The highway to El Nido was only completed in 2015. “In the 80s going to El Nido from Puerto Princesa by land would take more than a week,” Maxine laughs, before pointing out a flying fish jumping between kayakers in the bay.

Apulit proves to be a place for endless communing with nature. During low tide it’s possible to free-dive just offshore to an angel statue covered with giant clams, an old relic from the island’s former owners. Off Isla Blanca, schools of zebra-striped sergeant majors and fluorescent blue tangs swim unperturbed alongside our flailing fins and obtrusive masks. On a sunset cruise that circles the island, skipper Mario points out North Cave. The cave’s ceiling has long since collapsed, and inside, across a small lagoon, staff can organize a private dinner under a skylight of stars. For Leigh and me, though, it’s to the buffet. On the open deck, the sea sprawling just steps away, we pile freshly grilled seafood and roasted meats onto our plates. For dessert we set up at the halo-halo station for a choose-your-own-adventure of jellies, fruits, shaved ice and dollops of purple ube jam.

Fed, watered and slightly sunburnt, it’s time for bed. Even inside our cottage, nature still manages to creep in. The rooms are newly renovated and broad windows let in warm rays of light during the day and constant views of the moonlit ocean at night. Tomorrow we’ll bid goodbye to this cozy hideaway and begin our next leg to Coron, to snorkel around its coral-covered shipwrecks and swim among hidden lagoons and its iconic limestone karsts. I was just getting used to sharing space with the sharks, but to reach Coron, we have to catch a ferry—something, perhaps, even more formidable.

IT'S NEVER EASY GETTING TO PARADISE. The journey to Apulit involved a stopover in Manila, an early flight to El Nido, a 90-minute van ride to the Taytay port and, finally, a 45-minute paraw sail to the island. After a sad but song-filled goodbye to Apulit, our next passage is similarly lengthy, but slightly more tumultuous. There are only two ferries to Coron, and both leave early. It’s a deceivingly long sail through open seas: the “fast” ferry run by Montenegro Shipping Lines leaves at 6 a.m. and is supposed to take 3½ hours. Ours takes five because of a bout of bad weather—a common obstacle, I’m told.

Halfway through the journey, powerful waves spray the ferry windows and jostle the boat like the gut of a washing machine. Passengers around me begin to turn green. A grown man races to the bathroom with his hands to his mouth and terror in his eyes; the couple in front of us keep it together by staring at the ceiling and occasionally squeezing each other’s hands. Leigh, with his cool-as-a-cucumber MO, is dozing peacefully. Long familiar with my own lack of sea legs, I’m thankfully dosed up on Dramamine, so sleep most of the trip, too.

The view from Kayangan Lake.

Arriving in Coron, there’s a different kind of shark lingering at the port. Hordes of tuk-tuk drivers call out from the gate, hoping to catch dazed tourists fresh off the ferry. Thankfully, we’re thrown a lifeline: our hotel for the next few nights has sent a car to pick us up, a vintage Jeep to be specific. Safari-themed The Funny Lion is the first and only boutique hotel on the island, located a short drive up the hill from the town proper, up on a cliff that looks out to Coron Bay. “They call this the Beverly Hills of Coron,” exclaims Michael Mahinay, manager of the 31-room property. “I like it here because you are in town, but it’s so quiet. Here you can smell nature.”

Outside our spacious Pride room, the hotel’s Hunt Restaurant is gearing up for dinner. Some guests laze by the pool, but the more vigilant have already scored the best view in the house from the rooftop bar’s Jacuzzis, ready to catch the last of the afternoon light filter through the 110 hectares of virgin mangroves and a lone majestic flame tree that grows on The Funny Lion’s cliff.

“I cannot cut a single tree, they are all accounted for,” Michael says of the protected forest. “Every month a government officer visits and checks everything.” Michael grew up in Puerto Princesa, and has worked his way across Palawan, but his love of diving keeps him in Coron. “Coron is very special to me, it’s very different,” he says. “You will see it: there is an X-factor here.”

He has organized a tour of the town for us, so Leigh and I hop on a tuk-tuk with guide Allan, who welcomes us with a smile and a pumping R-and-B playlist. Allan has been in Coron since 1996, when there were only 10 tuk-tuks on the island. Now there are more than 1,000 to keep up with Coron’s growing reputation. We peep in at the century-old San Agustin church, dip in the scalding Maquinit hot springs, and a take a breathless hike up the 723 steps to Mount Tapyas for its panoramic view of Coron Island. While the town we’re in is known as Coron, we’re actually on Busuanga Island, which became the Coron municipality in 1902. Palawan’s indigenous Tagbanua tribe still live on neighboring Coron Island and in 1998 were granted the ancestral rights to manage the island and surrounding fishing grounds.

Coron Island is 70 percent rocky limestone, but sandy little coves can be the perfect picnic hideaway if you know where to look.

AN ELDERLY, TOOTHLESS TAGBANUA man has engaged me in a courting dance at a wedding in Lajala, on Uson Island. We are on the last leg of our Coron tour with Calamianes Expeditions and Ecotours, and this wasn’t what I was expecting when our guide, Julius, brought us to Lajala in search of Tagbanua elder Maurita, who roasts and pounds coffee the local way and sells the dark and smoky grind to The Funny Lion. We were never able to find Maurita, but we did crash a wedding.

So far Julius and his crew on their paraw have taken us on a picture-perfect snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding tour around Coron Island. We’ve swum among schools of damselfish at the Skeleton Shipwreck, a sunken 25-meter Japanese supply ship from World War II, the wreck among a fleet taken down by U.S. spy planes when spotted hiding among the area’s karsts. Julius’s team cooked us a seafood feast at Calachuchi Beach, a tiny frangipani-fringed bay with plump, orange starfish dotting the sea. We’ve snorkeled the Coral Gardens to spot vermillion soft tree corals; skeletal, feathery sea fans; and baby clownfish poking out from the waving anemones. We’ve kayaked through a mangrove tunnel into a secret lagoon known only to Julius and a few other guides before hitting the spot everyone knows about, Kayangan Lake. We trek up the limestone cliff and battle the selfie-sticks for the most photographed view of Coron, and swim in the cool but crowded 70-percent-freshwater lake, maintained by the Tagbanua tribe and said to be the cleanest lake in the Philippines.

Run by fifth-generation Coron local Al Linsangan and his wife Mae, Calamianes is fiercely protective of its environment. As a member of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the company maintains a sustainable focus when it comes to its tours: Julius collects rogue bits of floating trash as we paddle; the crew anchor at specific mooring buoys; and Al has spent years immersing himself in the Tagbanua culture to ensure his business supports the community.

While Coron is still behind El Nido when it comes to conservation, the natural beauty here has surpassed anything I had envisioned, and the accidental deep-dive into Lajala community life is a lasting memory.

With Julius leading the way, we follow the raucous trail of music to the party, and the crowd ushers us in. To the beat of a hand drum, an old man dances a slow, swaying jive in the middle of the group. He coaxes a woman out from the crowd, and they begin to-and-froing to the rhythm. The crowd cheers when he gets close, and laughs when she pulls away. This is the courtship dance, explains Julius, traditional at any Tagbanua celebration. Suddenly the man starts shimmying toward me, eyes locked on mine. I glance at Julius and look to Leigh for help, but the traitors just push me into the circle. But I’m happy to play the fool, and after a solid half-hour of laughing with the party we leave on a high.

“Filipinos are famous for our hospitality,” Michael tells me back at The Funny Lion over the Hunt Restaurant’s weekly cochinillo buffet. Cochinillo means suckling pig, and a whole hog has been slowly roasting for the better part of the afternoon.

Apart from the meltingly rich pork, there’s crispy beef tapa, seafood kare kare and a local take on paella. “Just like in my childhood days, when we have a visitor, our family puts out the silver cutlery and special plates. We buy lots of seafood, butcher a pig or goat, and feast,” Michael says. “As Filipinos, we always want to impress our visitors, and that’s what I tell my staff. Don’t be something else—this is in your blood, just bring it out.”

Stepping into this community that treats everyone like family, it’s clear nature also holds reverence beyond just the revenue it brings in. “We want to protect the environment,” Michael says in toast. “What you see right now, maybe our sons will see in the future.”

Sunset over Coron Bay from the Funny Lion's in-bar Jacuzzi.

Jump striaght from Apulit's loft water cottages into the sea.

There are flights to El Nido from Manila, Puerto Princesa, Cebu and other parts of the Philippines with AirSwift. If you want to do the Coron leg first, several local airlines fly into Busuanga airport from Manila, Cebu, Puerto Princesa, Clark, Caticlan and San Vicente. The once-a-day Montenegro Shipping Lines (tickets P1,760) fast ferry leaves at 6 a.m. from El Nido and arrives in Coron at about 11 a.m. The ferry does the return trip from Coron to El Nido at 12 p.m.

Ayala Land’s Apulit Island Resort
This private island resort is teeming with wildlife both underwater and on land. Water cottages have been recently renovated, and the two-story adjoining loft water cottages are perfect for families or big groups.
doubles from P23,700, including all meals, scheduled activities and round-trip transfers.

Balai Adlao
One of Ayala Land’s new hotels in Lio Estate, these simple but sleek rooms are located in the middle of the action on Lio Beach and just five minutes from El Nido Airport. doubles from P7,500.

The Funny Lion
This ecoconscious boutique hotel in Coron feels like home. Rooms are comfortable and spacious. Don’t miss sunset in one of the Jacuzzis at the rooftop bar. A second Funny Lion is slated to open in El Nido in 2020. doubles from P5,500.

Hunt Restaurant
Serving a modern mix of western and Filipino fare, Hunt also has live music every Wednesday and Saturday. Their cochinillo buffet is worth scheduling in. mains from P400.

Lolo Nonoy’s Food Station
Known as a cheap and cheerful spot to feast on Filipino comfort food, you’ll find traditional staples like sizzling pork sisig and chicken adobo at this unfussy eatinghouse. Coron Town;63-9/8896-2006; mains from P150.

Seafood Island
One of the many dining options in Lio Estate, this open-air chain restaurant stands out for its traditional eat-with-your-hands boodle feasts served on a banana leaf. Lio Estate, El Nido; boodle feasts from P700.

Calamianes Expeditions and Ecotours
This local-run company offers a bevy of snorkeling, diving, kayaking and paddleboarding tours. Don't miss Kayangan Lake, the World War II wrecks and meeting the Tagbanua tribe. full-day island tour from P3,080 per person. 

Coron Town
As Busuanga Island is mainly limestone, there are no beaches in Coron, but the town is a good base to explore the surrounding gems. A tour offers a dose of Filipino culture, the Spanish influence and a great view from the top of Mount Tapyas. Go on your own, or hire a tuk-tuk for P600 per person. 

Kalye Artisano
Labeled as an artists’ village, this shop on Lio Estate is a chance to shop for locally made crafts and souvenirs. 

If you’re feeling more adventurous, ditch the ferry and sail from El Nido to Coron on a paraw. Tao offers three- and five-day expeditions where you’ll camp on small, untouched isles. three-day expeditions from P18,000.



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