INTO PALAWAN THE WILD WEST OF THE PHILIP­PINES

THE WILD WEST OF THE PHILIP­PINES NAT­U­RAL SPLEN­DOUR ABOUNDS ON LAND AND SEA IN PALAWAN, THE PHILIP­PINES’ WEST­ERN­MOST PROV­INCE.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY ROSLYN JOLLY

Nat­u­ral splen­dour abounds on land and sea in Palawan, the Philip­pines’ west­ern­most prov­ince.

There’s a fris­son in think­ing of all the Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties who have stood on this white sand and gazed through de­signer sun­glasses at the cerulean shim­mer of the Sulu Sea. With its prom­ise of ab­so­lute seclu­sion and guar­an­teed pri­vacy, Aman­pulo Re­sort on re­mote Pa­mal­i­can Is­land in eastern Palawan has al­ways at­tracted the A-lis­ters.

My own celebrity mo­ment comes after the 70-minute flight from Manila, when I step down from the re­sort’s pri­vate plane to an ac­tual red-car­pet wel­come on the tar­mac. Neatly uni­formed Aman­pulo staff mem­bers warmly greet the half dozen ar­riv­ing guests. My ded­i­cated guest as­sis­tant’s badge says ‘Princess’ (Filip­inas have the best names!) but I’m the one who’s treated like roy­alty. We drive away in a golf buggy for a tour of the 89 ha is­land, fin­ish­ing at my beach­front ca­sita, where floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows re­veal patches of flu­o­res­cent aqua­ma­rine be­tween thick fronds of fo­liage.

The at­trac­tion of that blue is al­most mag­netic, and, be­fore long, I’m wan­der­ing along the short, wild path that leads to my own per­sonal por­tion of beach. Dig­ging my toes into the fine, soft sand, I stretch out on one of two sunbeds re­served for my ex­clu­sive use. Do I feel like a multi-mil­lion­aire or an ou­tra­geous im­poster? Ei­ther way, I could get used to this.

And yet, within a few hours, lux­ury is no longer the main thing on my mind. Some­thing deeper is go­ing on, and it all starts with my visit to the spa. I’m booked for a pu­ri­fy­ing mas­sage rit­ual with a stately woman named Melly, who, like many of the staff, comes from neigh­bour­ing Manamoc Is­land and has worked at Aman­pulo for over 20 years.

The spa’s el­e­vated po­si­tion gives a glo­ri­ous view of her home-is­land, sit­ting within an ex­panse of elec­tric blue sea. As Melly’s hands pum­mel my skin, calm mu­sic blends with the larger sounds of wind and ocean. The sur­round­ing pres­ence of na­ture ex­erts such a strong force that I feel as if I’m vanishing into it.

From now on, my Aman­pulo ex­pe­ri­ence is fo­cused on na­ture and peo­ple. Vik­tor, the re­sort’s direc­tor of ex­pe­ri­ences, shares his pas­sion for the green tur­tles that use the is­land as their nest­ing ground. Land­scape man­ager Mar­lon proudly shows off the fresh pro­duce grown on the re­sort’s ‘farm’, which will be eaten by guests within hours of be­ing har­vested.

The next day brings the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of swim­ming along­side one of the huge tur­tles, and the quiet plea­sure of driv­ing my golf buggy through dap­pled light and shade along for­est-lined roads shared only with lizards and birds.

“we glide over emer­ald wa­ters sur­rounded by gi­gan­tic lime­stone cliffs es­ti­mated to be over 250 mil­lion years old”

Hav­ing ar­rived here with a mind full of cares, I leave two days later feel­ing as light as air. Yes, this re­sort is ex­pen­sive, but time at Pa­mal­i­can Is­land does the kind of good you can’t put a price on.

Body rested and mind cleared, I’m now ready for some­thing more ac­tive and ad­ven­tur­ous. And that’s ex­actly what’s wait­ing for me at my next stop, on the is­lands of Busuanga and Coron in north­ern Palawan. If Palawan prov­ince is known as the Philip­pines’ last fron­tier, these is­lands are the edge of the edge and of­fer the most pris­tine wilder­ness.

Un­der­wa­ter ad­ven­tures are avail­able all over Palawan, but the Coron area has a spe­cial at­trac­tion for divers: wrecks. The bomb­ing of a Ja­panese sup­ply fleet in these wa­ters in 1944 left a peace­time le­gacy of eight sunken ship­wrecks, which time has turned into ar­ti­fi­cial reefs in­hab­ited by bril­liant trop­i­cal fish.

Some of the wrecks are shal­low enough for snorkellers

(like me) to ex­plore. I spend a mag­i­cal hour dis­cov­er­ing the colour­ful fish city cre­ated by the coral-en­crusted sur­faces of the Lu­song Gun­boat, off the south coast of Busuanga Is­land.

The sights above ground are also ex­traor­di­nary. Two cel­e­brated lo­ca­tions on Coron Is­land of­fer a com­bi­na­tion of deep, clear turquoise wa­ter and tow­er­ing grey lime­stone cliffs that I’ll come to recog­nise as the hall­mark of Palawan scenery. By set­ting off early, our ex­cur­sion boat beats the crowds to the eerily beau­ti­ful Twin La­goon, but they catch up to us in the dra­matic set­ting of Kayan­gan Lake.

Luck­ily, we es­cape them again by head­ing to one of the most re­mote and rarely vis­ited is­lands in Palawan, Black Is­land. Also known as Mala­jon Is­land, this is the last bit of land at the west­ern edge of Busuanga Bay. Be­yond it is the open sea; keep sail­ing and you’ll reach China.

It’s an ex­traor­di­nary spot – idyl­li­cally lovely, but with a touch of the un­canny that pre­vents it from be­ing a post­card cliché. A cave folded into the black vol­canic cliffs feels ghostly, and I de­cline the op­por­tu­nity to swim in its en­closed pool of milky blue wa­ter. I’d rather head back to the beach, where the sea is so clear you don’t need a snorkel mask to see the huge corals that clus­ter near the shore.

To dive at Black Is­land, you need per­mis­sion from the lo­cal com­mu­nity, the tra­di­tional cus­to­di­ans of the land. We don’t see any of the is­land’s res­i­dents, just a few boats moored at the beach, and some thatched shel­ters along the tree line.

Then it’s lunch at South Cay, a tiny, sandy, reef-top is­land op­er­ated as a beach club by our ho­tel, Busuanga Bay Lodge. We sit down to an ex­cel­lent bar­be­cue meal, then scat­ter to swim, snorkel or laze on sunbeds. Reg­gae mu­sic plays while cock­tails are served, and a white-and-gin­ger cat on the bar top sleeps through this re­laxed party at the edge of the world.

It’s strange how quickly you be­come ac­cus­tomed to beauty – not just or­di­nary beauty, but ex­trav­a­gant, over-thetop beauty. After a few days, Palawan’s con­sis­tent nat­u­ral splen­dour seems nor­mal. And then it takes your breath away all over again.

Twin La­goon and Black Is­land are so spec­tac­u­lar that I would have thought noth­ing else could match them.

Not so. On the 45-minute boat ride from El Nido Air­port through Bacuit Bay to La­gen Is­land (one of the four El Nido re­sorts), we tra­verse a fan­tasy land­scape of jagged lime­stone out­crops jut­ting like weird sculp­tures from a shim­mer­ing sea. On ar­rival, I’m thrilled to find I have a sim­i­lar view from my over­wa­ter bun­ga­low.

Kayak­ing on the Big La­goon at Miniloc Is­land the next morn­ing, we glide over emer­ald wa­ters sur­rounded by gi­gan­tic lime­stone cliffs es­ti­mated to be over 250 mil­lion years old. This is, lit­er­ally, a Juras­sic world. Side chan­nels from the main la­goon re­veal mys­te­ri­ous hid­den in­lets, some cov­ered with rock arches. An­other bar­be­cue lunch and lazy af­ter­noon, this time at pic­ture-per­fect En­talula Is­land, com­plete an ideal day out.

Back at the re­sort, sip­ping a re­fresh­ing lo­cal beer, I sit at the pool bar in a trance of well-be­ing. Sun­set lights the edges of the fan­tas­ti­cally shaped rocks na­ture has strewn across the en­trance to the la­goon and, as so of­ten dur­ing this trip through Palawan, I ac­cept with plea­sure the com­plete sat­is­fac­tion of the mo­ment.

Open­ing im­age: Philip­pine boats in the la­goon of Coron Is­land, Palawan, Philip­pines.Be­low to top right: Aman­pulo beach­front ca­sita; El Nido at dusk; En­talula Is­land sea­fare; Views over El Nido.

Left: Twin La­goon, Coron Is­land.

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