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Lagoons and lost islands

In a world where few tourist-free zones remain, there are still deserted parts of the Philippines to explore. Nigel Hicks is a willing castaway
THE NORTH-EAST monsoon was really humming, rushing across the open water and kicking up short, steep waves capped with a layer of white froth. The banca, a long narrow boat stabilised with bamboo and coconut wood outriggers on either side - the universal sea transport of the Philippines - ploughed onwards, bashing a spray-filled path through the waves.

At about 20 metres long, this was one of the biggest bancas I had been on, and yet still there was only one dry place on the whole boat - on the narrow, high foredeck right up in the bow. One of the crew and I had grabbed that spot, and we sat there, hanging on against the increasingly wild gyrations of the boat's forward extremity, watching the repeatedly submarining outriggers kick up walls of spray which the wind then flung right across the mid-section of the boat.

The two French women I had hired the boat with sat huddled under an awning - they had declined advice to move to the bow - while most of the crew had retreated to the steering area right in the stern, all except the one that I shared the bow with and another who, deciding that life was not already sufficiently exciting, was hanging off one of the outrigger supports, allowing himself to be blasted with the worst of the spray. He was loving it - after all it was a hot, sunny day and this was a great way to cool off. But all the same, I could not help wondering what the chances of recovering him would be should he lose his grip.

The banca was making its way up the west coast of Palawan, the western extremity of the Philippines and open to the South China Sea, and was just entering Bacuit Bay, close to the island's northern tip. We were soon surrounded by the islands that dotted the bay, with the mountainous mainland off to the right. They were not just ordinary islands, I should add, but great slabs of rock that rose straight from the water, sheer cliffs that towered rather sternly high above. I was immediately reminded of the weird karst limestone peaks of the Guilin area of southern China, so beloved of traditional Chinese art, though this was a partially drowned maritime version instead of terrestrial.

As we came in closer to the mainland, and among more islands, so the sea calmed down, and once the banca had turned past a headland, we were confronted with an enclosed bay that glittered in the morning sun. Towards the shore, crowds of bancas rode at moorings and behind them could be seen a small town, strung out along a beach and backed by a massive, vertical cliff. We had finally arrived at the town of El Nido, "capital", if that is the right word, of Bacuit Bay, one of the Philippines' most beautiful and furthest flung locations. The banca nudged its way up to the wharf, and finally I was ashore.

I soon discovered that El Nido is a very small place indeed. Two streets ran parallel to each other and the beach, with a few connecting lanes, and that was about it. A small market lay at the southern end, and here congregated the only traffic - a couple of beaten-up "jeepneys" (extended jeeps that are standard public transport in rural Philippines), which comprised the only, and very unreliable, road connection with the rest of Palawan to the south.

This may seem a town that time forgot, but actually it is one that time is catching up with. Though only discovered for its beautiful location a few short years ago, already the town itself has several small guest- houses that see a steady stream of foreign and Filipino visitors, while several small resorts - a couple bordering on the very exclusive - have been developed on the coast further south, as well as on a number of the islands. El Nido is being marketed as South-east Asia's newest Shangri- la, a place to which jaded urbanites can retreat to find relaxation and the meaning of life, or perhaps just to play Robinson Crusoe.

While El Nido town is a friendly, laid-back place in a stunning setting, it is really

the islands that everyone wants to head for. Visitors who stay in the town have a wide choice of boats available for hire to whisk them off to the nearby wonderland of deserted islands, while those who stay at one of the island resorts can wake up each morning surrounded by the craggy limestone scenery.

In exploring the islands, Miniloc is one of the most popular due to its superb lagoon, a small bay completely ringed with jagged cliffs and rocks, filled with crystal clear water and home to an array of corals. It was early morning when I ventured there in a small launch, the sun just breaking above the clifftop. As we slowly left through the narrow inlet we were joined by a turtle, swimming seawards, just below the surface and ahead of the boat.

Ferociously jagged cliffs seemed to surround Miniloc, with, offshore, many more razor-sharp islets, including the Tres Marias, a group of three pyramidal rocks rising out of the sea. I had been told that some of El Nido's best diving was just around here, but when I later tried it out I had to confess to being disappointed. Though the corals were superb in the very shallow waters at snorkelling depth, lower down the reef was fragmented and in poor condition. Dynamite-fishing had done its worst, the shallow corals saved simply by the fishermen's desire not to blow themselves out of the water!

Miniloc is also the site of one of El Nido's two most up-market resorts, the second being on Lagen Island. Both are owned by the Manila-based company Ten Knots. They are set in coves, surrounded by stunning cliffs, and the one on Lagen Island backs onto a swathe of rainforest.

They are luxurious places, if for no other reason than that their rooms are air-conditioned and supplied with water and electricity 24 hours a day, a rare treat anywhere in Palawan and completely unheard of at El Nido's more basic resorts. Ten Knots claims that its resorts are environmentally friendly - the water coming from a desalination plant, for example, rather than a well - but it is hard not to wonder how beautiful the coves on which they stand might have been without the bungalows, restaurant and breakwater.

Still, they might be right. A walk through the forest above and behind the Lagen Island resort was a step back into a primeval world of tall, dense trees, vines and palms, filled with the sounds of birdlife, the occasional chattering of monkeys and the crash of a monitor lizard somewhere in the undergrowth.

One evening, sitting in a tree high above the restaurant was the black and white shape of a Palawan hornbill, a rare bird restricted to this western part of the Philippines. He did not seem to mind our presence. Which is just as well, because I have a feeling that in a corner of the world as beautiful as El Nido, he will soon be seeing a lot more of us.



When to go

Generally, the best time to go is mid-December to mid-May.

Getting there

Philippine Fantasy (tel: 01773 830951) arranges flights to Manila from pounds 450. Packages including accommodation work out cheaper. Other operators include Premier Holidays (tel: 01223 516333) and Philippine Islands Connections (tel: 0171-409 7519). From Manila, there are daily flights direct to El Nido with Soriano Aviation. To get to El Nido from other parts of Palawan, go by boat, road connections are not very good.

Getting around

Purely by boat, usually banca. If staying outside El Nido town, get to your resort by hiring a banca at the beach or wharf. People with prior bookings at Lagen or Miniloc Island resorts will be met at the airport and taken to their island.

Where to stay

There are a number of guest-houses in El Nido town, and small resorts on the coast further south. None have phones. Try Lally and Abets on the edge of the town. On the coast, further south, is Dolarog Beach Resort. If you are heading for Miniloc or Lagen Islands, bookings can be made through its Manila office at Ten Knots Development Corp, 2/F Builders Centre Building, 170 Salcedo St, Legaspi Village, Makati City, (tel: 00 63 2 894 5644).

Further information

Philippines Department of Tourism (tel: 0171-499 5443).