Palawan: Backpacker’s Paradise to Grownup’s Haven
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands, the majority of which seem to be blissfully gorgeous—local lore says that Alex Garland was inspired to write "The Beach" on Palawan, despite rival Thailand's claim to fame in being the location for the film, and it's easy to believe it. Qi Palawan Resort, the ultimate destination of our holiday, is an hour away from El Nido town on the north of Palawan, which is an hour's flight from Manila. This means you can make the journey all the way there from Tokyo within a day, drinking coffee from a station convenience store in the morning and cocktails in a midde-of-nowhere paradise in the evening. Or you could do it the way we did, and take five days just to get there from Manila.
The rationale behind this very indirect route was retrospective and based solely on the fact that (surprise surprise) we were too disorganized to have booked the the flight directly to El Nido on time. There are three flights a day on a minute plane and bookings can only be made by liaising directly with the El Nido Art Cafe, which seemed too head-scrambling to deal with until it was too late (and turned out only to consist of an email). The only available flights were then the standard Air Asia ones to Puerto Princesa, the “city in the forest” as far south as Palawan is generally populated, so we decided we’d make our way from there.
Puerto Princesa, like all of Palawan, has a friendly, laid-back vibe. It isn’t very big, and you can get anywhere on the fantastically stinky, noisy tricycles in about ten minutes—I love them, as do the kids, despite the perpetual dangers of first degree burns and other injuries. We stayed at Paboreal Boutique Hotel, a five-minute drive from the airport, which doesn’t imply, as it would in a big city, a concrete monstrosity under a deafening flight path. Instead, in Puerto Princesa, everything is varying degrees of shack. The airport is quite a large shack in a dusty enclosure, the hotel is a sleeker multi-storied shack a few tree-lined streets away, and we never noticed a single plane go overhead. Paboreal boasted a piano-shaped swimming pool and the friendliest possible staff; everything was simple and comfortable—the menu just a few tasty dishes long, the rooms spacious and straightforward, with balconies overlooking the pool and surrounding foliage.
Puerto Princesa’s main activity is island-hopping around Honda Bay, which is usually a leisurely long day’s activity. We met another family with kids at the hotel and decided to share a private tour with them, so we could go at a child-friendly pace and terminate in the case of breakdowns and unforeseeable crises. We were driven to the waterfront and boarded a brightly painted wooden banca (boat), at which point the three-year-old immediately started clinging to me like a monkey and screaming blue murder, on account of the fact that last time we’d been in a boat it was a canoe that had tipped up (or been tipped up by his father…the debate continues) and he was totally unconvinced he should ever get onto the water again. On the upside, this immediately justified our private tour decision, since it was infinitely preferable to have an audience of parents only for such a performance, as opposed to honeymooners (it would be a very effective contraceptive), gap year students, or anyone hoping for a peaceful holiday. He was eventually cajoled/threatened into calm, and the boat ride was beautiful—blue sea, wind in our hair, nothing on the horizon but a few bright green humps of island and a couple of lazy wooden boats. The islands were equally hyperbolic, with a few day trippers swimming, snorkeling and building sandcastles; each group colonized a sort of open beach hut with a table, and our guide served grilled fish and meat with rice and fruit for lunch, washed down with coconut water drunk straight from the coconut with a straw.
Palawan is most famous for having one of the “new seven wonders of nature,” the Underground River, an 8.2-kilometer subterranean river with a complex architecture of stalagmites and stalactites. I’ve heard that it’s hugely impressive from many sources—but we didn’t go. Our thoroughly unreasonable children appear to be frightened of pitch dark, claustrophobic spaces, and if it would have been embarrassing dealing with the singular breakdown on the boat in open water, the mind boggles (or at least mine does) at the idea of two of them letting rip with operatic banshee shrieks in an echoing cavern with no way out, with a group of people who’ve paid dearly and waited in line for the privilege. Perhaps next time, when they have magically transformed into tranquil, docile beings, round about the year 2040.
The journey north to El Nido was unexpectedly easy—we’d been planning to break it up and stay in Port Barton on the way, but ultimately decided to get the six and a half hours over and done with. We traveled in a people carrier with eight others and were thankful to have taken some good advice and specifically booked the front seat, the only one to go all the way across the car, where the children could spread out and fall asleep. Although the fact that the driver appeared to be a nearly-blind madman whose main interest was in seeing how quickly he could get from 0 to 80 and back to 0 again made the trip less relaxing than it might have been, the sheer amount of green that could be seen out of the window was calming. We passed farms, homesteads and villages shaded by palm trees, set amongst the lushest fields and forests, the sea never far away. Even the children seemed lulled by the scenery (or by the neck-jerking driving, one or the other), and were either uncharacteristically calm or asleep for the majority of time, and overall the journey was so lovely we were glad to have come such a ridiculously circuitous route.
Another bonus of the route was the couple of days we spent in El Nido. We arrived at night with the children in a terrible mood to make up for how angelic they’d been. My husband went out to see where we could easily eat, and returned with the report that we were far too old to go out in El Nido and taking the buggy would be a deathly embarrassment, so we should probably just stay in the hotel and starve instead. We went out immediately (though without the buggy) and found the streets heaving, as he’d said, with nubile young things on the fiftieth stop of their gap year, tanned and carefree and checking each other out, buying fruit shakes and crepes and sunglasses from roadside stalls and looking for places to go drinking. I had the familiar moment of unreality, where I couldn’t really work out why I wasn’t also about to go drinking, but apparently needed to tend to the (very noisy) needs of two knee-high people instead. When did that happen?!
El Nido’s beach is lined with flare- and candle-lit tables from innumerable bars and restaurants, and we opted for one of many where you could choose your seafood, and they’d grill it for you on the spot. We sat at a table on the sand with the water lapping our feet, looking out at moonlit boats bobbing on the sea (cliched but true). The kids were also entranced, and enjoyed the food, and overall we were congratulating ourselves on still being able to have a good time in such a travelers’ location, until the poor exhausted three-year-old fell asleep at the table, tipped his chair over and fell into the sea. Cue much tragic wailing through a mouthful of saltwater and sand, which the jolly party of Filipino men at the next table found sympathetically hilarious, and offered the child a boiled egg as compensation. He accepted it, hiccuping, I peeled it for him, and it turned out to be a balut, a fertilized duck egg, with a cooked, embryonic chick where we’d expected egg white. Despite my best efforts, I’m not entirely sure if I managed to get out of the situation without both massively offending the givers and traumatizing the child. Fortunately the fruit shake he had after dinner (and about three times a day following) seemed to restore his mood. By day, the limestone cliffs surrounding the beach at El Nido created an impressively dramatic vista. The sheer volume of travellers in El Nido means the streets are polluted and parts of the beach are strewn with litter; it’s not where you’d come for an idyllic child-friendly holiday, but for a couple of days of island hopping, sandcastle building, epic people watching, and pretending you’re still a backpacker with an incidental kid (or two) in tow, it was great.
At long last, we went back to being pampered adults (it’s a tough life) and were picked up to be taken to Qi Palawan, an hour’s bumpy drive from El Nido. Qi Palawan is in the middle of rural Palawan, the entrance down an unremarkable dirt track, from which you turn off onto a beautifully paved path lined with tasteful tropical foliage, into a magical, sparkling world, like the moment Jane and Michael step into the picture in Mary Poppins. If there is a heaven, it looks like Qi Palawan, with seven huts arranged in a garden a stone’s throw from the beach, a pebbled swimming pool glistening serenely in the middle. The restaurant and bar area is generously proportioned, with a huge sofa and pool table, and the food produced in the kitchen all day is mouthwateringly good, the Spanish and American husband and wife owners having solved the problem of sourcing many of the ingredients to such a remote location by growing and producing much of it themselves.
Bettina, the American owner, described the overwhelming task of building the resort from a piece of land overgrown with palm trees, doing everything themselves from raising the enormous tree trunks that support the buildings (with a little help) to working out the plumbing. The result is a place where every detail feels well considered. All the buildings are made with dark, heavy tree trunks, with walls of bamboo—they’re structures which, in the wrong hands, could feel either clumsy or insufficiently solid, but as it is, they look chic and majestic, as well as being impeccably clean and luxuriously comfortable. The ensuite bathrooms and showers are outdoors, so you can see the stars and the palm trees while you shower, and the garden is dotted with hammocks and tables and chairs inviting chilling out with a book or having lunch looking out to sea. Everything exudes tasteful tropical minimalism. There’s a huge yoga studio overlooking the beach, with free yoga classes every morning, a spa, a resident diving instructor, and a kitesurfing instructor.
The staff at Qi Palawan had put an extra bed and a cot in our room for the kids, and couldn’t have been more accommodating—the kitchen essentially offered to cook whatever the children fancied, and the warmth and friendliness of the staff was unparalleled—but nothing about the place is overtly designed for the children, which was perfect. The children were delighted by the attention, the (unapologetically deep) pool, the beach and the food, and we were delighted not to be in a plastic fantastic playground. There’s also a ludicrously inexpensive babysitting service available, which we used to take a kitesurfing course. The lovely babysitter played with the children on the beach while we spent a couple of hours twenty meters away squinting at the sun and crashing into the sea on repeat. Apart from some snorkeling and a picnic on a nearby idyllic island, we didn’t leave the resort at all for days, and if any of us had had our way, we would probably never have left it at all. Beautiful Palawan, we’ll be back.
Getting there: Direct flights from Tokyo to Manila are around five hours long and operated by ANA, JAL, Delta, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Air Asia all fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa in under 90 minutes. Alternatively, click here for information on flights from Manila to El Nido, or email email@example.com.
Getting around: In the individual towns, it’s easy to walk or hail a tricycle. For long distance journeys, the majority of hotels will help you to book your trips, or you can use this very helpful site.
When to go: The temperature in Palawan is fairly constant, usually fluctuating only between about 26 and 29 degrees Celsius. Technically speaking, June to October is rainy season, but continuous rain is very unlikely.
Where to stay: There’s accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes across Palawan; we tried and tested the following, which are all mid-range budget-wise: Paboreal Boutique Hotel, Puerto Princesa, a small, relaxing place with spacious rooms and friendly atmosphere; Sea Cocoon Hotel, El Nido, cool and comfortable with a lovely pool, great breakfasts and, as everywhere, delightful staff; and the highly recommended Qi Palawan.