Time for a proper holiday! Having had a bit too much of the hustle and bustle (read: crowds, skyscrapers, smog) of Hong Kong, I decided that a beach holiday was in order over the Christmas period. With a shortlist of Indonesia or the Philippines, Palawan won for diving spots and also because it's still not (yet) on the most popular holiday destinations list du jour.
An early start for an 8:30 am flight from Hong Kong to Cebu, with a bit of excitement just as we were nearing the airport about to land, when the plane pulled up again. Apparently the previous plane was being slow and still on the runway.
Anyway, only a few hours stop in Cebu, then I was on my way in a (surprisingly fairly empty) turboprop with Swiftair direct to El Nido.
You may have noticed the rather ominous looking clouds in the photo. In hindsight, this might have been why the flight was fairly empty.
To my horror when I checked the weather forecast, the was a tropical storm heading its way to Palawan. Not ideal for my planned island / beach / diving holiday (understatement).
The first two days, all boat trips were cancelled...
Instead of the planned island hopping, I ended up hanging at the hostel I was staying at (Spin Designer Hostel), which had organised a 'cooking class' for that day.
Actually, I had been napping and kinda missed the class part of it, but they let us prepare meals for ourselves.
So my first two days of the holiday ended up being a lot of lounging around and reading, which actually was rather nice. I often read something set in the country I'm visiting, and this time was no different with Dusk by F. Sionil José, which I really got into and I'd recommend!
Also, SPIN Designer Hostel is an awesome place. Not usually one to stay much in hostels these days, I was pleasantly surprised not just by the funky design elements, but also how much genuinely warm customer service was on offer (kudos to hostel manager Don and his team), with little touches that you'd normally only find in decent hotels, such as freshly cooked eggs how you like to-order, and staff who would engage in friendly conversation and do their best to help you all the time.
Without much to do in town I ended up in probably the most happening place in El Nido with a couple of guys who were sat next to me at dinner - Jimmy (@philmannnn) and Glen (@glenn_cardeno) - for some reggae tunes (with a couple of live bands). With great company and great tunes, my planned two drinks turned to something like six before my good sense told me to go home in the hope that the weather would be better tomorrow.
And so it was meant to be as, thankfully, the weather warnings finally got lifted and I managed to get into the water for some diving.
Visibility was not the best... but it was nice to go out and do something for a change.
The following day, I needed to be around at 5 pm for a briefing for the Tao boat expedition I was going on, so didn't have time to do any of the island hopping tours (most of which are creatively named A, B, C and D).
Upon the recommendation of Dimple at Apetours (whose tour I did not actually manage to go on, but was so kind in recommending me various things), I took a van to Nacpan Beach (PHP 600 pp for a return transfer), a little out of El Nido.
The way there was pretty bumpy, as the road was not in the best condition. At one point, we had get out of the van as the bridge could not take its weight with us in it...
But all worth it for a beautiful beach, with the weather playing nice for some much needed sunshine (and drone flying)!
With that, and without having done any of the standard island hopping tours of El Nido, I was then off for the Tao boat expedition to Coron.
First stop was actually Cadlao Island near where I had gone diving the previous day. But this time we snorkelled over to a secret cave by the beach, which was a fun way to start the trip. Didn't get any photos though as I had stashed my bulky waterproof with my main luggage in the boat's hold.
Over the next 5 days, we visited some beautiful islands...
... where we snorkeled, kayaked, chatted, relaxed, and generally had a great time!
Tao also brought us to their main island / village, which houses their farm and development kitchen.
After visiting the farm, we were treated to a super yummy lunch, made under the watchful eye of Anne, the head cook for Tao, who is also responsible for training all the Tao Lost Boys (crew) in culinary skills.
And she's certainly done a great job, as food was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, and we undoubtedly ate better than at any of the restaurants I went to in El Nido or Coron.
Tortang Talong (eggplant omelet) for breakfast, made fresh by Chef Doc.
As to be expected, most meals featured fresh fish, simply fried/grilled. We were also lucky to have come across a fisherman who had caught a nice bit of tuna...
The crew even slaughtered some chickens on board for Christmas day lunch, which was part of our final meal on the trip.
Speaking of Christmas, my favourite part of the trip was definitely the last couple of days (Christmas Eve and Christmas), where were visited a lush waterfall...
And partied with the Lost Boys crew into the night... especially Cho, Palder and I who outlasted everyone the other explorers that night...Tagay!
Though probably the most magical part of the trip for me was taking a kayak out to look at stars, and discovering that the water was full of bioluminescent plankton. I actually went out on the kayak 3 times, and only managed to convince Palder to come along the final time... No photos (not sure it would even have shown up), but certainly something I will remember for a long long time.
The next day the island also revealed itself to be even more spectacular underwater with the most beautiful coral reef I saw in Palawan. Even being severely hungover couldn't ruin that memory, and the rest of the day (Christmas Day) was spent diving off the boat into the sea, hanging out on the idyllic Camp Ngey Ngey (where we had Christmas lunch), and snorkeling the Lusong Gunboat wreck, before it was (sadly) finally time to say goodbye.
Anyway, here's a little video I made with some highlights of the trip.
It was a fantastic 5 days, so Coron had its work cut out.
Actually, it was a bit of a shock to the system being on dry land in civilisation of Coron town, which was actually a lot bigger and busier, dustier and noisier than I had expected (much moreso than El Nido).
But the weather was certainly much better than at the start of the holiday...
Coron is world famous for wreck diving, so that's what I did the next couple of days [although photography/video in the wrecks was rather difficult, not the least because I was concentrating on where I was going and my buoyancy].
After a long hard day of diving, I bumped into Pierre and Sarah, who were on their way to walk up Mt. Tapyas to watch the sunset. Not one to miss out on experiences, I joined in, walking up 210m with my bag (with my dive case and towels, etc) that weighed a ton.
Worth it though, for this view...
As I ended up being put on the Tao expedition a day later than originally planned, I only had the two days of diving in Coron, and was then to head up to the north of Busuanga Island to a rustic resort called Palawan Sandcastles. By chance, Luca (one of the guys who was on the Tao expedition) was also staying there.
I hadn't realised quite how remote the north of the island was...
The plan was to go kayaking in search of dugongs, as advertised on their website. But strangely, after getting there they basically said that all the activities were not running as the only boat had left for a multiday expedition. But basically, the resort along the beach (Cashew Grove Resort, a much higher class place) had some activities that we could perhaps join.
Anyway, turns out they were running a dugong diving/snorkeling trip the next day, which I signed up to (only to snorkel this time).
The boat ride took about 90 minutes all the way up to the north to Calauit Island where a friendly dugong was meant to live. Apparently they're generally pretty timid creatures as they have only recently stopped being hunted by humans, but Aban (the dugong) was happy for divers to be nearby.
We had to go into the water in group of 5-6 at a time, and I was in the second group. Although the first group had found Aban, we somehow managed to lose him, so basically spent an hour in the water looking for him before we located him again.
But when he appeared, it was pretty magical.
That wasn't even the best part...
On the boat back, there was suddenly a lot of excitement as the crew spotted a whale shark in the water. Judging by the size of its fin, it was a pretty large one too. A few of us quickly pulled on our fins and masks and jumped into the water, but it made a quick getaway.
I had an inkling (or maybe wishful thinking) that this was not the last of it, so I kept near my mask and fins.
And I was right!
Only a few minutes later, the crew started shouting MANTA MANTA!
This time I was ready and was in the water in no time, kicking my fins furiously in pursuit of the manta ray.
And even though the original kayaking plan didn't quite work out as planned, but seeing not only the dugong, but the whale shark and manta more than made up for it. As I say, it pays to be ready to seize opportunities that life throws your way.
After all that excitement, it was time for some serious chill out time to finish the holiday on a more relaxed note.
Thankfully, Palawan Sandcastles was pretty well equipped to give some serious chilling out.
And just like that, my two weeks in Palaweno Paradise had come to an end, and it was time to head back to Cebu and then onto Hong Kong.
Unlike some other holiday makers I met who were ready after a couple of weeks to head back to the modern comforts of 'civilisation', I would have been thrilled for a few more weeks in Palawan. It certainly left me wondering what took me so long to visit the Philippines.
I'll certainly be back!
For now... Paalam Palawan!