The great escape: to Palawan in the Philippines
There’s a frisson of excitement 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.
A genuine connection
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 sun beds 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 more than 20 years.
The spa’s elevated position gives a glorious view of Melly’s 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.
The Amanpulo experience
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. 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.
Volcanic cliffs and pristine pools
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.
Idyllic and extraordinary
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-the-top beauty. After a few days, Palawan’s consistent natural splendour seems normal. And then it takes your breath away all over again.
Touch of R&R
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.
Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Manila daily, with connecting flights from other capital cities. Philippine Airlines operates direct flights to Manila from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane multiple times per week.
Philippine Airlines philippineairlines.com
Visitors to Amanpulo travel on the resort’s plane from a private hangar at Manila Airport. Skyjet and cebupacificair offer multiple daily flights from Manila to Busuanga–Coron. Air-swift flies from Manila to El Nido, and between El Nido and Busuanga–Coron.
When to go
March to May is the best time to visit for summer temperatures without the rains of the wet season (June to September).
Where to stay
Amanpulo is an exclusive, ultra-luxury resort with price tag to match. Beachfront villas and casitas are the most sought after. aman.com
Busuanga Bay Lodge, located at the unspoilt western end of Busuanga Island, commands stunning views and caters for a wide range of water sports. busuangabaylodge.com
El Nido Resorts — Lagen Island faces the sunset across its own lagoon and is a favourite destination for weddings and honeymoons. elnidoresorts.com