The Most Beautiful Island in the World liana Romulo

The most beautiful island in the world is in fact not an island but a group of 1,780 islands in the Philippines. Yep, that's right: The "world's best island" (in recent polls conducted by Travel+Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler) is actually an archipelago. T+L sums up the Palawan experience nicely, "with its verdant mountains, a five-mile-long underground river, limestone caves, and spectacular scuba diving, [Palawan's] appeal is as clear as its turquoise waters."

Not that I needed anyone to tell me that. Palawan has been my Number One since the day I landed there more than twenty years ago on a dirt runway in a tiny propeller plane.

It's easy to get to the brand new Lio airport on Air Swift: just a 55-minute flight from Manila, with two or three flights daily. The runway is short, and the plane is small--but the aircrafts are new and not at all scary. Important tip: You get a discounted fare when you book through the resort.

El Nido, in the northern part, with its spectacular limestone formations hovering like sculptures above the water, reminds me of the world-famous Halong Bay in Vietnam except that El Nido’s waters are clear and blue and teeming with fish and marine life. While Halong Bay features fantastic caves, El Nido's coves are rimmed with pristine white-sand beaches—too many for me to count.

But it’s the flora and fauna that intrigue me. Palawan as a whole is famous for its biodiversity: coral, fish, birds, and six (out of seven) species of endangered sea turtles. In 1990 Unesco declared it a Biosphere Reserve, a global model of the sustainable relationship between humans and the natural world. And it's home to two World Heritage Sites, including Tubbataha Reef--a reef of such unique ecological importance, the IMO (International Maritime Organization) has just designated it as a "particularly sensitive sea area," which means international ships will no longer be allowed in the area, thereby reducing the impact of noise and pollution. On the whole planet there are only 16 other sites with this designation, including the Galapagos Archipelago and the Great Barrier Reef.

Photo by Vina Concepcion

Palawan used to be sparsely populated; but now that's it's getting all this international attention . . . and now that there's mounting tension in the West Philippine Sea (or the South China Sea, depending on your perspective) . . . well, I'm concerned.

Fortunately, there are a number of people working to prove that tourism, profitability, and environmental sustainability can coexist, chief among them is El Nido Resorts’ Director of Environment and Sustainability, Marigs Laririt. It was she who filled me in on how El Nido’s developers (Ayala Land) sincerely valued Palawan’s wildlife and rugged beauty, and Fernando Zobel's commitment to preserving the environment. That does make me feel better.

I also met one of El Nido’s idealistic environment officers and seven student interns—all working with Marigs on a forum to discuss "responsible tourism" with local citizens. Two of the interns were from the Ateneo de Manila and five were sent by Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, which aims to “provide students with the necessary skills and tools for addressing the world’s most pressing challenges.

My goddaughter, Sabrina, a sophomore in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, was among them. In an interview for the Beeck Center, she shared her views about crafting a future—envisioning “a community that champions democracy, peace, security, and progress rather than one that settles for . . . being poor, illiterate, inefficient, and corrupt.”

Responsible custodians of our planet. Second from left is Sabrina Romulo.
(Above) "Forest" rooms peek out to the pool at El Nido Cove resort, where I stayed. The weather wasn't warm enough for me to feel tempted to get in, though. June is a sunny month; but July tends to be cooler--damp, with occasional spots of sunshine. I didn't need air-conditioning (the ceiling fan was enough) even with the windows shut. Rainy season brings lush green all around, which makes up for the grayness. I shot most photos with my new Sony full frame, which I am still getting used to. 40mm, ISO 12800, 1/125, f/9. I love this camera! (Top photo) The resort overlooks Palawan's Bacuit Bay, which had a breathtaking view no matter the weather, no matter the time, as you'll see by the end of this story.

El Nido Cove is a 3-star resort hotel with friendly staff and an unbeatable view. "Cove," as I heard the locals refer to it, is a wonderful hideaway. Although it needs renovation, better water pressure, and tastier food, I liked it there. It's really, really quiet, sort of like a meditation retreat center.

I had a huge comfortable bed (really, I slept beautifully) in one of the rooms set deep inside the tropical forest. As one might expect, there were bugs, birds, frogs, and lizards--monkeys, too, I was told (but didn't see). Not in my room; but just outside. Cove is quite charming as long as you like critters and don't care too much about Internet.

This was my first day in paradise, and I waited patiently for the sunset. I got soothing blue hues instead of golden light, but I'm hardly disappointed. I've done some straightening and editing on the photos, as I'm not quite proficient at Lightroom yet. The spots you see . . . imagine they're just really big insects. 41mm, ISO 12800, 1/125, f/10.
Marigs Laririt, a biologist and longtime resident in El Nido, is the Director of Environment and Sustainability. She’s the main driver and creator of projects related to wildlife, vegetation, protecting the environment, and employing people from the local community. She’s also really fun to talk to and hang with, and she took time out to show me around, which I really appreciate. (Those are paper straws, incidentally.)

While not all resorts in Palawan operate in an environmentally responsible manner, a good many do, with El Nido Resorts leading the way. They've won a number of “green hotel” and sustainability awards, and are well known in the hotel industry worldwide for embracing nature-based guest activities (like bird-watching) and for providing environment education programs for staff and guests.

Miniloc has a scuba center, a bar area, water cottages, hillside cottages, a playground for children, and pretty awesome snorkeling action right in front of the resort. It's also an easy short trip from the airport, and the food was great.
That's me . . . in Lagen. The plants and trees of Palawan don't get as much attention as they should. They're plump and grow thick seemingly everywhere: in the cracks of giant boulders, on tree branches, and probably on anything that's been lying still for more than two hours.

There are four El Nido resorts to choose from. I know Lagen pretty well, having stayed there a couple of times before. They have good service, well-appointed rooms, and I wouldn't hesitate to book them for a conference or a family trip; but I think Miniloc would be ideal for a yoga retreat.

The guest rooms are not huge, but they're well designed and comfortable at Miniloc.

I asked Marigs if they could provide vegetarian cuisine for a group. She replied, "With enough notice, like, six weeks--"

"You'll do special harvest?" I said.

"We can plant whatever you want."

Wow. OK, so that's impressive. Because vegetables do not grow so easily in this part of the Philippines, Marigs and her team figured out how to make their own soil and put up an "all-natural" farm about 10 years ago. She took me to see it. They grow all kinds of herbs, vegetables, salad greens, and fruits.

But is it organic?

You know, one should never ask a scientist that question. "All that word means is that it has carbon," came the bald reply.

On the way to the farm we saw a fish crossing the road. (Yes, a fish. That's not a typo.) On the way back we stopped to give it a ride to the river. Road-crossing fish, with both gills and lungs, are common in Palawan, but that's a story that belongs with the story about the free-diving monitor lizard that can hold its breath for thirty minutes.

To see Miniloc in all its glory, watch this video to the end; and wait for the turtles!

I didn't have a chance to go to Apulit, because it's a couple of hours away from the airport by land. Plus they're closed for renovation. I hear it's beautiful, though, perhaps even more beautiful than Miniloc, and one day I hope to make the trek.

But how about a yoga practice area for a group? Well, it depends on how big the group is. There are options. My favorite setup, for a larger group of, say, 25 to 45, involves a 6-minute boat ride to a neighboring island whimsically named Entalula.

The view from Entalula. Imagine looking at this while practicing! And this was on a cloudy day ...
This is the proposed practice area. We'd have to move the furniture and lay down a raised wood floor, the kind used as a dance floor at weddings. The area is covered and out of the sun--and there's a men's and ladies' room with showers. I've also been warned about insect bites--so I guess repellant would be necessary. I was wearing a bug-repelling bracelet, which seemed to work, as I didn't get any bites this trip.
Fresh fruits and coconuts (or even a full brunch) could be served immediately after practice. And maybe some guests would want to paddle board, swim, or kayak.
This group of ten teenagers visiting from the U.S. were getting scuba certified at Entalula.

Not far from El Nido is another development called Lio, which has a variety of housing options, an "artisans' village" featuring high quality local products, and a commercial area with restaurants and bars, lots of bars. Those who prefer to be closer to "civilization" would probably go for Lio before El Nido. (Lio has good Internet!)

The beach, the beachside "mall" with restaurants and bars, and the pier.

I liked Casa Kalaw at Lio in spite of it not having the "hideaway" feeling I favor. Another housing option is the Villas in the same area, which I did not see.

Lio has a variety of conference rooms and lounges in which to have yoga sessions, though it's not as quiet here as Miniloc. Also, it depends on the size of the group.

Bikes made from bamboo, for rent. The photo on the right shows a large tent, where one can hold events.

At the end of the day Marigs and her son dropped me off back at Cove. Half of me was hoping for a proper sunset. The other half was content not knowing what was going to materialize on the canvas before me because, no matter what, I knew it would be beautiful.

Sipping a cold drink while waiting for the sun to set, I got interested in two men fishing. (The other guy is not in the shot.) It was drizzling, so I pulled out my iPhone to take this photo. 4.15mm, ISO 32, 1/1000, f/22.
Here's what the same bay looked like a half hour later, from the dining deck, which had been cleared because of the weather. The crickets were making unbelievable noise, so loud, and the rain was now coming down in earnest, 5:28pm. 42mm, ISO 250, 1/60, f/18.
The heavy sky opened for an instant, bringing light, so I tried zooming in on the trees. 70mm, ISO 1600, 1/60, f/22.
Straight ahead a completely different drama was unfolding. Along with "God rays" came lens flare, even though I was using a hood. What's a wannabe photographer to do? 41mm, ISO 100, 1/80, f/22.
A minute later and a little bit closer. 70mm, ISO 400, 1/60, f/22.

The way a scene can transform and shift into something totally new right in front of our noses is pure magic. We don't need glossy magazines and loud music to keep us entertained. Just paying attention to the world around us is endlessly fascinating.

Ah, finally a classic sunset. I grab my iPhone just as it begins to rain. 4.15mm, ISO 32, 1/4400, f/22.
The show's over in fifteen minutes flat, and the next morning, early, I'm off to Manila. Next time, soon, I'll try and stay 2 weeks at least. 24mm, ISO 2500, 1/60, f/22.

That's the end of this story. When I'm not at the beach, I'm usually hanging out in Manila. You're welcome to check out my website here.

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Liana Romulo
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Liana Romulo © 2017

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