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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.