El Nido – absolutely the world’s best tropical island getaway. Located in the Philippine’s Palawan Islands, it is actually two resorts, each located a short boat ride from the other. And, what’s more, it is a terrific bargain for American travelers. That’s my opinion, and I’ve visited island getaways worldwide.
Among its many virtues – room accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels; an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous, as well as those seeking relaxation and pampering. All this is included at prices much less than would be expected in international destinations of the same caliber.
El Nido’s locations are on Miniloc and Lagen islands, a 75-minute flight from Manila plus a 45-minute boat ride from El Nido Village Airport. The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and white sandy beaches. As we descended on our flight there, we saw a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.
Both locations, less than an hour boat ride apart, are equally excellent. It’s a good idea to split your time, staying at both during a stay. Miniloc is the oldest. Constructed in 1981, it is built right off the beach, shaded by palms trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish.
Both have 50 air-conditioned rooms. Miniloc’s feature thatched roofs, built with indigenous Filipino materials. Some are over water; others are on the sand. In the rear are garden and cliff cottages nestled high on the hillside. All face the bay.
In Lagen, many of the rooms are set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. A great place for birders and hikers.
Built in 1998, Lagen offers more amenities, including a swimming pool and spa suite. Its dining room is enclosed, although there is plentiful seating on the outside veranda, which overlooks both the sea and the pool. Here, there are also a variety of accommodations – water cottages built on stilts, beachfront units with excellent sunset views and rooms on edges of the forest.
Most guests prefer to dine al fresco. When skies are clear at Miniloc, dinner is served on the beach in front of the bay. To serve breakfast and lunch, Minoloc’s large veranda dining area. hovers above the shoreline and offers a gorgeous view of the bay. In Lagen, most choose the pool-side dinner service. During dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling (many islands and spots minutes away), sea kayaking (including boat drop-offs near secluded islands), rock climbing (20 bolted sites to choose from), hiking (monkeys or Palawan hornbills abound), fishing (to nearby spots, boats leaving mornings and afternoon) and boat excursions (visiting romantic coves with lunch stops). So many options – or just relax on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.
SNORKELING AT EL NIDO
We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings we selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were even provided with our own snorkeling guides who stayed with us at each resort – Chito Socito at Minoloc and Refael Dalabujan at Lagen. The two knew exactly where to go and pointed out many fish and corals we would have missed.
Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served with fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!
On our last afternoon, we took the trail at the back of Lagen that led through the forest to a private cove. It was steep, but there was a rope installed on the path to help us climb the slopes and steady us during descent. Along the way a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path.
The trail ended on the beach, and Rafael was there with our snorkel equipment which had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular hour-long snorkel back to the resort. The route was along a wall, giving us views of gorgeous corals and sea life. We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. Upon reaching the pier, we were worn out but exhilarated by our adventurous day.
As well, at both locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. In Minoloc, late morning, we were met by a school of large jack fish, joining us as we swam under the boat landing, At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile.
One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Russians, we discussed the merits of vodka and beer. On a snorkel trip, with a Frenchman, we talked about President Sarkozy’s policies.
The Filipinos make up half those visiting the resort, followed in numbers by Koreans and Japanese. From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight. (Flying to the resort on the small plane from Manila, there were 12 passengers – us and five Korean couples honeymooning,)
There was also a significant number of Australian and European guests. We only saw a few from the United States, however. The 14-hour flight from Los Angeles can be daunting. We think, though, that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines and El Nido. I repeat -there is no better tropical vacation spot. And consider the price.
SHORT VISIT TO MANILA
After El Nido, we decided to stay two days in Manila. On a previous Philippine visit, we decided not to visit this capitol which we perceived as congested and unappetizing. This time we opted for a short stay. As expected, the drive was traffic-clogged to our destination, the excellent Mandarin Oriental, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. We could tell at once that this was a thriving cosmopolitan city.
For dinner first night, the concierge recommended Grappa’s Italian restaurant. It was located in the Greenbelt, a tourist destination in itself, offering a mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment spots. She said it was only a 20-minute walk. A remark such as this should set off a warning note to veteran travelers who know to be wary of time estimates. ”Just a few minutes” can turn into a 45-minute nightmare. Needless to say this is what happened to us.
It was a hot night and, midway on the walk, we regretted not taking a taxi. We soldiered on and found the mall. (Another point – malls in America can be confusing but in a foreign country, more so.) Nearly all Filipinos speak English, so, after asking several bystanders and security people, we made it. After reviving ourselves with Pellegrino water, we had very good eggplant Parmesan and ravioli. Overall, it ended up a good experience.
The next morning we were having breakfast while checking guide books for where to go, when an British couple overheard us. They chimed in, saying that they highly recommended Carlos Celdran and his “If These Walls Could Talk” tour of Intramuros, the old city of Manila. We took their suggestion. Hotel people seconded our choice, booking us for 4 p.m.. (The fame of Celdran was emphasized when we returned home. We were in a group that included a woman with Philippine roots. She said that she had taken the tour.)
After breakfast, we decided to go to the Ayala Museum, which happened to be adjacent to the Greenbelt. We had no qualms now about walking there. We did, however, have to forego visiting the acclaimed National Museum, across town, because of time constraints. The Ayala, with its permanent collection of contemporary Filipino artists and a diorama on the country’s history and culture, is an excellent place to learn more about the country.
That afternoon at the gates of Fort Santiago, the colorful Celdran greeted us in top hat and shorts, carrying a speaker and a satchel of props. His theatrical style and witty, articulate presentation, made the 2-1/2 hour walk, both enjoyable and informative.
About half in our group of 27 were Filipinos, eager to learn more history of their country. They joined in as Carlos put on the Philippine national anthem, while twirling the Philippine flag.
Following a quick lesson in the origins of the Filipino national language, Tagalog, we were led to the impressive statue of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer, Spanish patron saint). Here, we were told about Spain’s occupation from the 17th through the 19th Century. Celdran believed, this resulted in the corrupt control of the country by evangelical Catholic priests. As he talked, he role-played various Spaniards and friars, skewering frailties with his sharp remarks. The Filipinos cheered when Celdran brought in national hero Jose Rizal whose memorial is in the adjacent Rizal Park. He was a writer whose anti- government novels helped bring citizens to revolt in the late 1800s.
At this point, horse-drawn carriages were brought to convey the group to the Cathedral of San Augustin. Along the way we saw the rest of the old Intramuros buildings, which many would come back to see on their own.
San Augustin is one of the few buildings to survive intact after the World War II bombings. It was opened in 1606 and has an adjoining monastery, which now houses a museum, containing many valuable colonial religious paintings.
Beginning his final section, which detailed U.S. occupation, Celdran emerged in Uncle Sam regalia while the “Star Spangled Banner” played. Coming to World War II, he then donned a general’s hat, dark glasses and stuck a corncob pipe in his mouth, morphing into Douglas MacArthur, America `s leader of the Pacific campaign. Suffice it to say he was hilarious as he lampooned the general’s egocentric behavior.
San Augustin is also the site of a memorial for those killed in the Manila 1945 bombing by U.S.A. planes to counter Japanese atrocities taking place in the capitol. Celdran went into a serious mode, talking about the tragic consequences of the event.
The tour finished on a lighter note dealing with Philippine history following the war when it gained independence. This section centered on the controversial Ferdinand Marcos, president from 1965 through 1986. Of course, Celdran slyly mentioned Marcos’ wife, Imelda, and her extravagances which included a collection of 3,000 shoes. Ironically, he pointed out, it was her fund-raising prowess that is largely responsible for the restoration of Intramuros.
To conclude the tour, we all sat down and were treated to a “halo- halo,” the national drink. It is made from a rainbow mixture of sweet preserved bean, coconut, jackfruit, yam, plantain, cream, and milk. Crushed ice is added, and it is served in clear glass, a colorful multi-layered sight. Celdran said that the drink’s array of ingredients are symbolic of the Filipino people – a mixture of many different ethnic groups.
Reluctantly, we had to leave next day, emphasizing that our stay had been all too short. Once past congestion from the airport, Manila is certainly worth several days stay.