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Discover Palawan: the Philippines’ untouched island destinations

Buried under blankets and dreading the thought of leaving the house, I realised that the winter blues were setting in. So, as Vitamin D deficient as I was determined to escape the cold, I asked STA Travel to work their magic. I was keen to venture off the beaten track, away from the parade of red bull tanks and elephant pants associated with the more popular student destinations like Bali and Phuket. Sun, sea and serenity was the general theme I had in mind and STA Travel delivered a killer tour itinerary. My destination? The Philippines.

paradise

It’s an obvious tropical paradise – reefs, underwater islands, whiter than white sand, the works. It’s also the second largest archipelago in the world with 7,107 islands, so you’re completely spoilt for choice. Me, I was off to the province of Palawan. There I spent a glorious week embracing both island living and the envy of my friends – intermittent wifi had little effect on my social media humble brags #sorrynotsorry.

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Puerto Princesa

My adventures began in the provincial capital of Puerto Princesa. The area is home to the Underground River, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first thing I crossed off my list. It was a two hour drive from the airport but the scenery was so lush, I didn’t mind. The route is winding, wrapping around mountains and paddy fields. We drove past towering limestone karsts – one of which was featured in the Amazing Race!

The Amazing Race pit stop

Bus ride in the Philippines

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The Underground River felt like a whole other world. Said to be the longest navigable underground river there is, it winds through bowels of cavernous mountains before emptying out to the South China Sea. It was pitch black inside, save for the boatman’s headlights glancing over the soaring cave ceiling (or someone’s camera flash). The stalactite and stalagmite formations were truly unique, tucked away in the darkness and whittled by water and time.

rock formations

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Coron

The next leg of my trip saw me in Coron, a quick and scenic one hour charter flight from Puerto Princesa. The plane is usually packed, there aren’t many flights a day. But lucky me, there was only one other passenger on board! I felt like complete royalty, and played the in flight version of musical chairs to find the best bird’s eye view before landing in Coron.

flight views

An emerging tourist destination with sleepy fishing village vibes, Coron Town is small, quaint and a little quirky. Flanked by limestone cliffs and swathes of hilly countryside, it’s enough to inspire your own “the hills are alive moment”, Philippines style. It’s in the process of being built up, so you’d best experience the place now while it still lingers in that sweet spot of unspoilt nature and functional internet. While it’s mostly the jumping point to surrounding islands and dive sites, there’s still a bunch to do in Coron Town itself.

Bird's eye view of Coron

The first thing I did in Coron was hike Mount Tapyas. It looms large over the town, marked by a giant metal cross and a stairway to the peak. The views on top are just stunning, completely worth the 721 steps it takes to get there especially if you head up at sunset. I kept turning around mid-climb just to drink it all in… dusty roads fall away as sea and sky rise to greet you. Don’t just stop at the first platform either – I followed the path past the first plateau behind the cross, where the 360° panoramas continue.

Lush scenery atop Mt. Tapyas

A summer swim in 40°C water? Pass… or so I thought. After a long day of diving, hiking, what have you, the Maquinit Hot Spring is the perfect place to unwind. Imagine floating in a massive tub at a rustic seaside spa – it’s just so relaxing. It’s a picturesque spot, with a two-tiered pool overlooking the ocean and framed by little lanterns. There’s a narrow path through the mangroves leading out to sea, and you can gaze at Jurassic Park-esque islands, backlit by the soft pastels of twilight.

View to sea

Getting around town is easy enough. The main mode of transport is by tricycle – the roads in Coron are narrow and were never built with cars in mind! Cutesy, colourful, and often emblazoned with either bible verses or Western names, the trikes add a whole lot of character to the town. Plus, they’ll get you anywhere you need to go for 30 pesos.

Tricycles

If you’re looking for crazy nightlife, Boracay may be more up your alley than Coron. What the town does offer by way of sundown activities are delicious dining, live bands to accompany your drinks, and karaoke shacks – Filipinos love music! Being a coastal town their specialty is seafood – freshly caught that morning, sold at the public market and landing on your plate at ridiculously cheap prices. Lobsters, crabs, oysters, you name it they had it, served grilled, baked or on sizzling plates. You could order an entire fish for AUD 4 at this gem of a restaurant called Kawayanan Grill. A tall glass of fresh mango juice averaged at about AUD 3 and a San Miguel cost half of that. Safe to say, I dined like a king for the entirety of my trip.

seaweed

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Coron Island Hopping

Coron Island is a mecca for active ocean-lovers, with coral gardens, lakes of plunging depths and dive sites all ripe for exploring. I spent a day on the classic Coron Island Loop tour, swimming and snorkelling in a perpetual state of amazement at the marine life buzzing just below the surface. The island is owned by its indigenous people, the Tagbanuas tribe, and they’re responsible for preserving what nature provided.

Coron Island

We set off bright and early on our bangka, otherwise known as an outrigger canoe. It was a 20 minute ride to the first lake and I spent most of it sitting on the bow of the boat. The sun, sea breeze and occasionally having my toes dip in the ocean was enough for me to decide – from here on out, bangkas are the only way to ride.

sitting on a bangka

The lakes of Coron Island are a sight to behold, vast water bodies steeped in folklore and nestled between limestone cliffs. We visited three lakes, Twin Lagoons being the first stop. Here, two lakes are separated by a small cliff with a gap in the middle, leaving a tunnel that you can swim through. At high tide this becomes wholly submerged and a bit tricky, so there’s also a makeshift ladder that’ll take you up and over. The brackish water shifts in temperature depending where you swim, but the surface remains a delightful turquoise. We got lucky and were literally the only people there. Sealed off from the world by the towering cliffs, we had nature’s gigantic swimming pool all to ourselves.

Twin Lagoons

We also made a stop at Kayangan Lake, where stunning underwater rock formations disappear into dark blue depths and a little uphill hike takes you to the most photographed spot in Coron. Barracuda Lake is a great spot for diving (although I just stuck to snorkelling). It’s a thermocline body of water and the temperature shifts as you descend. There are more dramatic stone formations to be found here, lending the submerged world an almost extra-terrestial feel. Also, the area is perfect for cliff diving.

Most photographed spot in Coron

The snorkelling around Coron Island was magical, and we spent ages at the Coral Garden and Siete Pecados. The reef was so vibrant and alive, with great splashes of purple, pink and electric blue. Giant clams, schools of fish that weaved through the coral, and a family of clownfish and the whole Finding Nemo clan made an appearance, something the tour guide was very keen to point out to me. I even got to swim with a sea turtle! He was the sweetest looking creature, paddling about in a bed of corals and seemed pretty unperturbed by the three humans staring him down. Definitely the highlight of my trip.

coral garden

corals

sea turtle

For our second day of island hopping, we made straight for the beaches. I was more than ready to sprawl out on that powder white sand the Philippines is so famous for. This excursion took us a little further afield, taking almost two hours to reach our first stop at Bulog island. The weather was being exceptionally kind that day, with the sun out in full force and a sea so still it looked like glass.

sea glass

On long day trips like these, a girl’s gotta eat. Another cool thing about bangkas is that they have a little grill on board, so meals are made on the go. Fresh seafood, cooked at sea and served on your bangka turned floating restaurant? Yes, please. Although in the end, we couldn’t resist the lure of the beach and wound up taking our food off the boat and picnicking on the sand.

Let me introduce you to the holy trinity of beaches in Coron: Bulog island, Banana island and Malcapuya island, each with sand whiter than the last. The ocean didn’t disappoint either, being such a stunning gradient of blue it melted right into the sky. Do I exaggerate? Not even a little bit, and here are pictures to prove it.

Malcapuya

Malcapuya

I could hardly believe how few people there were, and if you got the timing right (as we did on Banana island), no people at all. Timing is pretty much everything on these sorts of island tours and the tour guide STA organised for me really hit the spot. I had arrived at my own private beach paradise.

Bulog island and Banana island were great for snorkelling, but Malcapuya had the prettiest beach by far. The latter two islands had nipa huts up for rent if you wanted to stay overnight, and hammocks and tyre swings strung up on sturdy trees. There was a small stall selling coconuts for 50 pesos, who could say no to that? Most of my time of Malcapuya saw me perched on a low hanging branch, nursing my coconut juice with a book in hand as the waves gently lapped at my feet.

Sitting in a tree

I could have done with a few more days (or weeks) in Coron. WWII shipwreck dive sites, a wildlife sanctuary and waterfall hikes… the list for potential adventures goes on! But far too quickly, my week traipsing around the tropics drew to a close. I caught a flight out of Coron, and had a day left in Manila before I was due to return to the unforgiving cold.

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Manila

Manila gets a bad rap – noisy, dirty, flooded with people and the traffic is horrendous. And although there’s some truth to it, these factors tend to bury cultural, historical Manila, which is a real shame.

Manila

The city has a fascinating history, a unique blend of colonial and local heritage. There are traces of the Spanish everywhere, seeping into in their language, artwork, architecture and flavours. I had the most informative afternoon wandering the walled city of Intramuros, visiting Fort Santiago, San Agustin church, and Casa Manila, the lavish recreation of a colonial home. Manila was once slated to be the Venice of Asia, but the place was decimated by bombs during the war. The gravitas of its past echoes in the city’s ongoing efforts to resurrect its former beauty; the stone walls have an effect both solemn and charming. If you’re flying anywhere in Palawan you’re going to have a stopover anyway, so might as well give Manila a chance! The city will surprise you.

colonial home

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The Philippines always flew under the radar for me when it came to destinations in South East Asia, but now that I’ve been I know I’ve been missing out big time. How appropriate that the province I visited is also known as ‘the last frontier of the Philippines’ – experiencing these secluded corners of natural beauty has ruined me for further SEA travel. Palawan, I’ll be back!

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