Andy Pownall, a commercial diver once of Norfolk, England, first laid eyes on the islands of Coron when he was commissioned to search for a sunken cargo of Ming-dynasty shipping vessels in the late 1980s. The archipelagos of the Philippines’ Northern Palawan province and their surrounding waters are popular with treasure hunters, and Pownall was confident that his survey and excavation – on behalf of the National Museum of the Philippines – would bear fruit.
What he wasn’t expecting was to fall in love with the place. Instead of returning home when the job was complete, Pownall sought out an island to call his own to start a business. After scoping out an area that contains a quarter of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands, he settled on Sangat, where he began building the Sangat Island Dive Resort back in 1992.
With three white sand beaches, a 455m jungle-covered mountain, pristine coral gardens, a cave home to glossy swiftlets (the birds whose nests are prized for soup), a hot spring, the wrecks of six Japanese WWII ships off its coast and even a burial ground for the island’s indigenous people, the Tagbanwa, Sangat is a microcosm of everything the region has to offer. On the far end of the island, there’s even a Robinson Crusoe villa, accessible only by boat, and sublet by a company called Docastaway which maroons “writers, meditators and Bear Grylls types” on remote spots across the Coral Triangle.
In short, this is the kind of place that you can come to really get away from it all. The big question is, for how long? As the tourism industry wakes up to the Philippines’ potential, big change is afoot. Last year alone some two million people landed on Palawan, the long, thin island shaped like a closed umbrella that sits out in the sea west of the Philippines “mainland” and forms the hub of these island groups. The karst and coral islands of Coron float 100km north of Palawan, which sounds far removed, but Richard Branson was apparently here a couple of years ago, scoping out potential properties, and a growing number of five-star hotels are joining the guesthouses, all springing up to cater for tourists arriving to tick off their bucket list sights like Coron’s Kayangan Lake.
It’s led, in some quarters, to breathless comparisons of the Philippines to the Maldives. After all, there are the same crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches and collections of virgin islands here, many ready to welcome a high-end resort. Mangenguey Island near Coron is a perfect example. Set on a picture-perfect coral atoll, with waters so clean that bioluminescent plankton light up the coasts at night, it ticks all the boxes. Guests at stunning Camp Ngey Ngey sleep in one of 20 tukas, charming typhoon-resilient bamboo huts modelled after an upside-down ship’s hull (their open shape allows the wind to pass through). But the reality is that Ngey Ngey is far less wilfully ostentatious than its Indian Ocean counterparts. It’s driftwood chic done with a cool Berlin twist – they even run artist residencies here for creatives from Manila and Cebu – as opposed to out and out luxury. As such it has a buzzy, millennial feel. “[They] fly over from Manila for the weekend and rent out the whole island,” says Alejandro Pirela, the Venezuelan marketing director of Tao Philippines, the local tour operator that owns the island. “We recently hosted a private festival for 40, with a DJ up at the sunset watchtower and everyone skinny-dipping in the phosphorescence. I’m not sure if you get that in the Maldives.”
The hotel also has an interesting backstory, one that perfectly illustrates another difference between the two island groups. Once home to a boutique resort and restaurant run by a couple of New Yorkers, Mangenguey was decimated when it caught the tail of Typhoon Haiyan (Mangenguey means “rough and windy” in Tagbanwa), in 2015. In the aftermath, Tao Philippines, which was then running expeditions around its karst and coral islets, saw an opportunity and bought up the property, integrating it into its collection of camps. Tao means “human” in Tagalog, and was founded by Jack Foottit and Eddie Brock with a sole outrigger and a hand-drawn map, 10 years ago. They’ve added another boat to their fleet every year, and have a passion for helping local communities. A luxury, multinational hotel group they are not.
Some of Tao’s nine camps are run by the villages they’re attached to on Edenic islands dotted along their expedition routes. Others are set apart on remote corners of otherwise deserted islands. The entire operation is run as a cooperative, with the villages providing bed linen, processing coconuts into oil and soaps, and brewing cashew fruits from the farm at Tao’s base camp on the Palawan mainland into vinegar. One camp in an inland jungle estuary provides Tao with its source of precious fresh water. In return, Tao builds pre-schools in and buys fish from villages that don’t have access to the facilities of the larger islands. “Tourism shouldn’t be a one-way street where each just takes from the other but a 50/50 exchange, where you give back and collaborate through education, food, architecture and sharing each other’s culture,” as Foottit puts it over a plate of paxio (vinegared mackerel) and green papaya in coconut milk garnished with moringa leaves – the superfood grows wild on the farm’s shoreline. Tao doesn’t reveal the locations of its camps on its website so as not to spoil the surprise, but the point of many of the places they visit is that you won’t have heard of them anyway – barring one exception. Situated directly off Palawan’s northern coastline, the jagged karst islands of the El Nido municipality are said to be Alex Garland’s inspiration for The Beach. True to the ethos of his generation-defining backpacking epic, Garland chose not to base his book there, so he sent his gap-year crew off to Thailand’s Koh Pha-Ngan instead. But in the years since Garland penned his novel, people have discovered this once-private paradise for themselves, leading to a number of gushing editorials in glossy magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler.
It’s here that I’m travelling now to chart the difference between Coron and El Nido – and to see if the Maldives-with-mountains comparison rings true. They are only 100km apart (both are a one-hour flight from Manila), so you could take the fast ferry (three hours), the slow ferry (eight hours) or charter a helicopter, but by far-and-away the best option is the Balatik, a 25m paraw operated by Tao, and the only sailing boat of its kind in the country.
In an age when motor-driven bangkas (outriggers) rule the sea, “the Balatik is a relic of Filipino culture,” says Gener Paduga, who built the ship as a labour of love. Paduga grew up in Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital and a fishing town, and comes from a family of boat captains, yet had not seen a sail for two decades. As a result, he struggled to find anyone who knew about the traditional crafts when he took the project on. “It took two years to build, and a lot of research, consulting with my father and grandfathers, and tracking down the right kind of master carpenters who know how to work with nara [the Philippines’ national tree],” he says, as his crew rig up the sails. The resulting vessel is a masterpiece, decorated with tagbanwa carvings of hawksbill turtles and other tribal totems, and custom fitted for maximum comfort on the kind of voyages offered by Tao. Paduga, who also designed the camps’ tukas, sounds the conch and the Balatik and its passengers set off. Unlike many such expeditions, where the destination is all important, sailing on the Balatik is an experience in itself, not least because of your fellow travellers. We met an American father and son who worked for IBM and Google respectively, venture capitalists from Dubai, and a couple who own a vineyard in France – decidedly not backpacker types. Tao carefully curates the balance of ages, nationalities, couples and singles.
If we don’t change now we run the risk of going in the wrong direction
El Nido and Coron are only hours apart, but the differences are pronounced. Having been handed control of their ancestral lands in a landmark 1985 ruling, Coron’s once-downtrodden Tagbanwa have largely resisted the development of many of their islands, and today visitors to sites like Coron Island’s jaw-dropping lagoons and lakes – sinkholes created when cave ceilings collapsed, and said to be the cleanest waters in Asia – pay a small fee of around 200–300 pesos ($4–$5) to enter. There had been talk of a floating casino and a Nickelodeon-themed water park, but as local decisions have to be made collectively, both thankfully never got further than the drawing board. It’s a vision of a paradise not yet lost.
El Nido, on the other hand, is expanding fast. All available real estate has been already developed within the town proper, first by French expats who were drawn here by the connection with Cousteau – the marine legend explored the waters of northern Palawan in the early 1970s and reported them the best diving to be had in all of Asia – and now by hip Manilans, who see the scale of the opportunities here to attract the adventurous honeymooner crowds. Of course, it’s still astonishingly beautiful and relatively undeveloped outside the main town.
El Nido is at a “tipping point”, explains Paul Kerr, general manager of The Pangulasian, El Nido Resorts’ flagship property. El Nido Resorts is part of the 10 Knots Development Corporation, which runs three other luxury hotels on islands El Nido’s Bacuit Bay, two beach clubs, the airport and Air Swift’s twice-daily shuttles to Manila and back. Its first resort, Miniloc Island, features overwater villas sitting above a bay filled with metre-long trevally fish. Seen from the sea at night, the 80s-built resort and its silhouetted cliffs could easily double up as a Timothy Dalton-era Bond villain’s lair. Early each morning, new arrivals are given their introductory briefing on environmental dos and don’ts in Miniloc Island’s much-photographed Big and Small Lagoons, a five-minute kayak away, while infant reef sharks swim below the wild orchids that grow within its walls.
“If we don’t change now we run the risk of going in the wrong direction,” Kerr continues. As you would expect from the GM of a resort where Bill Gates once pulled up in his superyacht for lunch, and which served as a hideaway for the likes of Prince Albert of Monaco and Margot Robbie, he would like to see El Nido go the way of “Bhutan rather than Cambodia”, meaning remaining under the radar and exclusive.
While the logic can’t be faulted – fewer tourists equals less environmental damage – the ethics of roping off Mother Nature’s masterpieces for the wealthy is still up for debate (Bhutan charges a tourism tax of $250 per person per day). And to be very honest, from a traveller’s point-of-view, a few more options wouldn’t go amiss, for families especially. In the meantime, El Nido’s coastguard now restricts the number of boats and passengers out at Bacuit Bay’s sights, and the town plans to go plastic-free in January.
Back at The Pangulasian, talk turns to an island resort near Coron which has allegedly built its cookie-cutter overwater villas directly atop its corals, billing itself as “the first Maldivian-style resort in the Philippines”. But Kerr is adamant that this development is not part of a trend. These islands, he says, over a gin and tonic spiked with calamansi juice, the sweet miniature lime local to the Philippines, will never become the Maldives, where the focus is all about relaxing and luxuriating. “Here we have monkeys swinging about the canopy villas, this rich Filipino flavour, and hundreds of islands on your doorstep which you could spend years exploring.”
And indeed, when we snorkelled under a low rocky awning to reach the beach said to have inspired Alex Garland – the slightly unimaginatively named Secret Beach in El Nido – its limestone amphitheatre was full of people posing for selfies on its squeaky sands and among its coconut palms. But right next door, sitting empty and separated by only a cliff, there was a stretch of sand of equal – if not greater – beauty. There were countless glimpses of such untouched Edens countless times in my time here. Northern Palawan has many more secrets to tell.