‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

Yep, this is El Nido. Picture: Ben Farrell

LET me tell you about a place. Somewhere that isn’t well-known. A place that doesn’t have the tourist crowds of Thailand and other Southeast Asian islands and beaches, but features pristine blue water that caresses the fine powdery white sand as the sun sets over the archipelago island’s mountains.

Welcome to El Nido, Philippines.

There’s a track winding back up north along the slender island of Palawan. It’s rough and unpaved and twists and turns with abrupt vigour over mountain ranges, valleys, rainforests and along crisp blue coastlines offering stunning views.

It ends at the small fishing town of El Nido — a beautiful village and the perfect base to explore the hundreds of hidden islands, secret lagoons and beaches in this region.

Why no tourists? Well, El Nido is a long way from the closest airport of Puerto Princessa. After landing in ‘Puerto’ you need to take a very long, bumpy, cramped and just plain-awful mini-van ride that robs you of eight hours of your life you’ll never be able to reclaim, but it’s worth it!

After all the stomach-somersaulting hours, we finally reach our destination. The Filipino boy unties our bags from the roof of the van and we get into a trike (the main mode of transport — just a motorbike with an enclosed sidecar) to take us to our hotel.

Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

It’s a slow trip as the driver opens the throttle to push the small engine bike, laboured with passengers and luggage up and over the crest that separates Coron Coron from El Nido.

As we twist and turn along the road, I catch glimpses of the bay. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight — that’s an understatement really — what I glimpse is an orange and violet sky silhouetting distant archipelago islands as fisherman drag in their nets through the calm rippled sea.

Natural beauty everywhere. Picture: Ben Farrell

Natural beauty everywhere. Picture: Ben Farrell

I’ve never seen a better sunset in my life.

Beautiful. Picture: Ben Farrell

Beautiful. Picture: Ben Farrell

The following day we began our island hopping tour. We’ve been promised snorkelling in hidden lagoons, lunch on secret beaches, and pristine paradise.

Our small wooden boat glides out across the bright blue bay under the giant, watchful volcanic peak of the El Nido mountains. The engine splutters and whirrs into a low, vibrational hum as propellers spin thrashing the calm blue into whitewash and we gently lift up and then down over the small waves.

Looking back. Picture: Ben Farrell

Looking back. Picture: Ben Farrell

On the downward dip, the boat’s wooden side ballasts cut into the bright blue ocean spraying refreshing cool water up and onto our hot sunburnt and windswept faces. I lick the salt off my lips and look for my camera to start capturing these perfect paradise landscapes.

A quick glance back at El Nido bay gives real perspective of just how small the village is. Perched as if someone accidentally dropped it from above, it’s dwarfed by the giant archipelago mountains on either side.

Yeah, it’s spectacular out here. Picture: Ben Farrell

Yeah, it’s spectacular out here. Picture: Ben Farrell

We pick up speed and head into deep blue open ocean. We are constantly surrounded by distant mountainous islands that seem peppered throughout the ocean in abundance. Their giant peaks rise up like humpback whales breaching the surface in perfect island chain formations.

We head towards one of these mountains and the boat enters a small opening between two giant limestone cliffs that stand like monoliths protecting the bay inside.

The water is so clear. Picture: Ben Farrell

The water is so clear. Picture: Ben Farrell

As we enter, the ocean turns from deep blue to bright azure. It’s so clear like glass, I can see the fish and coral pulsing beneath the boat as we hover over the top and glide silently and slowly deeper into a lagoon. We round the corner and are greeted with a sparkling bright blue ocean that looks as if it’s too blue to be real.

Heading to another island. Picture: Ben Farrell

Heading to another island. Picture: Ben Farrell

Other tour boats are anchored in the bay and puffs of black smoke rise up from them their bows catching the gentle breeze as boat crews huddle around cooking barbecue lunch for their tour

goers. Fresh seafood is grilled over charcoal as people snorkel about the bay.

After snorkelling among thousands of fish we’re off to another island. The guide picks up a long, thick bamboo stick and begins pushing the boat backward and away from the cliff face.

Into the blue. Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

Into the blue. Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

Like a Venetian gondolier he thrusts his stick with force against the shallow lagoon ensuring the boat doesn’t come into contact the with sharp rocky bottom. The engine splutters and again we’re churning through the deep blue sea to our next island.

Throughout the afternoon we slow many times and glide into other bays so hidden, that I feel we simply disappear and slip into one of the crevasses on the limestone cliff face. We are overwhelmed by beautiful white sand beaches.

Yep, it’s paradise all right. Picture: Ben Farrell

Yep, it’s paradise all right. Picture: Ben Farrell

On one of the islands we stop for lunch. Fresh fruit and the barbecued seafood from the first hidden lagoon are plated up beautifully and floated cautiously in a kayak over the clear blue water toward the beach. A plastic table is set up on the white sand under the shade of a large palm and we’re invited to eat.

Time for a bite? Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

Time for a bite? Picture: A TripAdvisor traveller

The breeze caresses our salty wet bodies as we stand in the shade eating barbecued squid to the sound of lapping waves and cattle-stealing palm fronds. It really is a perfect experience.

The only thing missing is a beer. I’m assured one more stop and then “we have beach with beer”. The boat pushes out again through the deep blue and comes around another corner into one of the most stunning bays I’ve seen.

Beautiful bays. Picture: MrGaryLarson

Beautiful bays. Picture: MrGaryLarson

Bright blue water ripples gently at the base of limestone monoliths that look as though that were placed carelessly in the sand and may topple at any moment. Their bases are eaten away by oceanic battering and their thick, bulky peaks burst with vegetation and wildlife that flourishes in the tropical sun.

As soon as we jump off the boat, we’re surrounded by fish like bees to honey. They pulse, swirl and dart around us, schooling as if putting on our show just for our entertainment. I’ve never seen so many fish in my life.

Ready for a swim? Picture: MrGaryLarson

Ready for a swim? Picture: MrGaryLarson

We clamber aboard the boat as my Havaianas act like flippers, frantically trying to get footing on the wooden ladder. We navigate through a small gap in the surrounding cliffs and back out to the open ocean. We’re now heading back to one of the beaches on the mainland.

As we approach I see that it’s busy with many tour boats, nosed up against the white sand as people recline on lounges, take selfies and sip Pina Coladas ... Wait ... There is a bar! We glance down the beach toward the noise of a blender and the distant beat of music. There’s a wooden shack at the end of the beach and people are queuing for drinks.

Awesome. Picture: Allan Ascano

Awesome. Picture: Allan Ascano

We make our way there and stand as the generators whirr and blenders pulse and grind, mixing up a menu of cocktails made from local spirits. I ordered a cold ‘san mig’ (San Miguel beer) and we make our way back to the waters edge where we lay, feet in the cool blue water sipping drinks.

The day has lived up to how it was sold to us. Well worth the money. I’ve seen the bluest water in my life, been caressed by thousands of tropical fish, explored hidden lagoons among ancient limestone cliffs and even had barbecue seafood and cocktails.

Fun in the sun. Picture: Allan Ascano

Fun in the sun. Picture: Allan Ascano

Well worth it and an incredible experience.

Bliss. Picture: Jerick Parrone

Bliss. Picture: Jerick Parrone

How to get there?

Fly from Manila to Puerto Princessa with Air Asia or Cebu Pacific (at time of writing)

If you can afford it do not just book any van. There’s a van company who drive responsibly, have bigger and more comfortable vans and won’t try to kill you. They are called ‘Lexus’.

You have to book in advance as once people make the one-way trip in to El Nido, they immediately try and find a better way out — and this is it!

Where to stay?

We stayed at Doublegem Resort in Corong Corong. This is quieter and only a five minute trike ride in to El Nido. Clean and friendly place with an amazing view of the sunset over the bay.

How to get around?

By trike — a trike from Corong Corong to El Nido is only approx. 25 pesos ($2).

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