The Palawan Mystic and A Coupon

Mystic-PalawanCredits: A quick page template  was created by Michelle Seizys / Shell 

It’s the middle of summer and I’m at my desk staring at the computer itching to be somewhere but the metro. Just a week after a long weekend spent outdoors, I’m missing the outdoors already. That’s what summer can do to me. So I reminisce. Of toes sinking in the sand, of the cold waves taking me by surprise, of the sun warming my body after, and of the sea wind blowing me dry.

Speaking of last weekend, a friend’s daughter tagged along. She does not travel much around the Philippines and is excited to see another part of the country outside of where she lives, which is Manila, and where she has ties, which is Pampanga and Boracay. “Boracay,” she said, “is where I go if I want to get away.” She’s there once or twice a year and knows it like the back of her hand. She needs a change of scenery (I thought) so we brought her to the river.

Pinacanauan

The Pinacanuan River in Peñablanca, Cagayan is a favorite in the area because it reminds of Palawan in a way.

The image in my mind of the sand and the sea usually come with karst limestone in the background.

El-Nido-Island-Hopping

Yes, Palawan. I love how it is diverse – white sand, blue sea, stunning landscape,

good-eats

incredible food scene, breathtaking underwater world,

snorkeling-port-barton

dense forests, waterfalls, a world-heritage listed cave, etc.

waterfalls

El Nido is a top choice and will be for a while.

El-Nido-town

I love it for its charming town, its ruggedness, its simplicity, its raw yet sophisticated food options.

serene

Then you have the outlying beaches of San Vicente off Port Barton for those who want to get away from it all—quiet, tranquil and serene.

If, like my niece, your idea of a getaway is limited to the same old stuff, a change of scenery will do you good. Why not Palawan? And here’s a chance.

For a limited time offer, Let’s Palawan is offering a $30 off on their packages. To avail, all you have to do is click on their “get a quote” page and type in this coupon code: zeal4adventureC003. I urge you to grab it if you can, try something new. Palawan will do you good.

The Trek to the Underground River

Underground-RiverCredits: Papers by Plum Dumpling Designs, Pri Rocha, The Design Girl, Trixie Scap Design; Ribbon by Design by Tater, Red string with flowers by Graham Like the Cracker, and String wrap by Haynay Designs. 

Elusive in the past, I became disinterested and eventually gave up the idea of visiting Palawan’s famous Underground River. Then they re-opened the Jungle Trail.

Initially slated for December but due to unforeseen reasons, we moved our Puerto Princesa trip to January.  We planned to simply chill out, visit our favorite jaunts and catch up with friends. Then, the grand idea— “why not go to Sabang for the day so you can finally see the Underground River?” Anton to me.  Me to him,  “Ok, but we will trek to the cave.”

Sabang-Pier

The Sabang Pier is the main jump off point to the Underground River or The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, once also called the St. Paul Subterranean River. Yes, it has many names. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave was provisionally chosen (through votes—and you know how we Filipinos can vote) as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Entrance-from-the-shoreEntrance from the shore

The usual way to get there is to take a 15-20 minute boat ride (I estimate) from the pier.

There are two trails to the cave, The Monkey Trail, and the Jungle Trail. The former has been closed for a time now and the latter re-opened only last year. Having heard of the Monkey trail from friends who did it some 10 years back, I knew that I’d do it at some point. Well, the jungle trail, I reckon, is good enough.

crossingThe trek starts by crossing the mangrove.

A recommended option for the active, the jungle trail meanders through a beautiful lush forest.

dwarfed-by-trees

It lets you hike through ancient trees, well crafted wooden staircases, bridges and benches made from confiscated wood that adds character to the trail

wooden-walkways

one-among-many-bridges

and at one point, limestone formations becomes backdrop behind the foliage.

limestone-backdrop

Not only does the pleasant 2-hour hike enhance the experience but it also gives jobs to the 20 or so Tagbanua indigenous community members.

guide

reminder-before-the-trek

As “Park Wardens” they serve as guides and caretakers of the jungle.

path-to-the-riverthe path from the trail

The Underground River itself was not a let down at all. Having heard of so many mixed reviews, expectations were low.

paddle-boatsWaiting in line to enter the cave.

But to my surprise, the chambers especially the one called “the cathedral,” towering some 800 meters high, impressed me.

inside-the-cave

Truth to tell though, I fell asleep some part of the way, perhaps due to exhaustion and the fact that the only thing lighting the way was a flashlight held by the person in front. Our guide was adept and quite engaging in providing intelligent albeit elementary information about what a cave system is.

lush-forest-2

My take on this experience: to go there just for the Underground River may not be worth the effort (it’s still a 2-hour ride to Sabang). The hikes makes the difference.  Having seen Sabang, I wish I had stayed a few nights to explore the quiet town.

El Nido: Island Hop Day

“The best island destination of Southeast Asia” was how National Geographic Traveler Magazine sized up El Nido in its November-December 2007 issue.  And has since been dubbing it as one of the best travel destinations.  Alex Garland’s “The Beach was inspired by El Nido, many say.  The Amazing Race, Bourne Legacy… it’s becoming a Hollywood favorite as well and for good reason.

Majestic karst limestone formation, enchanting lagoons, marble cliffs, lush forest, white sandy beaches, clear blue waters, wonderful marine life… all these epitomizes the Philippines’ so called “Last Frontier”.

Shops along the main streets of the town center offer the same A to D island-hopping tours.  To be in El Nido and not do these tours is like going to an ice cream parlor and not have ice cream.

It is after all the gateway to Bacuit bay—

an exquisite nature gem scattered with limestone islands with stretches of white sand beaches and hidden coves.

Mang Rudy promised a good lunch in his tour and so, together with the French friends we met coming to El Nido, we booked a tour with him.

Tour C— because it was my favorite tour the last time and because the our French friends wanted to see “Secret Beach”.

First on the agenda was Hidden Beach on Matinloc Island and the farthest from town.

Beautiful beach with lush vegetation hidden behind towering limestone cliffs hence the name.

We did some snorkeling but didn’t step foot on the beach.

Matinloc Shrine, our next stop, is on one side of the island.

The shrine is a two-storey building towering in one corner and a concrete gazebo at the center of the site.  Abandoned, the shrine is not in good condition but remains part of the tour— most likely because of its remarkable scenery.

In front of the building stands a limestone cliff with a stunning view of the nearby Tapiutan Island and other beaches of the island.

One has to climb the cliff to see the view while relatively easy; the sharp limestone edges can easily cut.  So be careful.

A beautiful tiny cove, Shumizu Island, which we had all to ourselves, was where we stopped for lunch.

While the food was on the grill, we enjoyed the sun, sea and sand.

Lunch was a wonderful feast of grilled chicken and squid alongside a refreshing cucumber and tomato salad.

Thank you Mang Rudy, we were not disappointed.

Matinloc Island has a Secret Beach.

Inside the steep rock wall is an enchanting beach inaccessible by boat.

The only way to enter this secret beach is through a small crevice, which during high tide is submerged earning its name.  When submerged, one has to swim through the crevice underwater making the reveal more dramatic, truth to tell.

This particular beach is said to have been the inspiration to Alex Garland’s “The Beach”.  It is easy to understand why.

Inside those walls is another world, a secret paradise, if I may call it that.  It is a sight to behold and this, dear friends, is why Tour C became a favorite.

Fronting the Matinloc Shrine is Star Beach.  I particularly love the rock formation in front.

The reef nearby is a great snorkeling spot owing to good coral beds and the abundance of marine life.

Capping this tour is a stop at Dimalicad Island, better known as Helicopter Island because of the shape it resembles from afar.

The long stretch of sparkling white sand beach makes it ideal for lounging around with a good book or sunbathing perhaps.

Although the water beckons for a swim, the waves can be strong for some.

They couldn’t have chosen a more perfect cap for the day.

Of Cabanas and Good Books

A free day to lounge around, we got tips from Mang Rudy and the guests next door.  Corong Corong Beach, south of El Nido, came highly recommended.

Las Cabanas Beach Resort, we told the tricycle driver and we got dropped off a dirt road.

He said to just walk down till we end up on the beach.  Las Cabanas will be on the left side.  He will pick us up in the afternoon.

Just 3 kilometers south of El Nido town center is a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach, not quite Boracay-fine but fine enough for me.

Still part of the Bacuit Archipelago, the panoramic view of the distant islands and the peaceful environment makes for a relaxing get-away from the hustle and bustle of town.  It is definitely more private, a lot quieter, unadulterated still.

We followed the driver’s instructions, we walked pass a resort which looked charming enough for us to want to stay.

Orange Pearl has a few beachfront cottages and a restaurant that served simple Filipino food.  I was happily considering pancit.  We, however, decided to walk the rest of the strip and alas, we arrived at Las Cabanas.

So much more cozier with beachfront cabanas calling our names.  There were hammocks too.  What a find… perfect place to chill with a good book.

I snooped inside and was impressed with the lushly landscaped grounds.  I catch sight of what seemed like well-appointed cottages.  A nice, quiet place to escape the crowds, if that is what’s preferred.  Lunch was quite good – served family style.

Guests leaned towards families – tranquil waters and a secluded beach plays a big part for sure.

Facing west and unobstructed, Corong Corong is known for its glorious sunsets the same way the town isn’t.

We however decided to miss the sunset and head back to town early, take a nice shower, enjoy a shot or two of the ginger-flavored rum at La Salangane before devouring a delightful “brick-oven” pizza.  A good reason to miss the sunset, you think?

Rugged Mystique

Credits: Papers from SDynes Christmas Treasures Mini Kit; Frames from Orchbroom Mask and SDynes Christmas Elements; Floral Elements from Sahlin Studio’s Story Telling kit (sc flowers).

Bewitched.  I can’t seem to put my finger on it but there’s something about the town of El Nido that has left me enchanted from day one.

The town sits on a sheltered bay flanked by limestone cliffs on one side

and hills on the other.

A small town center charmed with tree-lined streets and towering cliffs in the background, a stunning vista it makes.

It still is very much a backpacker’s town really and it is this laid-back backpacking atmosphere that lured me back to many years after.

This charming fishing village in the northernmost tip of the Palawan Island often is referred to as the Last Frontier due to its rugged mystique.

How time flies… it took me 8 years to come back to one of my favorite towns.  I still remember many details of the town like it was yesterday.

El Nido has turned into a touristic town and I see that more exciting places to eat and stay have sprouted everywhere.

Madali ang pera dito kung masipag ka”, says Mang Rudy.

The opportunities are endless with tourism at the forefront here at El Nido and money can indeed be easy if one works hard.

The one place I would have loved to go back to, we heard no longer serve meals on a regular basis.  Walking to town, we unwittingly found the house so we entered the half-opened gate and were told that they don’t accept dinner bookings anymore.  We took it as that.  On hindsight, I am not sure if they meant that they were already full for the holidays or that they weren’t serving because it was a holiday.  Having seen many closed shops and restaurants around Palawan during Easter break, this will not come as a  surprise.  Elm St Café is a cozy dining place set in a beautiful garden amidst a limestone backdrop so beautiful when lit at night.  The owners opened their home along Rizal Ave. and they served meals to those that booked in advance – usually a surprise, depending on what is found in the market that day.  They were the best of the best then, the ambiance and the element of surprise added to the experience and memories.

Not to fret though as there are a whole new lot to choose from, we barely scratched the surface, I think.  And here are some that caught our fancy.

La Salangane – more than the French meals, what had us coming back were the homemade flavored rums.

Ginger, apple, pineapple, pears, oranges, mangoes, even pepper –

wonderful flavors enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere overlooking the Cadlao Mountain by the beach.

Made more special over sunset.  This is THE place to get your espresso fix as well.  Many of the places in E Nido, including our inn, do not even serve brewed coffee.

The Alternative Restaurant – mentioned by some French tourists we met on our way to El Nido, we decided to give it a shot.  The place was not easy to find as it does not look like much from the outside and we kept walking pass it.

On the 2nd floor though where the restaurant is, the ambience turned to cozy.  At one side overlooking the sea, a few sunken oval seats resembling a “bird’s nest” overhangs the beach – a cool place to hang out and watch the sunset, me thinks but A wasn’t as confident that the structure would hold us so we got ourselves a table instead.

Despite an extensive vegetarian choice, I had a pork dish with pasta – and it was pretty good.  Our French friends though were not as impressed.

Altrové Trattoria – saving the best for last.  This Pizzeria was the best of the lot in my books.

Made of fresh dough and cooked crisp in a brick-oven is perhaps the best pizza in town.  The place, unlike The Alternative, is hard to miss.  Beautiful façade of a place, the brick oven proudly stands at the ground floor.

A nicely decorated second floor is where the dining area is.

We enjoyed our antipasti of Beef Carpaccio and Baked Tomatoes on Mozzarella.

The seafood pasta dish was divine and the pizza, wonderfully crusty.  And to cap the evening… Limóncello, how can I not love this place?

To serve Limóncello in a town like El Nido, where electricity only runs from 2pm-6am, was impressive.  And this, dear friends, has easily landed on the top of my El Nido list, dining-wise.

Useful Info:

La Salangane
Serena Street
Barangay Buena Suerte
Contact:  (63) 916-648-6994
Email:  info@lasalangane.com
 
The Alternative
Serena Street
Barangay Buena Suerte
Contact:  (63) 917-896-3408
 
Altrove Trattoria
Hama Street
Barangay Masagana
Contact:  (63) 927-741-8016 
 

Off To El Nido…

And so we got up early the next day, had breakfast, and before we knew it, the van we booked ahead to take us to El Nido came, earlier than expected.

The 5-hour ride was uneventful with several toilet stops along the way.  Except for the last stretch of unpaved road due to road repairs and widening – I’ll say about an hour left of travel time – the ride was pretty smooth albeit a bit cramp.  But vans are always a bit cramp.  I heard that the RoRo buses have more leg room so that perhaps might be a better option next time.

From the Lexus Company terminal at Calle Lising, a tricycle was the easiest way to get to the El Nido Viewdeck Inn;

a bed and breakfast perched on a hill with a fantastic view of the town and has for its backdrop, limestone walls.

Just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the town, the Viewdeck Inn provides serenity amidst mountains.  From the road, the inn welcomes with a series of steep steps, which leads to their reception area (a down side — if you may call it that — of accommodations set in the mountains).

We were led to climb more steps to get to our cottage and needless to say, we got a good workout during our 4-day stay — the upside, yes?   😉

The room is basic with nothing to rave about save for that wonderful view from our balcony– this is what the place is all about after all.  Personally, the bonus is in the coffee.  No, it’s not the best coffee I’ve had; in fact it’s a 3-in-1, sometimes a 2-in-1 even.  That and a thermos of hot water awaits in our balcony just before we wake up.

A hot cup of coffee with a sunrise view is enough to charm me to pieces and forget that I am drinking instant.  Toast, jam and scrambled eggs –breakfast so simple, I love it – follows about half an hour later.

Before heading to town, we chat a bit with the guy at the reception.  Mang Rudy, as it turns out, owns and runs the place and when asked if he was the owner, smiling he says “hindi halata no?” (it’s not obvious right?).   Well, no Mang Rudy because you wear the oldest, most comfortable t-shirts and shorts, we thought you were the caretaker.  And that’s how he likes it.  He is the perfect host, taking great care of us and that’s how we like it.

Getting There:

Shuttle Services:
Fortwally Shuttle Services: (63) 917-276-2875 / (63) 921-311-8755
Eulen Joy Shuttle Van: (63) 949-449-8858 / (63) 926-699-8700
Lexus Company: (63) 917-585-9602

RoRo Bus:  
Puerto-El Nido:  (63) 908-920-2568
El Nido-Puerto: (63) 917-597-1182

Useful Info:

El Nido Viewdeck Inn
Mobile:  (63) 927-723-4067 / (63) 947-601-8599
Email:  inquiry@elnidoviewdeck.com / inquiry.viewdeck@yahoo.com
 

El Nido… Here I Come

But first, let me talk about Puerto Princesa.  Not exactly the paradise Palawan promises to be, it is however the gateway to the promise.   The capital of Palawan is the jump off point to many beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, stunning limestone cliffs and the clearest water teeming with marine life.  And just like many of my trips to Puerto Princesa, we made it our jump-off to El Nido, a favorite part of Palawan and our destination.

Always in transit, never really staying, Puerto Princesa managed to endear itself a few years back when we decided to stay a few days more after a live-aboard trip to Tubbataha and Cagayancillo.  A clean, quiet city that is best known today for its Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring a spectacular karst landscape and an extensive underground river system.

And because the van to El Nido leaves early morning, we thought it best to spend a night and enjoy a bit of its good food.  If you know me by now, you know that good food is never far behind.

As soon as we touched down, before we even checked in to our inn, we headed straight to our favorite Vietnamese eatery in PP – Rene’s Saigon Restaurant.

They serve the best Beef Pho in town.  That’s Beef Stew Noodle soup and locals call it Chao Long.  Once a United Nations Vietnamese Refugee Center in the ‘70s, the capital had been introduced to Vietnamese culture and its food its greatest reward and keepsake.

Even on a hot summer’s day, this soup provides great satisfaction.  A bowl each and a shared Beef Bahn Mi – yes we love beef – is one fulfilling “welcome to Puerto Princesa” meal.

If you are to walk to Baywalk like we did, late afternoon (or early morning) is best during the hot summer.

A seafront strip that (sort of) reminds of Dumaguete’s Rizal Boulevard.  This strip, unlike that of Dumaguete’s, is tucked away from the road just beside the seaport.

Detained fishing boats for using illegal fishing methods.

Puerto Princesa Bay, a main port for smaller ship boats is likewise the main gateway to the many islets of Palawan by sea.  This is also where one would take a boat to watch the dolphins frolicking the bay early in the morning.

Long nose snouted spinner dolphins abound in the waters off Puerto Bay.

Many food stalls line the Baywalk strip offering various kinds of street food.

Trying a Tok Neneng — it really is just hard boiled eggs coated with an orange batter then fried.  It is flavored with the sauce of your choice ranging from sweet and sour to hot and spicy.
Some sort of a spicy cheese roll, the green pepper providing the heat.  Yum.

Seated near a stall enjoying our beer, our tok nenengs and the likes, the stall owner asked if we would be interested in some tamilok – a woodworm, sometimes also known as a shipworm.

It may look like a worm and called a worm, it is however not one.  It is a marine mollusk that tastes very much like fresh oysters, I found out.

Curious that Andrew Zimmern found it fabulous, I should give it a try myself, don’t you think?  Now, fabulous it is not (for me), but it definitely would pass as not bad.

The more popular restaurants were either closed or fully booked, we ended up trying a new kid on the block.

Blue Ginger serves Asian cuisine that is quite impressive but the one that had us all nodding our heads was this Texas Style Pork Ribs.

The chef’s American, that’s why.  In my books, this place is a serious addition to the many wonderful eats Puerto has to offer so far.

Satisfying day.  Tomorrow we’re off to my favorite Palawan getaway.

Useful Info

Rene’s Saigon Restaurant
Rizal Avenue Extension,
Puerto Princesa3
(048) 433-5255
 
Blue Ginger
Rizal Avenue,
Puerto Princesa
(0927) 545-5847