PORTS OF CALL CASTAWAY
I’m gazing into the flickering flames of an open fire on Palawan’s soft sandy shores as my companion, a local islander called Bagwis, roasts our bounty of rock oysters, harvested moments earlier from the shimmering sea bed. We navigated several spiny, black marine assassins (sea urchins) in our quest to capture the elusive biscupid prey, but we persevered for the sake of the finest lunch this Philippine island has to offer. Served with tangy juice squeezed from the local calamansi fruit, the oysters taste of nothing but the sea, just as they should, having never been more than 10 metres (or seven minutes) away from it. We are the only people on the beach other than a family of fishermen, and looking out to our yacht anchored some way from land – the water here is shallow for quite a distance – I drift into a daydream reverie about casting off my old life and drab habits of finding meals on dry land.
It’s soon time to steer the tender back out to the boat and, as we motor north up the coastline, I fall to wondering how different any given experience of the Philippines can be. A week ago we were in the plush Manila Yacht Club marina, famous for one of the finest sunsets any harbour can offer. As the evening begins, the water turns an incredibly bright orange and the moored boats stick out of this lava-like mass like dark bones against the sky. An unsurprisingly popular dinner spot, being set against this splendid backdrop, the yacht club’s menu features a fascinating mix of local cuisine and foreign influences: the Philippines’ own chicken adobo in a thick-flavoured mix of soy sauce and vinegar; piquant gazpacho soup, a legacy of the Spanish who ruled this country for hundreds of years, and tender Japanese steaks, introduced by sailors on the Maritime Silk Road that ran from Europe and through this archipelago of 7,107 islands to the East.
Taking a wander into the city itself, I found the food excellent and the ambience unique in La Cocina de Tita Moning, a fine restaurant in an art deco mansion built by the current owner’s grandparents in 1937. In that quiet period between pudding and coffee, I took great delight in browsing the volumes in the family library, including the medical textbooks used by grandpa, Dr Alejandro Legarda.
The yacht club happens to be the starting point for the Philippines’ premier domestic race, the President’s Cup Regatta, which dashes to the holiday island of Boracay.
I’m not racing there myself, so two days is fine for a meandering trip past the granite cliffs of numerous islands, populated with surprised-looking birds and a few houses clinging to the rocks in likely contravention of a book-full of laws. If you take the trip, make sure to take your time in the Isla Verde Passage via Puerto Galera, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Sitting out in the sun with a glass of wine you can look right down through the clear water to a mind-boggling array of corals, mixed like paints on an artist’s palette – exactly what the tower-high skydeck on Sunseeker’s new 131 Yacht is designed for, I maintain.
Although it’s small, Boracay has something for everyone. Passing its main beach – White Beach – I see divers motoring out and wave riders zipping in, fishermen casting lines from the back of dinghies and kids splashing up and down in animal-shaped inflatable rings. Depending on the season, most boats choose to drop anchor and approach the island by dinghy. Setting foot on land, you are welcomed by local business owners offering cruises, dives, spas and hotels, yet, they aren’t the usual tiresome and bothersome sort of hustler – their friendly smiles convey a genuine belief that their offering is the best on the island and they don’t want you to miss out. That, it seems, would be tragic and they would go home very sad.
Following a couple of days at sea, a massage on a table planted into the beach’s pale sand sounds like a great way to become reacquainted with land once more. After an hour of having life rubbed into my limbs and watching the daylight dim, I wander over to one of the bar-restaurants where the nights are lit by fire dancers and accompanied by live music. The flames cast burning lights on the tanks holding live lobsters and crabs, so you can choose your meal. Guilt? Yes, there’s a little bit as you point out your main course, but it is soon washed away with a few cocktails crafted from the local rum. It’s all very lively here – a bit too lively for some, it must be said. For them, the Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa offers a haven of private tranquillity and first-class chefs. And yet, the Shangri-La is a trap spread across a hillside and surrounded by swooping birds – a couple of days there and you begin to believe that the rest of the world has melted away. Yes, I know that despite the welcoming lure, I have to press on to my ultimate destination: Palawan.
A couple of days here and you begin to believe that the rest of the world has melted away
And that’s how I find myself roasting oysters straight from the briny blue. Hot and meaty in their tangy sauce, restaurant-served oysters will never quite match up now. But don’t get me wrong: this isn’t just a luxurious barefoot-chic afternoon on a secluded beach, this is fuel for a night of exertion. Because an hour later, Bagwis and I are weaving through a swarm of ‘bangkas’ – the slim traditional fishing craft with double outriggers – to put in at El Nido in Bacuit Bay, at the northern tip of Palawan. Once there, we load up with diving equipment.
El Nido is an arty, hip, cool little town for those who want to explore slightly off the beaten path, but not a hundred miles from civilisation, and it is one of the prime diving spots in the Philippines, with night diving a local speciality. Easing out of the harbour, we pass Miniloc Island, one of four private islands that make up El Nido Resorts – the Philippines’ most exclusive destinations. Each of the four has its own vibe. Miniloc is the ‘eco-discovery’ island, where guests stay in thatched cottages modelled on a traditional Filipino village. It’s all about getting up-close and personal with nature here – you swim on the island’s reef with huge, hulking jackfish, and make expeditions out to the tiny uninhabited islets dotted around, such as Snake Island (don’t worry, the name comes from the shape of the sandbar that leads to it). Power is solar and the materials for the cottages are reclaimed from rustic huts elsewhere.
You can make your own way to the resorts, of course, or the staff will nip over in a speedboat to collect you from El Nido itself. The resorts also have their own scheduled airline, which takes guests between El Nido and Manila, should you want to make the trip more quickly than by sea.
As we leave Miniloc behind under the night sky, and speed towards the dive site, small uninhabited islands seem to create a cocoon around us as we arrive in the dark, still and serene waters. Under the sea, our torches illuminate surprised fish and sleeping turtles, while sea horses and crabs peak out from the coral as we pass, eyeing us inquisitively. It’s a whole new way to touch what lies beneath the waves, and when it’s over, surfacing into the empty night once more, all we can see is the glimmer of the boat lights on the waves. Despite the vibrancy and variety on offer in the Philippines, in that moment of calm, you could well believe all that exists is the sea.
Easing out of the harbour, we pass Miniloc Island, one of four private islands that make up El Nido Resorts – the Philippines’ most exclusive destinations, EACH WITH ITS OWN UNIQUE VIBE
FROM PLUSH RESORT RETREATS TO RUSTIC RESTAURANTS AND EXHILARATING DIVING, THE PHILIPPINES HAS SOMETHING TO OFFER EVERYONE. HERE WE HIGHLIGHT THE NEED-TO-KNOW PLACES WITHIN THE ARCHIPELAGO’S MOST POPULAR LOCATIONS
Manila Yacht Club
The Philippines’ oldest yacht club. Marina amenities include a hoist, showers, Wi-Fi and fuel. It’s advisable to call ahead as the popular marina is often at capacity, but there is also an anchorage outside the breakwater.
Tel: +63 2 525 8857
Subic Bay Yacht Club
West of Manila, this deep-bay marina berths yachts up to 178ft. Laundry services, showers, Wi-Fi, hoist and fuel are all available. The club has a luxurious hotel attached for those who want to spend a few days on land.
Tel: +63 47 252 5211
This fun, water-themed hotel is situated close to the port, and features tropical fish tanks in the rooms and suites, allowing you to fall asleep with the fishes. If that doesn’t relax you enough, the spa offers Swedish, deep-tissue and shiatsu massages, and a Japanese hotbed antioxidant treatment. Rooms from $200 per night.
Tel: +63 2 567 3377
Cultural Center of the Philippines
Discover traditional Filipino music, in addition to classical music, theatre and dance. The country’s largest venue for performing arts is situated in a large, space-age-looking site, very close to the Manila Yacht Club. Wander over by foot and dine in one of the centre’s two restaurants, which offer both Asian and western cuisine.
La Cocina de Tita Moning
As well as excellent historical ambience and fine food, the restaurant sells jars of its homemade spreads and sauces, so you can keep savouring the sauce vinaigrette, or local fermented-fish condiment, bagoóng, days later on your yacht.
Tel: +63 734 2141
Busuanga Yacht Club
On a neighbouring island to El Nido, Busuanga Yacht Club offers fuelling, laundry services, showers and a mechanic. There is also a dive centre on-site that can take you to discover wrecks from World War ll.
Tel: +63 977 201 2223
Abanico Yacht Club
Midway up Palawan island, the island capital Puerto Princesa is home to the small and friendly Abanico Yacht Club, offering Wi-Fi, fuel, laundry and moorings for visiting boats.
Tel: +63 908 884 4483
El Nido Boutique and Art Café
The main place to hang out in the hip town of El Nido is the Boutique Art Café, a great bohemian place with a little gallery and open-air dining right next to the harbour. The ceviche, made from fish supplied by the fishermen coming in on their bangkas, couldn’t be any fresher.
Tel: +63 920 902 6317
El Nido Resorts
El Nido offers the Philippines’ most exclusive resorts. Pangulasian Island is the most luxurious. Choose between a beachfront villa, one with a private pool, or one of the canopy villas on stilts among the forest branches. Prices from $700 per night.
Tel: +63 2 902 5951
This second-floor bar-restaurant, part of a small hotel, has unrivalled views over El Nido bay. The layout is designed so that you can laze around after your meal and enjoy a few drinks, gazing out to sea.
Tel: +63 926 706 3263
Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa
The Shangri-La resort is peaceful and elegant, set on a rocky peninsula well apart from the busy main beaches. Its CHI spa offers luxurious ways to unwind, such as the coconut milk splash bath. Rooms from $400 per night.
Tel: +63 36 288 4988
Despite its location on lively White Beach, the five-star Discovery Shores hotel oozes relaxation. The Sands Restaurant opens directly onto the beach and is especially gorgeous at breakfast time, in the morning sun. Rooms from $300 per night.
Tel: +63 2 720 8888
Part of a chain of high-end Philippine restaurants, this branch allows you to sample traditional food made to the highest standards. The recipes are age-old, handed down through the founders’ families.
Tel: +63 36 288 2674
If your tastes extend northwards from the Philippines, this place will provide all you need for a sample of your favourite cuisine. The ingredients are bought daily at the local market and all the sushi is made on-site.
Tel: +63 36 288 2587
Calypso beach & DivE Resort
A dive resort offering tuition, accommodation, a restaurant and beach bar. Dive sites include the wreck of a fishing boat where you can swim through the engine room – just don’t disturb the resident sea-snake. Dives start from $35 including equipment.
Tel: +63 36 288 3206
Asia Marine Yacht Services, 32nd Street, Corner 4th Street, Crescent Park West, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Philippines
Tel: +63 917 520 7363
19 Po Chong Wan, Shum Wan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 3105 9693