Philippine’s ‘Last Frontier’, Palawan Island, is the westernmost point of the Philippines archipelago. Once the realm of pirates, it’s now a relatively popular spot for sun, scenery and turtle seekers. On its northern tip, along with 45 islands nearby, is the municipality of El Nido.
El Nido’s landscape is simply breathtaking. Dotted with dramatic limestone cliffs humping everywhere, dropping down to countless sandy beaches. It looks like something between Jurassic Park and Robert Louis Stevenson ‘s Treasure Island. The golden sand, blue sea, green mangroves, palms and other foliage felt especially vivid coming from a slightly smoggy Shanghai in the winter.
El Nido town is nestled under a lush mountain and lies between two bays. It has a frontier feel about it: slightly edgy, slightly dirty with rustic shacks lining narrow streets. But it’s home to some good eats and laid back bars playing unplugged Bob Marley and top-40 covers on the beach after dark.
On the islands, away from the development and noisy tricycles of town, is where El Nido is at its best. Uninhabited beaches, coral reefs and concealed caves leading to secret lagoons are some of the few beach landscapes that would give Koh Phi Phi a run for its money on the beauty stakes – and there’s less tourists. Although the chuggity boats take away from the serenity, they’re pretty authentic and add to El Nido’s overall rustic charm.
El Nido’s magical scenery has lured TV and films since 1999, with two seasons of Sweden’s Survivor equivalent, a leg of the Amazing Race and recently as the backdrop in the concluding minutes of The Bourne Legacy. And although the screen has undoubtedly raised El Nido’s profile, its inaccessibility means only the super-eager or cashed-up make the trip there.
There’s a small airport 4km from town owned by one of the expensive island resorts and flying in isn’t cheap. For the strong-hearted, there’s also a rudimentary 8-hour ferry ride from Coron. Most people get there by flying into Puerto Princesa and then taking the uncomfortable 5-hour van ride on the mostly-paved road, with knees around ears squeezed into mini-vans designed for “little Filipinos”. Flights to Puerto Princesa are really good value with budget carrier Cebu Pacific, and you get airbourne celebrity quizzes thrown in. We were flying out of Shanghai during the Spring Festival, which is generally a rip off to travel anywhere (because there’s over a billion others competing for transport). We booked early and got a really good deal.
Up & Coming El Nido
With the paved road edging closer to El Nido, mutterings of a proper airport close to town and possibly even reliable electricity on the cards, El Nido and the surrounding islands will only get more tourists. With Filipinos and their Asian neighbours becoming wealthier and keener to travel, there is little doubt El Nido will see it’s share of the growth.
There are already a slew of developments built or underway (dealing with endless bureaucracy and corruption) and plenty of shacks that wont last long. If I were the town officials, I’d be enforcing standards for developments to capitalize on it’s potential as a premium spot. However, based on some of the recent constructions, and the town itself, there’s a bit of work to do on that front. Either way, I’m picking El Nido as one of SE Asia’s hot spots in the next decade.
When holidaying in a place surrounded by beauty, fantastic weather and waves lapping, a delicious dinner on a warm evening never goes a miss. Unfortunately I hadn’t heard many good things about Philippines cuisine – especially surprising given the food that comes from their neighbours and the ingredients that grow close by.
One of the great things about El Nido is that the stunning vistas and laid back atmosphere have attracted a good few foreign foodies, and there’s enough tourists coming through to support some nice restaurants. Unless you’re one of those visitors who insists on only eating the local fare, you can dine on some good French dishes, pizzas from a real pizza oven, fresh seafood, among others – it isn’t that cheap compared to some other places in Asia, but $50 will get you a nice dinner with a few wines.
3 Things That Are Good To Know If You’re Going To El Dido:
1. The dreaded van trip – on the way back to Puerto Princesa we paid about 25% more and travelled in a Daytripper van which was infinitely more comfortably with spacious seats, a raised roof and a little goodie bag to boot! Daytripperpalawan.com;
2. I wish I’d had those wetsuit-shoey-things. On the boat trips there are a lot of islands and lagoons you stop at where there’s coral. Walking over them in flip flops can be a pain, so make sure you pack something more substantial;
3. Food –The Philippine’s ‘Last frontier’ doesn’t have that label for nothing. With poor roading, the supplies to the town aren’t always great and electricity can be hit and miss. Some of the restaurants don’t understand food hygiene so when the power goes off during the heat of the day, poorly-stored food can become a little dodgy. It’s not unusual to see travelers schlepping around holding their guts, with off-green complexions and long faces, ready to make a dash to the loo at any point. Our host Dave at Treetops, whose SE Asian-hardened guts still wasn’t immune to some of the food handling in town, recommended the places to go for safe food – unfortunately all the restaurants on the list were pricier and foreign operated, as some locals still seem unaware of the basic rules with food and hot weather. My two favorites – Trattoria Altrove (wood-fired Pizza) and La Salangane (French); El Nido Corner – ‘Corners’ (seafood), the aptly-named Stunning Vistas – a little out of town, and Art Cafe are also worth a look.
A special thanks to Dave and Grace of Treetops b&b, quite possibly the most impeccable hosts in Southeast Asia.
You might also be interested in some of Asia’s other stunning beaches:
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