For two years now, Palawan has been voted the best island in the world, quite a lofty accolade when you consider the thousands of islands around the world.
Some notable examples include Australia (very big and also a continent) Greenland (not very green), Iceland (not especially icy), and the Isle of Sheppey (not enough sheep). Yet despite this vast array of competition, Palawan is the current superpower regarding all things island. I decided to go and check out what all the fuss was about.
Before deciding on what trip to book I decided to do a little research on the place. Palawan is actually quite a large island, with two airports in Puerto Princessa (the capital city, often known as PP), and El Nido, considered the best base to explore the wonders of the place. There is also a town called Coron, which despite being on a different island to Palawan, is considered part of the same group, and also has an airport.
Despite its award-winning status there aren’t that many group tours on offer, unless you are into diving. I’m not, so I settled on a package from a company that promised lots of drinking on boats as well as a “party villa” and full moon party.
I met my fellow travelers in Ermita, the notoriously seedy neighborhood of Manila, which I thought a nice touch for the start of the trip. The small group consisted of Brits, Americans an Indian and a Canadian.
We got to know each other over beers in LA Cafe, where the female staff and clientele can only be described as “very friendly”. After a late night and a short sleep, we caught a short flight from the capital to PP.
While my flight was included in my package, flights to PP are extremely cheap, starting from about $50 return, and usually topping out at $100.
The bulk of our trip was going to be in El Nido, which is a six-hour drive from PP, but thankfully our tour operator had arranged a night in a city villa before hitting the bumpy road. The villa can only described as fantastic — hip, roomy and featuring a basketball court and swimming pool. It couldn’t have been more conducive to partying, and that’s exactly what happened.
The next morning we set off for the less than comfortable drive to El Nido. Depending on your budget, it’s worth considering flying directly to El Nido, although the cost is double flying to PP. Despite the state of the roads, the journey is beautiful, and gives a solid clue about why the island holds its world-beating status.
On arrival in El Nido we checked into our mid-range accommodation. A basic room can be had for just a handful of dollars here, but those with deeper pockets and find some top-end resorts.
On my first night I felt it important to sample the liquid delights on offer and was not disappointed by the bars along the seafront. These ranged from laid-back reggae shacks to fine-dining establishments. Sadly, there was a distinct lack of anything particularly “local” though.
The next three days were spent island hopping, which is pretty much the reason to come to El Nido. There’s a choice of four day trips available, imaginatively called tours A-B-C & D. Our group were doing A-C & D, as B did not feature any bars along the way. I liked their thinking.
The tours take you to various lagoons, caves, beach bars and not-so-secret beaches with the day lasting from about 10am to 5pm — just like a perfect day at the office. It was all very agreeable and without doubt offers some of the most beautiful island scenery on the planet. It was during these days that I really came to appreciate how richly deserved Palawan’s status is. That being said, I need a bit more than nice views to get my jollies, so it was just as well the days featured fantastic fresh cooked lunches and enough rum to sink a battleship.
As we were only doing three of the four tour,s this left us a free day to do as we pleased. Some of the group went diving, which they said was as good — and as cheap — as any they had experienced before. Another member of the group hired a motorbike for $8 and went in search of some more secret beaches. For myself, I was more than happy to explore El Nido.
It soon became apparent that the town is a foodie heaven, with Mexican, Greek and even Ukrainian restaurants complementing the local establishments.
The Ukrainian restaurant, “Odessa Kitchen” deserves a mention. Run by a Ukrainian family, it offers top quality and extremely authentic Ukrainian cuisine at great prices, with an amazing selection of vodka. We stuffed ourselves full of food and booze here more than once, and it really can be recommended.
For our last night we had planned to go camping on an outlying island, but alas The Philippines has this horrible habit of having typhoons, so it was decided that we would instead go to a secret beach 45 minutes to the north of town, have a spit roast (with a pig, not the other kind) on the beach and camp there. Although it rained the whole time, we did manage to roast a pig, get drunk and lose various items of value such as clothes, glasses and dignity. Overall a successful night.
We finished our trip with another grueling six-hour drive to PP another night at the fabulous villa before our flight back to Manila.
So with everything considered is Palawan the most beautiful island in the world? Yes, perhaps it is. Is is the “best” island in the world? Well, if you crave the high-end luxury that fully inclusive resorts in the caribbean offer, then it isn’t, yet, but for now at least the place is unspoiled and underdeveloped.
Our tour operators were GNTours, who we would recommend in a heartbeat.