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Europe on Sand

By AA Patawaran

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I’ve been to El Nido a lot, but upon arriving at El Nido airport, I would be whisked off by speedboat to the islands, either Miniloc or Lagen or Pangulasian.

I’ve always thought of El Nido as paradise, so far removed, though it is only one and a half hours away, from Manila, special thanks to the El Nido Resorts touch that combines nature, eco-consciousness, and tropical luxury

Two weekends ago, however, I flew to El Nido airport, now being re-established as the Lio Airport, and I felt like I was in a place I had never been to before. The airport has been refurbished, not exactly to my liking now that it is modern, even sparse and cold. The airport is no longer for the exclusive use of El Nido Resorts guests, that’s why. Although it is wholly owned by Air Swift, which now accepts passengers destined for other resorts in Palawan, and still operated by Ten Knots Development Corp., it now services the general area of El Nido from airports around the Philippines such as Busuanga, Caticlan, Clark, Cebu, Manila, Puerto Princesa, and Tagbilaran.

Gone were those days this airport was a bahay kubo, already a point of interest within minutes of arrival, and you would be welcomed with a refreshing drink, a cold towel, a lei of flowers, and a harana. Also, it was my first time not to go from plane to boat to get to my final destination. Instead, I was led to a van and driven just four kilometers straight into the heart of the poblacion or El Nido town proper on the northernmost tip of the province of Palawan.

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My destination: The Apartments at El Nido. Otherwise known as APT, it’s a complex of serviced apartments fairly small with only 10 units, 12 bedrooms, each unit inspired by and named after an El Nido attraction, the two-bedroom Big Lagoon, for instance, the one-bedroom Small Lagoon, or the Secret Lagoon, its equivalent to the presidential suite with a sun terrace under a huge, old tree, to boot. Other accommodation types are the Pupulcan Island, the Shimuzu Island, the Lovers Island, the Cudugnon Cave, the Snake Island, the Cathedral Cave, and the Panoytuyan. I suppose, if the occasion calls for it, one can have the entire complex booked so you can make it your own private place in the El Nido sun. Each room is well designed—and feels like home—and amenities are complete to ensure an enjoyable stay. In my suite, the Secret Lagoon, a one-bedroom affair that’s all of 87 square meters, replete with a huge living room area and a dining room that could extend to the leafy sun terrace. My suite was such a treat with its super comfortable twin-beds and luscious beddings, couches and coffeetables in which to sit back and relax, a dining table that could comfortably fit as many as 10, a well-stocked kitchen with induction hobs, exhaust hood, a microwave, refrigerator, a coffeemaker, and the lot, including wine glasses and coffee mugs. There’s reliable WiFi, too, because we can’t leave home without it, no matter how desperately we wish to disconnect.

Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry feed. For mine is the generation that travels and searches for something we haven’t tried before. —Alex Garland

But APT is only really designed to serve as your home-away-from-home base because, of course, outside is El Nido. The Apartments at El Nido has its own fleet of speedboats as well as service vans to take you where you want and, within minutes from the poblacion, there are so many places you want to be, without even counting the attractions after which the units at APT are named. If you so require, a tour guide is on hand to take you around (or a chef to cook for you). If you arrange for the use of a speedboat, there would be a captain at your service, who will conduct everything, from your trip to your picnics, down to your preferred snacks while on passage. The captain, in my case, was also my lifeline, who swam within a safe distance from me, a buoy tube at the ready in case I got tired, while I snorkeled around Matinloc when the waters were a little too unsettled for comfort.

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Oh but the islands—El Nido’s islands in the sun! While my instinct was to sink deeper into the lush sheets when my alarm went off so early in the morning, I’m glad I took the superhuman effort to get out of bed to make it in time for each day of my two-day island hopping expedition.

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First on my itinerary was boodle lunch on Pinagbuyutan Island, a small beach upon which would sharply descend towering cliffs. If I weren’t distracted by the meaty crabs, adobo, prawns, assorted vegetables including okra to dip into briny bagoong, I would have relished the island vibe, the deserted island feel that I normally would only see in the movies.

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From lunch, we sailed to the Big Lagoon, where I had been before, but we kayaked through tunnels carved out of the limestone, which to me was a new adventure. We ended the first day watching the sunset at Vanilla Beach in Corong-Corong, a relatively new El Nido site, all of five hectares, whose natural splendor and pristine beaches are being enhanced by the addition of upscale shops, bars, and restaurants, not to mention watersports activities.

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The second leg of my explorations began with snorkeling around Helicopter Island, so named because it does mimic the shape of a helicopter (without the propeller), although it looks more like a whale to me. The island, officially named Dilumacad, is breathtaking, with long stretches of beach, but with cliffs on one side to provide shade. But its beauty really is underwater, coral gardens lush with massive, staghorn, table, and plate corals, which are home to nudibranchs, seahorses, yellow snappers, flounders, yellow tail barracudas, pipefish, schools of fussilliers, and, if you were to dive deeper with Poseidon’s blessings, even eagle rays, flying gurnards, dragon sea moths, and green sea turtles.

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Up next was lunch at Star Beach on Matinloc, where we had lobsters, adobong dilaw, and inihaw na liempo on the beachfront, forests behind us and, in front of us, boulders jutting out of the water but more like out of time. I could have stayed on this island for siesta, but we were running late because just a few meters out on Bacuit Bay it was possible to have some pawikan sightings. Alas, it took us a while to haul ourselves back on the speedboat and, by the time we were all geared up in the water, the turtles were gone. Nevertheless, the snorkeling adventure served as an extension to my languid afternoon, with my face in the water, my breathing as rhythmic and meditative as the view of parrotfish and clownfish doing their thalassic dance on their emerald-green stage.

From snorkeling, we proceeded to the Secret Beach on Matinloc that some people claim inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was later adapted into a 2000 cult film, the Danny Boyle-helmed Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer. The Secret Beach really is a small crevice on a limestone cliff but through it you are led to a place that, indeed, could inspire novel or movie, poetry or epic, a piece of paradise trapped in time within walls of karst, with sculptural rock formations and pools of talc-like sand on the rocky bottom, in which you can bask along with colorful fish, as I did with two of them.

We wrapped up the boat trip on an unnamed island, in which we did two things in a three-part cliché on responsible travel, that is, we left nothing but footprints and killed nothing but time. But we did take a lot back with us on the boat, I mean the captain and his crew who swept the rubbish washed upon the shore by habagat, particularly plastic bottles, into a garbage bag, which they loaded onto the boat when we left.

The poblacion, though, has more to offer than unforgettable trips to paradisiacal islands off the coast. During my weekend stay, too short I realize, I walked from the apartment to a Greek restaurant called Athena for breakfast, which is no different from a similar open-plan restaurant by the water I ate at in Athens.

I took a five-minute ride to Italian restaurant Altrove’s Vanilla Beach branch because there was a long queue of impatient Germans, intoxicated Spaniards, and a couple of British in love waiting to be seated in its original location in the poblacion.

And I sang along with the live band, though my friends did take the stage, as they performed OPMs and classic pop while we ate at a famous haunt called Art Cafe.

There is sure to be enough fun in El Nido town even when you’re in no mood for island hopping. You can walk everywhere or take a trike to Lio. About two minutes from APT on foot is Calle Hama, which is like Lan Kwai Fong in the Hong Kong of old. At peak season, you will have to squeeze your way into a crowd of Europeans who pack the street shoulder to shoulder as if it were the hottest club in New York or Berlin.

It’s still El Nido but it might as well have been Ibiza. Europe on sand. Europe by the (swimmable) beach. Europe in the tropics.

I really think more Filipinos should discover why these Europeans love El Nido so much. You need not be a luxury traveler to enjoy our very own paradise. www.aptelnido.com



Source: Manila Bulletin

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