Is Palawan truly the world’s best island?

The happy soundtrack I hear in my head is Bob Marley’s Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, except the percussion is provided by dozens of parrot fish crunching up coral in search of algae. Giant clams with their raucous pink and purple mantles lie motionless in a Technicolor forest of coral that resembles giant roses. My fingers are an hour past “prune,” but I can’t seem to tear myself away from this brilliant watery kaleidoscope, a deep drop off next to a shallow reef creating ideal conditions for an abundant variety of fish and corals. With a few kicks of my fins, I find myself face to face with a school of silver jacks the size of my forearm. They’re a common enough species and other than a yellow stripe running from eye to tail against a dull grey body, there’s nothing special about them, per se. Except that this school is thousands strong, so dense that I cannot even make out the sandy bottom below. All I see is an undulating metallic wall in every direction, broken up every now and then by an individual breaking formation in a flash of silver to gulp at some unseen morsel. It’s completely and utterly mesmerizing. Mabuhay (“Welcome”) to the Philippines.

Snake Island Sandbar - James Pham-36

Suddenly, as one, they change direction and with some powerful flicks of the tail are gone, leaving me uncomfortably all alone. I’m not sure if the crystal clear water is a blessing or a curse as I instinctively use my right hand to cover the glinty steel of my watch and slowly spin around just in time to see a meter-long Giant Trevally swim by, its oddly- shaped bulbous head swinging from side to side. This resplendent marine display doesn’t take place in deep open water. I’m not even scuba diving. It’s just another day on the house reef mere meters from the beach on Miniloc Island, one of the many surrounding the main island of Palawan, Philippines.

House Reef at Miniloc Island, El Nido - James Pham

Less than two months ago, Palawan earned the coveted top spot as the world’s favorite island in a poll of more than 76,000 readers of leading travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, beating out the perennial favorites of Santorini, the Great Barrier Reef, the US and British Virgin Islands, all the Hawaiian Islands and sister island of Boracay (at number 12). When even the jaw-dropping Maldives struggles to pin down the 19th spot ahead of Bora Bora at 25th, you know the competition is fierce. Within weeks of the results, I board a plane to see if the claims are true – that Palawan is the globe’s most perfect balance of beaches, scenery, friendliness and activities.

El Nido Town, Palawan Island - James Pham-46

The actual island of Palawan is the biggest of the 7,107 Philippine islands (giving the country a staggering 22,500 miles of coastline), and at 280 miles long by 31 miles wide, stretching from Mindoro in the northeast to Malaysian Borneo in the southwest, it’s no surprise that locals refer to it as “the mainland.” In 2011, the nearly five mile long subterranean river near the capital city of Puerto Princesa was named one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, the longest of its kind in Asia and only exceeded by the Rio Secreto in Yucatan, Mexico. Boats take visitors deep into the caves where audio tours ensure minimal impact on the avian and terrestrial population. Further adding to Palawan’s allure, the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park with its 100 meter perpendicular wall and two coral islands is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coupled with a wide range of accommodation options, cheap eats, even cheaper San Miguel beer, English  spoken everywhere and top notch customer service delivered by some of the friendliest people on earth, it’s not hard to see why this diverse island is the world’s favorite. There’s even a Vietnamese connection on Palawan, with chao long a popular Palaweño dish (a misnomer, considering it’s more like bo kho beef stew with pho noodles rather than rice porridge), introduced by Vietnamese refugees in the southern portion of the island. Puerto Princesa also has Viet Ville where streets are named “Tu Do” and “Hung Vuong,” a Vietnamese enclave of asylum seekers established in the mid-1990s after the closure of the last Vietnamese refugee camp.

Beach Club - James Pham-8

For this trip, though, I head to Palawan’s north coast to the sparsely inhabited area of El Nido (“nido” meaning “nest” in Spanish, so named for the edible swiftlet nests in the area), located in Bacuit Bay, opting to fly into a private airstrip to avoid the five hour drive from the commercial airport in Puerto Princesa. The remote cluster of islands just off El Nido’s coast was virtually unknown to the outside world until 1979, when according to local lore, a group of divers experienced boat trouble at night only to wake up to a marine paradise – crystal clear water lapping untouched white sand beaches backed by soaring limestone cliffs fronting lush green forests. Within a few years, a divers’ resort opened on Miniloc Island, followed by two more on nearby Lagen and Pangulasian Islands, now managed by El Nido Resorts.

Need to Protect

Since then, the world has been introduced to this tiny corner of pristine beauty through the big and small screens: the Swedish and French versions of Survivor, The Amazing Race and scenes from The Bourne Legacy have all been filmed here. Fortunately, the Philippine government realized early on the need to protect this incredibly diverse ecosystem, home to five types of forest, endemic marine animals including dolphins, dugongs and turtles, not to mention migrating whale sharks, 100 species of coral and over 800 species of fish. In 1984, El Nido was designated a turtle sanctuary and by 1991, the rest of Bacuit Bay was proclaimed a marine reserve and then further elevated to a managed resource protected area in 1998.

Island hopping is the best way to explore, a blissful exercise in futility considering there are some 1,800 islands and islets that make up Palawan Province, most of them uninhabited limestone karsts eliciting valid comparisons with Ha Long Bay. Using Miniloc as my base, I first come across Lagen Island with its lush forests made possible by deep soil, and home to some of Palawan’s 110 bird species including the Palawan Hornbill and the Philippines Cockatoo. A 10 minute boat ride takes me to Pangulasian Island with its 750 meter white sand beach where a 20 minute hike is rewarded by 360-degree views of Bacuit Bay, with its every-shade-of- blue waters and outstanding snorkeling and diving.

Beach at El Nido, Palawan Island - James Pham

The afternoon is reserved for kayaking and my destination is a pair of lagoons. The Small Lagoon is accessible by a tiny opening in the limestone, just big enough for a kayak to pass through. Go there early in the day and you just might be the only one to enter what looks to be a natural cathedral of towering marble walls enclosing glassy turquoise waters. Right next door is the popular Big Lagoon, another blue hole served by a long shallow corridor where the water only reaches your thighs at low tide, a surreal experience in the middle of the ocean. Another picturesque spot is Vigan Island, more commonly known as Snake Island thanks to the S-shaped sandbar that appears at low tide.

Bacuit Bay, Palawan - James Pham-34

A trip to El Nido is all about getting back to nature, a stunningly gorgeous side of nature that only a few are blessed to witness. Don’t come expecting raucous full moon parties or loud jet skis. Instead, expect your days to be filled on, in or by the water, with perhaps a lingering rocking sensation to lull you to sleep at night.

I’ve had the good fortune to have visited the A-Z of some of the world’s most lauded islands – from ruba to Zanzibar – but as I sit on this pier and stare up at the star-studded night sky without a single man-made light source for miles, I find myself completely humbled by the beauty of this tiny corner of the Philippines – the beauty found in its friendly, musical people, eclipsed only by the beauty of its diverse wildlife, bested by the beauty in its stunningly pristine scenery. Mabuhay to Number One, Palawan.

Images by James Pham