Yup, it has taken me this long to write about that archipelagian family vacation on Palawan we took almost two years ago. I had been reluctant because I feared I’d only produce a blog post that’s inadvertently filled with regurgitated information from Wikipedia, online and print travel magazines, review sites and countless blogs. The chances of such entry happening is high in this case because, in hopes of keeping things simple (and safe), my mother-in-law, who had never been, booked us a package tour for three days and two nights. As package tours go, our itinerary contained the most sought for major attractions, which is pretty much the basic Palawan itinerary offered by practically every tour operator for our selected trip duration.
This island getaway was actually a gift from my in-laws as this was our first time back in the Motherland in five years. It's an absolutely marvelous treat for a family who's now living in New Jersey, obviously. MIL even gave me and my husband the prerogative to choose among these most popular Palawan destinations: El Nido, Puerto Princesa and Coron. None of us - my family, and my husband's parents and sisters - have ever been, so there's really nothing to lose.
We opted for Coron.
Flights from Manila to Busuanga take about an hour. We landed in Francisco B. Reyes Airport in the morning and was warmly greeted by the driver assigned by our resort to take us to our lodging, and to all of our land logistics during our stay.
The transfer from the airport to our resort is a 20-minute drive. We had plenty of time to get ourselves ready for our first agenda before noon: island hopping on Siete Pecados, Beach 91 and Coral Garden, where we would also be snorkeling, kayaking, and enjoying a relaxing time taking photographs of the picturesque sea, limestone rock formations and underwater life. A sumptuous lunch come noon is also on this leg of day one.
Confession: I asked MIL to send me our itinerary weeks before our flight to the Philippines. Between work, the kids' academics and extracurricular activities, packing, and then spending time with family and friends whom we haven't seen in so long and limited access to Internet, I never had the chance to look at our schedules prior to our trip.
Okay, another confession: I didn't ever bother. 😬
Oblivious of our timetable (and with MIL so cordial to boss us around 😁), we sure took our time and emerged from our rooms way late for our planned island hopping. Too late that, in attempt to make up for lost time, our itinerary for the day had to be completely rearranged, AND our allotted time for each destination and activity cut short. Well, something's got to give. Hats off to our tour operator and guides for doing a fabulous job at fixing up our mess and stitching our day back together; because even though we had a shorter time at each location and activity, we still managed to cover everything in our itinerary.
And so we set off.
Instead of island hopping on and off the three aforementioned spots, our banca took us to what should have been our third agenda for the day, the Kayangan Lake. It's past noon by this time, so our guide laid out the lunch that we were supposed to be feasting at Beach 91. It was a good call as the all-Filipino spread - a good mix of liempo, chicken, a seafood platter and tropical fruits - fueled us up for our hike up the steep, jungle-covered limestone hills.
I got worried because the in-laws all brought hiking boots while my family just had on flip flops. Fortunately, there were steps and wooden railings to make the ascent a lot easier. The hike was short, but no less exhausting. Good thing there were many points for us to rest and catch our breath; and each stop offers a magnificent 360-view of Mother Nature.
Before the descent on the other side of the hill is this perfect spot for this view. 😍 I was so awestruck, I almost forgot to take pictures.
And down to Kayangan Lake we go. Cloistered by the rock formations, Kayangan Lake is enchanting. It is said to be the cleanest lake in Asia! It's so clear that we could see the sharp-edged walls and stalagmite formations underneath its brackish waters.
We only had 15 or 20 minutes to dip into Kayangan Lake, thanks to our dilly-dallying. And so our guide ushered us back to our banca for another ride to our next destination, the Twin Lagoon, two lagoons converge through a small cave-like opening at the base of a cliff that we can swim through.
Summer in the United States coincides with the rainy season in the Philippines. By the time our boat docked in the first lagoon, it had already started to rain. Undeterred, we jumped into the water, made our way through the opening and into the second lagoon. It cannot be seen in pictures, obviously, but one of the most notable features of this spot is the rapid change of temperature of the water. The second lagoon is significantly colder than the first.
Our morning mishap wasn't the only reason why we had to cut our time in the Twin Lagoon short. Water was steadily rising, threatening to block off the opening, which would make it difficult, if not entrap, the not-so-good swimmers, i.e. myself.
Aboard our banca once again, we set off to our penultimate leg for the day, and the last itinerary in the sea, which was originally our first agenda. By this time, the rain had picked up, compromising visibility. We grew up on this side of the world, though, and knew when rain is just rain. Still, the wind blew fiercely, and the waves grew more and more intimidating. Due to the heavy downpour, we couldn't do any of the kayaking and photo op that came with this part of the tour. Snorkeling is still on, though, which was something that me and my husband really wanted our children to experience. It's been so long since they've snorkeled, and since we don't go on island getaways like this often, who knows when they might have the opportunity to snorkel again?
On the surface, the rain was pouring hard on us, sending salty seawater on our faces and stinging our eyes. The current was so strong, it was actually a challenge to take a decent underwater photo. Underneath the surface is a totally different scenario: peaceful, calm underwater cities. We pressed on and took the short boat rides to Siete Pecados to Beach 91 to Coral Garden, each offered beautiful snorkeling experience. Plus, because these are Philippine waters, it actually felt warmer to be submerged than being in the boat during the rain.
Back on land, we had one last destination on our itinerary: the Maquinit Hot Springs. Swimming through the strong current took a toll on us. We bailed and asked our driver to take us back to our resort to retire for the night. In retrospect, I wish we had gone for the hot springs. It would've been a new experience for my kids, plus it's therapeutic.
The weather was much better the next day. It was still overcast and had sporadic showers, but it was kinder than the previous day. Again unaware that we had to be by the docking area at a certain time, we were in no hurry to get up and ready that morning, savoring the hearty Filipino breakfast served by the resort at their glorious common dining hall.
We were surprised to see people in our boat when we arrived at the docking area. It wasn't made to clear to my MIL that we only had exclusive use of the banca and guide for our first day, she had the impression that these were provided for us for our entire stay. Looking at the official itinerary from the tour company, there was no indication of that, so it was quite misleading. The people we were going to share the boat - and experiences! - with had angry faces on, staring at us. Understandably so. This is their vacation and we were tainting it.
There is no sour note that the excursion for the day cannot sweeten, though. I mean, day two was aptly called the Island Escapade Tour, featuring white sand beaches, coral reefs and cultured giant clams!
Our first stop on this escapade was the Malcapuya Island, one of the many powdery white sand beaches that Coron boasts. It was dim and gloomy, with rain clouds hovering over us, but it was still gorgeous. I turned to my husband and said, "Can you imagine what this looks like when the sun is out?" He said, "I imagine a hundred times better, and it's beautiful already."
We spent our time on the island climbing small rocky hills, lazing on the hammock and/or in the sand, swimming and snorkeling, and strolling on the beach. My kids enjoyed the tiny surprises: hermit crabs, colorful small fishes, weird-looking rocks on the shore. There is a basketball court on the island, too, which my son would most likely have spent a few minutes or an hour had we a basketball with us. Most visitors on Malcapuya Island come on day trips from Coron, but there are actually lodging options on the island itself. I can so imagine a serene scene at dusk with the beach all to yourself - just the perfect way to relax after a day of multiple islands exploration.
Our morning on Malcapuya was pretty chill, but it sure worked up an appetite. By the time we docked on Banana Island, we were all hungry. Filipino favorite dishes were served - grilled chicken, grilled stuffed bangus and shrimp (which were free range and freshly caught, obviously), mango ensalada, grilled eggplant and loads of white rice (because, of course). I had major food coma that I laid back in the hammock and took a nap while the rest of the family walked around, and went kayaking and snorkeling.
My daughter enjoyed her little daddy time as they got acquainted with a variety of small fishes!
Our third and final destination for the day was Bulog Dos. It's a small island adjacent to another island where a resort owned by Two Seasons sits. The two islands are connected by a sandbar, beautifully exposed at low tide. This is precisely what the highlight is, to the dismay of Two Seasons, whose guard literally shooed us away when we closed in on their makeshift border made of ropes and buoys. I couldn't confirm this, but one of the guides from another tour group said that Two Seasons had attempted to purchase Bulog Dos so that their visitors would have exclusive use of the area.
We thought it was soooo cool to be walking in the middle of the ocean!
The other holidaymakers we shared the banca and guide with didn't say a word to us for the rest of the day, and we didn't force any interaction. The islands offered an abundance of space for us not to get in each other's way. In a way, the day turned out how we thought it was going to be: centered on family.
Back at the resort, the kids couldn't stop marveling about their new experiences over dinner of Palawan danggit, pancit, fried chicken, liempo, eggplant omelette, rice and an assortment of tropical fruits. We had the resort's dining hall to ourselves as we were, apparently, the only guests checked in at the time.
The last day of our three-days-two-nights package tour was actually just a half day. We had to be at the airport for our flight back to Manila by 1:oo or 2:oo p.m. The kids - and my sisters-in-law - couldn't be riled up so early to do anything; so my husband, MIL and I just asked our driver to bring us to the town proper to buy some souvenirs and local foods.
There's this negative connotation to often-booked tours, which 'travelers' always scoffs at. The thing is, when you have the opportunity to visit the places and do the things you only read or hear about, it would be silly not to seize it; like going to New York during the holiday season without seeing the displays or Boston without walking the Freedom Trail, for instance.
Anyway, despite the generic itinerary template arranged by our tour operator, everything was new to us. It may be what everybody who books the package sees and does, but nothing about our three-days-two-nights package was a basic experience.
There is a lot of talk about Nickelodeon's intention to build an underwater theme park in Palawan. Of course, I am not crazy about it. Underwater theme park? What for? The islands are already naturally themed!
If you are against demolishing natural resources for a theme park, please sign the petition.
Carol is one of the founders of get there | get lost. She is a New Jersey-based content producer and social media specialist, and a digital nomad wannabe. With regards to travel, she writes mostly about getaways with her family, and is a strong advocate of the “experience over things” mantra. Follow her everyday adventures @fcbsantiago.