Escape from Hollywood: El Nido
LOS ANGELES—The journey to what Oscar-nominated producer Frank Marshall described to us as “the most beautiful place I had ever been to” started promisingly enough one very early morning last month. We got our boarding passes made of small wood blocks—the seat numbers were carved in—at the private terminal and passenger lounge of Island Transvoyager, Inc. (Iti) on Andrews Avenue in Pasay City.
The unusual boarding passes made us smile and giddy with anticipation. We were finally going to El Nido Resorts’ Lagen Island in Palawan which Frank further praised in our interview as “staggeringly beautiful.”
The well-traveled producer, who earned several Oscar best picture nods for such films as “The Color Purple” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” experienced El Nido when his film, “The Bourne Legacy,” shot its closing scenes there. (“The Amazing Race” Season 5 was also partly filmed on Lagen Island.)
When Rachel Weisz, who starred with Jeremy Renner in “Bourne…” talked about El Nido in another interview and gushed that it was “a paradise island… a fantasy place,” we resolved right there to see that side of Palawan for ourselves. We went to Puerto Princesa the other year but did not go to El Nido.
After catching our breath and sipping coffee at the relaxing lounge, it was time to board the bus that would take us to the plane. The path to the bus was covered in red carpet—we can’t escape from reminders of Hollywood (smiled again at this thought)—but we vowed to think no more about movies, stars and writing deadlines for the next three days.
During the turbo prop aircraft flight toward the southwest tip of the Philippines, which took about 55 minutes, the view of jade islands and blue waters down below kept us from taking a nap. When we got off the plane at El Nido Airport, we were greeted by a cinemascope vista of sky, land, bay and mountains. Singing village women in colorful native finery, and with a carabao behind them, made the arriving passengers (a mixture of mostly Filipinos and Koreans) smile.
As we ate purple kutsinta (rice cake) and drank coffee in a lounge hut with a thatched roof, Richard “Chado” de la Cruz introduced himself as our guide. We couldn’t have been in better hands.
We boarded a big jeep for the short ride to the pier. When we got off, that was when we really felt like we were embarking on an adventure. Picture a simple wooden pier that seemed to lead to infinity. As we walked on this pier, we remembered the cliché: It’s about the journey, not the destination. After a quick ride on a small boat that took us to a bigger one, we felt that our journey had truly begun.
As the boat sliced through Bacuit Bay, with the waves gently making the boat bob up and down, the occasional refreshing sea spray and wind blowing against our faces lifted away our stress and worries. The majestic small islands with craggy limestone cliffs appeared in seeming cinematic grandeur—we simply couldn’t forget about film, could we? A feeling of bliss overcame us.
After about 40 minutes of passing through this spectacular scenery, our destination appeared on the horizon: Lagen Island—a crescent of cottages, many of them standing on water, wrapping around a shallow lagoon. Behind is a lush forest; on both sides are cliffs. The staff sang welcome songs as we got off the boat and again in the reception pagoda (choreographed this time, prompting the wife to join and dance). We gulped the welcome pandan-flavored drink.
Then we were led to our beachfront cottage right in the middle of the resort. We could have reclined in the private bayside veranda throughout the rest of our stay and been deliriously happy. But pressing matters awaited, like lunch, so we headed to the clubhouse restaurant. We picked a table overlooking the saltwater pool, the cocktail hut and the lagoon. We staked this spot pretty much during our stay. From this vantage point, we espied a huge bayawak (monitor lizard) lounging in the lawn and another one, smaller in size, up on a palm tree, but since this is an ecofriendly resort, they were left alone.
Various dishes were laid out, buffet style (also at breakfast and dinner) but since we were home, we availed of the fresh seafood that a cook grilled to our preference. After the sumptuous lunch, we toured the resort. We carried umbrellas to shelter us from the rain and stopped here and there, to smell the roses, so to speak, but in this case, bright red hibiscus and other exotic flowers. We wondered where Rachel and Jeremy stayed among the 19 water cottages, nine beachfront cottages, 20 rooms and four suites (which will be turned into two family rooms) beside the forest.
After the fun walk in the warm tropical rain, we surrendered to a masseuse’s soothing hands in our cottage as John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson and company played in our iPod dock. Others may have been lulled to sleep but, in our case, the combination of massage, jazz music and being so close to nature brought heightened awareness and realizations about life and its complications.
At dusk, the lights in the cottages (on stilts) that dotted the lagoon twinkled in the blue darkness of post-sunset. We closed our eyes and committed this serene sight to memory. Later, in a private candle-lit dinner where, by coincidence, we all showed up in white, the food, company and conversation were memorable. But the view from where we were—a thatched hut called beach sala (which is reached by wooded stairs)—was just as unforgettable.
The following day, Richard brought us across the bay to experience its many charms. First stop was what he called the “small lagoon” where the wife and I shared a kayak, with her in front and me in the back. Being (hopelessly) directionally challenged, she made it tough for us to steer the kayak through a narrow fissure. She paddled toward the rocky formation instead and, of course, we hit the rocks. She ended up sticking the paddle against the rocks to push us in the right direction. Once our kayak finally got through, our laughter shattered the quiet of the pristine surroundings.
Next, we went snorkeling in a nearby coral grove—an almost religious experience as we took in the breathtaking sight of angelfish, anemonefish, triggerfish, moorish idol and other neon-colored fish moving about in seeming slo-mo in their stunning environment. Afterward, we just floated, thanks to our life vest, and savored this vista: the blue water and sky appearing to merge as a cliff on our right side loomed, as if this view wasn’t glorious enough.
Then we cruised in the “big lagoon” and saw up close the serous limestone cliff façades of the small islands that dot Bacuit Bay. “Spectacular” was a word that kept leaping into my mind.
For lunch, Richard and his crew ferried us to Miniloc Island, another El Nido resort (the other two are Pangulasian and Apulit). We also liked the vibe at Miniloc, which has cottages that also stand in the water, along the beach. All that kayaking in different directions left us hungry for crabs, grilled squid, shrimp and fish.
We hied off next to Pangulasian, El Nido’s high-end resort. We broke off our promise not to think of Hollywood when we saw Pangulasian’s de luxe villas which have their own infinity pools. A star like Rachel can return to Palawan with her Mr. Bond, Daniel Craig, and enjoy the privacy offered by the luxuriously appointed villas and secluded sand bars.
Back at Lagen, our last dinner there was capped by a show of Filipino native dances. Remember what they say about dancers and how easy they make it look? That’s what we thought after a dancer asked us to dance with her by jumping between clashing bamboo poles in the Philippines’ popular traditional dance. Sweating and panting for breath long after we left the dance floor, we must have drank enough water to empty Bacuit Bay.
A little prayer
On the morning of our last day in this paradise, we resolved to really chill. We went kayaking in the lagoon surrounding Lagen. When the wife paddled too close to the rocky breakwater or the stilts of the water cottages, we asked her to just let us do the paddling. Domestic order and lagoon serenity restored.
Then we walked over to the pool, which we had not swam in yet. It started to drizzle. We just floated in the pool for a few blissful minutes—rain gently falling on our faces, the trees in the lush forest towering over us. We said a prayer of gratitude in our mind.
At lunch, Mariglo “Marigs” Laririt, El Nido’s director for sustainability, joined us for a wonderful conversation about her efforts to involve the community to keep the four resorts as ecofriendly destinations. El Nido prides itself in having its own power and desalination plants. And, thank God, the resorts frown on the use of those noisy jet skis. On the side, we talked about acclaimed indie director Auraeus Solito, a proud Palawan son, who was Marigs’ classmate at the Philippine Science High School.
With lunch over, we packed hesitantly for the trip back to Manila. We wanted to stay some more in this nirvana with the friendliest staff we’ve encountered in our years of traveling the globe. Manager Noel Barrameda (he supervises the four resorts), Lagen’s resident manager Jason Apolonio and officer-in-charge Leonardo Viaña said goodbye to us at the reception pagoda. The staff sang and waved to us as our boat left the lagoon for the airport.
We stared at Lagen Island until it was just a blur on the horizon. But not in our hearts and minds where it will remain as vivid as the raindrops dropping on our faces in that saltwater pool and that moment by our veranda when lights in the water cottages twinkled at dusk. In this case, the destination was worth the journey itself.
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)