by Trisha Andres from The Telegraph, December 4, 2017
The Philippine island of Palawan isn’t short of admirers. There’s Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer, who described the little-known island as the most beautiful place he had ever explored. Then there’s Alex Garland, the author who took inspiration from Palawan’s palm-fringed beaches, hidden lagoons and coral reefs and turned it into novel The Beach, which was later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, the world’s media are taking notice. For two years in a row, Palawan has been voted the best island on Earth by readers of Travel + Leisure, one of America’s most influential travel magazines – and has been chosen as the backdrop to Hollywood films including The World is Not Enough and The Bourne Legacy. No wonder: there are powder-white beaches, blue skies and sea and fascinatingly diverse marine life.
It has all the hallmarks of a paradise – but, arguably, so do the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. So what makes Palawan different from other identikit tropical idylls? It’s paradise with personality. Yes, it ticks all the classic desert-island boxes, but it has splashes of local colour too: folklore, such as shape-shifting monsters and “white ladies” woven into the fabric of history, the excitement and chaos of 5am Simbang Gabi (night mass) leading up to Christmas, and chickens and pigs going about their own business.
Palawan remains relatively unspoilt and, thankfully, Thailand-style tourist hordes haven’t yet descended. This is where you can still have an entire island all to yourself and where the evening skies are so clear that when you look up at night, the Great Square of Pegasus, the upside-down winged horse is always in full view.
I was born in the Philippines and spent many summers by the beach. I can honestly say that Palawan is the country’s best island. And the world’s? Quite possibly. Work has taken me to my fair share of icing-sugar white sand beaches and resorts across the globe. And while they’ve all been marvellous and well-appointed, I’ve always thought that Palawan’s rustic authenticity sets it apart.
From stylish and luxurious to cosy and tranquil, there’s a resort in this idyllic archipelago for everyone. But if you must absolutely have the best accommodation on the best island in the world, then the choice is easy: it’s Amanpulo. Getting here is done in James Bond fashion: turbo-props whisk you to the resort, which faces the atoll-studded Sulu Sea.
Once you touch down, you’re then driven to your beachfront, treetop or hillside casita in a golf buggy. Make no mistake: this is not your typical fly-and-flop destination. You’ll be kept busy by your very own recreation manager, who sits you down and devises an itinerary based on your specifications, which can be as lazy or as adventurous as you want.
On my visit, I didn’t even feel compelled to read a book. Instead, I swam with large hawksbill sea turtles; I learned to kitesurf with a professional surfer who taught me how to drag myself across the sea like Wonder Woman in training until I was finally able to glide over the water for a triumphant second; I went fishing for snapper and grouper and trolled for wahoo, tuna and mackerel; I ate with my hands, devouring crabs and green mangoes served on banana leaves; I revelled in my first magnified sightings of Mars, Venus and the moon’s craters.
One day I went on a wildlife walk and spotted a Palawan flying fox. It hung upside down from the branch of a palm tree and slowly opened its brown wings. To my surprise, a round and furry chesnut face revealed itself. It may have been the heat, but I could have sworn it smiled before stifling a yawn and closing its eyes for a midday siesta.
“It looks like a fox but it’s actually a fruit bat,” whispered my guide Aljor, who, unable to contain his excitement, was bobbing up and down as if he’d seen a unicorn. “It’s listed as vulnerable, so there aren’t many around.”
Here, nature is the protagonist. Monitor lizards roam the island freely. I once spied a 6ft-long lizard by a wood-fired pizza oven, where it likes to hang out in the hope of getting fed leftovers. It’s normal to see the blue-grey Tabon scrub fowl, the pied imperial pigeon and the crimson-eyed spangled drongo flitting from one tree branch to the next by one’s balcony. Then of course, there are the century-old green sea turtles swimming leisurely through the sea close to the shore.
Another day, I hopped on a speedboat from Amanpulo to neighbouring Manamoc to hike Mt English, the highest point on the island. At 722ft high, the mountain is no Kilimanjaro but it wasn’t exactly a doddle for me, either. To get there, my guides Rio and Marvin and I had to pass through the local village lined with nipa huts and a number of more modern concrete houses. We stopped at a sari-saristore, a hole-in-the-wall corner shop, and stocked up on snacks. As we walked further along the road, the rows of stilt houses gave way to paddy fields and carabaos.
“I live close by and forgot something. Do you mind if we popped in quickly?” Marvin asked.
“Sure, we’re in no rush,” I replied. We made a detour into a small compound and entered a gate fashioned out of bamboo. As we walked in, local turkeys known as pabos came clucking towards us. On one end was a garden filled with pink hibiscus, dapo orchids, red roses and trees ripe with santol, mango, jack fruit and guava.
We pressed on and hiked up a valley covered with tall grass. Underfoot was soft mossy forest floor speckled with flowers, the path later climbing steeply on a stony ridge with sweeping views of the sea, which changed colour from deep blue to aquamarine depending on where you looked.
It was a hard rocky climb through the scrub before we broke out on to the open summit. Now I remembered why I sacrificed a morning on the beach. Oh what a view! The great emerald swathe of Pamalican Island, with its thick blanket of forest and the hazy grey islands just off the coast. Right before me was the best island in the world. “See that small plot over there,” Rio said as she pointed to a patch of empty land. “That’s where I’d like to build a holiday home.”
I nodded: “Me too.”
Trisha Andres travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838000; audleytravel.com ) on a seven-day Amanpulo package, staying at Amanpulo for five nights and two nights at the Peninsula in Manila. The package starts from £5,571 and includes accommodation, breakfasts and dinners at Amanpulo, breakfasts in Manila, activities, transfers and flights. It also includes a guided tour of Manila and a trip to Manamoc Island while at Amanpulo.