Palawan, Philippines: The islands off the tourist radar
There's no need to set your alarm on Miniloc Island. The monkeys will do it for you.
Every morning, long before the mosquitoes have woken, when the sky is still streaked with night, a family of long-tailed macaques gather on the thatched roof of my cottage. Having plucked fat, juicy mangoes from an overhanging tree, they noisily break their fast, stopping only to fling the stones to the ground. Despite the early wake-up call, they're so cute, I can't be grumpy with them.
Don't feel bad if you don't know where Miniloc Island is; I had to look it up too. Short geography lesson: this tiny island is part of the daisy-chain of more than 7100 tropical islands that make up the Philippines. It belongs to the western Palawan province, a cluster of rocky outcrops that float almost 480 kilometres across the map, as if caught in a tug of war between neighbouring Borneo and the rest of the Filipino islands.
The province is as gloriously isolated as it sounds: blinding white sand, uninhabited islands, corridors of thick vegetation and the kind of deserted beaches you may have seen in your wildest dreams.
Best of all, these islands have never quite made it onto tourist radars: while visitors flock to Bali, Thailand and Vietnam, they've tended to swerve around the Philippines.
"It could be because of unrest in the southern Mindanao islands," shrugs my guide Michaela when I ask where everyone is.
"But Palawan is so far away from there it could almost be another planet," she says of the Philippines' most sparsely populated region.
She's right: the only sign of aggression I see in a week of island-hopping is two macaques fighting over the same mango.
But their loss is our gain: we get to enjoy a virtually touched Jurassic landscape of beaches, lagoons, underground rivers and limestone cliffs with few tourists to ruin the view.
"It's how Phuket was 30 years ago," says my travelling companion, who knows about these things.
We fly into El Nido, a tiny town in the largest island in the Palawan province which, somewhat confusingly, is also called Palawan. It's an hour's flight but a world away from bustling Manila. At the tiny airport, there's a stray dog asleep at one end of the only runway and security consists of a laid-back bloke who combs through your luggage. Welcome to island time.
El Nido earned its name, "The Nest" in Spanish, from the town's once-thriving trade in the tiny nests of swiftlets, birds who use their own saliva to form their nests. For centuries, locals sold these nests mainly to the US and Hong Kong for use in soup (one kilo was said to be worth as much as $US1000).
Thankfully for the swiftlets, the trade is declining and these days no one comes to El Nido for the birds' nests. Instead we come to jump on a traditional bankga (outrigger boat) which takes us across Bacuit Bay, a vast scoop of clear turquoise water dotted with 45 limestone islands.
Miniloc Island is one of the few islands with accommodation and, almost an hour after leaving El Nido, we're being welcomed by ukulele-playing staff and glasses of ginger juice. Miniloc Island Resort is refreshingly low-key: a smattering of over-water bungalows, their pylons patrolled by black-tipped reef sharks, and rustic beach-front cottages.
My room is next to the mango tree and every time I leave or return, the monkeys line up on my roof, a furry greeting party.
If you fancy something a bit flasher, nearby Lagen Island Resort is owned by the same Ayala family, and its 50 rooms and upstairs open-air buffet might be more your thing. We sail there for lunch one day and although it's perfectly pleasant, the style of white-washed resort could be anywhere in the world, from the Bahamas to the Costas.
For my money, which tends to be limited, Miniloc Island Resort is smaller and more authentically Filipino. Handily, the Ayala family also own a telecommunications company so despite the isolation, you're never far from decent wi-fi.
And isolated these islands certainly are: even the Filipinos refer to them as their country's "last frontier". They were, in fact, the inspiration for Alex Garland's book and subsequent film, The Beach. Garland was living here when he wrote the novel and its plot – following a secret map to a hidden island paradise – is believed to have been based upon the small islands slipped into Bacuit Bay.
If that kind of thing is important to you, the region also regularly pops up on the world's best beaches lists; Conde Nast Traveler, for example, regularly name-checks El Nido's beaches, while Travel + Leisure last year voted Palawan the best island in the world.
Our needs are simple: we've come to reintroduce ourselves to a sun we've been cruelly denied by the New Zealand winter, to wiggle our toes in talcum-powder sand, to snorkel and kayak, eat tropical fruit and get familiar with shorts, T-shirts and sunscreen. I'm not a diver but the happy conversations at the open-air restaurant each night suggest some of the world's best diving is to be found in these parts.
After a breakfast of European and Filipino dishes (you're never far from the national dish, adobo – slow-cooked pork or chicken marinated in soy sauce and vinegar), we set off on a bangka for a day of island-hopping.
A few bays over is one of the region's greatest treasures, the unimaginatively, but accurately, named Big Lagoon. Surrounded by towering karst walls that look like a vast grey cathedral rearing up dramatically out of the water, we enter this spectacular lagoon via a shallow channel; inside is an enormous swimming hole.
The adjacent Small Lagoon is accessible only by swimming through a hole in a rock or paddling through in a kayak a low tide. We're rewarded for our efforts with a wonderful hidden world, complete with a small cave.
But it's the next island, Matinloc, that really surprises. I knew the Philippines was predominantly Catholic, a legacy of the Spaniards who ruled for 333 years, but I still wasn't expecting to see an abandoned shrine in an isolated bend of one of the larger islands. The Matinloc Shrine was built in 1983 but no one's quite sure why; some believe a fake religious group used it to hide their gold stash, while others say a local religious visionary, Guadalupe Yabes, was instructed by the Virgin Mary to search for a heart-shaped island to build a shire upon.
We wander through the crumbling buildings and climb the jagged cliffs for 360-degree views over the bay. Apparently on May 31 each year the shrine is mobbed by locals celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Matinloc.
On Entalula Island, also owned by the Ayala family, we get to swim and eat our picnic lunch, the only ones as far as the eye can see.
Preserving all this beauty isn't easy but the Filipinos are dedicated to keeping their piece of paradise that way. At Miniloc Island Resort we're given cute cloth eco bags for our rubbish and the complimentary flax slippers and bags were woven by the women of El Nido. A leaflet in my room tells me these items support more than 20 women and families.
The entire El Nido region has been declared a high bio-diversity zone and on arrival we're given a brochure which outlines some of the more than 900 fish species, 100 bird species and oodles more marine invertebrates, mammals and reptiles that live in these parts. That includes the five or so endangered marine turtles which the resort helps to protect. Sadly, we're too late for hatching season or we could have joined a tour tracking these gentle creatures in their natural habitat and participating in turtle releases.
Blessedly, only low-impact nature activities are on offer (jet skis are banned) and the resort's state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, rainwater catchment system and desalination plant ensure the island stays as low impact and as sustainable as possible.
Besides, you get to wake up every morning to the sound of mango-munching monkeys. It really doesn't really get any more eco-friendly than that.
More information tourism.gov.ph
Getting there Philippine Airlines flies from Auckland to Manila, via Cairns, four times a week. Business class return fares are $3024, while economy are $1244. See philippineairlines.com.
Staying there Miniloc Island is part of the El NIdo Resorts Group. There are five room types with the cheapest, the garden cottages, starting at about NZ$500 a night.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Innovative Travel (innovativetravel.co.nz), Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) and TPB Philippines (tourism.gov.ph).