Want to stay in an overwater bungalow in a place that is not just pretty but has plenty of personality? Then I’ve found your ideal holiday destination (and it has the coolest airport transfer vehicle ever)

The putt-putt purr of an outboard motor reverberates around me. I couldn’t be any happier if a Morgan Freeman sound-alike were murmuring something nice in my ear. I’m gliding across aqua waters in a white-painted wooden outrigger under a deep blue sky. Limestone islands rise out of the sea, exposing grey cliffs with weather-beaten faces and forested tops accessible only to birds.

Lagen Island Resort, El Nido. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Lagen Island Resort, El Nido. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Less than two hours ago I was experiencing sensory overload in Manila, a city notable for its juxtaposition of waterfront slums and five-star hotels, multi-lane highways, mega-malls and markets packed full of fake designer handbags. While that was fun, this is another world entirely. I’m in a much prettier and more peaceful part of the Philippines, called El Nido (‘the nest’ in Spanish, named for the edible nests of tiny local swiftlets, but more about them later).

Island hopping around Ell Nido with locals. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Island hopping around Ell Nido with locals. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Just off the island of Palawan, about 430km southwest of Manila in Bacuit Bay, lie the 45 smaller isles of the El Nido Protected Area, a marine conservation zone and prime tropical fantasy territory. While the Philippines may not immediately come to mind for an exotic getaway, it should. The country has more than 7000 islands, each more alluring than the last. Perhaps the best-known as a tourist destination is beach-lovers’ hot spot Boracay. El Nido is not nearly so heavily frequented, and that’s a good thing. This conservation zone has more wildlife than backpackers, more native birds than foreigners in budgie-smugglers.

Starfish abound. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Starfish abound. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

The engine is cut as the boat reaches Lagen Island Resort, tucked into a cove at the base of a limestone edifice. We alight onto a sun-bleached timber pier that leads to a sliver of white sand, a row of droopy-topped palm trees and a smattering of cute overwater bungalows whose balconies drip with hot-pink bougainvillea. The remaining resort buildings appear to be almost consumed by forest before the landscape veers up again with theatrical verticality.

I’m not much of a birdwatcher, but El Nido’s environmental philosophy is so inspiring that you can’t help but keep an eye out for the animals listed on the eco checklist provided in your room.

Lagen Island, El Nido Resorts. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Lagen Island, El Nido Resorts. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Within 10 minutes of arrival, I am excited to spot the endangered Palawan hornbill, a black-and-white cartoon creature with a sunvisor-like protuberance atop its beak. Later, floating belly-up in the pool, I have yet another wildlife encounter as a pair of the aforementioned swiftlets (Collocalia fuciphaga, of bird’s-nest soup fame) repeatedly swoop at the water surface around me. El Nido is all about mixing with nature. At Lagen’s sister resort on neighbouring Miniloc Island, for instance:

I snorkel off the hotel pier with a school of shiny silver jackfish the size and sensibility of doting labradors. Not far away, a clownfish cosies up to an anemone

Kayaking around Miniloc’s Big Lagoon, the water is so clear that when I drop off the side to snorkel, it’s like taking a magnifying glass to the coral. Curious crowds of colourful fish turn and give me the ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ stare. Instead of retreating en masse, they boldly swim toward me, one headbutting my goggles. Later, I have to wriggle my kayak through a keyhole in a cliff face to reach Small Lagoon, but once inside, it’s so serene it’s well worth the squeeze.

Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

While there is some coral damage in this region – caused by years of illegal fishing, typhoons and coral bleaching – Lagen and Miniloc resorts’ parent company, El Nido Resorts, is involved in a pioneering conservation program to restore the suffering habitat. Near Miniloc Island, artificial reefs made of giant ceramic snowflake shapes serve as rehabilitation units for damaged coral colonies.

If you’re more vacationing romantic than eco tourist, you’ll be drawn to the resort’s customised island-hopping trips. These include extravagant meals for two set up not just on a private beach but on a completely deserted island.

My most enjoyable evening is spent on Lagen’s Cove Two – a 10-minute tinnie trip around the island. Four of us hop off the boat and wade to shore, where delicious aromas wafting from the barbecue lead us to a candlelit table on the sand. Far from the haze of city lights, we become giddy watching a lone firefly track a wobbly course in the moonlight. On the way back to the resort, phosphorescent algae put on an underwater light show as we skim past. Forget the limbo, forget native dance lessons – this is the kind of dinner show I want from an island resort holiday.

Do it yourself

HOW TO GET TO EL NIDO
Island Transvoyager (ITI) flies direct to El Nido’s Lio Airport from Manila three flights daily. The flight takes just under an hour. Note that there is a 10kg restriction on baggage weight per person but if you are flying in and out of Manila you can ask to leave extra luggage there. Booking ITI flights can be a bit stressful for the unitiated – you can’t book online and instead must book at least five days in advance via email at flights@elnidoboutiqueandartcafe.com. But travel is all about adventure, right?! If that sounds a bit too much to cope with, ask a travel agent to help.

A flight with ITI is most certainly an adventure. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A flight with ITI is most certainly an adventure. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

STAY
El Nido Resorts boasts five island properties, including Lagen Island Resort and Miniloc Island Resort (both with deluxe bungalow options). Lagen is the more romantic of the two mentioned in this story, while Miniloc has excellent family facilities and a dive centre. Check website for pricing at elnidoresorts.com

PLAY
Marine sports guides are available during your stay at both resorts. They’ll equip you with the correct gear and take you to the best kayaking, snorkelling and dive spots. Or you could just choose to lie by the pool at Lagen.

WHEN TO GO
There are two seasons in El Nido: wet (June to November, umbrellas provided) and dry (December to May, BYO hat). The hottest months are April and May, with an average temperature of 33ºC. The best time for diving is March to May, when water visibility can reach 30 metres.

Note: This story first appeared in Australian House & Garden Magazine