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Islanded In The Philippines, Part 1: El Nido

A birthday weekend in an exclusive, eco-friendly, boutique resort. Or 'paradise', for short.

THE PHILIPPINES CONSISTS OF OVER SEVEN AND A HALF THOUSAND ISLANDS. HERE’S A STORY ABOUT THREE OF THEM.

FIRST, EL NIDO.

OK, OK, YOU’VE GOT ME. FALLEN AT THE FIRST HURDLE.

El Nido isn’t actually an island. It’s a municipality in the province of Palawan, made up of some 45 islands and islets. A short flight south west of Manila, it is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It translates as ‘the nest’, and sports a variety of accommodation, from backpacker hostels to five star resorts.

Now, FYI, I can slum it with the best of them. I’ve slept in a ‘hotel’ (in the loosest sense of the word) in Gorkha, Nepal, where one of the interior walls was constructed from decorative concrete blocks. You know the type. The ones that you’ll see forming the side of a multi level parking garage. The ones that you’ll see in your neighbour’s garden that perhaps looked trendy in 1972, but are now covered in moss, leaves and snail goop, and give the whole plot a certain ‘Abandoned Chernobyl’ chic. The ones that you can friggin see through. The ones that defeat the entire purpose of a private, interior wall. To compliment said see through wall, the opposite one had, smeared across it, what I could only surmise was excrement of the human variety, and to top it off, in the bathroom resided a spider so large it could have stolen my backpack if it wanted.

So, back to El Nido (this is a story about El Nido), since it was my birthday, and I’m a prince deserving of all the finer things in life, we chose to pony up a wad of cash and go fancy for the weekend. And fancy meant Miniloc island.

El Nido Resorts runs the only development on Miniloc. They have a few other resorts in the area, on various islands, offering slightly different levels of luxury and available activities, with Miniloc being marketed as the ‘eco-discovery’ island. As is often the case for this type of trip, to get there we had to start early. Really early.

But, thankfully, Manila has one of the world’s best recent inventions, Uber.

Did You Know?™

A 30 minute Uber trip from the Malate area of Manila to the Ninoy Aquino airport costs about $2.50. In contrast, a 30 minute Uber ride to Heathrow airport from London costs $35. Cray.

✈︎

At the airport, our bags and then each person individually, were weighed to make sure they had enough fuel in the plane.

I did wonder about my consumption of the complimentary breakfasty hors d‘oeuvres post-weigh-in though.

“ Plane makes emergency landing in the sea, a few hundred yards from runway. Officials blamed the mishap on complimentary breakfasty hors d‘oeuvres”

We fondled our wooden (!) boarding passes, and were then allowed to board the plane. Takeoff was delayed slightly by an anxious looking man who clearly had hoped he could get over his fear of flying, but wasn’t able to. The crew tried to placate him with bottles of water, which didn’t work. He was sweating so much it looked like he’d poured them over his head. The woman he was accompanying did a wonderful job of appearing sympathetic to his face, but as she followed him down the aisle to exit the plane, you could see she was livid. She was missing out on all-you-can-eat buffets and white sandy beaches! Of course she was livid.

"I'm not a son of God, but Jesus is my cousin” - Pensive airport bus driver

☁︎

I’m not up on my Filipino-domestic-flight-cruising-altitudes, but we flew low enough (or the sky was clear enough) that the ocean surface was visible for the whole journey. It’s cliché, but looking from above, the colours were extraordinary as the water became shallower around the islands themselves. So vibrant and clear. And I was that douchebag taking photo after photo.

BomJoeKay

After we landed and disembarked, we were met by a row of smiling ladies in traditional dress, singing a welcoming song in Tagalog (the native language of the Philippines). I guess it could have been "Idiot Foreigners, Please Spend All Your Money - El Nido Ladies feat. Pitbull", but it seemed like a genuinely warm reception, despite them doubtless having to sing it at least twice a day.

As we went through all the usual security checks, we saw the sign below:

Luckily we didn’t find ourselves in the same predicament as Bill Murray in 1970, and since no bombjokes (alcoholic or otherwise) were made, we were met by this luxurious modified hi-top jeepney, which transported us to the dock and the awaiting boats.

Apparently they really like the name David around here.

World's Best Airport-Hotel Transfer

You probably can’t make it out, but the sign atop their boat says “4 Sale - Cold Beer”. I was tempted, but it was only 11am…

Lonely Islands

I’m pretty sure I was whistling the theme from Jurassic Park as we sped past these islands.

Hey, speaking of which, why don’t you listen to the Jurassic Park theme slowed down by 1000% whilst reading the remainder of this story? It’ll make it feel totally epic and worthwhile.

Snake Island

After arriving, being serenaded again (this time by the Miniloc staff, clad in all-white uniform) we were shown our room and then promptly whisked away on a short boat tour. One stop was ‘Snake Island’, fortunately not named so because it’s full of snakes, but because the sand bar that appears at low tide, yes, you’ve guessed it, looks a bit like a snake.

Bed Time

Each evening we came back to our room to find a leaf with a message written on it, along with a bed time story that referenced the fragile ecosystem and what we could do to protect it. It was really sweet. And I still can’t get over being called “Mr Thomas”.



‘SUP

One of the many cool things about Miniloc is that you don’t have to fill out a form, sign for, or register in any way to take out one of the stand up paddle boards or kayaks. It’s first come, first served. So prior to breakfast, we went for a paddle. I suppose it could be uncool if you somehow found yourself lost in the middle of the ocean and nobody knew where you were, but that’s the price you pay for SUP freedom, bro.

Critters

The monitor lizard was at least five feet long. We noticed him basking on a secluded portion of beach, I went to grab my camera, and before we knew it, he had scaled a 30 foot vertical face of sharp rock in no time at all. Amazing creatures.

Picnicking

Took a boat to another island

Waded in the ocean

Sunbathed

Read a book

Had a picnic lunch

Explored

Tried to look cool climbing a rock

Went home

Slept like a log

Fishing

I’ve always liked the idea of fishing, being self sufficient, catching your own dinner and so on, but on the rare occasions I’ve fished, I’ve never been successful.

Once upon a time I did get to organise a stag party with my good buddy Ed, for our equally good buddy Iarla. We decided that fishing on Scottish loch would be a great idea. There were about 20 of us, all in various boats, with bait and rods, the whole shebang, out there for most of the day. Nobody caught a single solitary thing. Given my previous form, I was justifiably trepidatious that we’d come back empty handed. But as luck would have it, the fishermen who owned the boat actually did some fishing too.

⇡ All bar the first couple of photos above are stills grabbed from the 4K video mode on the GH4. We’re in the future, guys. ⇡



I caught a (baby) barracuda! Look at the teeth on that sucker.


As the evening drew in, so did the rain clouds. We wrapped the fishing line back around the reels and made our way to the comforts of home. The fishermen dropped us off and promptly headed out into the blue for a long night’s worth of squid fishing.

⇣ Possibly my favourite photograph I took on the trip, perhaps even from our entire six months in the Philippines ⇣

All in all, we had caught seventeen fish. The staff back on Miniloc asked if we’d like the chef to cook some of them for dinner. We said sure, of course, you can’t get any fresher. So we showered and changed, and 45 minutes later were sitting at a dinner table enjoying a glass of wine and a beautiful ocean breeze. Then our waitress appeared and placed a platter the size of a sofa cushion in front of us. They had cooked all of them. All seventeen fish. I tried my best, but even I couldn’t eat that much fish.

Sunrise

From the balcony of our water cottage. Epic.

Kayaking

Kayaking affords you a fantastic view of the teeming sea life beneath the clear waters. The sheer variety of corals, fish and plants makes you feel like every few feet holds a new discovery. The lagoons and inlets nearby are calmer than the open ocean, sheltering baby sharks and the occasional sea turtle. But if you leave it until after breakfast to go for a paddle, it can get hot. Really hot. And if you’re on the wrong side of the island, good luck finding some shade. Your best bet is to head for the base of the cliffs, where the water meets the rock. They have been eroded over time, leaving small overhangs under which you can shelter.

Ballers

Believe it or not, basketball is the national sport of the Philippines. There are community hoops set up on city streets and slum alleyways, and even on the smallest of islands. Seemingly every evening the Miniloc resort employees would get together for a game to wind down after work. Every one of them either played barefoot or in flip-flops. I’d have liked to buy them all a pair of Jordan’s, but we spent all our money on some trip to the Philippines… Maybe if I win the lottery.

Underwater

Just past the man-made stone wall that shelters the cove from overzealous waves, the ocean floor drops down, leaving enough space for a large school of fish. Swimming about and seeing them surround you on all sides is pretty overwhelming. Then, out of the corner of your eye, a jackfish swims lazily past, parting the school like a snow plow through fresh powder.

The jackfish hang around the area near the resort because every day they get fed. Great for the tourists to watch, great for the jackfish. I was poised with GoPro in the shallows watching them flash around, racing each other to grab the hunks of fish tossed into the water, when a piece landed a few feet in front of me. WHOOSH. Before I knew it, two jackfish had gone for it at full speed, directly toward me, and parted either side of my head, leaving me spinning in a fog of bubbles. And I caught it on camera!

PSA: Try to resist the urge to shout “Nemo!” whenever you see a clownfish wriggling about amidst some anemones.

People look at you funny.

Journey Home

I haven’t the faintest idea why I left my tripod back in Manila for our trip to El Nido. I wish that I hadn’t.

In the evenings, we saw the the most incredible night skies. Blackness and stars so dense that it made your head swim.

Perhaps it was for the best, photographs of those skies wouldn’t compare with my memories anyway.


Footnotes All photos taken with the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or GoPro Hero 3, processed in Lightroom. Get in touch on Instagram, I'm @tommynagle. Thanks for reading!
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© 2020 Tommy Nagle

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