Don’t just take our word for it. Take it from Travel + Leisure and their trusty community of globetrotters who have voted Palawan the “World’s Best Island” for two straight years. In the 2017 ranking, close runners-up were islands like Boracay, Santorini, and Bali. Read on and see why Palawan takes the cake.
You could stay a month in Palawan and you’d still be left with a long list of beaches to tick off. Its capital city of Puerto Princesa has beaches nearby that locals frequent such as Nagtabon and the islets of Honda Bay. Drive north towards El Nido and you could beach hop along the way. Drive south towards Balabac and you’d still be able to do the same. Because the island is a long narrow stretch, wherever you end up, you’re never really too far from the coast. It’s any beach lover’s heaven on earth.
Those photos you’ve seen on travel websites or your Instagram explore page are not filter-saved, too-good-to-be-true pictures — that’s actually how beautiful the island is. Yes, you can kayak on crystal clear waters before karst landscapes; yes, you can dive shipwrecks and swim next to turtles; and yes, those are the actual colors of the sky at sunset. The views you’ll witness on a trip to Palawan are of the kind that will make you pinch yourself and ever so slightly consider chucking your ticket home.
Less than an hour drive from the capital city proper is the Puerto Princesa Underground River. In 2012, this national park was officially included in the list of the World’s New Seven Wonders of Nature for its impressive natural make-up. The underground river, which is considered one of the longest in the world, is entered through a cave and explored aboard a paddle boat. The cave is made up of remarkable stalactite and stalagmite formations and has recently been discovered to be housing small waterfalls as well. Tourists can visit the park through a boat ride from the port of Sabang or a jungle hiking trail beginning from Sabang Beach.
As tempting as it sometimes is to post envy-worthy updates on all your social media accounts in a place as beautiful as Palawan, it’s also a place that invites you to disconnect from such distractions. It encourages you to focus on the place and moment. Instead of spending a half hour editing that Instagram photo and watching the favorites roll in, what’s even more worthwhile is chatting with the locals, renting a scooter and driving off to a secret beach, laying on a hammock by the sea, book in hand. This is where genuine moments and real life become even more picture-perfect than the uploads on your feed.
Here’s some news you’ll love: Palawan’s sights under the sea are just as stunning as those above. Leisure snorkelers will enjoy having schools of fish swim around them in the waters of many Palawan beaches but the island includes truly unique underwater sights as well, like the war wrecks found in Coron. Palawan is also a jumping-off point to the Tubbataha Reefs, a site with among the most remarkable marine biodiversities in the world. It’s quite a long trip to the reefs and divers’ only option is to visit via live-aboard boats, so prior arrangements are necessary.
In Palawan, visitors can feast like high rollers and enjoy meals of rock lobster, prawns, and crabs daily, for cheap. Many island hopping tours, in places like El Nido and Coron especially, will already have this taken care of by the tour company. In the middle of the day, on your chartered boat or an island you’ve chosen to dock on for lunch, the crew will lay a delicious spread of grilled seafood and rice. Some restaurants, like K’na Boyet in the city Baywalk, also specialize in a “select-and-cook” type of dining experience where customers can handpick their meal from the fresh seafood laid out up front and have it cooked to their liking. If you’re interested in grilling up some of your own on a regular day, pay a visit to the palengke, or the local wet market, and browse through the morning’s fresh catch.
Despite hordes of tourists having discovered this paradise of an island in recent years, it still has a lot of hidden gems for those who enjoy veering from the typical tourist route. While El Nido and Coron can get dizzyingly busy, many places near Puerto Princesa are still left tourist-free. For a change of scene, turn a beach day into a hiking day and hit up one of the many mountains on the island. Quite a few hiking trails near the city lead up to waterfalls so you can be sure to have something refreshing awaiting at the end of a trek.
As beautiful as the tourist favorites of Palawan are, sometimes sharing a place with too many people can take away a bit of its charm. Those in search of beaches on the down low should check out the beaches of San Vicente, or the islands of Port Barton. These fishing villages are lesser known to tourists and will give you more chances of solitude and getting to know the locals and local culture. For beaches that are at their rawest, purest form, venture south to the islands of Balabac where commercialization and tourism have yet to leave their traces.
Being a Southeast Asian country, the Philippines and its neighbors are known to be relatively cheap for most tourists. So Palawan is perfect for backpackers who love the rustic experience of renting a small nipa hut by the sea or even a trusty hammock for accommodations and eating at a carinderia (a small, affordable eatery) with the town locals for meals. Though the tours in popular destinations like Coron and El Nido may set you back a bit, other daily expenses will always have simple and cheap alternatives for the traveller on a budget.
While perfect for backpackers, Palawan can also be the epitome of a luxurious tropical escape. There are several high-end havens on the island such as El Nido’s island resorts of Lagen, Pangalusian, and Miniloc. But if you’re really going big, you might be more interested in a hideaway that has catered to Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Mariah Carey, and Robert de Niro. Though technically still belonging to the Palawan province, the exclusive resort of Amanpulo is found on Pamalican Island, just northeast of mainland Palawan.
In exchange for the hefty price tag, this resort provides its guests with utmost privacy and solitude, keeping casitas and villas far apart, allowing them to feel like they’ve got paradise all to themselves — and the personal butler assigned them for the duration of their stay, of course. Guests are flown in via chartered planes directly to the island’s private airstrip and get to enjoy top-notch amenities from spa treatments to watersports and floating bars.
Palawan is also known as the Philippines’ “Last Ecological Frontier”. Its forests and seas are home to impressive biodiversity and it is this kind of natural beauty that keeps visitors coming. But this title is also a good reminder to travel responsibly and sustainably; to leave no trace, whether in hiking up the island’s lush mountains or diving down to its coral reefs. Tourism is expanding more rapidly than ever before, so this should be accompanied by a conscious effort to be educated and responsible travellers. It’s the only way to have all these reasons hold true for years to come.