EL Heaven: A sanctuary of spectacular scenery, El Nido meets the needs of today’s eco-conscious luxury traveller

By Neil Dolby
Feb 07, 2024

The remote paradise of El Nido has gained international repute over recent years for its magnificent white-sand beaches, abrupt limestone formations, luscious turquoise waters and amazing coral reefs that are a magnet for scuba divers. As its accessibility has improved, so has its appeal, and it is now one of the most popular resort destinations in the Philippines. Its location in northern Palawan provides the perfect gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, where fabulous island-hopping tours of surreal lagoons and world-famous beaches will take your breath away.

Natural beauty

The northern reaches of Palawan island – the largest province in the Philippines – boasts many scenic locations that are staunchly preserved and attractive villages with tree-lined streets. Here, the indigenous Bataks with their dark skin and curly hair look unlike most Filipinos. Dwindling in numbers, these once nomadic people have settled in river valleys along the eastern coastline.

The municipality of El Nido is fronted by karst limestone cliffs similar to the spectacular rock formations of Guilin in China or Phang Nga Bay in Thailand. These days, its many charms and luxurious accommodations can be conveniently accessed by a flight from Manila that lasts just over an hour. Before the local airport was built, though, the town could only be reached via road from the coastal city of Puerto Princesa about 238 kilometres to the south – a rather precarious journey that could at times fray the nerves. This area is also home to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, acclaimed as a natural wonder of the world for its underground habitat of cathedral caverns, massive stalactites, icy lagoons and swooshing bats.

Birds’ eye views

El Nido means ‘the nest’ in Spanish and is so- called as swiftlets flock to the nooks and crannies of the towering black cliffs to build their homes. Unlike most birds, who conventionally gather twigs, dead leaves, grass or feathers to construct nests, the swiftlets – or balinsasayaw as they are known here – use their own saliva, which hardens when exposed to the air. Locals clamber up rickety bamboo scaffolding to harvest these prized edible nests from the high crags and caves.

The precious nature of this culinary ingredient is reflected in the hazardous method of collection, the loneliness of guarding the scaffolds and nests from poachers, and the effort involved in separating hardened saliva from inedible leaves or feathers. Bird’s nest, often made into soup, is thought by some to have aphrodisiac and youth- preserving properties. It is also said to boost the immune system and strengthen the lungs.

French destination

El Nido has thrived on human endeavour as well as birdlife, with many fine restaurants and beachside bars built so holidaymakers can sit and watch the sun go down. The town has become a favourite destination for French travellers. A beachfront watering and eating hole exuding a relaxed vibe, La Plage Sunset Restaurant & Bar is noted for its French and Asian cuisine and the added luxury of a pool overlooking the beautiful bay. Boasting one of the region’s best hotel bars, La Salangane is also famous for French cuisine – including vegetarian options – and making its own uniquely flavoured rums.

The El Nido Boutique Artcafé, not far from the beach, is another excellent place to eat, drink, relax and soak up the gorgeous surroundings. It has excellent salads using lettuce and arugula from its own organic farm, homemade bread, seafood, curry, pizza and scrumptious sweets like pineapple upside-down cake and chocolate and mango tarts. Live acts perform at least five nights a week while guests sip smoothies, cocktails, beers or wine and take in the sea breeze and stunning views. The venue also acts as a travel centre, offering domestic-flight bookings and local land and sea transportation for trips around El Nido’s famous hotspots.

Marine pleasures

Indeed, El Nido has a slew of diving and tour centres since the most popular activities are island-hopping and snorkelling. It is a haven for lovers of aquatic sports, and visitors can become PADI-certified divers while on vacation. The municipality comprises 45 islands and 50 beaches, some of which have been voted among the world’s finest.

Excursions to the limestone outcrops of Bacuit Bay zip through crystalline waters containing hundreds of species of fish and coral. Much of the area has been given marine-protected status and the health of the underwater ecosystem is monitored. This is a mesmerising landscape of jagged limestone islands, white, sandy beaches, lagoons and coves that leaves a deep impression whether you are underwater or simply soaking up the vista on a beautiful beach.

Numerous upmarket, honeymoon-worthy resorts have pool, beach and canopy villas dotted around these majestic islands, such as Apulit Island in Taytay Bay and Miniloc Island Resort. Some flaunt their eco credentials; at Miniloc, native cottages stand on stilts right over the edge of a cove and guests are invited to hand-feed the wild fish, which will greedily gobble up all offerings.

Paradise found

Miniloc Island is known for its three lagoons – Big, Small and Secret – which are all hugely photogenic. Accessed by an extremely shallow channel and surrounded by unspoiled jungle-clad karst cliffs, Big Lagoon is an enormous, unforgettable natural swimming hole where snorkellers can while away the hours among exquisite coral formations. Reaching Small Lagoon is an adventure since it involves swimming through a hole in a rock wall or paddling through on a kayak at low tide. Inside is a wonderful hidden world with a small cave waiting to be explored. Secret Lagoon is similarly dwarfed by steep basalt walls and requires crawling through a rocky crevice.

Another island worth visiting in the archipelago is Pinasil, which harbours the stalactite splendour of Cathedral Cave, wide enough for motorboats to enter. At Pangulasian Island Resort, an eco-luxury island getaway, you can marvel at the brilliant white sand along the extensive stretch of beach, the jungle trials teeming with wonderful flora, and the marine sanctuary right on the doorstep of your well- appointed accommodation.