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The Mysterious Paradise of Palawan

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Certain particularly beautiful tropical islands brighten the desktops of thousands of computers around the world –extraordinary rocky shapes jutting out of the sea, adorned with sparkling beaches and covered in rich green jungle. These islands are exotic, compelling and like nothing else on earth. But as the staff at Private Islands Inc. can attest, the question on hundreds of people’s minds is – where on earth are they?

The mystery is hereby solved – these stunning castaway isles are found in the Palawan province of the Philippines, one of the world’s most beautifully preserved Edens. A naturally rich region with abundant forests and fishing, there’s little wonder that early Spanish explorers referred to Palawan as the ‘Land of Promise’. Located to the west of the country’s main island of Luzon, the isles of Palawan Province snake between the South China Sea to the northeast, and the Sulu Sea to the southeast, closing in on Malaysia at its southernmost point. Relatively unpopulated, the province is home to less than 800,000 residents, more than a quarter of whom inhabit the capital and primary urban center, Puerto Princessa City.

When you land for your Palawan adventure, odd are it will be just to the south of Puerto Princessa, at the region’s main airport. Found roughly in the centre of the large main island, from here a number of boat services and small charter flights can take you north, to the tourism destinations of El Nido, Busuanga and Pamalican, or south, to the remote isle of Balabac at the province’s tip.

Those who decide on the northern path will find one of the most striking sceneries at the tip of the main island, a six-hour bus ride or few hour’s flight from the capital; famed El Nido and its eerie rock formations. Relatively unexplored until almost 1980, the now-renowned area was serendipitously discovered by a few lucky stranded divers. Forced to moor in one of its bays after become lost during the night, the dive team awoke in the morning to a surreal view of primeval, strangely-formed islets rising in clusters from the sea. El Nido offers a range of rustic, eco-friendly resorts fit for adventurous divers, and more recently, has developed some truly luxurious boutique hotels.

Off the coast of the main island, there are also some amazing spots; reachable by boat from El Nido, Linapacan Island is home to old Spanish ruins and unexplored jungle, and has recently become popular as a haven for backpackers and other visitors who long for something off the beaten path. Past Linapacan, the tourist-friendly islands of Culion, Busuanga and Coron offer a bit more civilization, with small towns, shopping, and restaurants. Coron in particular is known for its hot springs, waterfalls, and spectacular diving amidst the numerous Japanese shipwrecks that scatter the neighbouring sea floor.

But one of Palawan’s most beautiful secrets is Amanpulo Resort on Pamalican Island, found in the secluded Cuyo group lying out into the brilliant blue Sulu Sea. Once a failing coconut and pineapple plantation, the island was purchased in the early 1990’s by the Aman Group of Resorts, and turned into arguably the most luxurious speck of land in Palawan. Guests are flown in straight from Manilla by the resort’s own plane, and enjoy total privacy in one of the exclusive casitas that dot the island’s jungle and beachside. With elegant restaurants, clubhouses and spas, Amanpulo is a perfect blend of nature and sophistication.

Pamalican may be isolated, but the most southern route is only for the truly adventurous. No commercial flights service Balabac Island at Palawan’s bottom edge, and there are no airports, meaning those without access to a floatplane must take a leisurely 4-day boat journey from Puerta Princessa – that is, 4 days in good weather. But when you arrive at this far-flung island, the trip will have been more than worth it. The ecologically-rich island is truly a piece of the earth’s past, with no cities or major roadways, and just 20,000 scattered inhabitants.

Looking south across the misty Balabac Strait, the coast of famously remote Borneo is visible less than 60 miles away. This island is a reminder of the true allure of Palawan; it’s not the elegant resorts and pretty beaches that make the province so unique and compelling, but the raw, mysterious nature found in so few other places on earth