El Nido, Philippines

Photo: El Nido Resorts
Photo: El Nido Resorts

You could spend a lifetime hopping between gorgeous islands in Southeast Asia. Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Samui in Thailand. Phú Quốc and the Con Dao Islands in Vietnam. Bali, Lombok, and Wakatobi in Indonesia. Langkawi and the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. Plus, Koh Rong in Cambodia. But for years, one island nation has been noticeably absent–or at least hidden–on lists of the best destinations. The Philippines.

Palawan seems like a good place to begin. There are more than 1,700 islands in just Palawan, the westernmost province of the Philippines. After a quick flight from Manila, you’ll be surrounded by uninhabited islets, mangrove forests, and postcard-worthy beaches. The area is known as the Palawan Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site recognized for its sustainable development. Whatever it’s called, it looks like paradise.

And it only gets better. From Palawan, the main island, board a boat for El Nido. The “Island of the Sun” has dramatic limestone cliffs that drop straight down to sandy white beaches. Palawan Hornbills, White-vented shamas, and colorful starlings fly around as if welcoming you to the island. You might hear monkeys in the distance, though they stay mostly out of sight. Bacuit Bay is teeming with marine life. Olive ridley sea turtles, dugongs, and manta rays swim just offshore. You don’t have to go very far to start snorkeling.

Photo: El Nido Resorts
Photo: El Nido Resorts

Before you start exploring though, settle in at the Pangulasian Island Resort. The contemporary Filipino resort has villas in the forest canopy on stilts and closer to the beach overlooking the water. The resort prides itself on its green practices and welcoming staff. Ladies sing upon your arrival. Cold towels and drinks appear when you return from an activity. And kayaks, hobie cats, and laser sailboats are always ready for you to take off to explore. Crawl through a hole to enter Cudugnon Cave. Snorkel with green sea turtles in the Big Lagoon. Find hidden lagoons on Cadlao Island. Wait for the s-shaped sandbar to appear during low tide on Snake Island. Or hike back on El Nido for stunning views of the surrounding islands.

And nature’s show doesn’t end when the sun sets. Since the area is so remote and undeveloped, it’s an ideal place for stargazing. You can clearly see the Southern Cross from Bacuit Bay. Add a cool breeze, waves lapping against the shore, and maybe a salabat–a Filipino cocktail made with ginger tea. And that’s when you realize Palawan’s secret. Visitors don’t want to share these islands with other people. Let the crowds flock to Thailand and Indonesia. So you can have gorgeous, remote islands all to yourself.

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