It’s the age-old dilemma: hidden lagoon or secluded beach? Thankfully, here in the Philippines, you can have your cake (or the local Halo Halo dessert) and eat it too. With over 7,000 islands to explore, unspoiled natural beauty is in serious surplus. Throw a dart at a map and you’re going to hit paradise.
But if you’re looking for something a bit more specific, start with Palawan. It’s the country’s largest island, defined by its ‘50 shades of blue’ water and its photogenic seascapes. To the beach connoisseur, they’re easily the rival of South East Asia’s more famous natural wonders, Halong Bay and the Phi Phi Islands.
Palawan is an adventure lover’s paradise. But let’s start with Coron, the fishing village and sleepy tourist town. It makes a great home base – close to hiking, snorkelling hotspots, scuba diving and easy island-hopping transfers. Coron Town is the main hub of Busuanga, a large island in the Calamian region (north of mainland Palawan). From here you can hop aboard a long-tail boat and explore colourful fringing reefs, coves and lagoons hidden behind towering limestone cliffs and islands.
Lake Kayangan is another place that delivers on those holiday ‘wow’ moments, especially if you’re able to avoid the crowds (try travelling in a shoulder season like October). Overcome the steep, rocky assent and you’re rewarded with a view of crystal clear waters surrounded by karst-rock formations and mangrove forests. It’s been dubbed the cleanest lake in the Philippines. The waters here are shallow and calm, but stick to swimming near the wooden boardwalk just to be safe.
The Calamian Islands, like most of The Philippines really, are heaven for divers. Coron Town itself is a gateway to one of the world’s best wreck-diving spots – it’s close to a series of WWII Japanese shipwrecks that met their demise on 24th September 1944 in a fierce raid by US aircraft. Exploring the remains of these these 14 rust-bitten naval vessels, each 5-40 metres below sea level, and to see how marine life has taken over the wrecks, is truly mind-blowing. Fish float in the old cabins, and translucent giant jellyfish bob sliently amongst the wrecks. It’s an eerie, magical place.
And it isn’t just the shipwrecks that’ll leave a scuba diver or snorkeler breathless: coral reefs and underwater limestone cliffs are everywhere on Palawan. Behind fortress-like cliff faces lies the pearl of the Calamain Islands: Barracuda Lake. Ask anyone that’s travelled on Palawan and they’ll tell you about Barracude Lake. It lies at the end of a tricky, narrow entrance, full of rocky paths and ladders. Eventually you emerge onto a picture perfect green-blue lagoon. What’s interesting about Barracuda is its Neapolitan-like thermocline: the lake consists of layers of fresh, brackish and salt water, which makes this former volcanic crater one of the most unique dive sites in the world. Upon first entrance, the water temperature is perfection but as you descend, the dive itself can prove challenging as temperatures can vary from 28 to a boiling 38 degrees Celsius, all with the kick of a fin. There is minimal marine life to be seen. The dive is more of a sensory affair, a mixture of sight and sensation, hot and cold, shadow and light. The lake’s grandiose rock formations look a bit like the lost city of Atlantis.
If tropical fish and marine life are more your thing, head to Twin Lagoon instead. It’s got beauty and thrills: with crystal clear water, colourful reefs and plenty of fish life to see. The sparking emerald lagoons are connected at low tide by a narrow opening between the limestone walls, which means the small lagoon a no-go for boats. You have to climb in yourself on ladders set into the rock.
Coron Town is the place where the wicked unwind from a day of adventure. During the day, Palawan’s northern hub is a sleepy town with only a few attractions worth noting. These include the local food market along the harbour and a climb to the top of Mount Tapyas, complete with larger-than-life the Hollywood-esque ‘Coron’ signage. The magic of this setting is seeing the sun calling it a day, making the surrounding islands glisten and the sea come alive. Once the sun has set, things begin to heat up in Coron Town. Local street food vendors emerge to sell BBQ meats and freshly caught seafood. It’s hard not to get caught up with all the smells wafting and the sight of fresh food prepared right before your eyes.