Published: February 1st 2012January 31st 2012
Living on a subtropical island such as Taiwan means that the winter does indeed bring cool weather, with conditions perhaps comparable to a damp autumn day in North America. Nevertheless, traveling south past the tropic of cancer, which passes through Taiwan near the medium sized city of Chiayi, puts you in swimming-year-round territory, and another hour south by plane brings you to the Philippines, which are outright hot any time of the year. The Chinese New Year holiday provides the must needed days off during this chilly season.
This year my parents were in town for the holidays. First, we did a hot springs tour of Taipei City and surroundings, shot off some rounds of fireworks, and then hopped on a flight to Palawan, a thin, 650km long island; one of 7000+ that make up the Filipino archipelago. To get to our destination, a beach town called El Nido, most travelers fly into the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, and then grab a share van or bus for for a bumpy 5-10 hour ride. However, we decided to splurge with one-way tickets on a miniature 20-seater that does the flight directly to the beach community thrice a week, landing
on what at first glance appears to be nothing more than a farm with a driveway at the end of it. That is except for the welcoming crew of buffalo and singing Filipinas that greet you when you get off the plane.
El Nido sits at the entrance to the mighty Bacuit Bay, a vast protected area boasting islands of vertical limestone cliffs and white sand beaches decorated with palm tress and crystalline waters. Thailand’s Krabi Province and Vietnam’s Halong Bay both come to mind, but I dare say that the picture perfect beaches and lack of crowds at El Nido make it a clear winner. El Nido town itself is like any other beach town in Southeast Asia, with a row of flimsy beach huts following the curve of the coast, cocktail happy hours, cheap massages, nightly acoustic performances, and the same menu in every single establishment: pizza, burgers, noodles, barbecued seafood, banana pancakes, and local breakfast (which is the same as local lunch and local dinner).
And my details basically end there, because from the moment we checked into those huts, with high-tide waves literally a few feet from knocking on our
front doors, the passing of minutes, hours, and days went unnoticed until the day we had to leave. The Philippines carry the cheapest quality hard liquor I have ever encountered, particularly the local brand of dark rum, which has a pink tinge to it, and sets you back less than 2 USD a bottle. And something new since my last visits to the Philippines: Boracay Rum, a perfectly executed Malibu rip-off for 1/10th the cost. All of this is very conducive to afternoon cocktails, and when the sun and noises from the street wake you up at 7am, anything after 10am passes as ‘afternoon’.
I’m sure most readers have done the standard tropical beach holiday. The largest concerns of the day are generally where to eat breakfast, where to eat lunch, where to eat dinner, getting as much sun as you can without going completely crisp, finding ice cubes and then deciding if a cold drink is worth the risk of consuming those ice cubes, keeping sand off the bed, and making sure you don’t have to actually use footwear unless absolutely necessary. After the sun goes down, your belly stuffed full, drinks no longer even affecting
you, skin a sensitive red, ocean-salt rubbies coming off your skin, laughably economical dinner bill paid off, you go to bed, read a quarter of a book, and then gasp at the realization that it is still only 9:30pm. My Dad, unable to relax, did his rounds chatting with anybody and everybody, befriending a local family after they offered him an umbrella when he got stranded in a monsoonal downpour.
Other points of memory include delicious wood-fired pizza, splurging on a place with a pool for our last night, and hiring a kayak to paddle out to a completely deserted beach on Cardlao Island, the mountain that rises from the sea and dominates the view from El Nido town. Monkeys bounced around in the tree branches behind us as we contemplated our isolation; paradise doesn’t feel real even when you are seated smack in the middle of it. But you bask in it, knowing that you are where just about everybody else wants to be.
The pinnacle of our stay was without a doubt the tour of Bacuit Bay by outrigger, known locally as a bangka. These boats ply the archipelago, zipping tourists between
white sand beaches, and secret lagoons within islands that you have to swim under rocks or climb through tiny openings in the cliff walls to access. Sheltered bays also provide optimum snorkeling conditions. All the bangkas seemed to stop for lunch on the same little island, named after a Japanese tourists that perished while scuba diving in an underwater cave. There the guides prepared a feast of barbecued fish, meat, salad, rice, okra, and coffee, prepared and served right on the sand.
7 days down, in the blink of an eye, and then we set out on the bus ride to Palawan’s capital city, followed by a stopover in Manila, and then landed back in Taipei with a plane-load of Taiwanese tourists also returning from their holiday in the Philippines. Taipei was experiencing a ‘deep freeze’, with temperatures dropping just short of 10 degrees Celsius. Laughing, we couldn’t help, as the Taiwanese disembarked, shivering, rubbing their hands together, tossing on winter ski jackets and protecting their faces with scarves. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to see my book "Taiwan from the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
There are more photos below