I was first told about El Nido by my Filipina mum. It was this area of Palawan and also the island of Boracay that her descriptions would spark my imagination with visions of immaculate white beaches, secret coves and crystal blue waters.
My insta-feed has since been showered with gazillions of ridiculous photos of sun-kissed, sandy-toed travellers discovering paradise for themselves; hopping from island to island, snapping hidden beaches and shallow lagoons – some of these posts were un-believable, another level of paradise and I actually ended up telling myself that these ‘grammers were privy to some pretty impressive photo editing software.
Then finally in 2018 it was my turn to see this wonderful part of the world for myself. Three years ago I visited Boracay, a small island off the province of Aklan (you can read my blog post from that visit here). And the aim was to head back there for some traditional fun in the sun after a few days playing the adventurer in Biscuit Bay, El Nido.
We arrived at Lio airport a few kilometers from the centre of El Nido, after a speedy transfer with AirSwift. A few years ago, travellers would have had to brave a 6 hour bus journey from Puerto Princessa – not something I think I could have managed with my level of car-sickness. Thank-goodness for AirSwift, who own and run this mini airstrip.
Our base only took about 10-15 minutes to reach via van and then an unforgettable tricycle experience. We stayed in the beautiful Cadlao Resort, with stunning views of Cadlao Island and El Nido Bay.
The accommodation here is in the local Filipino-bungalow style. They’re spread across picture-perfect gardens featuring cute meandering pathways, and depending on which you decide to pick, your bungalow could be by one of the pools, restaurant or like ours, right by the sea with gorgeous panoramic views of the bay (thanks to the ceiling to floor windows). We were treated to some rather delicious sunsets from the comfort of our bungalow, named Isa, night after night.
Cadlao Resort was the ideal base for all island-hopping trips in Biscuit Bay. The perks of its location being that we could walk out of the hotel gate after breakfast and straight onto our boat. Depending on your trip, the boat usually collects you at 08:30-09:00 and after a full day of island hopping, you’re dropped off where you started at around 16:00.
We chose to do a couple of tours during our stay here, all of which follow a similar group of itineraries (Tours A – D). Our first one was Tour A, which was renowned for being the most popular of the bunch and led us to explore some of the top-choice lagoons and beaches; Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island and finally 7 Commando Beach.
Small Lagoon was the perfect start! The boats are too large to enter the lagoon itself so we had the chance to test our kayaking skills as we ventured into the lagoon, exploring every corner and marvelling at the limestone cliffs above. The water is a perfect blue as you wind along a maze of cliffs, everywhere you look is a treat and I noticed how quiet the lagoon was in relation to the number of visitors around us – we were all absorbed in our appreciation of how lucky we were to be somewhere so beautiful.
Next stop, Secret Lagoon – and this was where I wished I’d bought those aqua shoes I was googling the week before! There’s a shallow bay with a lot of sharp rock to clamber over until you reach the beach and then on to the entrance of the hidden lagoon. Navigating in flip-flops wasn’t so much of an issue, but it would have been a whole lot easier and quicker with those aqua shoes! Definitely get yourself a pair, trust me – you’ll be thanking me for days (especially if you slip and land on a spikey urchin!).
To enter the Secret Lagoon you have to clamber through an opening in the rock, only accessible at low tide, which makes for more of a special experience. I’d probably rename it the Not-So-Secret Secret Lagoon like our captain, due to the sheer amount of visitors that day – nevertheless it was a lovely addition to the trip.
We then headed towards Shimizu Island, where we were treated to a totally private lunch. Nothing beats the experience of tucking into grilled fish, rice and fruit on a completely empty beach in the middle of a beautiful cluster of islands. I really was in paradise and it felt a million times more amazing than all the Insta photos I had drooled over at my workstation!
Our final stops on Tour A led us to Big Lagoon, a replica of Small Lagoon but seemingly ten times in size! Floating into the Lagoon entrance is magical as the colour of the water changes from dark blue to turquoise.
7 Commando beach was next – a postcard of white sands and palm trees where we were able to spend the rest of the afternoon basking in the sun, swimming and snorkelling in the shallow bay and hanging out by the stabilisers of the boat with a nice cold beer or fresh coconut in my case.
Bespoke Tour C & D
Based on the number of other boat tours we encountered on Tour A, we decided to pay a little bit extra and create our very own bespoke tour. This took us away from the crowds and let us explore some amazing destinations at our leisure.
This tour started earlier and took us to some highlight destinations featured in Tours C & D. Our first stop was Helicopter Island, simply named due to its resemblance to a helicopter. On spotting a few sea turtles en-route, we arrived before any boat tours as the only visitors on the island and explored the deserted beach.
The only sign of any company was the cutest trail of paw prints next to ours in the sand…
The tide was a bit too rough to enjoy snorkelling but the views were stunning. When the tour boats started to arrive we moved on to our next destination, Cadlao Lagoon.
This was definitely my favourite lagoon. The water was glowing and sparkling like nothing I’ve seen before and to experience this with barely anyone else around was magical. Our boat drifted into the middle of the Lagoon where we could hop out into the warm shallow waters – heavenly!
Our final stop was Paradise Beach, where we ended our island hopping adventures on a high. Yet more powdery sands, minimal people and coconut shells scattered on the beach – a place more than worthy of its title.
A tip or two!
El Nido certainly surpassed my expectations and I’m sure the multitudes of other island hoppers felt the same. I’d definitely encourage visitors to book a bespoke tour. This way the crowds are non-existent in what is becoming an increasingly more popular tourist destination. It gives you more of that authentic explorer experience. Just a small cost that makes a huge difference!
The food at our resort, Cadlao is some of the best in town, which was actually the reason behind my booking. Westerners are prone to getting travellers sickness out in Asia, because our immune systems aren’t conditioned to the bacteria here. I read some great reviews about the restaurant at Cadlao Resort, with little sign of food-induced sickness; so it really seemed like the perfect spot for me. Garlic rice for breakfast took a bit of getting used to every day! But other than that, I couldn’t complain when spoiled for choice with array of local options (Adobo… mmm yes please!) or the European favourites (I actually had a pancake with my garlic rice one day…double carb me up!).
But not all are lucky enough to escape a sore tummy. Sadly a couple of my buddies did fall ill, so my advice would be to pack rehydration therapy, maybe some antibiotics (if you can convince your doc) and a pack of Imodium just in case! You can never be too prepared after all and something like this can indeed be a bit of a barrier between you and your island hopping dreams… But even if you do shit your pants, it’ll still be one of the best trips of your life, guaranteed!