Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sailing special: Desert island bliss beaches

. Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ellie Fazan joins a new safari boat tour of The Philippines' 'last frontier', an archipelago of hidden coves, coral reefs and empty white beaches
Bacuit Bay, El Nido Philippines
'If you looked up "desert island" in an encyclopaedia," said Eddie Brock, pointing to an island of sugary white sand fringed with palm trees as we sailed slowly past, "this is what you'd see." I was sitting on the top deck of his boat, and before me lay nothing but turquoise sea, beautiful white sand islands, and more sea.
Eddie is a Filipino who moved to Britain aged 18, but rediscovered his birthplace on an extended trip home 10 years later. That's when he fell in love with the remote islands of Palawan, the country's westernmost province, often labelled its "last frontier". Now he's set up Tao Philippines, offering bespoke sailing trips to adventurous travellers, with his British best mate, Jack Foottit.
Their base is El Nido, a tiny village overlooking Bacuit Bay, the northerly tip of the largest Palawan island. It was here, under cover of darkness, that I boarded the Aurora, a 72ft wooden bangka. Bangkas are traditionally used for fishing, and typified by their long thin hull and extended out-riggers that give support and improve fuel efficiency. The Aurora is unique, adapted for guests with a working kitchen and second upper deck, where my shipmates (three Australian conservationists, two Americans, a Canadian wildfire fighter and a British photographer) and I would sleep. We were aged between 27 and 37, but Tao attracts all ages, families as well as backpackers. Four local crew were there to look after us: Lito the captain, Butchok the chef, Oggie and Ollie the boatmen, with Eddie and Jack as our guides, plus Ulan, the ship's dog.
Jack handed out beers while Butchock prepared a feast of cuttlefish flavoured with small calamansi limes, guacamole, giant garlicky prawns and coconut crab curry. After dinner we leapt into the sea, our skin sparkling with phosphorescence.
I woke early to my first sunlit view of our spectacular surroundings - behind us the cliffs of Palawan dropped into the sea, undergrowth lining the shore; ahead, islands rose like mountains from the sparkling water. The boys pulled out a battered map, and over breakfast we planned the day ahead - there's no set itinerary on Tao Philippines' expeditions. The Philippines comprises 7,107 islands and Tao Philippines' trips cover the 200 islands between El Nido and Coron, 150km to the north-east. There's so much uncharted territory that, despite the crew's local knowledge, each day is a new adventure.
At Cadlao, one of the region's wild islets, we leapt overboard with our snorkels and swam towards a dramatic limestone cliff, then navigated our way through a cave, only visible above water in calm weather. We popped out in a huge electric blue lagoon full of multicoloured fish, waves lapping gently on this secret beach. We were totally enclosed, hidden from the world; not a footprint marked the sand.
Further down the coast of Cadlao we climbed bamboo ladders to see caves full of nesting swiftlets and hunted for coconuts to fill with rum at sundown. A vast central mountain meant we couldn't cross the island on foot, so we sailed around to an abandoned fishing village owned by Tao, which they plan to turn into a retreat. There are no guesthouses or restaurants here, just a few islanders, whose social welfare projects which provide female healthcare and school materials, Tao supports.
The retreat was ready enough for us to spend the night in huts on stilts stretching from the shore into the jungle. A path lined with banana and guava led to a well where I showered under the canopy of a huge tropical fig tree. Later, we ate lobster beside the campfire, the only sounds the crickets, waves and our chatting.
Over the next six days we visited several other remote islands and explored vast networks of lagoons. We made it to far-flung Linapacan, clinging to the sides of the boat as we traversed mountainous waves (at the bottom of the swell we couldn't see land). We snorkelled off the island's coast, saw an underwater wreck and beautiful coral reefs, trekked through jungle to a hidden Spanish fort, ate a pig fattened specially for us, sang karaoke with some villagers and hosted a full moon party - just us, the villagers and Miss Gay Palawan. Some afternoons we simply lazed on the top deck in the sun, trading tales. We were in Neverland. Eddie and Jack, the boys who never want to grow up, and we, the guests who never wanted to go home.
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