Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nagarao Island

Situated just fifteen minutes off the coast of Guimaras, coincidentally home of the world's sweetest mangoes (stock up, they're served in Buckingham Palace!), this ten hectare island is a pristine paradise. A postcard-perfect tropical island - all to yourself? Imagine that! Escape the mundane, escape the everyday - on Nagarao you can do both. It's a temple of isolation, not desolation, and well worth a visit for anyone in the area.

The fragrant scent of frangipani welcomes visitors to the island, and the resort staff all follow suit. Due to the small size of the resort, meals feel a lot more like dinner at a friend's house. Expect the cook to greet you by name and suggest activities for you during the day. The food is fantastic, and can be suited to fit any diet, even vegetarian (thankfully). Just be sure to let them know when you make your booking.

You can go for a jungle walk and try your hand at living off the land a la Bear Grylls, with coconuts and papayas readily available for harvest - providing you can scale a skinny tree. This little patch of perfection is the definition of serenity. The only sounds you'll hear at night are the crescendo of waves crashing down upon the shore, itself a soothing tonic to the stress of city life. The air is sweetly scented, and as there are no motorized forms of transport on the island - remarkably fresh.


After dark and armed with nothing but a flashlight, I explore the coastline on the lookout for nocturnal life. Hermit crabs of varying sizes shamble awkwardly on the sand. I pick one up and it instantly retreats into its shell. After taking a couple of steps though, it makes an abrupt exit from home. Looking more like a prawn than a crab, it quickly scuttles into another abandoned shell. I reflect how handy it would be to hide in your own shell, whenever someone you didn't like approached you. These hermit crabs have it easy.

Activities during the day include; swimming, sunbathing, sailing and snorkeling, although the latter is somewhat restricted by weather. If Mother Nature decides to smile upon you though - you're in for a treat. Nagarao Island is surrounded by a coral reef, and with that comes a multitude of marine life. Fishing trips can be arranged, as can island hopping but it's important to remember not to overfill your schedule. You're here to relax after all =)

The island is also a haven for birdwatchers the world over, with many species calling it home. The surrounding waters are home to some truly strange creatures too, like squirting sea cucumbers, and skinny-armed starfish, not to mention small crabs that are either translucent or camouflaged (it's impossible to tell). 

Scattered along the coastline, there are sixteen individual bungalows. Rustic, yet romantic, they each come with a private bathroom and a choice of air-con or electric fan (for bookings and info, check out

If swimming in the sea is not your cup of tea, a swimming pool is provided. If you'd rather stay active during your stay than slumped on the beach, there's also a tennis court. Don't worry though - it's not mandatory ;)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Boracay Island

First impressions are rarely anything to set your watch to, and Boracay is no exception. The streets are overflowing with tourists, and pushy vendors selling everything from scuba diving too sunglasses are in abundance. The beautiful beach is swamped with bars and restaurants, but luckily the soothing ocean breeze comes at no cost to the visitor.

There's a plethora of activities to keep you busy during the day, with a wide range of water sports including; sailing, paragliding, jet-skis, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours. For something a little different, give helmet diving a go. Think scuba-diving without all the complicated equipment and tiresome tutorials. It's a strange sensation to be breathing naturally, several leagues beneath the sea.

Boracay offers activities above sea level too, such as go-karting. With the smell of burning rubber, the constant whur of engines at full capacity and the murmurs of spectators - close your eyes and you could be forgiven for thinking you were at an F1 track. A tricycle ride to Boracay Gokart should cost no more than 50 PHP.

With pedal to the metal, I zoom around the 1km track, opting not to hit the brakes at corners but drift and swerve instead. For 30 mins on the track, and just as many laps, I'm more than content to relive childhood memories - this time without fear.

For early risers, 'True Food Indian Cuisine' holds daily yoga classes at 9am. While the rest of Boracay is busy sleeping off hangovers, experience island tranquility and serenity before the masses awake from dreary slumber and converge on White Beach.

Other areas of Boracay offer visitors a glimpse at what life was like before the hordes of tourists. The northern tip of the island has areas better suited for snorkeling, so rent a motorbike, hire a marsk and fins - have some fun! Puka Beach is perfect for a fruit picnic, with sweet mangoes and pineapples available from many beach vendors. At certain times of the day, you may just find you have the beach all to yourself.

As a prime tourist destination, there are many restaurants to choose from, with cuisines the world over represented. Although the prices are somewhat inflated, you should have no problem finding food that suits your palate. Everything from vegetarian to Texas BBQ is on offer, with even Mongolian thrown in for good measure.

Olé can be found in D*Mall, and is the perfect place to escape exorbitant prices. A fine mix of Spanish/Mexican/Cuban/Filipino fare, it is open 24 hours a day and the food is excellent. Open for five years and going strong, include it in your itinerary.

After dark leaves White Beach pulsating with energy. The pounding disco beats last until around 4am, with drunken party goers perfecting their dancefloor shuffles on the powdery white sand with unabashed enthusiasm. Live bands can also be found, themselves a welcome respite for those a little techno weary.

WHERE TO STAY - Hey Jude Resort is the best of both worlds. Just a 3 minute stroll to the stretch of shore that made this island famous, this hotel comes complete with a quiet courtyard and is surrounded by coconut trees on all sides - a perfect sound buffer against the noisy nightclubs on White Beach. Each of the rooms are well appointed with air-con and cable television, and breakfast is included daily.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

La Sirenetta


This is Palawan, and scuba diving is king. However, for those of us who prefer to stay above sea level, luckily dining out is a close second. For a small town, Coron has a multitude of restaurants to choose from. As it's a seaside town, seafood fanatics will have a field day here, spoiled for choice by Palawan's many fishermen. Vegetarian options are also abound, but one must look a little harder to find them.

La Sirenetta has an ideal location. It is perhaps the most perfect restaurant setting I have encountered anywhere in the world, in fact, if I ever meet the right girl - it will be here that I propose to her. That's a promise. Surrounded by the jagged Palawan landscape, and a calm tranquil bay of crystal clear water - how could she say no?

Finding it can be a little tricky though, as you must follow a jetty to reach it, as it floats above the water - like a halo on an angel's head. It is adjacent to Coron Public Market, which is the first landmark many people stepping off from a banca will see upon arrival.

Sitting down to the first of many meals I enjoy here during my stay, I glance over my shoulder and spy a shoal of shimmering fish, their scales glinting in the streaks of early evening sunshine. Being by the water's edge has more  than just visual benefits too, as a wafting sea breeze on a hot sunny day will tell you more than words can.

La Sirenetta serves both Filipino and Western delicacies, with a focus on Italian cuisine. The pizza and pasta here is to die for, with fresh tomato sauce prepared daily (banana ketchup is banished from the premises). The bruschetta is amazing, with the tang of fresh tomatoes, and the bite of sweet basil, perfectly complimented by two thick slices of crusty bread. The pasta is prepared al dente, and the spicy arrabbiata sauce is definitely one for chili lovers.
Those with a sweet tooth will not be disappointed either, as the desserts on the menu are much more than just an afterthought. The sweet crepes here rival those of a cafe on the Seine river in Paris, and are stuffed with local produce. Think pineapples, mangoes and bananas, all prepared with a delicate chocolate rum sauce. It's a match made in heaven, having both a sweet taste and warming touch.
On every post there is a mermaid looking out to sea, with the rest of the interior decor being both tasteful and maritime themed. Canoes hang upside down from above, and plaques of giant crabs and other trophies fished from the sea dot the walls. The staff are friendly and welcoming, and although the prices are a little steep by local standards, it's without a doubt value for money.

Appetizers - 100 - 200 PHP
Mains - 250 - 500 PHP
Specials - 500+ PHP


Food - 4.5
Location - 5
Prices - 4
Staff - 4.5
Atmosphere - 5

Address: Near Central Market, Reef Pier

Monday, March 14, 2011

Coron, Palawan

There are several ways to find yourself in Coron, Palawan.

You have the option to catch a one hour flight from Manila, and while it's convenient - you're missing out on a lot of adventure along the way. If you have an aversion to airplanes, or just really love the deep blue sea - you have the option of going by boat. Don't expect a huge and luxurious cruise liner though, as I did, for the boat you catch probably won't be big enough for 15 people.

                                                                            The journey from San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, lasts about six to eight hours depending on weather conditions. Although stuffed to capacity with cargo, everything from rusty spoons to chicken wire, I am still able to stretch my (sea) legs - albeit on bags of rice and garlic. As it can be a tiresome journey, the crew are kind enough to share their lunch with the passengers. For hours at a time there is no land in sight, but rather than feeling helpless, I'm exhilarated by the experience. Even when the captain is zig zagging through treacherous waves, I can't help but smile and slap my thigh at the rise and fall of this small wooden banca.                                                                    

That's not to say I wasn't relieved when we finally reached land. Touching base in Coron, I felt instantly welcomed by the landscape of sheer limestone cliffs, tranquil waters and indeed civilization itself - a respite most welcome.

Once out of the boat and on dry land again, I bypass the gang of tricycle drivers and walk towards the Hollywood style 'CORON' lettering on the top of one of many mountains that surround the cityscape. The streets themselves are a winding maze, with a buffet of dive-shops, restaurants and bars to choose from. Proving once again that Filipinos are the most hospitable bunch in all of Asia, i'm welcomed to Palawan a whopping seven times, just en route to my hotel.

After a few days of relenting, I give in and do something touristy. I opt for a day of island hopping, and within ten minutes i'm sitting on the banca and awaiting adventure. With a firm prod of a mighty bamboo pole, the captain of the ship sets sail. The motor coughs and splutters into life like a pack-a-day smoker as we leave Coron harbor for a day of snorkeling through corals in and around the shipwrecks of WW2 battleships. The air is no longer heavy and humid, as we bid a silent thanks to the gentle sea breeze.

It's still true, even in this day and age of wireless internet and talking toilets, that we know more about what goes on in outer space, than we do in the depths of our mysterious oceans. The coral reefs here resemble an underwater forest of sorts, complete with trees, bushes and grass (so to speak). The first life form that I spot underwater is a starfish the size of Shaquille O'Neal's hand, but with fat sausage-like fingers. A tremendous shade of shimmering blue, I watch it sit idly by, clinging on to a rock face. 

As I rise to the surface to rinse my goggles, I'm followed upwards by a shoal of flying fish. I watch them glide atop the water, like skipping stones on a lake, before they submerge once more. No doubt due to the sunken ship, this cove of corals is a protected area, offering the chance to see fish both big and small. What catches my interest though, is a puffer fish, both the shape and color of a pineapple.

No doubt seeing me as a threat, it seeks refuge out of harm's way in a coral crevice. I watch its head darting out every once in a while, just to watch me watching it. I take a break from swimming to sprawl myself on the sand beneath a coconut tree. It is then and there that i'm reminded of a statistic that lists falling coconuts as the most likely way to injure yourself in Palawan. It beats being knifed on a train carriage in Perth, but I think for now, I'll find shade elsewhere.

The skeleton wreck of a Japanese battleship from WW2 is just as the name suggests. All that remains are the bones of a once great warship. The hull is encrusted with shells, and slowly but surely it is becoming part of the subaquatic furniture. The surrounding waters are the murkiest shade of navy blue and the atmosphere is more than a little somber. After several attempts, I succeed in touching it, if only briefly. Seeing as how this is my first attempt at free diving, and it's ten meters below the surface - I'm glowing with pride nonetheless =)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cockfighting Derby

Let's get something straight - I am an animal lover.

I have been a vegetarian for many years now, a legitimate one too, not one of those fish eating fakers. I don't use leather products and avoid even gelatine. So it was with great fear and apprehension that I stepped forth into Green Harvest Rice Mill Arena, on the outskirts of San Jose, to witness my first cockfight. Before doing so however, I looked into the facts.

It surprised me greatly to learn that the fighting rooster leads a life of supreme luxury for close to two years before his first bout, living outdoors during the day and safely tucked in at night in a tee-pee style house - roughly the size of a small dog kennel. They are fed an athlete's diet full of nutrition, and nowhere else in the world will you see a rooster in such perfect shape. Like a pooch at a dog show, these birds are flawlessly presented, and sparkle before your very eyes.

Compare that with the life of a chicken bred for slaughter, and it's clear who the winner is. In fact, it's a bit like chalk and cheese. Those less lucky spend about six to eight weeks stuffed into a cage, one so small it is unable to even spread its wings. The cages are stacked on top of one another, meaning a shower of shit for everyone but the 'penthouse' dwellers. The only daylight they ever see is en route to the slaughterhouse, it is truly a miserable existence.

The design of the arena is just as it is for any other sporting spectacle, with the platform surrounded by four waves of stands. The air is pungent with the stale smell of cigarette smoke, beer burps and charred meat - a final warning to the roosters yet to do battle. One by one, the stands slowly fill with a steady stream of people. Men, women and even toddlers take their seats, awaiting battle.

The atmosphere is electric, filled with the crow of cocky competitors waiting for war. The first two fighters in the ring size each other up, but feathers do not fly just yet, as their trainers take them to opposing sides of the ring. Bookies announce themselves amongst the crowd by standing while others sit. The call for bets is akin to an auctioneer's cry (utterly incoherent), and in an instant the stadium is in a frenzy. People fall over one another in a mad scramble to place their bets.

With all bets made, the roosters are left to do battle. One bird circles the other, both holding each other's gaze unblinkingly, waiting to see what happens next and sizing up their opponent.

It happens in an instant. First there is a squawk, followed closely by a flurry of feathers. One rooster mounts the other, cutting up his back with his leg dagger while simultaneously pecking the back of his head. The referee intervenes, picking up both fighters and placing them back on the ground. One warrior struts proudly while the other falls limp. Just like that, it's over. The equivalent of a first round knockout.

I stay to watch a few more bouts, and am utterly shocked at the amount of survivors. I thought this was more of a battle to the death, but of the ten bouts I see - only one rooster croaks. There's not nearly as much blood as I imagined, and in reality - nobody is forcing the roosters to fight. In one instance, one competitor runs scared, refusing to fight. The audience just laughs, and the match is a forfeit.

"Will you come back next Sunday?" asks Boboy, my local friend (ma biet).
"I don't think so mate, but it was quite an experience!" I reply.

Boboy smiles as we clink our cans of San Miguel Light together. I may not have jumped on the bandwagon, but i'd gladly watch a hundred more cockfights before eating a single McNugget.

Such is life where one trainer leaves the ring jubilant, his winning bird raised high above his head. The other leaves heartbroken, his counterpart of two years held close to his chest, barely clutching onto life. It was an experience, that's for sure. It's also good to get your facts right, see the big picture and never jump to conclusions.