Away from the madding crowdBy Pocholo Concepcion
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It’s very tempting to do nothing and just laze away on Lagen Island, one of four high-end properties owned and operated by El Nido Resorts in Palawan. After all, this is as close as one can get to Eden—or its modern incarnation.
But then again, there’s much to get busy with in this land of rugged, natural beauty where the past, present and future converge.
First, some history lessons: The cliffs that bookend the cove of Lagen Island are 250 million years old, according to Jamie Dichaves, the resort’s environmental officer. Made of limestone, they are home to swiftlets—the bird species whose edible nests are made into “Nido soup” and where El Nido got its name.
These cliffs, seen in an edition of the French franchise of the popular American reality TV show “Survivor,” provide a good challenge for rock-climbing enthusiasts.
Scuba-diving and snorkeling gear are laid out in a room along the walkway that leads to the resort premises.
The first-time visitor immediately feels at home; the Lagen Island staff, 80 percent of whom are locals, break into radiant smiles and greet guests upon eye contact.
What to do at the refreshing sights of the beach and a swimming pool? But before we could take our clothes off for a quick dip, lunch beckons.
The Romaine lettuce in the vegetable salad is crunchy good. “Those are organic, raised in our own greenhouses,” says Joey Bernardino, El Nido Resorts director of sales and marketing. He proceeds to explain the importance of responsible, sustainable tourism or eco-tourism which the resort promotes.
“You can enjoy the sea without destroying it and its surroundings,” he points out, adding that the resort’s GAMS (Guest Activity and Marine Sports) coordinators, who take guests to sightseeing and island-hopping tours, are very careful that the motorboats they ride in do not harm the coral reefs that abound in the area.
The forests that cradle Lagen and its three sister-islands, Miniloc, Apulit and the newly-opened Pangulasian, are all protected areas, he says.
Which is why lots of birds, fish and an assortment of mammals and reptiles have become happy neighbors at El Nido Resorts.
The crashing waves from the sea and tweets from birds are musical sounds that punctuate the soothing peace and quiet here.
There are only 50 cottages and suites in Lagen, which means guests are limited and privacy is valued. On our visit, there were about 130 domestic and foreign tourists billeted, but we saw some of them only at dinnertime in the clubhouse.
Water in the resort is desalinated and what comes out of faucets is safe for drinking. Although most guests still order bottled water, Joey says these will soon be phased out.
Recycled water is used in flushing toilets.
In the absence of electricity on the island, the resort is powered by engine-generator sets and solar panels.
There’s more to be proud about, adds Joey. After winning a number of accolades from various international award-giving bodies, El Nido Resorts has been picked as one of three finalists in the Community Benefit category of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards—handed out annually by the World Travel and Tourism Council, whose select members are chairmen, presidents and CEOs of 100 of the world’s foremost travel and tourism companies.
The group votes for Community Benefit nominees whose “companies and organizations directly benefit local people, supporting community development and enhancing cultural heritage.”
Among the locals who have been gainfully employed at Lagen is Julie Badajos, a GAMS staffer for the past six years. He’s the official guide during our four-day stay. Apparently he loves his job and says his young son understands the vital link of environmentalism to daily life.
The Big and Small Lagoons near Lagen, Julie says, are the best spots to feel “kalmado … kasi yung tubig ganun din.”
His comment is validated as soon as the boat we’re riding enters the area, which looks like a sanctuary for stressed-out souls. The still waters have a calming effect indeed, even as a couple of female Caucasians in a kayak come slicing through.
Short visits to the neighboring Pangulasian and Miniloc Islands give us a glimpse of why the discriminating few prefer to stay at El Nido Resorts.
Pangulasian is like an exclusive-membership island; among its amenities is a private swimming pool. The more reasonably-priced Miniloc is for families and couples who also want to enjoy the beach away from the madding crowd.
“Look, that’s an Eastern Reef Egret,” says Kitsie Torres, the resort’s environmental officer. She’s pointing to a black bird with a long beak which lands on the Pangulasian beach. Kitsie, who took veterinary medicine at UP Los Baños, says she has worked in Australia and other countries, but came home only because she knew that working for El Nido Resorts would be fun and fulfilling.
The scene in Miniloc: Small families soaking up the cool breeze while riding kayaks; a mother and her child sitting around wearing coconut hats that locals teach how to make; a lone Asian-looking woman drinking beer at 10 a.m.; a group of three Europeans playing billiards.
It is almost dusk and time to go back to Lagen. On the boat, Julie says there are 45 islands surrounding El Nido town, a number of them uninhabited, but all of which he and the rest of the GAMS team try to monitor to protect flora and fauna.
We finally get to swim in the pool, our lungs heaving a sigh of relief after years of enduring air pollution in Manila.
Dinner is served at the poolside. We join the LOOK magazine team which is doing a fashion shoot here. Iza Calzado shows up with her Filipino-British boyfriend, Ben Wintle. Turns out they are billeted at Pangulasian.
After a couple of beers, a succulent sample of fresh, grilled squid and red snapper, and humorous conversation with the LOOK team and Iza, we make a French leave.
It’s rare for us to be up and about at 6 a.m., but we are— that’s how energizing the vibe is on this land, often called the country’s Last (Ecological) Frontier. A Long-Tailed Macaque, said to be the only species of monkeys in the Philippines, scampers when our eyes meet. We also spot another black bird which, like the Macaque, seems rattled when it senses our presence.
Julie guides us on a short hike up the forest at the back of Lagen. An Australian couple overtake us. We stop every so often as Julie points to several endangered species of trees like the Dau, whose bark and roots are so large and wide they resemble a wall panel.
What’s great about this hike is that we perspire after only five minutes of climbing over rocks and soil. Our shirt gets soaking wet at the end of the trail which leads to an isolated beach. The Australian couple are enjoying the view; the guy says, “it’s been an awesome experience” they’ve been having for the past few days.
Later Jamie takes us on a nature walk around the resort; she names some of the plants and flowers that line the walkway, pointing out that all of them grow here naturally.
Jamie and the rest of the efficient resort staff are fine examples of Filipinos who care for the history and present state of El Nido for the next generation of tourists to behold.
Watching the sunset at Lagen, our mind’s eye tells us: On a clear day you can see forever in this blessed land.
A 75-minute direct flight on the Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI) plane from Manila and a boat transfer from El Nido Airport will take you to Lagen Island. Log on to elnidoresorts.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 813-0000.