If you’ve ever tried living out your castaway fantasy a la Leonardo DiCaprio and actually visited the Thai island where “the Beach” was filmed, you know disappointment. In place of Leo’s fictional bohemian utopia, you’ll find Maya Bay, a 250-meter-long stretch of sand that environmentalists sadly affirm hosts no less than 5,000 visitors every day. But there is another coastal nirvana located just 2,000 kilometers east of Maya Bay.
While the Philippines’ Palawan archipelago hasn’t exactly remained off-the-radar, you can hack its tourist-laden shores with a little research and a keen sense of adventure. If you’re looking for Shangri-La in the form of your own private beach or island, then chartering a skippered sailboat in El Nido might just be your ticket to paradise.
Here’s how to embark on a voyage to the secluded corners of Palawan with just you and your first mates.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Opt Out of the Package Deal
If you enjoy travel experiences far from the backpacking masses, Palawan’s El Nido may initially miss the mark. On every menu, billboard, and flyer, you’ll find adverts for El Nido’s most popular attraction: island hopping. Instead of choosing the same tour as dozens of travelers in neon-orange life jackets, opt for a more idyllic (and peaceful) route.
Enter Captain Florent and his ship, Sérénité. For around ฿2,432 THB ($78 USD) a day, you can hire Florent as your skipper, chef, and guide for your own private island-hopping tour.
Catch the Wind
Palawan isn’t a windy place. For that reason, it’s best to plan your trip for the windiest months of the year — January, February, and March — if you wish to travel by sail. If diving is your primary reason for visiting, head to Palawan during April or May, since water clarity is typically best during these months.
Packing: Less is More
The Philippines are tropical and hot most of the year. Thus, sunscreen, a long-sleeve rash guard, a refillable water bottle, and a wide-brimmed hat are essential. You might also want to pack a rain jacket, just in case. Generally speaking, for both a sailing trip and time spent in El Nido, minimalist packing is advised. Storage space on all boats is limited, and the accommodation in El Nido is often up a hill or down a sand track — so leave your giant roller suitcases are painful.
Also note that if you’re prone to motion sickness, bring enough medicine for the number of days you are sailing, along with a well-stocked first aid kit.
Arriving in Paradise
El Nido is the base for island-hopping adventures in Palawan. There’s a small, but growing, expat scene and a few attractions and restaurants in El Nido and Corong- Corong to tide you over before you start your private island tour. To get to El Nido, hop on a flight on from Manila or Cebu to the El Nido Airport, and avoid the five to six-hour overland bus ride from Puerto Princesa. El Nido is about 30 minutes from the airport by tricycle.
Finding the Perfect Ride
You can find Sérénité and a host of other boats on Airbnb, or on boat-charter websites. Just be sure to ask a lot of questions in order to get a feel for your captain’s personality, as well as what the trip includes and what you should expect. Keep in mind that a sailboat is a very small space, and every inch (including the toilet) is shared. It’s important that you feel comfortable with whoever is captaining your ship.
Goodbye Tourists, Hello Aquatic Friends
As Sérénité motors out of the harbor at Corong-Corong Beach, wave goodbye to the tour boats. In their stead, rainbow-colored fish, swinging spider monkeys, and tropical turtles will be your companions. But when the animals are out of sight, the visual parade of sugar-white beaches, deserted islands, and deep-blue lagoons steps in to keep you and your camera company.
Under the sea, Florent is as skilled as he is behind the helm. In fact, he masquerades as a freediving instructor and is more than happy to accompany you to the depths. Giant coral heads hang from the ocean shelves as you dive deeper and deeper. But watch out for blacktip reef sharks — they’re sometimes known to make an appearance.
Leave (Almost) No Trace
On board the bright-red, 45-foot-long sailboat, Florent cooks up traditional Filipino meals — think calamari in black squid-ink sauce served al fresco under the boom and halyard lines. After dinner, you can even venture to shore. You only need to remember to bring a beer and your camera.
There, you can collect driftwood and bamboo poles that have washed up during recent storms and build makeshift teepees — the only lasting indication you ever visited this place. Or, let your voice echo against the limestone cliffs surrounding the bay as the sun goes down and the mosquitoes make their nightly appearance.
Find Comfort in Waking Up Alone
Being anchored off a keyhole in the reef grants you entry to yet another postcard-perfect beach without another boat or person in sight. Unlike other island destinations, Palawan allows you to practically remove yourself from civilization and go days without seeing another boat. Perhaps that’s why it’s often called “the last frontier.” There’s no cell service or WiFi, and if it wasn’t for the debris cast off from neighboring islands, you could claim this place to be completely unspoiled. Regardless, the area offers pristine and private lagoons, just waiting to be explored.
You may not be able to stay in this tropical oasis forever, as Leo wanted to in the movie, but for a few days, you’ll get a taste of what it must be like to have your own beach. Just remember to thank your captain, crumble up the map, and leave without a trace.