When I first visited Puerto Princesa many years ago, I envisioned a sleepy port town with a modest stretch of beach, a few houses up for rent along the shoreline. But even then, it was a surprise: Though the province of Palawan is marketed as “the Philippines’ last frontier,” (and there are awe-inspiring wildlands that fit the description), the capital city of Puerto Princesa was culturally rich and sophisticated.
Even more so now, with the small boom brought about by the resurgent attention on the underground river, and its pull on tourists both domestic and foreign.
The underground river itself remains an astonishing sight—a reminder of the savage beauty of nature, if anything—but in the past few years the system has been organized very well, making it easy and safe for tourists to come see the caves. The city itself is growing every year, and where a handful of hotels once were are now rows of shiny new buildings.
That said, Puerto Princesa does retain quite a bit of its wild charm. One needs only to venture an hour out of the city and into the waters of Honda Bay to find some of the country’s most underrated beach destinations.
Look at a map, and you’ll see that the waters of Honda Bay are essentially the same as those surrounding Tubbataha Reef, about 150 kilometers away.
Tubbataha is one of the world’s premier dive spots for a reason: it’s a hotspot for marine biodiversity with over 600 species of fish, 360 coral species, 13 dolphin and whale species, and 11 shark species—among other things.
The same map will reveal that Puerto Princesa is in the same geographical area as the other iconic beach destination, Boracay. What both these mean is that the waters of Honda Bay is a teeming underwater seascape, and its islands are paradisical: powdery white sand and fantastic sun—and, even now, lots of privacy and quiet.
How to do Honda Bay right
The easy way to do Honda Bay is to hire a boat and a guide from town to go island-hopping, but it’s well worth the splurge to book a weekend trip to Dos Palmas on Arrecefi Island, still the area’s only resort destination. Occupying the entire island, the resort is a colony of beautifully designed, well-maintained villas that open right up to the beach.
It’s always somewhat of a mind-altering experience to arrive at Dos Palmas. Once the boat slips out of Puerto Princesa’s Lourdes pier, you’ll feel as though you’ve been launched very suddenly into a different world.
The emerald-green water underneath, island after lonely island passing by, and the seabreeze on your face: But just as you’re drifting off into a contented nap, about an hour into the boat ride, you’ll be woken gently by the melody of the brass kulintang (traditional percussion instrument) being played on the pier, or by a welcoming committee on kayaks, throwing flowers into the water.
The distance from the mainland has ensured that the place will always retain its quiet and its privacy. And what a luxury it is to wake up to all this silence every day, to find a near-deserted beach, and to have as the day’s main worry the decision whether to paddle around the mangroves on a kayak, or to snorkel into the stunning house reef just off the shore, or stay on the beach and look out into the blue mountains in the distance. The days just begin to melt into one another here, and if that isn’t paradise, I don’t know what is.
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