By Lara Isabelle Castillo
Rest and relaxation were on top of our agenda when we decided to make a quick getaway from Manila’s impossible traffic and humidity by flying off to Palawan.
But before succumbing to the lure of a secluded beach resort, we decided to do a little detour two hours up north from the Puerto Princesa Airport to take a peek at the famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, a world heritage site and newly declared as one of the world’s Seven Wonders of Nature. At 8.2 kilometers, it is reputed to be the longest navigable underground river in the world.
Joining a small group of Korean and German tourists, we motored two hours up north through scenic countryside. There was never a dull moment during the two -hour journey. The tour guide warned us to hang on to dear life as our driver negotiated zigzags and undulating roads on a drive that resembled a roller coaster ride. We had butterflies in our stomachs by the time we hit the sun-drenched beach of Sabang, Puerto Princesa’s northernmost barrio.
There, before us, was our pleasant reward for enduring the bumpy ride — a stunning expanse of turquoise glass comparable to the waters of Santorini in Greece and Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta.
After partaking of a quick Filipino-style picnic of chicken adobo and pork inihaw, it was time to take the 20-minute banca ride to the underground river. We had been forewarned about exotic wildlife springing from the greenery and popping out of the stalactites and stalagmites inside a pitch-black cave. True enough, near the river’s mouth is a beautiful lagoon with crystal-clear water that teems with fish. Also within the underground river park is the Monkey Trail, a series of wooden paths that wind into the forest where monkeys, squirrels, lizards and some 60 species of birds are found
My fears were put to rest when we were greeted at the river’s loading station by a perky monkey. The monkey was more social than menacing, obviously enjoying the tourists’ attention and flashing cameras. And the resident bayawaks — large monitor lizards that resembled baby crocodiles – seemed as friendly and non-threatening as any house broken pet.
Properly outfitted in orange life vests and yellow hard hats, we boarded a banca steered by a local guide with a flair for comedy. As we entered the cave to explore the Underground River, we joined the company of bats that have inhabited the river for thousands of years. Fortunately, the bats were asleep at daytime so we didn’t bump into unidentified flying objects. It was pitch black inside until our torch-bearer turned on the spotlight to reveal amazing works of art that took millions of years for nature to create.
Floating through the chambers of the underground river was like gliding through an art gallery. My advice to visitors: give your imagination free rein and the caves will disclose amazing revelations.
As dusk fell, tired but happy, we once again boarded the van and headed south to the promise of a relaxing evening at Crystal Paradise Resort and Winery.
Crystal Paradise, a gem tucked away in the little-known town of Narra, is two hours southeast of bustling Puerto Princesa. It was almost 8 p.m. when our van reached the resort. What a pleasant surprise to be greeted by an alert and attentive staff who not only welcomed us warmly with song and solicitous attention, but also prepared a wonderful dinner and cool drinks right out of the buko (young coconut) shell.
It was dark when we were ushered in to our waterfront villa, but that did not stop us from noticing the surprisingly luxurious, 5-star hotel features such as a tastefully decorated bedroom and kitchenette, a king-sized bed, roomy bathroom with jetted bathtub, and a patio overlooking the private infinity pool, the beach and Sulu Sea beyond.
What luxury to be served dinner poolside at the villa’s private patio, soothed by the gentle rhythm of the waves! We knew then that we had come to the right place for a few perfect days of pampering and relaxation.
By morning, after a good night’s rest, we took the opportunity to explore the resort’s amenities and attractions. No doubt at the top of the list was quiet, solitary stroll on the scenic, palm-fringed beach, far away from the hordes of tourists who descend upon the Philippines’ more popular waterfront destinations all throughout the year.
The cozy resort has a total of six waterfront Amihan Pool Villas, four of which are family suites and two are executive suites perfect for honeymooners. For visitors on a smaller budget, there is also the Katala Lodge within Crystal Paradise, which offers a number of deluxe King and deluxe Twin rooms.
Crystal Paradise is nestled in a beautiful wildlife cove that has year-round sunshine and beachfront. It offers a number of island adventure packages, including excursions to Arena Island, a turtle sanctuary, and Rasa Island, a bird sanctuary.
Because Narra is on the southern tip of Palawan, nearby islands are readily accessible via outrigger boats and these islands complement the beauty of Crystal Paradise and provides added value to guests’ tropical island holiday.
Nature has bequeathed this little piece of Palawan paradise with a naturally nourishing ambiance of clean air and warm, sun-soaked days. To complement the health benefits of nature, the resort offers a variety of nurturing spa packages. It’s two thumbs up for the Exfoliation Massage, which was so soothing, the treatment almost lulled me to sleep.
Crystal Paradise Resort and Winery also boasts of a small selection of naturally fermented fruit wines, such as banana, pineapple and mango.
Perhaps the amenity that has won praise from most guests is the excellent service provided by resort staff. The resort chef also deserves special mention. During our four-day sojourn at the Crystal Resort, the chef impressed us with a delectable and visually appealing repertoire of culinary delights. A must-try from the savory menu are the Seafood Paella, the Spicy Sizzling Prawns, and the Bicolano Laing (gabi leaves in coconut milk). At Crystal Paradise, this top-notch quality cuisine comes at a reasonable price.