By Maribel Castillo
Rest and relaxation were on top of our agenda when my husband and I decided to make a quick getaway from Manila’s impossible traffic and humidity by flying off to Palawan, an island paradise southwest of the Philippine Islands chain. Bounded on the north and west by the South China Sea and on the east by Sulu Sea, Palawan and its cluster of surrounding islands formed what was once a land bridge linking the Philippine archipelago to Borneo and the rest of the Asian continent.
The promise of adventure got the better of us as soon as we touched down at the Puerto Princesa Airport. Ignoring the call of a secluded beach resort, we would take a detour and have a peek at the famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, newly declared as one of the world’s Seven Wonders of Nature. At 8.2 kilometers, the world heritage site 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 sun-drenched, palm-fringed countryside. The tour guide warned us to hang on to dear life as our driver negotiated zigzags and undulating roads on a drive that felt like a roller coaster ride. We had butterflies in our stomachs by the time we hit 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 Filipino-style picnic of chicken adobo and pork inihaw, it was time to head for the underground river. In Manila, we had heard stories of exotic wildlife springing from the water or greenery and popping out of stalactites and stalagmites inside a pitch-black cave. True enough, there was wildlife galore. Near the river’s mouth is a crystal-clear lagoon teeming with many fish varieties. Also within the Underground River Park is the Monkey Trail, a winding trek into a small forest where monkeys, squirrels, lizards and some 60 species of birds are found. My fears were quickly put to rest when we were greeted at the dock by a perky monkey. The monkey was more social than menacing, posing for the flashing cameras and obviously enjoying the tourists’ attention. The resident bayawaks — large monitor lizards that resemble baby crocodiles – seemed as friendly and non-threatening as any housebroken 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 the bustling provincial capital of Puerto Princesa. A full moon cast a soft glow over the island by the time our van pulled into the resort driveway. What a pleasant surprise to be greeted by an attentive staff who not only welcomed us warmly with song and solicitous care, but also offered us cool drinks right out of the buko (young coconut) shell.
I was ready to hit the sack when we were ushered in to our waterfront villa, but that did not stop me 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 a private 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 a quiet, solitary stroll along the 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 almost year-round sunshine. 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 provide added value to the 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 Paradise 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.