My favorite family trip of all is going to the beach. There are no trains or buses to catch. No opening or closing hours of museums or factories or shops to memorise. No outfit of the day to match or agonize about. No need for a big heavy bag to carry kids’ change of clothes, sweaters, little blankets, extra underwears, some hankies and socks, a book or two, coloured pens and the like, plus wipes and tissues and headbands too! Whew!
I see the sea, the sand, the sky, the sunrise, the sunset, put on some sunblock, and my soul is fed, my heart, overflowing.
We make it a point to go to the beach at least once year. But we didn’t go in 2016 because we had so many things in our to-do list last year, foremost of which was to wed in church.
So this year, our first family trip was, naturally, the beach. And not just any other beach. Our dream beach destination- El Nido Resorts, Palawan, Philippines, our beloved Philippines 🇵🇭
So bear with me as I recall here our 4 days/3 nights stay in Miniloc, El Nido. This is for me and my family, especially for the sunset years, when we turn to happy memories to affirm that we have lived, really lived, and how.
We planned way ahead. We planned in October 2016 for our April 2017 summer getaway. My bestfriend and her family have been to El Nido n times so I asked her for contacts and tips. And I’m sharing her family’s experience and mine here.
Yes, you can book online. But if you’re like us, a family of 5 who’s looking for regular rates on peak season, email is the key. So, following my best friend’s recommendation, I emailed email@example.com. The email address will come out as ‘TKDC Holiday’ in your email, TKDC stands for Ten Knots Development Corporation, the reservations arm of El Nido Resorts. They will assign you a reservations assistant. I asked for a quote for a family of 3 adults and 2 children, all staying in one room. And then the haggling begins. My tip is: if you plan months ahead, you can ask for regular or off-peak rates and they acquiesced in my case.
Once you are ready to book, they will send you a payment link for the room and another for the Manila-El Nido-Manila flight via Airswift. I found that it is also cheaper to book flights via TKDC rather than booking online.
First, the room. I found that the adage ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ is sort of true when your entire family can’t really fit in one room but you insist because that’s what clingy families do. So we were offered a seaview room, and we accepted because who wouldn’t want a seaview room? First step towards our dream-come-true journey check.
Aside from the air-conditioned room, booking a stay in Miniloc allows you to enjoy full-board buffet meals (yes that’s from breakfast to dinner); resort activities complete with a tour guide/photographer/trainer of windsurfing and snorkeling all in one guy; plus of course the usual boat transfers and free use of snorkeling equipment, kayak, and other facilities.
Second, the airplane ride to El Nido. I found that choosing Miniloc afforded us four flight choices: 6:30am, 9:55am, 11am, and 2pm. On the other hand, going to Apulit only gives you three flight choices upto 11am. I surmised that it must be because going to Apulit requires a 1 and 1/2 hour van ride plus 50-minute boat ride versus just two short jeepney rides (of about 1-2 minutes each) plus 45-minute boat ride to Miniloc.
So we took the 6:30am flight. Imagine that we arrived in Manila from Singapore at 9:30pm, rode the ever-reliable and cheaper airport white taxi (across the street in Naia-Terminal 1) to our Makati condo, and arrived at 10:30pm, bathed and ate a very late dinner (or midnight snack), and slept at around midnight. The parents woke up at 3:30am and the parents woke up the children at 4am. We were on our way to the airport via the ever-reliable and safe uber taxi at 4:15am, checked in at 5am, and Airswift gave us 5 yummy bags of goodies filled with ham sandwiches, brownies (kitkat for the girls), cheese bars, and water. The plane promptly took off at 6:30am. It was a small plane but very comfortable, filled with 30 or less passengers, mostly foreigners with a spattering of Filipino families plus one Filipino stewardess. The flight took just an hour and 15 minutes. Needless to say, the mother goose slept throughout the flight.
They were waiting for us- big, colourful jeepneys upon jeepneys, and immediately swept us off for that one-minute ride to the reception area where they served us Filipino delicacies like palitaw and moron, so delicious that even foreigners lined up for a second serving.
We waited for around 15 minutes and then rode another jeepney for 2 minutes or so, transferred to a speedboat, and then to a bigger boat waiting in the middle of the sea for the 45-minute (I reckon it was less) ride to Miniloc.
I thought the boat ride would be a 45-minute ‘loss’. But it was wonderful to be forced to sit back and take everything in. Those I’ve seen only in pictures and dreamt only at nights- they were right before me: limestone cliffs, rock formations, endless bluest of blue seas everywhere I look. I was surrounded by so much beauty that my heart oh my heart was all over the place, silently weeping, silently ecstatic, silent. I was left speechless in the middle of the sea where beauty and harmony and peace reigned.
We were fortunate that our tour guide Chris was not only well-informed, or an avid story-teller and joker, he was also one of the most natural photographers that I know, doing tai-chi-like movements one second and handing us beautiful panoramic pictures the next.
We were four groups in the big boat- 3 families who were first-timers in El Nido, and two girl-friends who looked like going to El Nido is their favorite pastime. In our group was a Spanish family with two small children. When we arrived at Miniloc, the Spanish dad looked around him and uttered just one word ‘Wow’ which made my heart swell with pride and love for my country. Wow Philippines!
El Nido Resorts welcomed us to Miniloc with a song and a dance and some refreshments. I realise I should leave out some things so that you’ll be enticed to go. But then again, even if I will tell-all, nothing compares to actually being there, gazing at the limestones, swimming in the clear waters, savouring and savouring.
We arrived at around 9:30am, our Seaview room- big, spacious, pretty, and homey- was ready by then. But before we checked in, the reception staff asked us about our preferred activities. Save for the hiking, I am proud to say we did it all plus fishing, even with a 5 year-old in tow. The key is to divide the activities so that you have something to look forward to everyday for a few hours and rest/swim in the remaining hours before sundown.
I am about to break down our El Nido stay according to what we did on a daily basis:
Day 1, Arrival.
Since we slept late the night before and woke up at dawn the next day, we opted to take it easy in our first day. So the girls and I fed the jack fish at 10:30am while daddy and our son went snorkeling in the same waters where the jacks were feeding. We would do this every morning for the duration of our stay, sometimes at 8:30am, other times at 10:30am.
At 12nn, we ate a hearty buffet lunch of grilled everything (my favorite were grilled oysters, shrimps, mussels, and pork, whew a lot, I ate a lot!), plus baked fish and chicken in soy sauce and at least two kinds of rice plus assorted everything: veggies, fruits, bread and jam (i love the home-made guava and santol jams), cakes, and all things delicious and happy.
After that, us girls retreated to our room to read a book and take a nap while daddy and kuya played billiards and pingpong and afterwards, slept on the daybeds facing the sea. Oh what bliss. By 5:30pm, we were raring to go on the sunset cruise, our first activity at Miniloc.
I am old, I have seen so many sunsets in my life- in all kinds of setting, in Buenavista island where I spent my childhood summers, in Mabua beach which is a few minutes by tricycle from our Surigao home, in my previous office which was a stone’s throw from Manila Bay, etc. But trust me when I say I have never seen a sunset like the one I saw in Palawan. We spent a good one hour watching the sun set, I saw it changed from this burst of bright orange color to yellow to pink as it settled perfectly between two mountains, giving us mortals just enough time to take a beautiful photo or two, before sinking to the ocean, leaving us with a tinge of its orange-yellow-pink rays, leaving us breathless.
Aside from the tour guide and the boat captain, we were the only Filipinos there. Them foreigners- Spanish and French and Mexican, their expressions mirrored my heart’s awe. There is a God who makes things beautiful and breathtaking.
We had another buffet spread for dinner, I love the chili fritters and spicy meatballs, an exciting treat to match the still-giddy heart.
Day 2: Island-hopping, wind-surfing, and snorkeling. Big and small lagoons, and Dibuluan Beach.
Refreshed and re-energized, we embarked on an action-filled second day at El Nido, starting at 8:30am. With Chris again as our ‘tour guy’ according to my youngest daughter, we went first to the big lagoon and went snorkeling. Marine life is very rich in El Nido since the resort itself and the people in general all do their part to ensure that every living thing, including the big and beautiful corals, are well taken cared of, preserved, and remained untouched.
My youngest daughter wears eyeglasses with high power, so that we bought graded goggles for her. And how she loved looking underwater. Every time she comes up for air, she describes to me all the fish and corals that she saw. And then I would confirm it by going underwater myself.
My son and my other daughter swam farther with their dad and I could hear excited shouts of ‘I saw Nemo! So many Nemo’s!’ and it was priceless.
After an hour, we went to the small lagoon. You have to transfer to the kayak to be able to go inside the small lagoon. So we paired up: ate and kuya in one kayak, the parents and the youngest in another.
We were so thrilled to see jellyfish in all sizes while we were kayaking. The song ‘Cool Change’ came to mind: if there’s one thing in my life that’s missing, it’s the time that I spend alone, sailing on the cool and bright clear water. I wonder if the composer had been to El Nido.
And then we went to Cadugnon Caves, braved small cave openings and uneven paths littered with sharp rocks to marvel at the columns formed when stalactites and stalagmites meet and have our family photo taken inside the cave.
We had lunch at Dibuluan beach club, also owned by El Nido Resorts. The grilled fish, assorted small slices of fluffy raisin cake and ube halaya paired with fresh mango shake were memorable. There were swings for the girls, and the giggles were music to my ears.
The other memorable thing was when kuya and daddy tried wind-surfing. First of all, I was hesitant because I saw the trainer battling with the strong winds and failing, or more accurately, falling. But then Isaac proved he could make a go of it, and I was so happy that I was able to take a decent shot of him standing up to the wind. I showed his pic to the father, who, in turn, got envious and wanted his picture taken while ‘wind-surfing’. I put that in quotes because he was very clear that he wanted just one pic and then get off the darn thing after. So Chris the tour guy/photographer/trainer allowed him. Pao went for it, feeling like a pro, I took his picture, and the next thing I knew, he was sailing away through stormy waters and raging winds. He got far, boy he did, that Chris had to rescue him by kayaking to where he stood- him and his surfboard, in the middle of the sea.
After lunch, we went to Snake Island, so named because the sandbar produced by two opposing currents is shaped like a snake.
We then headed back to Miniloc to swim some more and then take a rest before plunging into another action-filled night: the spectacular buffet dinner plus that mouth-watering chocolate fondue.
Day 3. Island-hopping and snorkeling. Shimizu island, Lagen resort, and our favourite of all- Entalula Beach.
Another day, another snorkeling, this time at Shimizu Island. The tour guy, Francis, told us the story that the island was named after Mr. Shimizu, the Japanese explorer who went inside the caves and never got out alive. So I told my husband and kids to not wander far off to the caves unless they want the island renamed after them.
I realised- snorkeling is addicting, and El Nido Resorts must’ve known so that it is a daily activity. The current was strong, but Aryana’s spirit was stronger. My five-year-old holding her breath underwater to give homage to the corals and the fish. And she did this n times within an hour. Some children love ipads and computer games, my daughter loves the sea and all the beauty it holds in its bosom.
We had lunch at another El Nido Resort called ‘Lagen’ with its swimming pool, modern European villas, plus gym and library. My children were amazed: wow! a library in the middle of the beach! must be heaven!
Lagen is very laid-back. It is for those who just want to relax for days on end, watch the sea change color from day to night, watch the boats come and go. While we had lunch there (which was fabulous and sumptuous in equal parts- Italian and Japanese food), a senior citizen couple arrived. They said they came from Europe, had a layover in Dubai, then Manila, then El Nido. They seemed so happy to be in El Nido, ‘worth the long flight’ written all over their happy faces. I told Pao when we are older and grayer, we will stay longer in Lagen. Miniloc offers a combination of relaxation and adventure, perfect for families with active children.
After Lagen, we went to Entalula Beach, by far our family’s favorite of all the beaches we’ve been to. The sand is white and soft and powdery. The water magical and teasing, coming at us in big and small waves, instantly transporting adults and children alike to a place where laughter reigns.
We retired back to Miniloc in the afternoon, napped for a bit, ate dinner as the local band belted out songs from our heydays- Eraserhead’s El Bimbo, True Faith’s Hwag Na Lang Kaya, to name a few. In the middle of one Pinoy ballad, this foreigner couple went near the band and danced the night away. Made me hopeful about the world.
Our last day in Miniloc, but one of the best days of our lives. We went for the sunrise cruise at 5:30am. It was cloudy when we left, but the clouds parted to allow us to peek into the sun as it was rising in the early morn. Truly wondrous.
At 9am, we were sailing again, this time for a 3-hour fishing trip. A local fisherman was with us that day, in addition to the tour guide and boat captain. The fisherman, Ronnel, showed us how the hook with bait, line (nylon), and sinker work. It was pretty easy, just let go of the nylon until it stops rolling, it means the sinker is already at the bottom of the ocean. When you feel a kind of yanking on the other side of your nylon or especially that you feel it is heavier, than you’ve caught a fish.
I thought: I’ve done this when I was a kid in Buenavista, my grandfather, Tatay Amboy taught me how, it should be easy-peasy lemon-squeezy for moi. It wasn’t. After 2 hours and 3 fishes, I was cross-eyed and dizzy. I had to stop.
My husband gave up long before I did. My son caught 3 and was very happy that he tied the score with me.
Yesica caught 7 fishes and if I hadn’t asked that we turn back because I wasn’t my usual bubbly self anymore, she would’ve caught more.
My takeaway: I saw Yesica listening intently to the fisherman as he was giving instructions. The same focus and determination that I see in her every time she’s doing her math homework or painting. And she just did it- let go of her hook, line, and sinker, and reeled everything back as fast as those small hands could every time she felt something. Focus. Instinct. Hard work. Recipe for success don’t you think?
We had the big adventures. We also had small moments of fun- like when this guy from Botswana passed by me, did a double-take and asked: Bonjour? Me: No. Botswana guy: Hola? Me: No. Kumusta? Botswana guy (mildly disappointed): oh hello! Or that time when every European was in the beach: germans playing billiards, French lounging in the daybeds, and the Spanish mom swimming with her kids while the dad went sea-kayaking, and my husband said: o, pa-Europe Europe pa tayo e nandito lang pala sila! (Loose translation: We go to Europe, only to find that they are here, in our country).
Every afternoon, at 4-6pm, Pao and I would leave the kids in the room, playing board games, as we go to the bar and relish the happy hour. We ordered tequila sunrise and mai tai and Singapore sling and Cuban rum and all things spicy and warm. We talked about the present, now, where we are and how grateful we are of a family that is thriving beautifully amid this mad chaotic mad world. That is what I love about vacations- there is no past to dredge up, no future to worry about, there is only the beauty of the moment.
I don’t like to be flippant about our El Nido stay and say ‘it was a good four days’. It was an experience of a lifetime. Whatever it was that worried us or stressed us out or made us angry or sad or disheartened, it all went away, cast far away into the endless seas, never to find us again, not in the same magnitude nor form nor spirit. We were healed- individually, and as a family. This El Nido trip is one that I will always carry with me wherever I go, whenever I feel down (sorry Paris, I have a new happy now). I have a feeling we will go back, but the first time will always be the most memorable, forever etched.
We went back to Manila the same way we came to El Nido, in reverse order of boat ride and short jeepney rides thereafter. We had afternoon snacks of puto and sapin-sapin while waiting for our flight. El Nido made sure that we felt pampered and special from the day we arrived to the day we left.
We watched the sunset in the airplane window and marveled once more at nature’s beauty.
Thank you to my bestfriend for the referrals and tips and the 100 year-old badgering ‘go to El Nido, you’ll all love it there.’ Thank you El Nido. Thank you my Philippines 🇵🇭 Thank you to my family who’s always up for any adventure. Thank you God, you are truly great and wonderful.