I'm not young. Would like to be, but am not. So when travelling the lure of the new is strong - always forwards, never back - three score years and ten - yada, yada. Until I met El Nido. I. Am. Going. Back.
A couple of hundred metres back from the shore, El Nido starts to go vertical into the area’s signature limestone cliffs, and View Deck Cottages sits right on this boundary. As I emerged from my trike, the owner, Rudy, sprang down to grab my bag with a smile and a big Filipino welcome, before leading the way up, up, and then up some more to my cottage. Limited disabled access, as the brochure says...
Relaxing on a terrace in the cottage above mine was Karen, my companion for the week ahead. We’d never met before, but quite liked the idea of buddying up for a week or so in the Philippines and had settled on El Nido to meet-up. Infectiously funny and super-bright (spanked me at iPhone monopoly), Karen was a couple of months into a year-plus, globe-encircling adventure - diving on Sipadan the week before, Myanmar after the Philippines, etc. Perfect company for the time we spent together, and kind enough not to get too annoyed with my “second guess and plan the feck out of every moment - spontaneity must die” attitude, her travel blog is a great read and a mine of good information on SE Asia, so do take a look.
Our host, Rudy, was well on his way to finishing a perfect little tourist home-from-home. The plan was simple - first, build your house, then start hacking platforms out of the hillside and build a couple of cottages per year. 800 PHP isn’t a bargain, but spotlessly clean bathrooms, cheap laundry and great service made for a great stay. As a bonus, you get electricity from mid-afternoon to early morning - don't forget that headtorch people.
Just like at Labuan Bajo, flasks of hot water would appear by magic on my terrace at dawn, followed by a simple breakfast - bread, scrambled eggs and mangoes, plus a daily laundry collection - like all travellers I'm pretty much obsessed with laundry - knowing you've got a complete set of clean clothes in the duffel is almost as good as being within shouting distance of a cold Chang.
Hanging below the cottages, El Nido town was laid out before us with the Karst towers of the Bacuit Archipelago disappearing into the distance. Another tatty little fishing village turned backpacker hub, you can get pretty much anything you need, as long as that doesn’t include 24 hour electricity or access to an ATM - A bank advertising poster helpfully explains there's one ‘conveniently located’ in Roxas. Fine, where's Roxas? Oh, it's a four hour drive. OK, a different definition of ‘convenient’ to that I'm used to, but I'll run with it.
An afternoon spent wandering and playing catch-up with Karen’s local knowledge revealed El Nido to be a low-stress, big smile kind of place - after the hassles of Meno it was great just to blend into the background and amuse the locals with my failure to pronounce even a handful of Filipino phrases. For a gentle introduction, travel/tour info and Western customer care (and prices), try out Art Cafe, just back from the sea at the South end of the beachfront.
We didn’t hit the jackpot on the restaurant front when we were there though - food was OK rather than brilliant. Had I read up a little more before I went, I would have definitely tried The Alternative - read Jodi Ettenberg’s superb Legal Nomads blog for an account of a longer visit to Northern Palawan.
Along the beach, at night, tables are set up by the various restaurants on the strip. Music from one leaks into another and the lights of oil and gas platforms far over the horizon are spookily attractive under the light-pollution free skies. A fine place to spend an evening in great company.
Don’t stay out too long though - It's an early up, early to bed town - wandering round at 7am a day or so later, people were up and about and relaxing on the beach, but come 10pm, streets were deserted and even western bars gently eased us towards the door through subtle hints like turning the lights and music off. So, not a party town then - if you're a 21 year-old gap year trustafarian "finding yourself" then jump on the Boracay flight instead - we'll all be happier that way...