First time for us in the Philippines and this island of Palawan was like a little gem. We did not begin with great expectations after the ship sent out letter after letter about the “developing infrastructure” and perhaps not “meeting the expectations of the discerning cruiser.” We could get full refunds if we decided to not to participate in a ship’s tour we had previously booked. And the final sentence – “If you are a resilient, tolerant and experienced traveler with a minimum expectation level, you will certainly enjoy yourself.” Before I even begin, I want to note that everyone I talked to at the end of the day thought this was one of our best port days – it was even announced several times that night how great a time everyone seemed to have had! So much for the warnings! Now I want to go on all of those “not so sure” tours!!!
A few quick facts about the Philippines since this is our first port there. It is made up of about 7,100 islands – 11 of the larger ones are inhabited. They are on the Ring of Fire, so most of the islands are mountainous and volcanic with rich and fertile soil. The total population is almost 100,000,000.
A couple of quick facts about Puerto Princesa. It is on the island of Palawan in the Sulu Sea and is about 275 miles long and 26 miles wide at its widest. This city is nick named the “city in the forest” and is the largest city on the island, as well as the capital of this island. It is a favorite vacation destination for people of Manila. Not many cruise ships come here – this was our ship’s first visit – but with the UNESCO World Heritage Site only two hours out of the city and with its growing adaptations for tourism, I predict it will not be long before it becomes a popular cruise destination.
We had a huge warm welcome from the community with bands, dancers and a big “welcome” banner. The people seemed very pleased to have us come to their island. And throughout the day, we received smiles and kind words from everyone we met.
Our tour today was the Subterranean River National Park, also known as the Underground River, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. We boarded small vans with only six passengers, plus a guide and driver. So, it felt as though we were on our own private tour even though there were about 18 vans going to the same place. We had a police escort for the entire two hour drive to the park. It was a beautiful drive. The most striking thing was the lack of trash along the roadside. Everything was pristine and that is because the mayor has imposed a strict law with steep fines for littering. It reminded us of Singapore in that regard. In addition, the landscape was green everywhere – so the nickname seemed to fit.
It is a poor island and we saw many small homes along the road. The walls are made of tightly woven bamboo and looks very tropical. The roofs are mainly thatched. It is an agricultural island for the most part, so we saw rice fields as well as other crop fields and water buffalos. In addition, there were many small “stores” along the road selling fruits and vegetables that looked like roadside stalls.
To get to the Underground River, it was a two hour drive to the small town of Sabang. There we took “motorboats” to the park itself. The water was a little rough, and when I looked at the boats we were going to take, I was a bit concerned. But once in them, it was great fun and an adventure. They have an outrigger on both sides, so it kept the boat steady (and I convinced myself that it also made it impossible to tip over!) It took about 30 min. to get to the park and cave across the bay area. We passed the mountain that the river in the cave flows under. The scenery was beautiful in this bay area on the approach to where the cave was. The choppy ride made it difficult to get good pictures. But here is our little group of six on “the crossing!”
We made a “wet” landing at the park. This is Jack from our group of six. From there we walked down a wooden sidewalk to the lagoon where we were to board our next boat – the cave boat. It was a “wet” take off and landing as well. They were small canoe like boats with a guide/driver at the back. The lagoon where we started was like a picture of paradise. It was fun to wait and watch the boats ahead of us come out of the cave with their headlights still on, right until the point where they came out. Here are a couple of pictures to show this as well as our hard hats and life jackets! Hats were mainly to keep the bat “poop” off our heads, I think!
The 6 mile long underground river winds through a limestone cave lined with stalactites and stalagmites before emptying out into the South China Sea. [Tours can only go less than a mile into the cave.] The lower half of the river is brackish and subject to the ocean’s tide. Because of these two factors, it makes it the most unique natural phenomenon of its type to exist.
It was completely dark inside of the cave except for the lantern/flashlight that our guide held. There were lots of small bats hanging from the ceiling and one place was a “bat nursery” with lots of baby bats. It was hard to get good pictures because of the darkness, but here are a few that are good examples of what we saw. I also edited them to give greater light to the formations.The first is the baby bat nursery on the ceiling. The second is called the “mushrooms.” The third is another canoe going by us (in reality it was hard to see each other in the dark except for the lantern light), but this shows what we looked like as well. The last is one of the largest stalagmites. When we came out of the cave, this was the beautiful view. This was such a pretty place to visit.
As we were walking back to our outboard outrigger (more factual than a “motorboat!”) we saw some wild monkeys. They were moving quickly, but I got a quick shot of part of this Mama monkey with her baby hanging on underneath for dear life! Saw them again just a few moments later in this tree with one of our passenger’s water bottles! They warned us not to have anything that looked like food or drink in view of these little guys! Also saw what they said was a Monitor lizard – it sure was smaller than the one Chris and Cindy had.
Before leaving I couldn’t resist this final photo of the bay area with all the boats waiting to take passengers back. It was just so beautiful and peaceful. [I’m also trying to learn to “frame” my pictures better and I think this one worked!] So much for the quiet and calm – we had a bumpier ride leaving the park area on our way back to the shore line than when we came out. I couldn’t take (or frame!) a picture because we were so “up and down.” But it was a thrill. It would have made a great amusement park ride!!
After a “wet” landing again, it was a quick trip to the Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa where we had lunch. This resort was amazing and right on the water. This would be the place to stay and just “chill out.” My favorite was the pool area with the largest pool swim up bar I’ve ever seen. In this picture, I tried to show how large the whole pool area was – the bar is the whole middle section on both sides. We had a great buffet lunch and then walked around the beach area. We saw an unusual animal I had never heard of or seen before – a bear cat (actually two) Only a picture can describe them. They are furry like a cat and bear and somewhat roly poly with a long tail like a cat. They were sleeping when we first saw them, but then became more active – but moved rather slowly.
In the van on the way back (mainly the same way we came) we saw more of the beautiful countryside. Most of the roads were paved, but there were some that were rutted and basically gravel and rather rough. Our guide said this one long stretch of was called “abortion road” because if you were pregnant, you would not be after riding across this part of the road. We also stopped at a roadside shop for 10 minutes to pick up some souvenirs – very basic. This is a picture of the more typical “shops” along the way – ours was a bit larger and nicer. We also caught a bird’s eye view of Honda Bay. This is a great place to swim and snorkel because there are lots of small islets here, each with fanciful names related to their shape or other feature – i.e. Snake Island and Starfish Island (think I would opt for the latter!) We had originally signed up for the tour that went here to “island hop” and snorkel, but changed our mind when we heard more about the cave. It would be fun to return to this island and spend time in this large bay.
As an aside, there was another tour that would have been interesting. About 15 miles from the town center, there is the Iwahig Penal Colony. It operates as a regular village without walls or bars. Inmates work and live here and learn woodcarving skills, so they make crafts that are sold at local shops. For such a small island, there is a lot to see and do.
Back in town the shops were now open. We had such an early start, the town looked like a sleepy village. In this picture you can see one popular mode of transportation on this island. It is basically a small motorcycle with a little cab attached to one side to carry one or two passengers.
When we returned to the ship, there were little craft stalls set up for those final purchases. And as they welcomed us early in the morning upon our arrival, they sent us off with an equally warm send off. They had young dancers, singers (in stockings and heels, no less!) and a group of young people playing violins. It was truly amazing to feel so welcomed.
Throughout the evening as we chatted with friends and heard about their adventures on this island, we heard nothing but great stories. We also learned that the mayor wanted to make sure nothing went wrong while our ship was in port. That is why we had a police escort on our trip. The group that went to Honda Bay said they had security officers on each of their boats and a special boat that went ahead of them before each new islet, circling it once to make sure everything was in order.
To end our evening, we went to the nightly entertainment to hear Radim Zenkl, a U.S. national mandolin champion, play both his mandolin and a flute. He was actually very good and we enjoyed his performance.
This was one of our favorite ports – and so unexpected. A GREAT day!!!