Perfect Weekend: Top choices of ST's foreign correspondents

Perfect Weekend: Slice of fun in Philippines' Coron island

This slice of paradise in the Philippines offers a crystal clear sea, hilltop vistas, bustling nightlife and fascinating dive sites

It is easy to see why American children's television network Nickelodeon would want to re-create Bikini Bottom - the fictional, underwater home of SpongeBob SquarePants and friends - in Coron.

This 20km-long island, nestled at the northern tip of Palawan province in central Philippines, is simply majestic, its waterborne landscapes, panoramic hilltop vistas, crystalline sea and chalk-white sand offering a soothing respite from the monotony of a life tethered to a bundy clock.

It may be the closest thing to paradise on earth, at least a version accessible to the average Joe.

It is easy to get to Coron, which, along with Boracay and El Nido, is among the Philippines' Big Three beach resorts.

Five airlines fly direct from Singapore to Manila, with at least 15 flights a day. Three Philippine carriers fly south to Busuanga province from Manila: Philippine Airlines, SkyJet and Cebgo. At the airport in Busuanga, there are always vans waiting to take you to Coron town, about an hour away.

But you do not really go there for the town, though it has its own attraction in a tall hill that offers a dramatic view of the haunting clumps of islands that are your goal. This hill, I think, should be your first destination, for a full measure of where on earth you are and what is in store for you.

• This is the eighth of a 10-part series. Next week, Deputy Foreign Editor Tan Dawn Wei checks out the political murals and pubs of Belfast, Northern Ireland's transformed capital.


Saturday

  • GETTING THERE

  • There is always a flight from Singapore to Manila on any day of the week. There are at least 15 direct flights a day on five airlines: Singapore Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air, Tigerair and Jetstar.

    Only three Philippine carriers, however, fly south to Busuanga province from Manila: Philippine Airlines, SkyJet and Cebgo. Chartered flights are also available.

    Vans are always waiting at the airport in Busuanga to take you to your lodgings in Coron town and your hotel can usually work out an island-hopping package for you.

  • WHERE TO STAY

  • My wish-pick is Sophia's Garden Resort (sophiasgardenresort.com), starting at $213 a night. The price is reasonable - it has a swimming pool and the cottages are arranged around a spacious garden.

    Other choices are The Funny Lion (thefunnylion.com), starting at $197 a night, and, if you feel like splurging, Two Seasons Coron Island Resort & Spa, which will set you back by at least $700 a night. Two Seasons (twoseasonsresorts.com/coron) is on an island and has everything you need - boats, kayaks, diving gear and equipment and a room with its own jacuzzi.

  • TRAVEL TIPS

  • • Stay as close as possible to the centre of Coron town, where the action is and everything you need, from toothpaste to a cheap mobile phone, is just a few steps away.

    • Do not go on the last week of Lent. If you have to, plan at least two months ahead.

    • Travel light. There is no need to lug all your diving equipment as diving tour operators have everything you may need. Besides, charges are fixed and already include gear.

    • For the best documenting, take along an underwater camera and a small drone, say, a DJI Spark.

    • If you know how to ride a motorcycle, rent one so you can explore neighbouring Busuanga. You may yet find hidden gems there.

1 PEAKING EARLY

For first-timers, the starting point in Coron has to be Mount Tapyas. It is not really a mountain. It is a 230m-tall hill with one side that, from a distance, seems to have been lopped off like an ugly cake shabbily cut near the middle and the portion taken away. The name "tapyas" is Tagalog for "lopped off".

A cement staircase 1m wide snakes up the hill. It is not an easy climb - 700 steps in all. Thinking myself fit as I run at least 30km a week, I think I can scale it in one go. But halfway up, my lungs, stuffed with nicotine in my younger days, are already bursting.

It is 4pm when I reach the summit. I hide in the shade and wait for the sun to set.

I see hundreds more make the same ascent. They begin crowding the viewing deck, taking innumerable photos with their phones, digital SLR cameras, GoPros and drones for their Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media accounts that make them believe the world is watching them.

When they do stop documenting themselves, they scan the islands and the sea and, for a millisecond, manage to stay still.

On one side of the hill, away from the selfie-loving crowd, about a hundred sit quietly on the ground, facing the setting sun like sunflowers, basking in the afterglow.

Where: Mount Tapyas, at the heart of Coron town

Admission: Free

Info: If you find yourself at the fringes of the town, you can take a motorised rickshaw there for 10 to 50 pesos (S$0.28 to S$1.40)

2 MERMAID'S RESTAURANT

Now hungry, I make my way down to La Sirenetta for dinner.

The restaurant is not easy to find. It sits at the end of a long pier, its corners held up by columns carved into the shapes of mermaids, from which it gets its name: The Little Mermaid.

It has become notorious for slow service. (That is why the owner has installed a billiard table.)

The culprit, I think, is the menu. There is just too much on offer - an assortment of pizza, pasta, rice dishes, seafood and cocktails.

It is a bit pricey by local standards.

A seafood pasta, beer and bottled water can set you back $14. But the place is quiet, airy and has an excellent view of the sea.

If you are not sure where you want to eat, this place is a safe bet. And if you want to watch the sunset with a beer or a cocktail in hand, this is also the place to be.

Where: Reef Pier, near Central Market, Coron Town Proper

Open: 11am to 10pm

Info: Call +63-918-903-7063. La Sirenetta accepts reservations, so to avoid a long wait in the queue, call first

3 A BAR WITH NO NAME

Well, it actually has a name: No Name Bar. It also has a solid reputation among tourists seeking to unwind after a whole day under the sun. It is a modest bar. There are about a dozen tables and a mini thatch-roofed cabana bar that opens to the street.

Cheap drinks are on offer - banana and watermelon shakes for $2.80, or a glass of Jim Beam for $3.30. It also has French fries, spring rolls, a quarter-pounder burger, sandwiches and everything else that goes well with liquor.

You go to this place to end the day. The bartender has a good ear for someone complaining of the heat and crowd, or recapping a satisfying romp at the beach.

Where: Barangay 4, National Highway, Coron Town Proper

Open: 2pm to 2am

Info: You can come in your swimming trunks, but do not forget your wallet

4 NIGHT-TIME STROLL

There are foreign faces everywhere. Most are European, many of them French, German and Spanish, plus a good number of Chinese and South Koreans. In the morning, they all head out to sea, hopping from one island to another to dive, snorkel or just take everything in. At night, they walk Coron's streets, this time hopping from one bar or restaurant to another.

There are plenty of kiosks, called "sari-sari", that sell all kinds of basics - soap and shampoo in sachets, sodas and bottled water, candy and crackers, beer and cigarettes, and mobile phone top-ups.

Hotels, lodges, backpackers' inns and hole-in-the- wall tour offices, blaring beach-appropriate songs like Matisyahu's One Day, line a two-lane "highway" that links everything in Coron.

People get around on a motorised rickshaw that can carry five for 10 to 50 pesos. For longer trips, rent a van at 150 pesos a person. But the most appropriate way to move around is by walking. After all, nothing is ever far in Coron.


Sunday

5 HEART OF THE LAKE

On Sunday, I head out to sea. At the end of the Lenten season, Coron is so inundated with tourists that there are not enough boats to go around. I end up renting an outrigger canoe just big enough for two.

My plan is to tour five of the lakes, coves, beaches and dive sites around Coron island. But my puny boat can manage only one destination: the nearest, Kayangan Lake. The lake is wedged by rocky limestone bluffs encasing it like a huge basin. The way to it is through a lagoon on the north-west side of the island.

From the sea, the mouth of the lagoon is obscured by protrusions that look like giants covered with dark brown, mossy blankets, standing still and silent, their waists breaking the waterline, daring me to come nearer and overcome my fear of the unknown.

What I find at the lagoon is less dramatic - about a dozen boats parked along the edge of the beach, waiting for their passengers to finish gallivanting on the island. From the sandbank, a concrete staircase crawls steeply up the side of a granite hill to a viewing deck, an aphrodisiac for selfie-takers. It then leads downwards, to the heart of the island. The prize - a cove with waters so clear the lakebed peers back like a greenish moonscape.

You can swim in these waters, and you should. It is like floating in a mystical, emerald-green space where life's concerns drift away. For a brief moment, you are free. It is, for me, the closest thing to being back in my mother's womb. This alone makes the trip worth it.

Info: You can book a five-island tour with Calamianes Expeditions & Ecotours for $27 a head online at www.corongaleri.com.ph

6 DIVERS' PARADISE

Across Kayangan, separated by a jagged, rocky escarpment, is Barracuda Lake. It is named after a fabled 1.5m-long barracuda inhabiting a deep, silt-packed cave that leads into the ocean.

This one is for divers. Up to 35m deep, it has unique layers of fresh, salt and brackish water that create dramatic temperature shifts, from a balmy 28 deg C to a steaming 38 deg C.

There are other diving sites around Coron. Wrecks of about a dozen Japanese freighters and gunboats sunk during World War II litter Coron Bay, at depths of 3 to 42m. There is also an underwater cave that leads to a "cathedral", a large underground cavern lit by a shaft of daylight from a collapsed portion of the ceiling.

But diving does not come cheap. It costs $100 for three fun dives. For those thinking of taking up diving as a hobby, dive shops charge about $480 for a three-day course that covers the dives, wetsuit, equipment, food and a five-island tour.

Info: www.corongaleri.com.ph

7 GRILLED

After Kayangan, I head back to town. For the meal to cap my weekend in Coron, I go to KT's Sinugba Sa Balay, a homely, rustic shack that lives up to its name, "grilled the way it's done at home", for some seafood delights.

The hordes of tourists that have descended on Coron, though, have led to a shortage of fresh fish. That lops off half the items on Sinugba's menu. The restaurant buys seafood straight from the docks and does not keep it in storage.

I end up with a meal known as Bicol express, a stew made with long chillies, coconut milk, shrimp paste or stockfish, onion, pork and garlic. A woman I share a table with finds it too spicy. I think it is just right, just like this restaurant.

Where: San Agustin Street , Coron Town Proper

Open: 11am to 10pm

Info: Call +63-920-969-8143. There is no need to book a table as you would not have to wait long to get one

8 THANK YOU, CORON

After dinner, I go to Blue Moon Resto Bar for a nightcap. I order beer. At the bar, a middle-aged Caucasian sits quietly one stool away, also by himself. I glance at him. He raises a bottle and I raise mine, and that is that.

Where: Barangay 4, National Highway Coron Town Proper ( just a few steps from No Name Bar)

Open: 7 to 2am

Info: Call +63-908-516-8265

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Island fun in Coron'. Print Edition | Subscribe