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Beaches of serendipity

Robin Esrock hasn't stopped thanking his luck since he chanced on the island of El Nido in the Philippines

  • White, powdery beaches beckon. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Sea kayak. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Meeting the jackfish. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Bacuit Bay in southwest El Nido is a beautiful place, says Robin Esrock. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Blissful island solitude. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Daily selection of tasty condiments. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock
  • Scuba diving on El Nido is awe-inspiring. Image Credit:By Robin Esrock

The Beach, written by Alex Garland, is a must-read in traveller circles. Before it was turned into an overblown Hollywood movie starring a miscast Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach captured the idea of the last great unknown traveller paradise.

Fact behind the fiction

Ewan McGregor was initially supposed to star in this film adaptation about a British backpacker who stumbles upon a secret beach in Thailand, a Utopia free from Lonely Planet-clutching hordes.

Filmed on the south Thai island of Phi Phi, there's a little-known fact about both the book and the movie — Thailand was not the inspiration for this secluded island paradise. It was El Nido, just one of the thousands of islands in the Philippines.

Start with a seaweed wrapper of warm sea water and add sharp limestone cliffs, luminous tropical fish, sea turtles, white, powdery beaches, emerald lagoons, coconut trees, refreshments, sea kayaks and world-class diving beneath the stilts of your cabin.

Add wasabi and soya sauce, and you've got hands-of-time rolled Paradise Sushi.

I've travelled far and wide. So when I say Bacuit Bay in southwest El Nido is probably the most beautiful place I've seen, you've got to realise the scale here.

There are 45 isles around El Nido, located at the northern tip of Palawan, known as the “Last Ecological Frontier'' in the Philippines.

These islands are mostly deserted, protected by law and harbouring beaches as private as they are beautiful.

Besides the small town of El Nido, the place has a few high-class luxury resorts.

Best of both worlds

I got the chance to stay at the oldest and the grandest on Maniloc Island, the El Nido Resort. When you throw in five-star accommodation and service with the beauty of nature, how can you not go gaga over the possibilities — a delicious daily buffet with several dozen home-made condiments, stilt cabins, beachfront rooms, snorkelling, diving gear, sea kayaks, yachting, a spa and Wii for late-night games.

It didn't matter whether it was rainy season. What mattered was that somehow I had managed to find this place.

Turquoise light blinded me as I made my way on my sea kayak through the limestone channel of the nearby Big Lagoon.

It was just a few minutes' paddle from Maniloc's pier, crowded with tropical fish and schools of massive jacks.

Guests enjoy a taste of warm Filipino hospitality and get around on traditional boats and kayaks, with the opportunity to enrelax on their own private beaches with picnic baskets. I

looked out over the limestone islands, with dark clouds, as if soon about to unleash heavy rains, adding to the remoteness.

I realised I was in one of those places you only ever read about — and wondered, not for the first time, how I got so lucky as to find it.

Underwater wonders

Of course, this part of the world is famous for incredible scuba diving and the resort has a great school and dive shop. When there's terrific snorkelling just a few feet away from your bed, you don't have to look too far to find fishy goodness.

I had a pretty heavy operation performed on my right ear, which had prevented me from spending any time underwater since I was 6 years old.

Taking advantage of an introductory dive class, in which an instructor took care of everything else and let me experience scuba diving for the first time, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

If you can remember the first time you took a flight, saw a lion, tasted the perfect steak or heard your favourite song, that's what it's like to have your introductory scuba dive in El Nido.

The buzz is so huge that the risk of the bends, of lungs bursting, of ears exploding, of shark attacks and anything else you can think of is just not risk enough.

Intimidating jackfish, luminous parrotfish, fish that look like dogs, those that look like frogs, clean fish, dirty fish, spiky fish, smooth fish, naughty fish, nice fish, and scary, sporty, posh, ginger and baby fish — everywhere I looked, I saw only fish.

There's not much that goes on in town — there are a couple of guesthouses and a local café. But you don't come to a tropical El Dorado such as El Nido for its nightlife.

Enjoy the blue seas, the great food and the stunning islands and save your nights for a bit of reading.

May I recommend The Beach by Alex Garland? His description of this island paradise is enough to fill a novel.

Robin Esrock is the host of Word Travels on Nat Geo Adventure. Visit for more information

If you go

El Nido Resorts has two incredible resorts — Lagen Island and Maniloc Island. They cater to weddings and honeymoons and have various accommodation packages on offer.

To get there, either fly from Puerto Princesa, Palawan's capital, or drive overland. Better still, take the resort charter directly from Manila.

The resorts have won awards for green policies, so you can feast on the buffet with a clear conscience. For more information, visit