We went on an island hopping tour in Puerto Princesa, Palawan last March. A tour, that left me no doubt, that Philippines’ beaches are amongst the most beautiful in the world. I don’t think I can ever get enough of them.
Tour Start, Price, and Jellyfish
All Honda Bay Palawan island tours start at the same port, at St. Lourdes Wharf, around 14 kilometers out of Puerto Princesa city center.
Basically, there are two ways to do the tour: 1) do it yourself, or 2) via travel agencies. The easiest option is number 2, it’s also what we opted to have. We booked a tour package in advance (via Localdestinations Travel in Bogo). It cost us P1,340 (23€/31USD) per person and included the following: a tour guide, pickup and transfer from our hotel to the wharf and back, island hopping, and lunch buffet.
The St. Lourdes Wharf was a hive of activities from the tourists, vendors, tourist bureaus, hawkers, etc. On the water surrounding the wharf was a flotilla of outrigger boats waiting for their turn to pick up their respective groups. We shared our boat with 7 other adults and children, who turned out to be very nice tour companions.
When Chikiboy, our tour guide, announced that we would only visit 2 islands instead of 4, I was a little disappointed. He explained that because of the season, jellyfish abound in the waters at the other two islands (Starfish Island and Snake Island). Well, we all didn’t want to have anything to do with those stinging sea creatures anyway, so we were all fine with that.
Despite the 2-island itinerary, it actually turned out better than expected. Because instead of rushing from one island to the next, we were able to stay at the islands longer. We were able to take it all in; to relax; and not just stop for some photos and then moving on. We actually preferred it much more that way. As a side note, the list of Philippine islands I’ve visited got incremented by two.
First stop, Pandan Island. Just as we approached the island, the sun came out. A total reversal from the last 20 minutes or so where there was a threat of rain. It’s very typical of Philippine weather. It could be cloudy and rainy one moment, but minutes later it can turn all clear and sunny. That’s how it was in our case that day.
Pandan Island was so beautiful. With its white, powdery sand, and turquoise water, it couldn’t have been more inviting for swimming.
The island was well prepared for the daily influx of tourists, both in volume and facilities it provided. There was a bar, a small massage spa, scuba and snorkel gear rental, and even a banana boat ride.
We didn’t spend so much time exploring the island though because we were too busy swimming and fish feeding in Isla Pandan. With swimming goggles and bread in our hands (they sell them for P10 on the island), we were, at first, hoping to find some fish to feed. But then suddenly, we were surrounded by hundreds of small fish all wanting to get a bite of the white bread in our hands.
It was a joy to watch them feeding. They were all around us, and in the brightest of colours! I felt like we were in a scene from “Finding Nemo”. The only problem though was that the fish were getting quite aggressive, some were even beginning to nip at us. But overall it was a lot of fun.
After swimming and fish feeding we took a rest at our group’s Nipa hut. The nearby seafood stall prepared some seashells for us which couldn’t get any more fresh. Even though a lunch buffet was still waiting for us on Cowrie Island, it was a nice appetiser, enjoyed in an authentic tropical surrounding.
One thing you must be aware of though, the seawaters in the Philippines are very salty. So salty that it leaves an uncomfortable feeling on the skin after swimming. That’s why it was such a welcome relief that on Pandan Island were freshwater showers to rinse off the seawater.
The second, and last, stop on our tour was Cowrie Island which we really enjoyed. It was nice and very relaxing because we took our time and didn’t rush from one island to the next like we did in El Nido, or like the other tour groups. Instead, we stayed there for almost 3 hours, giving us the time to enjoy the place: the beach, the coconut trees, the swimming, and the overall beautiful surroundings. It also gave us time to get to know the other people from our small tour group. Time passed by so fast chatting, swimming, and relaxing.
Cowrie Island is close to the mainland. You can see the mountains of Palawan in the background like a grand backdrop to a tropical stage setting. While it’s quite touristy, with many of the tour boats arriving and leaving every few minutes at the island, we still enjoyed it there.
Nipa Huts and Facilities
Every tour group has their own Nipa hut. The tourist guide makes all the necessary arrangements for renting the huts. This is important because the hut is where you leave your valuables and towels when you go swimming, or when having the lunch buffet at the restaurant; but most of all, this is where you hang out and relax, protected from the searing heat of the tropical sun.
As mentioned, it is in Cowrie Island where we had our lunch, which is included in the standard tour package. The buffet was surprisingly decent and came with a great choice of seafood. Besides the buffet restaurant, there was also a beach bar; but of course, anything you buy there, you pay yourself. We tried their soursop and avocado shakes, both of which were so refreshing.
Another thing I liked about this island were the facilities. There were changing cabins, toilets, and freshwater open air showers. Everything was so clean and well maintained. The small spa that offer massages to visitors is in the middle of the island. We passed on the massage, though, because for the same price, we can enjoy 3 massage sessions back here in non-touristy San Remigio, and in the comfort and privacy of our own room (home service) too.
While Cowrie Island is perfect for swimming—because the water gets deep after a few meters even if it’s low tide—it is nothing compared to Pandan Island for snorkelling.
A quick advice when swimming in the Philippines
When you go swimming or snorkelling where there are lots of corals or rocks, make sure you protect your feet. The corals and rocks can be very sharp and can slice into your skin like it’s nothing. This is especially true when you have been swimming in the water all day. The seawater makes your skin so soft that you don’t stand a chance against the sharp edges of rocks and corals.
Protection from the most venomous fish in the world
We rented water shoes at a dive shop in the mainland and liked them a lot. They also rent those at little shops at St. Lourdes Wharf for around P100, a mere pittance for the protection it provides.
The rubber shoes not only made me feel safe from rocks and corals, but most importantly, from the most venomous fish in the world: the Stonefish (Synanceia). Most incidents happen, through no fault of their own, when people accidentally step on these fish and its spine prick the skin, injecting venom into the hapless victim’s system. It happens because the Stonefish looks exactly like a rock or a coral that’s being covered by sand. I obviously fear this fish a lot.
Wearing these water shoes was a nice experience in addition to being a stress reducer. We can only highly suggest them to others who are planning on going swimming or snorkelling close to corals and/or rocks.
Unfortunately, these shoes didn’t come early enough for me. The previous day in El Nido, my foot “caressed” one of the corals at the Big Lagoon. Such a bad timing.