Been to Boracay? Seen Cebu? Palawan offers some of the most beautiful (and least crowded) beaches in the Philippines. Dive in with us, mama!
Palawan in the Philippines has long been on my travel bucket list, ever since I saw a friend’s Facebook album from a trip there a few years back. Both an island and an archipelagic province, it lies in the Sulu Sea on the Western side of the Philippines, near Borneo. Renowned for pristine beaches, turquoise waters, unique wildlife and world class diving, it’s home to not one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubbattaha Reefs Natural Park.
To be honest, I am not a diver. I do love a beautiful beach, though, and the less crowded, the better. Desperately in need of some R&R and looking for a fuss-free vacation where we could introduce our toddler to the wonders of playing in the sand and frolicking in tranquil seas, our family arranged a four-night stay at Amanpulo on the Palawan island of Pamalican (the resort has the entire island to itself).
I am also a hotel lover (once upon a time I worked as an undercover hotel reviewer), and for years have heard pretty much nothing but raves about Aman Resorts (check out our founder Hester’s reviews of Amansara in Siem Reap and Amanjiwo near Borobodur for ample evidence!). Amans are renowned for understated luxury served up in spades along with plenty of space and privacy; it’s no wonder the brand is a celeb fave. Set in some of the world’s most stunning natural locations, the chain aims to, in its own words, instill a “sense of peace and belonging amid some of the most diverse natural and historical landscapes.”
Spoiler alert, mama: Amanpulo (Aman is Sanskrit for “peace” and pulo is Tagalog for “island”) did not disappoint. We loved pretty much everything about it, from the incredible location, to the gorgeous beachfront villas, to the fantastic kids’ facilities and activities, to the outstanding staff. Here’s the thing: Amanpulo (like all the Amans) isn’t cheap. But is it worth it? Let’s just say that within an hour of arrival my husband and I both looked at each and blurted out, “When can we come back here?!”
It was a stay unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. Here’s why…
Following a 3-hour plane ride to Manila, you transfer at the Manila Airport to the private plane terminal. The resort sends someone to wait for you outside the baggage claim and whisks you down the road to its own private lounge. Because of the way the flight timings work out (there are two departures per day, at 1pm and 4pm), we ended up spending about two hours in the lounge, but they plied us with delicious snacks (everything from fresh fruit to homemade coconut shortbread cookies to chicken adobo rolls) throughout so that the time passed quite pleasantly. There’s also Wi-Fi and a good selection of books and magazines.
The private plane journey from Manila to Pamalican takes about one hour; the cost is US$490 roundtrip for adults, and US$295 for children (more than the flight from Singapore to Manila!). It was fascinating to see the landscape change from uber-crowded Manila, to lush and mountainous Mindoro, before crossing the cerulean sea and arriving at Pamalican. Upon landing, with a line of staff waiting to greet us with sweet-smelling jasmine garlands, not to mention a literal red carpet rolled out from the plane steps, it’s hard not to feel like you’re stepping onto Fantasy Island (not that I’m complaining!).
Overall I found the journey from Singapore to Amanpulo surprisingly seamless, and far less of a hassle than trips I’ve taken to Bali, for instance. I’ve not been to the Maldives, but also appreciate that there was no need to do an overnight stay due to limited departures.
Upon arrival, guests are ushered to their own private golf cart, which is how you get around the island (6.5km all the way around) during your stay. Our guest services coordinator took us on a driving tour of the island, pointing out highlights like the various beaches, restaurants, the resort’s extensive vegetable garden, the gym and spa, and the kids’ club along the way.
The island is crisscrossed by rustic dirt roads, lined with beautiful tropical flowers and lowslung, beachy trees and bushes, not to mention a fascinating array of birds and the occasional monitor lizard. Simply driving along these roads was quite fun because it had such a different feel than being in Singapore.
All accommodation is in standalone villas, called casitas. Most of them line the beach, although Hillside and Treetop Casitas are set further back and up the small hill, with more pronounced ocean views. There are also larger private villas that come with their own pool, butler and chef – these are great if you’re traveling as a family or with friends.
We stayed in a 68-square-metre Beach Casita, with a huge wooden deck that looked out onto the expansive white sand beach. The color palette is light woods and creams, all very neutral, but at once elegant and comfortable.
The main room had ample space for our King bed, a couch, and Maggie’s twin bed. The bathroom was nearly as large as the bedroom, with separate sinks and vanities, a soaking tub, a toilet area and a massive walk-in rain shower. Maggie even had her own perfectly sized mini-bathrobe!
Each evening while we were at dinner, the housekeeping staff not only did turndown service, but left a different local sweet treat on our beds along with a bit of background explanation. By far my favorite were Polvoróns, buttery soft shortbread cookies with chocolate bits that basically dissolve on your tongue. Heavenly! Maggie also got her fair share of stuffed cuddly creatures, which were of course a huge hit.
Two of my favorite features were the hammock set off our little beach path, and two lounge chairs with an umbrella set up on the beach. Although every casita has its own pair of chairs, we never saw any other guests so it basically felt like we had the massive beach all to ourselves. Each night after Maggie went to bed, we’d set our iPad up on the little table to watch movies, our toes in the sand and the waves softly lapping the shore. One night we watched the movie Moonlight under the moonlight! It was such a treat going to sleep and waking up to the sounds of the ocean practically at our doorstep.
Things to Do
If you’re not a beach person, Amanpulo may not be for you. I mean, there are plenty of other things to do – the world-class spa, multiple tennis courts, complimentary bikes, visit the island village across the bay (more on all these in a second) – but the beach is so incredible it would be a shame to not take advantage.
In my travels throughout Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Hawaii, I have never seen sand so soft, white and powdery. Simply walking along the beach was such a pleasure! (By the way, you can walk all the way around the island. My husband did it in a little over an hour). The crystalline water is shallow and calm – perfect for littlies. Honestly our only issue with the beach was how hot and bright the sun got at midday – even wearing sunglasses and a hat you still need to squint a bit.
Our daily highlight (and clearly a hit with all the other families staying at the resort) was the complimentary 10am boat cruise for fish feeding, snorkelling, and turtle viewing. The water sports staff takes you out on a double decker pontoon boat, making two stops along the way. First, kids get the opportunity to feed the giant fish that live amongst the beautiful coral just offshore – Maggie never got sick of this. The resort provides snorkelling gear, and we also had a bit of fun jumping off the top deck of the boat into the water.
Next you head a bit closer to shore to view the area’s magnificent Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles. They not only come up to the surface, but you once again get the opportunity to swim alongside them, which was incredible. If you’ve got a mini-reptile lover in your midst, mama, I’ve heard that turtle nesting season – usually around December to February – is particularly wonderful (imagine all those cute little baby sea turtles!).
You can do all other manner of watersports, too. We had a hilarious misadventure in a 3-person kayak, and I also tried my hand at stand-up paddleboarding (the tide made it easy to get out, and really tough to get back to shore!). We also did a sailing excursion (priced at PHP 3,500/~US$70 per hour), and noticed that windsurfing and kite surfing are also quite popular (the windy season lasts from December to March).
One afternoon I escaped to Aman Spa, which is perched above the treetops with stellar views of the island’s turquoise lagoon. Each spa pavilion – basically a villa unto itself with multiple rooms and an outdoor relaxation area – is made from native wood and seashell-lined ceilings. The spa uses local ingredients wherever possible, from herbs and flowers grown on-site to locally-harvested coconut oil. I can’t say I’m surprised that it was named Best Spa in the Philippines at the 2016 World Spa Awards!
Adjacent to the spa is the well-equipped gym, which also offers stunning views, along with two expert trainers who teach daily complimentary fitness classes and also do personal training sessions.
Our mornings filled with sun and sand, we usually chilled out in the afternoons. Maggie adored the kids’ club: with its own playground, a playhouse, heaps of arts and crafts supplies, a sizeable library and all sorts of other toys and games, it was basically the size of her preschool. Families are welcome to accompany their kids to play here, or you can drop them off for supervised babysitting (cost is about $10 an hour — kids 5 and up are welcome free of charge). Each day there are also additional free kids’ activities like pizza making, shell gathering and painting, and nature walks.
I haven’t even touched on the SCUBA Diving opportunities, but the resort is quite popular with divers, and even offers certification courses.
There are a number of reasons we want to go back, but high on the list is so that we can visit the nearby island of Manamoc, where much of the resort’s staff comes from. Tours are operated by the Andres Soriano Foundation (the Soriano family also owns Amanpulo); in addition to fascinating native Mangrove swamps, you can also see the school that was built with funds from resort guests, see how an authentic fishing village operates, and learn more about environmental and health initiatives in the region.
At an island resort there will always be concerns about having enough food options (not to mention costs), but we were all pleased with the variety of restaurants on offer. There’s a particular emphasis on serving fresh, locally caught seafood like grouper, crabs, sea urchin and lobster, and the resort also has its own vegetable garden with everything from pumpkin, to fresh herbs, to four varieties of tomatoes.
For breakfast we usually headed to The Clubhouse, which had every kind of Western option along with a number of yummy Filipino dishes to try as well. I was basically obsessed with their fresh juices and smoothies, which rival anything I’ve had from any of Singapore’s hundreds of juice companies.
My favourite lunch spot was The Beach Club, which serves up Mediterranean fare, like yummy salads, wraps and grilled seafood with all sorts of daily specials. The paella is a must at dinnertime – as are the sunset views. If you make arrangements in advance, you can also visit the offshore Kayawan Bar, which provides a unique drinking experience to say the least!
Perhaps our best meal of all was at the Japanese restaurant at the Lagoon Club, which has only recently opened. Serving a mix of fresh sushi and sashimi flown in from Japan alongside sashimi-style local seafood, it was truly outstanding.
Every restaurant features an extensive kids’ menu with both healthy options (grilled chicken, crudité veggies) and less healthy (but more popular) choices like fish fingers, pizza and hamburgers. Maggie was in heaven.
The resort also offers a variety of private dining options – with a sunset like theirs, it’s no surprise that this seems to be quite popular with guests. On our final night we took a sunset cruise along the coastline, and it made for a truly memorable capper to our trip. Besides the obviously stellar views, we also nibbled on delicious veggies, cheeses, fruits and dips, and enjoyed custom cocktails as well. As a special surprise, we were even serenaded by a particularly talented staff member on his guitar!
I was pleasantly surprised at just how kid-friendly Amanpulo was, to be honest, because when you think of high-end luxury, toddlers don’t necessarily come to mind. And yet, nearly all the guests we saw were families with multiple kids, and the aforementioned kids’ club was absolutely outstanding.
When we arrived, the resort had thoughtfully set up a crib in our casita, and put a stroller at our front door before arrival. When our guest services coordinator saw how big and active Maggie was, though, these were quickly whisked away while we were at dinner on our first night. Maggie also received a big basket of local toiletries like baby soap and body lotion, and they even provided diapers.
My sense is that Filipino people generally love babies and children – this was certainly our experience from the moment we landed in Manila (even the customs agents were smitten), and the resort was no exception. From the water sports staff, to restaurant servers, to the resort director, everyone knew Maggie’s name (before we’d even arrived) and welcomed her with open arms.
At the kid-friendly beach (calm, gentle waters with lots of little fish to look at!), the water sports staff plied us with beach toys for sandcastle building (good to know, as I’d schlepped some of our own!). There’s also a big swimming pool with floats, though we never made use of it.
If you’re traveling with older kids, the Clubhouse has a sizeable DVD library and lots of board games. As aforementioned there are plenty of kid-friendly dining options, too.
Is it worth the price?
After I posted a few of my photos on Facebook, no less than three friends messaged me to say, “This looks incredible! Can you get me a good rate?”
Sorry guys, I don’t have pull like that. Prices at Amanpulo start from US$1,100 per night (for a Treetop Casita, from June through November), and that’s before you factor in taxes and the private plane fare from Manila. So basically, it’s about on par with The Maldives, though I think there are a few advantages here: for one, it’s closer to Singapore and slightly easier to get to. There’s a lot more than just the beach; the island has hiking/walking trails, and the thriving culture of the village on nearby Manamoc. And I get the sense that food is more affordable (usually about US$20-$25 for a main), with more extensive options.
I’ve had the pleasure of staying at many luxury resorts across Asia, and can honestly say this was the best overall experience we’ve ever had. The outstanding staff and amazing facilities, the feeling that you practically have the beach and the island all to yourself, not to mention the gorgeous beach and incomparable sunsets, all contributed to this.
Amanpulo is worth the splurge. It’s the perfect place for a special celebration, or a family get-together. Or a place to get away if you simply want to treat yourself and leave all your worries behind on the mainland.
When to go: The dry, breezy season runs from November through March; April to June is hot and dry; late June through October is the monsoon season, although staff told me this isn’t so much constant rain as a predictable daily afternoon shower (sort of like what we have in Singapore).