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The Philippines, part two… The Islands, A Magical Tropical Wedding


The Island of Bohol

As I write this second Philippines post, I’m so pleased that part one made you feel as if you were along with us on this journey. As for this long read and the copious photos, well, there’s just so much to share! In fact it was always the intention that this ‘destination wedding’ wasn’t only about the wedding, but also an adventure shared by two families… and it so very much was.

Before we rendezvous with the Pacis gang, the Wilsons celebrate New Years; a new ‘best exotic family revelry’ to add to the previous one in India. That New Year’s Eve, our train from Agra had been eight hours late and we rolled into our Delhi hotel just in time to get the party started. Now, we’ll ring in 2023 on the island of Bohol. A flight from Manila to Cebu, a fast ferry and we’re deposited on the country’s tenth largest island. Seventy smaller islands comprise Bohol province but we need only to cross a causeway from the main island to our destination, Panglao, with the Bohol Sea our playground.

The name Bohol derives from a tree that was once abundant on theses islands and today it is still rich in flora and fauna, and especially marine biodiversity. It’s also home to a range of curious uplifted limestone cones, the Chocolate Hills and to the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier monkey. Sadly we don’t see either, but instead stay fairly close to the resort and Panglao town. It’s rainy and still a little cool, yet thankfully the weather cooperates for a guided boat tour which includes snorkelling.

As we approach a small inlet, bangkas jostle for a parking spot as their green and blue hulls sparkle against the dreamy turquoise water. And praise-be, the sun is finally brilliant! The beach is lined with simple family owned establishments – cafes and rentals of snorkelling gear offered all in one. There’s no shortage of dogs lazing about and bangka crews chatting over morning coffee. Our bangka-captain has directed us towards a particular business, it’s seemingly an all family-affair, making the tourism-based economy go around. After coffee and with snorkelling gear chosen, we meander to a cove that we enjoy to ourselves. We’ve loved snorkelling since our days living in the Middle East and the marine life here is as spectacular as anywhere… vibrant coral, clownfish, lion fish and starfish in rainbow hues. As the sun sparkles on the water, I feel rapturously happy; privileged to be a part of this wondrous underwater world.

The Philippines is considered to be in the top eight countries in the world to snorkel with substantial coral reefs and more than 3000 species of fish. And of course it’s also a premier archipelago for diving. Between here and our next island destination, most of the gang dives and they return exuberant with tales of a seabed festooned with coral; fan-shaped, brain-shaped and everything in between, creating exotic habitats for turtles and fish of every stripe and hue.

Our resort on this island is along a few back streets from the main street of Panglao. It’s pleasant, though we regret that it isn’t situated along the beach itself. Alona Beach is a lively stretch of beautiful white sand, bars, restaurants and towering palm trees… all enchanting in their either straight, crooked or leaning statures. And I’m besotted with them. Perhaps palm trees signify those tropical countries that I came to love, from the date palm groves of Oman to the ubiquitous palm-fringed villages and cities of India. If there’s one palm that I adore, it’s the travellers palm. Our resort, The Scent of The Green Papaya, happens to have a few of them anchoring and beautifying the pool area. They’re simply a perfect backdrop for our swims and poolside chats.

The traveller’s palm or traveller’s tree is iconic, impossibly uniform and tall. In reality it’s a member of the family Strelitziaceaea, plants that include the flamboyant bird-of-paradise flower… so technically not a true palm at all. Its scientific name is Ravenala, meaning ‘forest leaves’ and indeed the leaves are enormous and paddle-shaped, fanning out in perfect symmetry, each as much as 11 metres in length. There are a number of theories as to why it’s referred to as traveller’s palm. It’s said that the arc of its foliage always faces a certain direction in response to sunlight. Unfortunately in the many countries I’ve admired them, I haven’t noted their compass orientation! Perhaps the more practical answer for their name is down to the rain that’s channelled into the interlocking U-shaped leaves, collecting in the centre of the tree that might have offered water to thirsty travellers. Just as much as I adore flowers, I find myself pausing to admire and touch palms whenever I get the chance.

And so we celebrate New Years in Panglao; a wonderful dinner, then a boisterous welcome of 2023 with other revellers on a rooftop bar. There’s a crazy machine blowing foam that mimics the snow we left behind in Canada, the locals taking turns to wade in and out with delight. A DJ spins the night alive and our plans to celebrate on the beach fade with each great dance tune. We stay put and at midnight, our vantage point is brilliant as fireworks cascade out over the island to the Bohol Sea. It’s a beautiful night to round out a pleasant stay on Bohol. On reflection though, we all agree that perhaps we should have trimmed our travelling ambitions and ventured to only two islands instead of three. If you’re planing a trip, be mindful of how much time you have and consider how many travel days your itinerary requires. Of course this applies to any destination, but especially when you’re island hopping. Even so, we’re delighted to have experienced something of the central Philippines. But now we’re off to the ‘wedding island’!

The Island of Palawan

As we board the flight from Cebu to Palawan Island, Luke and Trixie’s smiles are wide with anticipation…. they’re off to get married, and in a place they know will charm us all. They happen to have been on the island previously, not long after they started dating, and they promise that the resort they’ve chosen is ‘rather sublime’. The Pacis family has already arrived in El Nido Town and this evening we’re planning a night out, followed by an early morning transfer by van, bangka and speed boat to the resort. I’ve never been so thankful to be only travelling with a carry-on. Full disclosure though, there might just be a few things stored in left luggage back at the Manila Airport!

It’s a dramatic arrival as our AirSWIFT flight descends into El Nido Airport. We skim through the clouds past a breathtaking seascape of sugarloaf islands and shadowy limestone cliffs rising precipitously from the sea. Formed 250 million years ago, they’re surreal and haunting, and oh so dramatic. The plane touches down mere metres from the beach, wheels abruptly contacting the short runway, the kind of landing that makes you want to applaud as you suspect it’s not the easiest of descents. Cradled amongst the lush tropical jungle, the small airport is charming and an acquaintance of Joey’s from a previous visit greets us. The ‘Welcome Back’ sign is a special touch from El Nido Island Tours.

We arrive at our Inn for the evening, it’s a joyous reunion for the eleven of us. There’s immediate chatter as the guys discuss and deconstruct the dramatic plane landings. Joey and I toast with a margarita, ‘To the mothers!’ Ayla and Marga present the bride-to-be with a tropical shirt with none other than the bridegroom emblazened upon it. Very appropro with the bucket hats – the stagette look is complete!

True to what we’ve encountered on other islands, Palawan has yet another unique version of the motorized tricycle. These ones seat three, so the guys head off in one direction, girls in another, and it’s a fun ‘stag evening’ two days before the wedding. Bar-hopping along El Nido’s lively streets, we meet up later in an open air bar on the beach. Laser lights play upon a boat wreck by the shore, now somewhat of a novelty, yet a sad reminder of the most recent tropical typhoon. On Dec. 17, 2021, Typhoon Rai hit Palawan causing severe damage and loss of life. As I admire the Palm trees decorating one of the walls (hey, I live in a pine forest) I’m mindful of how fortunate we are to be here and contributing just that little bit to the post-pandemic recovery. I gaze outwards the sea and notice the shimmering, beguiling moon… it’s going to be a full moon wedding!

El Nido Resort on Lagen Island

As our bangka cruises towards Lagen Island, one of four El Nido Resorts, we’re mesmerized. We’re only about 420 kilometres south-west from Manila, almost at the northernmost tip of the main island of Palawan and yet it feels almost otherworldly. Now up close, the towering limestone cliffs are majestic and the water impossibly clear and blue. We’ve travelled for a good hour or so from El Nido Town, so there’s a feeling of being entirely tucked away on a treasured place on earth. Yet we’re not quite alone as I watch swiftlets darting in and out of the cliffs. In fact El Nido, means ‘the nest’ in Spanish and as a frequent visitor to nearby Malaysia, how I know the story of swiftlets!

Chinese traders have been visiting this area since the 900’s to gather the edible-nests created by the saliva of swiftlets. Known as the ‘Caviar of the East’ Birds Nest Soup is extremely rare, coveted and expensive. Yes, the main ingredient is the nest of a swiftlet and one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. No, I’ve never tried it, but I may have collected a prized soup bowl or two. Yet I haven’t seen a natural swiftlet habitat this close up – the ‘swiftlet-houses’ in Penang are another story!

We’re assigned a resort ‘water butler’ now with us for the next four days, and he’s a character. Lover – yes his name, in that endearing Filipino nickname tradition – tells us about the inner caves within the cliffs, noting that ‘cultivation’ of the nests has reverted to a system of traditional ownership from some manner of centralised control. Despite this, poaching is an ongoing problem and ascending up internal crevices to collect nests is a dangerous occupation. Still about 100,000 nests are exported annually, mostly to the Chinese markets throughout southeast Asia.

We know we’ve arrived as one of our bangka-guys, pole in hand, climbs to the prow of the boat to guide us onto the transfer boat that will take us into the lagoon. Before us, nestled amongst the cliffs are two strands of pearl-white villas perched on stilts above the water, curving around the small bay on either side of the restaurant, bar and pool area. As we make our way from the dock pavilion past a string of villas ringing the long, long pier, we hear the sound of drums, guitar and singing. A woven necklace is proffered to each as we’re greeted with a lively song… it’s a thrilling welcome and emotional first impression!

We’ve arrived two days before the wedding and it is instant bliss. All of it! Our gorgeous villas with the exquisite views, playful monkeys amongst the verdant jungle behind. Jaunts to snorkel and paddle in pristine waters, swimming through fish shoals, watching turtles go their solitary ways. And the dining is superb, three times a day we are beyond spoiled, and it transpires that here as well, we’re entertained as we dine in the evenings. Much to the delight of the other guests, Joey joins with one of the talented staff members, Mike, and as always she’s gracious with her adoring fans. These are lovely evenings wrapped in music, long dinners and seeing the ‘kids’ connect as one family.

We’re all incredibly calm as the wedding day arrives. As most everyone heads out for a morning snorkel, even the bride and groom, I stay behind and refine my dinner speech. From my perch on the dining room terrace, I watch as the hard-working resort crew load up bangkas with all that a beach wedding entails. Back and forth they ferry and they’d later proclaim, “This was the happiest wedding we’ve seen in twelve years!” And so it was!

The chosen spot is just around the cliffs, at Cove 2 and after the traditional ‘first look’ at the resort we are jetted off about 4 pm. Stepping out onto the sable sands, we see the transformation of a ‘merely’ beautiful beach to a magical tropical wedding venue. The backdrop is a palm-fringed cliff, framed by sand and lapping water just a few metres away. The aisle and altar are adorned with palm leaves and burnt-orange birds of paradise, creating an al fresco chapel. The simple benches provide seating for just the eight of us, Bruce is officiating, and yet it feels like the eleven of us and this magical backdrop is all we need for the joyous union of Luke and Trixie. And it felt fitting that we’re mostly barefoot, feeling the sand between our toes, a simple connection to this place on this special day.

The bride and groom profess the most beautiful of hand written vows, and a hand-fasting ceremony seals their union. We pop champagne, we toast, hug and revel in the moment. We pose for official photos and also take photos on the beach, unable to resist feeling the water, making it our own. Lover now becomes our unofficial ‘official’ photographer, just one example of how tremendously we’re catered and cared for.

And then it begins… the heavens open and the rain comes down – showering us with its blessing, we say. We run, laughing, gathering up our things and head for cover. The beautiful dinner setting is rescued. The rain starts and stops, holding off long enough for dinner and the slideshow presentation about two kids who grew up thousands of miles apart and somehow through a near impossible stroke of karma ended up in each others lives. We then just let it rain that warm tropical rain, each of us wordlessly, agreeing to revel in the moment; extracting joy and delight from the experience of this improbable scene. Speeches ensued, a serenade or two by Joey, laughter and blessings for these two kindred souls who have built a charmed life together.

We dance, we sing, we party and then much to my absolute joy, the clouds part and that full moon graces us with its presence. And at some point, late in the evening, we just might have taken a swim in those warm tropical waters… just moon-beams, magic and love on a remote tropical island!