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Why you should holiday in this remote rainforest fishing village

Deep in the Palawan rainforest, the sleepy fishing town of El Nido is stirring anew with designer accommodation, lively cafes, bars, diving, snorkelling, banca cruises to white-sand beaches. A fun guide with resort reviews and best beach tips.

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written and photographed by Vijay Verghese

April 2024

SEE ALSO Cebu resorts and Bohol romance | Manila fun guide | Boracay | Manila business hotels | Phuket fun guide | Bali resorts review | Sanya | Asian resort weddings | Vietnam resorts | Maldives resorts review | Mergui island guide | HK Yuen Long coffee, cafes

El Nido fun guide to beaches and hotels - the bay at dawn

Dawn breaks over El Nido Bay as the golden first light hits the linestone karsts and catamarans bobbing on the sea. As the tide goes out, the rocks and algea are revealed. At regular intervals, the townspeople come out to carry out huge garbage clean-ups/ photos: Vijay Verghese

JUMP TO El Nido Town | Corong Corong, Maremegmeg, Vanilla Beach | Lio and Nacpan Beaches |

THE AirSWIFT ATR 72-600 twin prop Pratt & Whitney engines roared to life with a satisfying snarl and in an instant we had turned, sped down the runway and lifted off. Such is the way of small planes. It reminded me of my first Fokker F27 flights as a kid. This aircraft had a similar sprightly gait. No lumbering about like an A380. And it had space —single aisle in a 2-2 seating configuration for around 70 passengers. Before we could say “Mabuhay” we were climbing and banking sharply over Laguna de Bay just south of Manila and then speeding past Lubang Island.

I had not eaten in a while. Manila’s domestic Terminal 4 — an inspiration for dieters — had rice with gloop, over-fried chicken, and dried out pizza. Another option was the Christian Trading Store for souvenirs — and possibly, miracles. My spirits rose as we neared our destination. There would be FOOD here.

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Then we were skimming the seas above Busuanga and Coron to land at El Nido’s Lio Airport an hour-and-a-half later. It was over in a flash with the immaculate Rochelle quick-stepping up and down the aisle attending to the few needs that arose.

It is hard to imagine this area is so remote. Lubang Island became famous for the exploits of Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda. Unaware the war had ended, he waged a prickly private campaign there till 1974 — annoying the villagers no end as their cows disappeared to end up teppanyaki fodder. Onoda’s Quixotic adventures are chronicled in his book, No Surrender – My Thirty Year War. Now the Japanese have returned, as tourists this time.

The first time I flew to El Nido it was on a tiny aircraft. Passengers were weighed along with their luggage much to the consternation of blushing ladies. This entertaining Candid Camera ritual was abandoned with the advent of sturdier aircraft. AirSWIFT permits smaller cabin baggage (no large wheelies) 7kg to 10kg depending on fare, and check-in bags are strictly capped at 30kg. Just north of El Nido town, the upgraded and uncomplicated Lio Airport is a breeze, a 15-minute drive from town. Most hotels will arrange pick-ups and motorised tricycles (gloriously refashioned motorbikes) are aplenty.

El Nido transport and bars - AirSwift prepares for departure from Lio Airport

Tree House Beach Club (far left) at the beginning of El Nido Town's characterful beach; Tricycle roars down street; Kids out strolling; AirSwift preparing for an early morning getaway from the small and very pleasant Lio Airport just a 15-minute drive from the town / photos: Vijay Verghese

West-facing El Nido lies at the northern end of the long slanting sliver of Palawan Island that juts into the South China Sea. It is smaller, friendlier, and far less crowded than Phuket with very little of the arm-tugging vendor hassle of Bali. Shopkeepers are happy to talk and genuine smiles abound. It is easy to strike up conversations and get to know people here in a short span of time.

There are lots of ‘tuk-tuks’ (as some tourist prefer to call these three-wheelers), parked at tourist spots or cruising around. Within El Nido Town the fare is usually P100 (US$1.70). The entire El Nido area is pretty safe and women wander about quite relaxed. The fare is P150 one way to Maremegmeg Beach 15-minutes to the south and about P1,200 for the 45-minute ride to Nacpan Beach in the north (the bike driver might expect to wait and bring you back or return empty). Motorbikes can be rented at P500 a day with a full tank of petrol that you would need to refill upon return. Car rentals are expensive and can run to P4,500 a day.

Puerto Princesa, the main city on Palawan, is a five hour drive to the south. Several secluded island hideaways from El Nido Resorts (elnidoresorts.com/) are a catamaran hop from town. See more in our earlier Palawan resorts review.

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El Nido Town beds, bars, Papaya Beach

I was dropped off at The Funny Lion El Nido (www.thefunnylion.com/el-nido-home). This unfussy dark-wood designer retreat is set just off the northern end of the beach (the more upscale gentrified side) near the Town Centre with its souvenir shops, restaurants and two sea-fronting bars with chest-pounding music of an evening. The resort is a three-storey construct in two neat rows with steps up to breezy open-sided corridors and rooms all facing a long lap pool set in between. The narrow swimming pool offers a Jacuzzi at one end with sun loungers and runs along the length of the open-plan Hunt restaurant that faces it. It is a good stretch for a workout but a tad cool as it does not catch much sun. Hunt does all day dining and breakfasts (with an aircon space too) and rustles up a Friday evening grill buffet.

Just across the road is an emerging activity and chill-out block with the relaxing Sea Tree Spa, a gym, planned coffeeshop and bakery at street level and an option of romantic private dinners atop the bay-facing roof. Nilo Quizon the quietly energetic resort manager tasked with running the place walks me up to peruse the refreshing dawn view as the gold light hits the limestone karsts cropping out of the sea and lighting up the blue and white fishing boats and catamarans bobbing on the water. It offers an immediate perspective on the location. Nilo takes his team jogging at first light, enjoys archery, and appears more comfortable doing push-ups but his quiet demeanour has a way with visitors and staff (who all ‘roar’ greetings to guests by name startling many, if pleasantly so).

The Funny Lion El Nido review - a top address for unfussy getaways with a smile

Nilo Quizon (left), the affable resort manager at The Funny Lion El Nido atop the spa roof; Funny Lion central lap pool; Funny Lion balcony rooms face the pool courtyard; Beaming smiles greet you everywhere at Funny Lion inspired by receptionist Valerie (far right)/ photos: Vijay Verghese 

Val the receptionist has a prodigious memory and bigger smile and is all efficient concentration as she sorts out guest itineraries, never dropping a beat. The incandescent grins and barrage of warm greetings more than make up for the absence of a sea view from most rooms, which instead, serve up decent balconies overlooking the pool, some catching the sun and perfect for drying out soggy beachwear.  

At first glance the rooms may appear dark but throw open the curtains and presto! Think wooden floors, a deep green headwall with reading lights, a small desk tucked into the corner next to the balcony, open clothes hangers, a small minibar with complimentary refreshments, large bottles of purified water, stylish slender-spout electric kettle, percolator, large mirrors, toiletries (including toothbrush and toothpaste), small soap packets and hair-and-body wash in the spacious rain shower cubicle. The bed is comfy with fluffed up pillows and a sturdy little hairdryer is affixed to the wall. Plug points are two and three-pin. And there is cable TV with Internet options, but sans CNN. It’s time to switch off the outside world and get into El Nido mode.

Rooms set away from the road would be a preferred choice at this popular informal resort where you’ll awake to rooster calls rather than revving motorbikes. The southern end of the beach is where the noisy parties are. 

Papaya Beach, a private white sand cove for Funny Lion guests is a 12-to-15-minute banca (catamaran) chug from the Barangay Corong Corong jetty (a few minutes south from El Nido town). We await our turn as other tours line up. David John from Traveland Tours is arranging our boat and soon we are aboard, bright orange life vests donned, skimming the turquoise waters as we glide past soaring hills and hidden beaches.

The couple sitting across from me is from Lithuania. How on earth did they find El Nido? “Oh this place is No.1 in Lithuania,” they inform me. They flew via Beijing and Manila. Other European guests from Greece and Germany flew in via Doha. Americans take the transpacific route. I’m the only one from Hong Kong. The city has apparently not yet recovered from the shock of the August 2010 bus hijacking in Manila where 20 Hongkongers were held hostage by a disgruntled police officer. In the shootout after a 10-hour standoff, eight hostages lost their lives.

El Nido resorts review and best beaches, leaving Corong Corong for Papaya Beach and a moment for jest at Funny Lion

(Far left) Corong Corong jetty in the shadow of the karst formations; Blue banca approaches the pristine strip of Papaya Beach (centre left); Funny Lion Lithuanian couple explain their journey via Beijing and manila; Richard and Vanessa (far right) from Munich share a funny tale at the Funny Lion Friday evening grill/ photos: Vijay Verghese

(At The Funny Lion grill that evening, Richard — an Amazon marketing workhorse with a droll sense of humour — and his partner since schooldays, Vanessa — a private plane charterer — both from Munich, agreed the place was an obvious choice. They were clearly enjoying the Philippines, having done Boracay already and planning for Coron after this. Two Greek ladies playing Jenga at the hotel café said El Nido had been recommended strongly by friends. They moved to The Funny Lion after being disturbed by the incessant racket at a beach hotel earlier.)

With the jetty disappearing behind us, we round the promontory and Papaya Beach is a breathtaking sight, serene, clean and virginal white. A short distance away there is a cluster of boats at the more crowded Seven Commandos beach. I ask Nilo if he is the secret eighth commando. He giggles. Papaya Beach has nipa huts set in the shaded coconut grove for hotel guests and spa services too along with snacks. It is a romantic idyll and I’m told the question has been popped here a few times. A few bancas sail into Papaya Beach (paying a small fee that goes into conservation) but these trippers cannot avail of Funny Lion’s private facilities. After a few quick photos I splash back onto the boat and it’s back to the hotel to change and explore as the sun starts beating down in earnest.

Right across the road from The Funny Lion is the older El Nido Garden Resort (elnidogardenresortph.com/). It is a friendly and traditional hotel, about two years old, though the attractive sea-fronting cabanas, garden area and pool have been around about 10 years. There are great views across the bay from the pool. Some higher floor rooms have scenic views. Right behind this is the Marianne Suites El Nido (mariannesuiteselnido.com.ph/) running at about P3,900 a night for newer but plain wood-floor air-conditioned rooms. It also offers a Korean barbecue. And set a little farther back is the small Barco Hotel El Nido, a more compact atrium style hotel that opened in December 2023.

Just before the Town Centre’s pick-up and drop-off spot just outside the cheery Walang Problema clothing and souvenir shop a road forks left running parallel to the sea but not fronting it. There is no beach promenade. The road runs south to the El Nido Jetty about a 15-minute leisurely stroll taking in the beach stalls, souvenir shops, beer kiosks, seafood restaurants and coffee shops. You’ll pass jeepney tour companies, the delightful Food Truck café (Asian fusion) and Gusto Gelato for ice-cream.

Pop into the Midtown Bakery, a popular spot with visitors and locals alike. A couple of other parallel streets run down the length of El Nido Town and that’s it, plain and simple. Tricycles cruise, motorbikes putter but most people prefer to walk. You can also get to the jetty from the Town Centre by donning your flip-flops and turning left at the Tree House Beach Club with its large pink heart opposite the Ap Kala club and bar, and walking along the shoreline. At low tide there is a broad stretch of moist compact sand that’s easier to walk on.

El Nido food and shopping guide

Cheerful staff at Walang Problema (No Problems) souvenir store at the Town Centre (far left); Food Truck fusion eats are pretty decent; Midtown Bakery pulls in regular crowds, many attracted by the aromas; Jeepney tour gets ready with a little hammering (far right)/ photos: Vijay Verghese

At the far southern end near the jetty on the inner road is the El Nido Boutique Art Café (elnidoboutiqueandartcafe.com/), a two-storey restaurant, travel boutique store, and travel and scuba diving centre. This is on the inner road and does decent breakfasts, pizzas and pasta. There’s also a tiny basic sundowner shack right on the beach). I get myself a cold Coke (not that I’m a fan of carbonated fizzy drinks) to politely park myself on a bar stool facing the murmuring surf. It has been a long afternoon’s trudge. A lady sipping a cocktail turns to me and asks if she might use the toilet, then blushes. “Oh sorry, I thought you were the waiter.” We both laugh and I wave towards the main café across the road with exaggerated courtesy.

The animated Bianca — a fellow hypochondriac — from California, is here with her husband, giving the hair colouring business a break. As it turns out, they’re staying at The Funny Lion too. We regale each other with stories and walk back, stopping on the way to wander up to the sixth floor of the drab black cinderblock H Hotel (hhotelelnido.com/) where its breezy open-sided Piece of Sky bar-lounge throws up magnificent bay vistas and close-up views of the soaring limestone cliffs. This is an almost 360-degree belvedere with chillout music, a saxophonist and DJ of an evening and large comfy sofa seating with romantic tables for couples along the rim. Fabulous. The sun sets behind a high rock formation but the setting is captivating while the light lasts. There’s not much to see after dark. It is a place for “I dos”. The rest of the hotel is tastefully designed and there is a vegan restaurant on the ground floor. A nice find in the heart of the action — despite the unenticing exterior — at around P12,000 a night.

Also set inland, Cuna El Nido (elnido.cunahotels.com/) has pleasant rooms and a small pool on a high-floor lounge deck that manages to sneak in a decent bay view. A compact Standard Queen starts at P5,000. There are larger triple rooms too.

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Corong Corong, Maremegmeg, Vanilla Beach

On the 15-minute drive south to the sunset party beach of Maremegmeg you’ll pass the all-white hotel-style Lime Resort El Nido (lime.ph/) with its picture-postcard swimming pool jutting out over the bay. White pastel rooms are bright with paintings and bed runners in, yes, lime and blue. Expect theme parties, plenty of action, and a spa. Panorama Resort El Nido Beach Club (panorama-resort-elnido.sys-rsrv.com/) is a twin either-side of the highway option with an older beach area and newer accommodation up the hill.

Also along this road near the southern end of the Corong Corong strip (and its jetty) is the charmingly rustic Frangipani El Nido (frangipanielnido.com/) with simple pastel rooms offering cement floors, minimalist furnishings and a small beachfront pool. Expect prices in the range of P11,000. La Plage (laplage-elnido.com/) is a thatch-roof restaurant and beach club cum resort with eight rooms and a pool. Tuck into French fusion with Asian twists. Expect artsy timber rooms with a rustic feel, hammocks, nipa touches and painted walls.

El Nido guide to bars and fun cafes - H Hotel rooftop perch (centre) and Art Cafe (right)

Lime Resort's showcase bay-view pool (far left); The view from the classy H Hotel rooftop bar with live music and a DJ; Bianca from Los Angeles sips a sundowner beer at the El Nido Boutique Art Cafe overlooking the town's lazy beach as bancas come and go/ photos: Vijay Verghese

A little up the hill, Glamping at Karuna El Nido (glampingatkarunaelnido.com/) serves up stunning views and quirky stays. Pick from uber-chic The Designer GlassHaus, The Jungle Lodge, The Glass Pyramid , The Cocoon, or eye-catching all-blue The Gingerbread Cottage (in El Nido town, just off the beach). Colourful hidden villas and small cottages abound in this area like the creative and artsy Happiness Boutique Villas El Nido.

Farther down the road is the El Nido Bayview Resort set on a hillside away from the beach. It has a this-could-be-anywhere look but serves up a decent pool with embedded fairy lights that offer a spacey touch for evening revelry after a panoramic sunset. Lots of steps up and down the white villa blocks with their dark wood floors.

You know you’re nearing the Maremegmeg Beach drop-off point of the grandiosely-termed Shoppes at Vanilla Beach, announced by the golden arches of McDonald’s on the main highway. The ‘shoppes’ comprise tiny concrete souvenir shacks, quirky coffee shops, massage places, showrooms, and one huge gym cranking out chest-thumping music, all enroute to the beach. The Lazy Hammock Café is a nice stop with its suspended netting chairs and coffees. Closer to the beach is the friendly Hayahay café with decent food (noodles, salads, grills) and co-working space offering 24-hour WiFi at P350. One hour WiFi is free for diners. Along the way spas beckon and massage ladies beam. One hairstylist offers me 24 kinds of haircuts with illustrations to pick from. I point to my three hairs and walk on.

The beach itself arcs southwards, offering terrific sunset views best enjoyed at the southern end beyond Las Cabanas Beach Resort (www.facebook.com/lascabanasresort/) with its lazy hammocks, beach pool and relaxed vibes. The whole sandy stretch is a brief 10 minute stroll dotted with bars, beachfront lounges (many attached to small hotels). Shade trees run along most of its length. Halfway down, Mua Tala (muatala.com/) offers 30sq m to 50sq m air-conditioned rooms, nicely appointed and with modern bathrooms and lazy ceiling wooden paddle fans. Prices here can go up to P17,500 as you head up the hill.

Best El Nido sunsets at Maremegmeg Beach from the club or farther south at Las Cabanas

Dog snoozes peacefully on Vanilla Beach, the north end of Maremegmeg Beach; Lazy hammock at Las Cabanas resort; Classy bedroom at the excellent Maremegmeg Beach Club (right) and its happening beach bar that starts hopping by 5pm for the sunset countdown/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Right after this is the very happening and swank 12-key Maremegmeg Beach Club (mbcelnido.com/), a hugely popular haunt for young Millennials and others with ripped bodies and deep tans. The beach bar springs to life about 5pm as people gather for a post-tan sundowner. The place can get pretty busy. Maremegmeg Beach Club offers very tasteful rooms set on the hill above a nice beach-facing pool. Rooms run from P17,000-P20,000 a night and another 32 rooms will be available by early 2025 near a small new events area for meetings and product unveilings.

The sea-facing 56sq m rooms come with balconies (with comfy half-loungers), aircon and ceiling fans, and one small and energetic antique copper-blade whirrer. Expect Nespresso coffee, water purifier, large flat screen television (with CNN), and a large bamboo-frame wall-leaning mirror for show-offs. Bathrooms are tropical in design with a log-seat in the rain shower. This is a plastics-free hotel and the toothbrush is made from bamboo. The hotel has access from the back to the highway too.

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North to Lio and Nacpan Beach

Heading north from El Nido town, the airport and the beckoning swathe of Lio Beach (with its kiosks and restaurants) are a 15-minute drive. There are a few rooming choices in this general area — Lihim, a swish villa resort with great attention to detail, the 153-room Seda Lio (www.sedahotels.com), a sprawling and neat but faceless convention/leisure-group hotel with indifferent service, and the smart and friendly beachfront Huni Lio (www.facebook.com).

Lihim (lihim.com/), draped over a hill with great views from atop (where its signature Henri’s restaurant serves steaks with fabulous vistas) is easily the pick of this bunch. Lihim can be accessed at high tide by boat. Most times though it requires a stomach churning four-wheel-drive up the hill from the rear, past Henri’s, and then dropping down past villas, tennis courts, and hoop-practise basketball courts to the breezy sea-front Gana poolside restaurant and bar where I stopped for tea as steaming breakfasts were served to entranced ocean gazing couples.

At low tide the sea recedes dramatically, grounding the pontoon jetty and revealing the underlying rock, mud, and seaweed. It is a dramatic rainforest landscape that sparks to life with the first dawn rays, and gets better and better as you ride up a vertiginous funicular past spacious villas (like Nacpan, with twin vanities, soaking tub, rowing machine, sauna, terrace and dipping pool) to the scenic drop-off and the President’s Villa.

Best El Nido resorts review and guide, Lihim is a hideaway above Lio town

Jeffrey Miranda, GM at Lihim Resort (far left) has his work cut out chasing up and down the hill; Tasteful cottages are accessed by a vertiginous funicular with a spectacular view at the ttop rivalled only by Henri's the hilltop restaurant at this secluded hideaway/ photos: Vijay Verghese

The thatched-roof President’s Villa is a large single octagonal room with massage chair, exercisers, plunge pool and telescope. There’s an airconditioned toilet with tissue playfully dispensed through the nose of an Easter Island statue. Floors are of dark wood and a carpet runs by the bed. The roomy balcony is a wraparound dark-wood construct. Expect some time for the toing and froing at Lihim as almost all expeditions will be vertical and involve patient waits for the funicular.

Jeffrey Miranda the ruddy-faced General Manager, smiles when I ask about funicular breakdowns. “Yes, it’s challenging,” he chuckles, “but we have five four-wheel-drive cars to ferry guests and luggage around.” The resort is also “pet friendly,” he continues, “and caters for kids, couples and even small seminars.” A rainforest seminar? We’ll take it. My muscle car grinds up the narrow road then down the dirt track to where my transport is parked.

Isolated Nacpan Beach is an unpopulated powder-white stretch of sand that runs along the northern tip of the island, about 45 minutes from El Nido on reasonable roads with a few rougher patches closer to the beach. My car driver took the double yellow road divider lines as a personal challenge — a common sport it seems — and slalomed most of the way to Nacpan as I vainly counselled restraint.

The road, some of it still under construction, eventually hits the coast (not far from Twin Beach) and veers right past bucolic cow pastures and small huts and rows of boats lining the crest of the beach. Nacpan has a few kiosks, paid toilets, and massage offerings where the masseuses appear to be asleep. Near the middle of the white sand beach are the hard-to-miss red umbrellas of the smart Sunmai restaurant and bar that serves sandwiches, pasta, tempura, and time honoured adobo. This makes for a decent pit stop if the sun gets overwhelming.

And right behind are Nacpan Beach Glamping (nacpanbeachglamping.com/) with a winter peak season rate of P15,000 for a plush double queen-bed airconditioned tent (up to a maximum of four persons), and the angular structure of the 25-room Nacpan Beach Resort (nacpanbeachresort.com/) where rooms are a less pinching P10,000-12,000. There is a pool and a concierge to point you in the right direction. These are all sister companies. At the glamping outfit with its nine canvas hideaways (and nine more due), every set of three tents shares one toilet and shower facility.

The main draw at Nacpan Beach is the unspoilt nature of the area. Spot a few rotund florid Russians, a few Filipino city slickers surfing on baby waves, and not much else.

Best El Nido beaches - Nacpan is our pick in the far north with its clean white sand

Nacpan Beach in the far north - a 45-minute drive from El Nido Town - is a gorgeous expanse of white sand with few people and less fuss (far right); Lady gets a tan at Maremegmeg Beach (centre); And Sunmai Restaurant starts setting up on Nacpan with a breezy menu and smart interiors/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Then it is time to return to Hong Kong with an eight-hour transit in Manila. I have enjoyed my dart through the jungle coves and emerald waters but there is an elephant in the room. The local cuisine does not have a great deal to fire the imagination. Back in El Nido town, the Ashoka restaurant’s grumpy manager informs me, even his Indian food is “not spicy”. I hastily retreat. I am saved by my old friend spaghetti Bolognese and, fortunately, The Funny Lion has some great takes on this staple.

First thing when we land in Manila I head like a rescue dog as fast as my taxi will take me to Raffles Makati and its elegant Mireio restaurant for some Eggs Benedict followed by kebabs at the Persian Hosseini’s an old favourite since its P Burgos beginnings and now at Greenbelt 3 in refreshing surrounds. Ah, civilisation! But I am already missing those blazing smiles.

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