When my son chose Palawan for his 8-year-old trip with me, I was excited. It looks amazing in photos – turquoise waters with islands everywhere and beaches surrounded by palm trees. Plus I had never been to the Philippines. I didn’t want to take him out of school for more than a day or two, so we planned the trip over Christmas break, departing December 26th.
I’m fiercely loyal to United and the Star Alliance since loyalty pays off in the form of upgrades and free tickets using miles. There were no non-stops to Manila from California on Star Alliance carriers, however, and the closest we could get on United looked to be Hong Kong or Taipei. So I played with dozens of different possible itineraries. My criteria were 1) good prices; 2) decent flight routing; 3) the opportunity for upgrades on overnight flights; and 4) cool destinations for an 8-year-old. Nowhere in Asia was off-limits.
In the end it worked best to start in Hong Kong for three nights and then fly Air Asia directly to Chiang Mai, Thailand for New Years Eve. After four nights in Chiang Mai we flew on Thai Air to Manila (via Bangkok) and overnighted at the Manila Marriott near the airport before flying ITI Air directly to El Nido, Palawan. We planned five nights in Palawan and then two in Taipei on the way home. We got upgraded to Hong Kong and back from Taipei so that worked out perfectly, and all of the other flights were relatively inexpensive.
The 55-minute flight from Manila to Palawan was stunningly beautiful, passing over what seemed like hundreds of small islands. We arrived at tiny El Nido Airport and boarded a boat to our destination, Miniloc Island Resort. The transfer took roughly 45 minutes. This is the third time I’ve flown into an airport and hopped on a boat directly to a hotel and, as in Venice and Bora Bora, it was a lot of fun. I probably took 50 photos of the small islands we passed before putting my camera down and enjoying the ride.
Miniloc Island Resort
How I chose our hotel: The most beautiful/amazing photos of Palawan seemed to be of islands near El Nido, the northern section of the state. So I went to TripAdvisor and searched for El Nido hotels. Three of the top five resorts were operated by El Nido Resorts. I wrote to them with our rough dates and mentioned that I was traveling with an 8-year-old and they suggested Miniloc Island Resort. There was an overwater bungalow available January 4-9. Done.
We loved the resort. There’s no pool, but it’s set in a beautiful location, perfect for island-hopping. Our bungalow was small and decidedly non-fancy. The view from the deck was incredible. Service was excellent. For five blissful days we didn’t hear any cars or planes. The food was good – we’d give it a 7 out of 10. I liked it more than my son – roughly every other meal he wasn’t excited about the entrée choices.
Our room rate of roughly $600/night isn’t as high as it sounds, since that includes taxes, most activities, airport transfers, water sports, and all meals. A $350 room in Hawaii can easily go over $600/night when you add in everything.
What We Did
Kayaking: Lots of kayaking! Almost every day we took kayaks out from the beach at the resort. If we went right we reached a couple of small beaches. That was our typical direction. But our second morning we woke up before sunrise, paddled left in our kayak and reached the Big Lagoon 15 minutes later at low tide. We were barely able to make it into the lagoon since low tide is really low, but once we were inside we had the lagoon to ourselves. It was amazing watching the sun come up – mountains, crystal clear waters, reflections and fish all around us. One of my favorite mornings ever.
We also kayaked on an excursion to the Small Lagoon (included in our room rate) and far north of Miniloc at Matinloc Island’s Secret Beach and Hidden Beach. That trip was around $80 for a private 3-hour boat ride and well worth it. If you head up to Matinloc, leave by 7:30am. We were virtually alone everywhere we went, but there were a lot of day-trippers from El Nido arriving at each of our locations as we were leaving.
An added bonus to the trip around Matinloc Island: we saw flying fish, Bryde’s whales, green sea turtles and hundreds of jellyfish. So cool!
Entalula Beach Club: I was skeptical when the resort suggested that we spend several hours at their private beach club a 12-minute boat ride away, since to me a beach club is synonymous with a party scene. Wow, I’m glad I signed us up anyway. In fact, we liked Entalula so much that we went back a second day. The beach there is great, with a far softer sand than Miniloc Island. There are shaded cabanas and hammocks, perfect for sitting and reading, and the water color is stunning. The picnic lunch with grilled meat and seafood there had less variety than at the resort, but it was plenty of food (at no additional cost).
Snake Island and Cudugnon Cave: One afternoon we arranged to be picked up at Entalula and taken on an island-hopping tour to Snake Island and Cudugnon Cave. We loved the excursion. At Snake Island we got off the boat in very shallow waters, swam around there, walked the sand bar and hiked to the top of the island – really just a 5-minute climb. FYI, Snake Island is named for its snaking sandbar and not for reptiles.
At the cave we went in through a very small opening (much easier for my son than the 6’6” guest with us!) and walked around the cave. It’s small but impressive.
One of the best things about both places is that, even though they’re on standard island-hopping itineraries from El Nido, we encountered very few other people. El Nido Resorts does a good job of timing excursions so that you’re there when others aren’t.
Snorkeling: The resort has plenty of snorkel equipment. The snorkeling is great right at the resort with the huge jack fish, and I also snorkeled at the entrance to the Big Lagoon. At other locations, like Secret Beach, there were so many jellyfish (the stinging kind) that snorkeling wasn’t an ideal option.
Frisbee and Ping Pong: We spent a lot of time at the resort throwing around a Frisbee (provided by the resort) and playing ping pong, and took the Frisbee over to Entalula Island as well. It was nice to have activity options that didn’t require getting back on a boat.
Star Gazing: With spotlights on the palm trees at Miniloc Island Resort there’s more light pollution than there should have been, but still the night skies were incredible. I took a few long-exposure photos but really we just enjoyed looking up at the stars.
Flying ITI Air to El Nido
ITI Air (Island Transvoyager Inc), also known as AirSWIFT, was good and bad.
The good: For $200 round-trip, we flew straight from a private terminal in Manila to El Nido, avoiding the need to fly into central Palawan and take a long bus ride to El Nido or a long ferry ride from Manila. It was well worth the cost.
The bad: ITI really wants to charge you excess bag fees. They only allow 10kg of checked luggage per person. When we purchased our tickets, the cost per additional kg listed on our tickets was Php100. Then they doubled that to Php200. When I complained after our first flight that we were charged twice the original rate, they offered a credit towards the fees on the way back. Even then, at check-in at El Nido, several phone calls were required before they finally gave me the promised credit. But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have had extra fees in the first place. On the plane, in an El Nido brochure, is a note that people are welcome to leave their extra bags at the ITI terminal in Manila. Whoa, really? No one told us that at check-in. We easily could have left behind one of our bags if we knew it was an option. And in talking to other travelers, no one else was told it was an option either.
Also, when you get back into Manila, ITI offers a shuttle to Manila Airport for Php100 per person. It wasn’t worth it. The ITI terminal is literally across the runway from the main airport. However, it took us 45 minutes to go from ITI to Terminal 1. The shuttle first dropped off travelers at Terminal 3, only 10 minutes away. Then, 10 minutes later, it passed back by ITI on the way to Terminal 1. So 20 minutes into the ride most of us were still on the shuttle and effectively hadn’t gone anywhere. Another 25 minutes in bad traffic we finally arrived at the airport. Is that really the best way to run a shuttle service? It would have been far faster, and the same price, if not less, to take a taxi from ITI to the airport.
This was an amazing trip. Palawan was the primary destination of our four-country, 16-day Asian adventure, and it was definitely the highlight. A person commented on one of my Palawan Facebook posts: “It is so on my list, but it is quite far away.” Correct. It takes some effort to get there, but it’s worth it. Five nights was a good amount of time, but even after four nights we would have felt like we had had a great stay.
The biggest hassle was going through Manila. Our morning flight to El Nido required an overnight in Manila on the way there, with taxi rides to and from the Marriott, and between the ITI shuttle, Eva Air check-in and security it took 2.5 hours to get to our gate for our departure flight. We also had a 5-hour flight delay to Taipei. It’s not an exciting airport to be stuck in.
Kid Friendly: Very. There were a lot of kids at the resort, from infants and toddlers to teens.
Level of Difficulty: Moderate. If we could have avoided an overnight in Manila it would have made for an easier trip. But there’s no way to do that, at least that I could figure out.
Airline/Routing: United from San Francisco to Hong Kong, Air Asia from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai, Thai Airways from Chiang Mai to Manila via Bangkok, ITI Air from Manila to El Nido and back, Eva Air from Manila to Taipei and United from Taipei to San Francisco.
Hotel: Miniloc Island Resort
Trip Length: 16 days total, including five days on Miniloc Island.
Travel Stats: 10 flights. We received United/Star Alliance miles for all United, Thai and Eva Air flights.
Days of School Missed: One day (Christmas break)
Cost Factors: We splurged on one of the nicer places on Palawan, but per my comment above, for $600/night almost everything was included. Airfare between San Francisco and Manila is routinely under $600 round-trip. A quick search found $531 tickets in March.