Every year Conde Nast Traveler releases a list of the best islands in the world, based on its annual reader poll. The top non-US island in the world right now? Palawan, Philippines. In second place? Bora Bora.
Bora Bora is the standard dream destination for those wanting to stay in an overwater bungalow. It’s routinely called the most photogenic island in the world, with good reason. It’s absolutely beautiful there, with turquoise waters and Mount Otemanu visible from most resorts. But Palawan is stunning as well, with similarly-colored water and small islands dotting the horizon as far as you can see.
Let’s say that you’ve saved up some money and want to stay in an overwater bungalow. Do you go for Palawan, the top island in the world? Or do you go for Bora Bora, the iconic destination and arguably more beautiful? I’ve taken my kids to both, staying at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (number one on TripAdvisor out of 18 hotels/resorts on the island) and at Miniloc Island Resort in Palawan (number four out of 75 in Palawan). Here’s how they compare.
Flying to Bora Bora from California is easy. We took an overnight flight to Tahiti, had a very short layover and then flew 45 minutes to Bora Bora. At the airport we were picked up by boat and taken to the hotel.
Palawan, especially the El Nido area (where you want to go), is a little harder to get to. You need to fly to Manila, transfer to the ITI Airways terminal nearby by taxi (likely after an overnight layover) and then fly an hour to El Nido. At the El Nido airport we boarded a bus for a very short drive to the water, and then hopped on a boat for the transfer to Miniloc Island. Neither was a difficult journey, but Bora Bora was definitely easier. Arriving at both resorts by boat was fun.
So the term bungalow is misleading. In Bora Bora, we really had an overwater house. There were two rooms, a large bathroom, a huge deck and even stairs down to a private dock.
On Miniloc Island they use the term “overwater cottage”, and it is. There’s a small room, a small bathroom, and a porch. You don’t need much more, but there’s a reason they only can sleep two.
The mountain view in Bora Bora was stunning. The view from our cottage in Palawan was beautiful, and it was fun watching the sun rise from the deck, but it couldn’t compare to Bora Bora.
At the Four Seasons, breakfast was included and there were multiple restaurants for other meals. The food was overall very good. Breakfasts were excellent – of course a French island has great French pastries. At Miniloc Island, all meals were included at the one buffet-style restaurant. My son was frustrated with the lack of choices and the fatty meats, but I thought the food was good – far better than at other all-inclusive places we’ve stayed. The seafood was excellent.
The Four Seasons Bora Bora has an excellent kids club and activities. We had the only kids at the resort the week that we were there so there wasn’t much scheduled, but they gave us a list of all of the options and let us know that they would be happy to arrange activities for the kids anytime we wanted. We’re not a big kids-club family so we didn’t utilize their programs too much, but we stopped in periodically for crafts, and their child coordinator took our kids around for fish feeding and on a scavenger hunt.
Miniloc Island Resort has a small kids club, but it was closed for re-roofing most of the time we were there so we never went in. Even if it was open I don’t think we would have used it. My son was happier playing Frisbee and ping-pong with me and joining all of the normal excursions than he would have been doing crafts at the kids club.
Both resorts have long lists of activities. In Bora Bora we took the boat into the town of Vaitape a couple of times, used the complimentary paddle boards and kayaks, and did an excellent tour around the island that included snorkeling, swimming with stingrays, and a barbecue lunch. In Palawan we island-hopped most days, kayaked, snorkeled and paddle boarded (also included) and spent a couple of days at the Entalula Beach Club on a neighboring island, with barbecue lunches there. We don’t dive so I can’t speak to the diving options, but at both resorts I saw people heading out. Bora Bora was a little more laid-back, with most people (as far as we could tell) opting to relax at the pool or at their bungalows. In Palawan we constantly had activities scheduled.
The pool at the Four Seasons was perfect, with cabanas, constant food/drink service, and a shallow end perfect for kids. Miniloc Island Resort doesn’t have a pool.
Service at both resorts was excellent. The Four Seasons went out of its way to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday and make sure that the petite souris (the French equivalent of the tooth fairy) showed up when my other daughter lost a tooth. Miniloc Island Resort personnel were constantly finding us to make sure that we were scheduled for as many activities as possible – they didn’t want us to miss out on anything during our stay. There were some small service issues at both resorts, but that’s fine – if you can’t handle when everything doesn’t go perfectly, you shouldn’t leave home in the first place.
My favorite experiences at the Four Seasons Bora Bora? The walk along the boardwalk in the evenings and jumping from the bungalow into the lagoon.
At Miniloc Island, we loved kayaking from the resort in the mornings to the Big Lagoon to watch the sunrise, and kayaking in the afternoons to the beaches around the island.
For mid-May 2016, here’s how the costs compare:
The Four Seasons is roughly $1,100 a night plus another 20% +/- for taxes. This rate requires booking four nights, and includes breakfast and water sports. Airport transfers are around $100/person, with a discount for kids. Meals add several hundred dollars a day – food in French Polynesia is expensive!
The Miniloc Island Resort is roughly $600 a night, including taxes. All meals are included, as are airport transfers, water sports and most tours.
The tricky thing is that the Four Seasons let five of us stay in one bungalow. Miniloc Island Resort only allows two people in an overwater cabana (although they have beach rooms that accommodate three). A family of four would require one room at the Four Seasons but two bungalows at Miniloc Island. A family of five is sort of out of luck if they want to stay in a bungalow at Miniloc – it’s not like you can have a young child sleeping alone.
Our 5-hour island tour in Bora Bora was amazing, but I believe that it was close to $900 (don’t hold me to that). Our 4-hour tour in Palawan to Secret Beach, Hidden Beach and Matinloc Island, the only thing we did that wasn’t included in the room rate, was $75.
The other component is airfare. Round-trip tickets between LA and Bora Bora are routinely $1400 or so. LA to Manila and then on to El Nido can run closer to $800 ($575 from LA to Manila and $225 from Manila to El Nido).
Bora Bora is a lot more expensive, but the Four Seasons is luxurious and the view is amazing. Palawan is definitely not luxurious but the scenery is stunning. I liked how virtually everything was included in our rate at Miniloc Island.
Bora Bora is the safer and easier option. If you’re afraid of being a victim when you go overseas, Bora Bora is for you – it’s safe and there’s less likelihood of any problems occurring getting to/from the island. Palawan is also safe, but on our island tour we had an armed guard with us “just in case.” (There has never been an occasion when the guard was needed, according to our guide.) Manila is a little crazy – not scary, but you need to be a smart traveler when transiting through there.
This comparison is slightly arbitrary, since there are less expensive (and more expensive) places to stay in both Bora Bora and Palawan. Both destinations are splurges, but they’re also extraordinary places to see at least once in a lifetime. If you’re an adventurous couple and want an amazing experience for less money, head to Palawan. If you’re a family of 4 or 5, Bora Bora could actually be competitive cost-wise. For my money, I’d return to Palawan before I’d go back to Bora Bora. But you can’t go wrong with either choice.
Which one would you choose?