Text: Ian Lloyd Neubauer Photos: El Nido Resorts
In 1979, a group of Japanese divers sailing the western fringes of the Philippines chanced upon a place of heart-stopping beauty – the Bacuit Archipelago.
Comprising a series of interconnected bays dotted with colossal limestone formations, or karsts, that explode from the sea, this perfect accident of nature created a sanctuary for marine life. Dolphins, turtles and endemic species of reef fish are found here, along with elusive whale sharks and their predatory in-laws.
Four years later the divers returned to set up a diving station on Miniloc Island, the most stunning of the archipelago’s 45 islands. It proved a hit and, in a matter of months, morphed into a low-key resort. The resort at Miniloc Island today is worlds away from bamboo bungalows and outhouses that first appeared here some 15 years ago. Featuring luxuriously appointed cottages that jut out from the sea on stilts and a translucent lagoon that has become the most photographed place in the Philippines, the property’s ‘wow’ factor is off the hook.
But according to the guests who keep coming back here — including the producers of Sweden’s Survivor, who spend one month every year living it up on Miniloc while the cast forage for food on a uninhabited island nearby — it’s worth every cent. Miniloc is an all-inclusive resort where everything except for alcohol and scuba hire are factored into the price: land and sea transfers, three gregarious meals per day, unlimited use of non-motorised watercraft, snorkelling and fishing gear, and a selection of 20 outrigger tours around the archipelago.
Yet it’s the things Miniloc lacks that make it such a hit among honeymooners, nature lovers and the like: noise, television, WiFi, pretentiousness concierges, rowdy guests and personal tipping, which is prohibited to ensure consistency in service. The omissions mean Miniloc only rates as a three-star resort, while its sister property, the swankier Lagen Island Resort, scores a lowly four. But take one look at this award-winning eco-resort and you may start thinking the star-classification system needs an upgrade of its own.
of all the elaborate activities on offer, few compare to the simplest – a half-hour hike through the dense rainforest that carpets Lagen island.
Perched in a jungle clearing under a limestone ridge hundreds of metres high, Lagen Island Resort is a triumph in the marriage of luxury and nature conservation. A raised walkway from the boathouse-cum-reception circumnavigates a man-made lagoon, at the head of which sits a rustic clubhouse and 25-metre freshwater pool. The visual effect created by three kinds of water — the pool, the lagoon and the mirror-like sea — is surreal, a coalescent of blues that imbues contradictory feelings of grandiosity and wellbeing, egotism and calm.Click to view slideshow.
Yet what really makes this property shine is the service. Filipinos are kings of hospitality, though the staff at Lagen take it to the extreme. Management makes a point to hire locals only and offers them career advancement, ecological education and supplementary training at Sofitel hotels in Manila and beyond.
“We continually upgrade their skills,” says operations manager Mitzi Cañafranca. “Some of them never finished high school yet they’ve been promoted to management. We get results from this. They are very enthused about their work.” As if on cue, four staff members emerge from the kitchen singing happy birthday at the tops of the voices, one strumming a guitar and another carrying a cake. On the far side of the brasserie, a man embraces and then kisses his wife, who blushes for the attention. By the time they reach the birthday girl, the mariachi’s ranks had more than doubled as staff bolt from other parts of the clubhouse to join the sing-a-long. They did not have to; they wanted to. Which in the world of hospitality, makes all the difference.
El Nido Resorts – the parent company behind the properties on Miniloc and Lagen Islands – invests a substantial chunk of revenue into protecting the Bacuit Archipelago for future generations. Both properties have sewage treatment and desalinisation plants, commercial-grade worm farms and full-time environmental protection officers. All non-recyclable waste is ferried to landfill sites on the mainland and illegal fishing is discouraged by the monitoring of reefs and paying locals to participate in clean-up campaigns.
Lagen and Miniloc Islands feel like ghost towns during the day, as most guests prefer to spend their time exploring the archipelago on guided outrigger tours. Activities include rock climbing and windsurfing on nearby Entalula Islands, picnic lunches on Pangulasian Island, and scuba diving in any of the Bacuit’s countless lagoons and coral reefs, among others. But of all the elaborate activities on offer, few compare to the simplest – a half-hour hike through the dense rainforest that carpets Lagen Island. The trail comes to an end at a turquoise bay, where one can either catch a lift on a speedboat back to the resort or self-drive on a sea kayak. Staff say it’s a twenty-minute paddle back home, but it’s easy to spend hours exploring the karts, taking in the sounds and sights of the subterranean caves, boisterous bird life and Bonsai-like vegetation that grow horizontally from these skyscrapers of the natural world.