CORON Island has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I’m an island girl myself, as I grew up on the beautiful beaches of Cebu. So, when my editor and friend Tet Andolong assigned me on a mission to cover Coron, my imagination went all over the place and my excitement became uncontainable.
My journey started with a mid-morning flight onboard SkyJet, the Philippines’s first boutique leisure airline that offers speedy jet service to your island dream destinations around the country. SkyJet Airlines takes off from Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 4, also known as the Manila Domestic Airport. The airline operates a fleet of 80-seater British Aerospace BAe-146s. These “whispering jets” are equipped with four engines that make them some of the safest aircraft in the world.
Our 35-minute flight to Busuanga (Coron) was smooth and very relaxing. We landed in the same manner that a 777 would touchdown…no bumps. It was like landing on clouds. The sun was shining bright but not scorching. We were met by the locals rhythmically beating drums, as if communicating their welcome with their musical instruments and smiles. The short trip to Asia Grand View Hotel took us to a hotel by the road. It was easy to find and simply a breeze to get there.
As we alighted from the vehicle, we were greeted with an acoustic ensemble of Jimi and Maria Ormita, who were joined by the hotel’s very dynamic, friendly and talented staff, headed by their feisty and fun-to-be-with Resort Manager Rhoanne Rose Bolohabo, who proudly said that “Asia Grand View Hotel is the only hotel in Coron that promotes environmental conservation and supports efforts to conserve natural resources.”
Five minutes away from the Coron town center, Asia Grand View Hotel is on Governor’s Avenue, Jolo, Barangay 5, Coron, Palawan, Philippines. It has the most ideal of amenities, whether you’re a tourist, diver or local. The hotel is inspired by contemporary Asian art, crafts and the enchanting underwater world of Palawan. The room was so cozy that it felt like my home away from home, thanks to the strong, 24/7 Wi-Fi connection, soft and fluffy pillows, warm blankets, as well as a hot and cold shower. Sunsets on Coron Bay are mesmerizingly romantic from the view deck. For me, it was one of the best parts of the hotel. Next to the spa, of course.
Our cool group of lifestyle journalists and renowned bloggers, headed by PR King Pete Dacuycuy, was treated like royalty to lavish buffets at the Bay View Bar & Restaurant, spa treatments, drinks by the pool, and the daily dose of island hopping, shopping and snorkeling.
Kayangan Lake is one of seven fascinating lakes around Coron. It is also the most photographed spot on the island. Getting there required a half-hour boat ride, which took us to a hillside cave that overlooks the cove, where the pump boats were docked. We climb toward the iconic lake, which is 40-percent freshwater and 60-percent saltwater. Kayangan Lake, which is one of the cleanest bodies of water in the Philippines, is considered a sacred place by the Tagbanua tribe of Coron. It felt a little eerie swimming there, since marine life was scarce and we saw only those black shell-like creatures that were so tiny and stuck to the moonlike rocks underwater. We even entered a cave where we took selfies—safe and so far away from any abominable sea organisms. It was heaven on water!
Maquinit Hot Springs was a place that I had never heard of until we got there. I was pleasantly surprised and pretty excited about what to expect. The sun was setting when we arrived, and we dropped our bags in the nearest nipa hut before taking a dip in one of the 39- to 40-degree pools. Located along the southern coast of Busuanga Island, Maquinit is one of the very few saltwater hot springs in the world, the only known saltwater hot spring in the Philippines and probably the only one in Asia. The hot water comes from a volcano underneath the two pools. A little warning, though: Don’t dive into the pools, as the water can scald you. If you do it slowly, however, you will enjoy their relaxing and healing elements.
Snorkeling was a major part of our trip, as the waters of Coron were bright, crystal-clear and teeming with marine life with coral gardens everywhere. One, in particular, Bintuan Coral Gardens in Lusong Island, was where we bravely jumped from the boat, despite an impending rain squall and fresh winds. While we were swimming toward the famous sunken Lusong Gunboat with its stern sticking out of water, we saw a trio of scuba divers ascend from the wreck. I am a scuba diver myself, and wreck diving is not one of my favorites. I am claustrophobic, and I don’t relish the thought of hyperventilating in 12 meters of water. Just seeing the 70-year-old underwater hulk got my imagination reeling, so we quickly took a selfie with our underwater camera and swam out of there as quickly as we got in.
It is worth mentioning that Coron is not only a marine sanctuary in every sense of the phrase. It is also graveyard of about a dozen or more World War II shipwrecks that make the place a diver’s haven.
Culion Island has a total land area of 150 square miles and is located 200 miles southwest of Manila. It is part of the Calamian Group of Islands in the province of Palawan. This is where one of the biggest, well-equipped and organized leprosariums in the world is situated. On May 27, 1906, the first contingent of 370 patients from Cebu arrived and was met by the medical team composed of American Dr. Charles F. de May, four French sisters of the Order of Saint Paul de Chartres and Spanish Priest Rev. Fr. Manuel Valles, SJ. It was the beginning of a long struggle, for both patients and medical science, in the pursuit of a cure for leprosy. Culion was literally named “Paradise Lost” and also known as the Island of the Living Dead. With the advent of new and potent drugs, however, Culion has conquered the disease and has brought hope to its people, making it once more a Community of Man and a “Paradise Regained.”
Culion is now and has been for many years a favorite tourist destination. One can visit the Culion Museum and Archives to see how the locals battled leprosy and came out victorious through pictures, dioramas, past equipment and medicines, and an audiovisual presentation. One can also visit the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital, and the very old La Inmaculada Concepcion Church, which is perched on a cliff and whose walls were taken from the old fortress built in 1740.
The base and surrounding walls are hewn from live coral, although concrete has been poured in some areas. In 1933 the church underwent reconstruction under the supervision of Fr. Hugh McNulty, SJ. In 1978 Ben Amores, a patient, painted the ceiling with the design of Fr. Javier Olazabal, SJ, while on the left side of the church overlooking the vast West Philippine Sea, a cannon from past wars guard the fortress that not even leprosy could defeat.
Image credits: Mike Potenciano