Travel & Discovery

The Philippines: Sailing the Coral carpet

The Philippines: Sailing the Coral carpet

Trystan Grace threads his way through this tapestry of exotic islands.

When you sip a drink at a marina bar in the Philippines (with more than 7,600 islands there are an awful lot of waterside bars to sup in, in this Pacific Ocean archipelago), you may find yourself getting unexpectedly tipsy. That’s because a double rum and coke is cheaper than a single and a triple is yet cheaper again for the simple reason that the locally distilled molasses cost a lot less to produce than Coca-Cola is to import. This neatly symbolises the changing international status facing the Philippines, as their long relationship with the US, militarily, culturally and economically, now faces serious competition from the east, with China’s rise and influence over south and east Asia. 

However, none of this alters the fact that the Philippines has hundreds of miles of white sandy beaches, acres of azure blue waters and idyllic cruising grounds.

Accessed most perfectly by yacht, affording the freedom to explore any bay at your heart’s content, the Philippines, while a long way from Europe or the US, from my home in Hong Kong, is a door-step paradise. I can be in the busy throng of Manila after just a two-hour flight or spot the Luzon coastline hoving into view on the horizon after a three-day sail. Because of its close proximity, I have often flown down for short breaks, using it as a stopping off point for sailing trips or for photography assignments. 

The north is very different from the south and each island or province has its own traditions and often a very different dialect. What remains consistent is the beautiful weather and friendly people who nearly all speak perfect English. Thanks to this, I have made some great friends when visiting these magical islands.

Many sailors feel they should avoid cruising the Philippines due to the typhoon belt, however, this only affects the northern region of the Philippines and normally only through the summer months, so can be avoided quite easily. Arriving from the north, your first real opportunity to clear in is Subic Bay. Certainly not the nicest part of the Philippines, it’s known for being a quick beach getaway for those living in downtown Manila some three hours’ drive away. The Subic Bay Yacht Club and Marina is just ok and a bit down at heel, but it’s a safe option for those wishing to clear in and stay a couple of nights to provision. It is also one of the best locations in the Philippines to leave your yacht if needs must take you away. 

Note from Dick Beaumont: Another location to leave your yacht seemingly, might be Manilla Yacht Club, but I would strongly recommend against this as the marineros are a bunch of crooks that will try to rip you off.

You get the first real taste of the tropical atmosphere upon reaching Puerto Galera on the northern shores of Mindoro. The main bay is accessible through two channels which helps provide very sheltered anchorages and it’s a good option as a typhoon bolt hole. There is a small yacht club, popular with cruising yachtsmen, as it enjoys excellent food and helpful, friendly, staff. Puerto Galera is quite touristy itself, being home to a cluster of resorts as it is easily accessible from Manila to the north and a short ferry ride from Batangas to the east. Head out of town to White Beach to the west to find more secluded spots. 

A predominantly rural island with scattered villages, the easiest way to explore is with a trike taxi and driver, essentially it’s a motorbike with a sidecar, they are cheap to hire, but not for the fainthearted. I hired one for a drive about an hour south to find the Aras Cave and Falls. The local villagers act as guides for a small fee and a friendly woman ushered me through the rural paths, stopping to show me the various fruits that grow around the village. The pools themselves are cool and were very welcome after my hike under the strong sun. 

Further south of Mindoro, are two locations I recommend you spend the majority of your time exploring: Coron and El Nido, both in the province of Palawan, which sports the crystal clear waters and steep-sided limestone rocks, iconic to the Philippines. For me there is little better than coming out on deck in the morning and diving off the transom into the warm, inviting waters.

Coron is the more northerly group of islands of the two and is an eclectic mix of tourist resorts and local villages. You can eat a hearty meal in an excellent local restaurant for around £3 or indulge in a more fancy touristy restaurant for around £30. We would recommend taking your dinghy to the excellent La Sirenetta restaurant for excellent Filipino food and to take in the magnificent sunset. Coron town is a great place to provision before exploring the islands, as it has a large vibrant fish, meat and vegetable market as well as lots of small but well stocked supermarkets. My advice would be to anchor off the eastern or northern shores of Uson Island, a stone’s throw from Coron town, however, be aware of the shallow waters in front of the town.

Above the water Coron is one of the most photogenic parts of the Philippines and below the waves, a collection of 12 Japanese WW2 shipwrecks draw divers from around the world. Sunk by the US Navy during an attack on the Imperial Japanese Fleet. They now rest on the sea-bed between 10-30 meters making them perfect for recreational divers. Chairman of Kraken Yachts, Dick Beaumont, a keen diver himself, took the plunge during White Dragon’s voyage from Hong Kong to Turkey. Dick anchored off Sangat Island and independently dived most of the wrecks which are nearly all intact, but some of the wrecks are difficult to find as they are surrounded with pearl farms. There are dozens of dive centres in Coron so if you’re short on time you could hook up with them to get straight out on the wrecks.

Kraken Yachts have a very good friend, Andy Alford, in Coron. Andy lives aboard his lovely yacht Shah and he would be very happy to assist passing cruisers. He has a deep knowledge of the whole of the South East Asia sailing scene and has private moorings he is happy to rent out for very modest fees. Andy’s mobile is +63 917 271 5757 his email is mail@andyalford.com.

A little further out from the town is Pearl Bay, another sheltered anchorage where other dive operators are based. Being a more remote part of Coron, you need to stock up before sailing here, unless you want a long dingy ride to resupply. The Al Faro Cosmio Hotel, to the south side of the bay is very cruiser-friendly and is a great place to pop in for a sundowner or meal.

On the northern point of Coron is Calauit Island which bizarrely is the home of the Calauit Safari Park, the brainchild of former president Ferdinand Marcos. More than 100 African animals from eight species were brought by ship to the Philippines from Africa. Unfortunately, six of the species died out but the giraffe and zebra population have thrived. Other Filipino indigenous animals are now found in the park too, and yachtsmen can anchor off the island and visit via the park’s dock.

Southwest of Coron is the main island of Palawan with El Nido sitting at the northern tip. This stunning part of the world is generally not that busy, due to it being more difficult to access requiring flights, ferries and taxi or jeepney rides, unless you’re on a yacht of course! The lack of resort development means cruising on your own boat offers the freedom to explore parts most tourists will never get to see and there are literally hundreds of bays and islands awaiting your discovery. 

It is difficult to recommend one spot, as you can’t really go wrong. The western coast is generally a better option for yachts, as the waters are a little deeper. Maybe start with the Bacuit Archipelago, 45 limestone outcrops providing shelter to idyllic lagoons, similar to those found in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam or Krabi in Thailand. Further south is Port Barton, an old fishing village that still holds a timeless charm, even with increasing tourism to the village.

The capital of Palawan is Puerto Princesa, the gateway to the island which is located on the southeastern coast of the island. Puerto Princesa is the only location to clear in and out of the Philippines before you head further south to Malaysia. I recommend stopping at the Abanico Yacht Club and Marina which is in a quiet location. Give yourself most of the day when clearing in/out as you will need to visit customs, port control, immigration and the health department before the formalities are completed. Take at least six photocopies of your passport with you. If you would like to visit and dive the Tubbataha Reef to the south, permits or day trips can be arranged from Puerto Princesa. 

If you are sailing down the west coastline and would like to clear out, I recommend anchoring in Ulugan Bay, southwest of Sabang. Go ashore at a concrete jetty at the south end of the bay and walk up to the track, through an army camp, to the road where you can pick up a jeepney. It’s a short ride over to the other side of the island to Puerto Princesa to organise formalities and provisioning. Don’t forget to take six copies of each passport.

Whilst here, you can also visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a mountainous region famous for its five-mile underground river and cave system accessible with boat tours.

We would recommend you avoid cruising the area in the south of the Sulu Sea around Jolo Island. This area is known for piracy by Abu Saif and his extremist followers. Even with an American naval presence, there are still attacks and hijackings on boats or the neighbouring islands. This is however the only problematic area. The rest of the Philippines are as safe as they are beautiful. 

These are just some of the breathtaking locations I recommend but, in truth, you could spend months exploring other places like Borocay, the chocolate hills of Bohol, Malapascua Island, Tagaytay or Davao. I know yachtsmen who have spent up to six months in these islands and still feel they have only just scratched the surface.

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