While the opposite of friendly is unfriendly, the opposite of Ujung Pandang (Makassar) is Puerto Princesa – what a pleasurable change only a few hundred miles north of Indonesia!
As a youngster, I often watched Fantasy Island – remember…”De Plane, De plane!!” Puerto Princesa is by far much more picturesque than Tahiti or the surrounding islands and for that matter, any of the other isles we’ve visited in the South Pacific. Its closest rival, I believe, would be the northern-most landmass of the Hawaiian Islands with the towering cliffs along the Napoli Coastline.
Palawan Province represents one of the Philippines’ most spectacular wilderness areas. Its 1,700 islands are gateways to thick rainforest, dramatic mountains, caves, and enchanting beaches. A protective coral shelf supports a variety of colorful fish and marine plants, and several indigenous land species (mouse deer and the scaly anteater, for example) are found nowhere else on the planet. The nation’s largest province, its elongated main island (263 miles) is also known as Palawan, and Puerto Princesa is the capital city – roughly 250,000 residents.
Thursday morning, 6:00am – one would expect the usual crew of security agents & dock workers to secure the ship. As the early morning fog began lifting, we could see in the distance many more than a handful of helpers but instead, a massive crowd waving white flags! As we drew closer, we could see people of all ages who got up before dawn to come and welcome the ship. There were singers, dancers, and drill teams – kids of every size & age – performing their well-rehearsed songs and routines. You’d think we were all long-lost relatives who’d been at sea for several months! As Cheryl and I left the ship at 6:30 to begin our tour, there were lines of ladies on both sides of the gangway hanging shell necklaces over the heads of each disembarking guest, all with broad smiles and hearty, very sincere hellos! What a stark contrast from two days ago!! These people were genuinely glad to see us!
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we’ve tried to avoid ship-sponsored tours as much as possible this year, but today was an exception. We wanted to visit the Subterranean River – the world’s longest navigable underground river and now one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature that winds through a spectacular cave (over 8 miles) before emerging and emptying out into the West Philippine Sea. To get there requires well-coordinated transportation and river passes well in advance – there’s a 2-month waiting list should one spontaneously decide they want to cruise this particular river!
We were grouped into ‘sixes’ and placed into mini-vans, each with a guide. The vans were all air-conditioned and quite comfortable – we didn’t expect that. There were twenty-three vans with six passengers in each, for a total of 138 ship tourists. To our surprise, the city provided a police escort throughout the entire 2-hour trip north to reach the river! Earlier, I mentioned the impressive beauty of Puerto Princesa but along with that, is the pure, underdeveloped state of roadways & infrastructure. This is a growing, emerging community and the adolescent state of any sophistication is what gives it so much charm. The neighborhoods & dwellings are of grass huts, many on stilts, most without conventional plumbing. Bathing is frequently conducted in public waterways along with the washing of cloths. The roadway north to the Subterranean River is partially paved and somewhat smooth – there are numerous potholes and several stretches of gravel – but overall, it was a very enjoyable ride given the opportunity to venture deep into the countryside with a knowledgeable guide. Once we arrived at the park entrance (about 9:30) our convoy was again greeted by marching bands – unbelievable! We later learned the entire city was notified of our arrival as they only get TWO cruise ships each year.
Once at the park and after taking several photos of the bands, our group of six boarded a catamaran – actually a sea-canoe with outriggers for stabilization. This was to be about a 30-minute trip over to the river entrance, where we were to then board a smaller canoe for the actual subterranean trip. Sailing the ocean in a small sea-canoe was an adventure itself. I wasn’t properly prepared – I didn’t read the instructions for attire (as Cheryl did) and I wore my best (and only) pair of hiking shoes. Boarding the sea-canoe itself was a ‘dry experience’ and I thought I was home free. Within minutes, seawater was drizzling over the sides of the small boat and as we ventured farther out, the drizzle of seawater became a deluge – too late to take them off! The sea-canoe was powered by what sounded like a lawnmower without a muffler – it was a loud, rough, very wet ride but a lot of fun! The ocean was just as colorful as anything you’d find in the Caribbean, with the beaches a powered-sugar white – absolutely stunning! Once beached, we had to exit the sea-canoe, but this was a little less formal than the beginning of the trip. There was no ramp of any kind, the ocean waves were pounding the back of the boat, so it was a leap into the surf (knee-deep) and a walk (push) to shore. We ventured through a thick rainforest for several minutes before reaching the river entrance. I ruined any chance of our group sneaking up on any wildlife as with each step, sea water would dribble from what used to be my hiking shoes with a loud whoosh! We were given life jackets & hard-hats – one by one, we were positioned into a very narrow canoe, making sure weight distribution was as best as it could be – six of us – the paddler in back, a man with a flashlight in the front. Off we went. Our final instructions before entering the long, dark, subterranean cave – keep your hands in the canoe so we don’t attract the poisonous snakes or crocodiles – the tarantula’s on the wall won’t be a bother if you don’t bother them, and the bats on the ceilings may ‘drip’ on you but otherwise won’t be a nuisance. It was indeed eerie but I must tell you, a spectacular experience! Some of the most beautiful rock formations we’ve ever seen! The deeper into the river & cave, the more the temperature dropped – probably 20-degrees overall. There were a couple of formations particularly interesting. One that looked exactly like a nativity scene, the other resembled the face of Jesus Christ – just amazing. The bats were present – not a few dozen or few hundred, but thousands of them clinging to the ceilings. Our flashlight disturbed a few of them – they flew overhead to find more seclusion but never bothered us. We wore the hard-hats to protect us during high tides as when the river rises, you can easily hit your head on many of the formations. The highest point in the cave is said to be that of an 18-story building – our light wouldn’t illuminate that far up so we had to take our guides word, but you could tell it was quite towering.
Once out of the cave and back on the beach, we took a different route through the forest to meet back up with our sea-canoe for the trip back to the vans. In route, we came across a few monkeys and much to our surprise, two Komodo Dragons sunning themselves. These were much smaller monitor lizards compared with the 10-footers we encountered on Komodo Island last year – one was about 5 feet in length and appeared to resting peacefully. We took a few quick pictures and moved on.
As part of the tour package and after leaving the park, we stopped at a beautiful resort for a buffet lunch. The Sheridan (not Sheraton) is one of Puerto Princesa’s finest – situated on the beach with beautiful views, we both agree that if we ever return here, this will be our vacation venue. You can check out their website at: www.sheridanbeachresort.com
The trip back to the ship was much the same as the trip up – 2 hours long - rough, windy roads yet very enjoyable – many unique sights & sounds of the city & residents at both work & play.
We arrived at the port at approximately 3:30 only to find that the crowds of well-wishers had grown in size. We now had even more singers & dancers, plus a radio station doing a remote broadcast – they were all there to bid farewell as we set sail at 4:30. As Cheryl and I approached the ship, the gangway itself was bordered on both sides with local residents thanking each passenger for visiting the city – such gracious and heartwarming people! Most all passengers were clinging to the side rails on every deck watching & cheering the performances. As the Captain blasted the ships horn 3 times indicating departure, two local military planes gave us a low altitude flyover – AMAZING – no one was expecting this kind of sendoff!!
Puerto Princesa – put this one on your bucket list. You won’t be impressed with the overall levels of sanitation but like I said, this place is very primitive in many respects – somewhat untouched by common urban standards, but yet acceptable because of its unsophistication and naivety. The strongest selling points here are the beauty of its people and stunning panorama.
Next stop, Manila – another 450 miles north, and our first visit. We’re expecting a mixed bag. We’ve been warned already that tourists are often targets of various commotion, so we’ve scheduled one of those ship-sponsored tours for the morning. We have several hours of free time after lunch, so depending on how our morning goes will dictate how we spend the afternoon and whether we venture out on our own.