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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Lost Blog - Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia


Friday June 10 - Tuesday June 14, 2016

I didn’t realise that people in real life could have a night like The Hangover.  But as it turns out, all you have to do…. is visit Darwin.  I just came across my notes from my trip to Darwin in June 2016 and realised I'd never posted them!

We left late on a Friday night, arriving at 1am Saturday morning, and checked into our private room in a two-bedroom Airbnb apartment.  The man let us in; he and his girlfriend lived in the other room.  Eager to start our day, we wandered out to the “main drag.”  It’s not a big town.  We were on the outskirts and made it in under 10 minutes.  It was like a scene from a zombie movie.  No life.  A lazy wind drifted through the streets and a couple backpackers drank beers in a outdoor pub.  Where was the action??!!  We did find some pretty awesome swimsuit shops - win!


Turns out you can complete the remaining tour of town in another 10 minutes, so we continued walking and walking along Gardens Road towards the famous Mindil Beach.  You can’t swim in the ocean in Darwin… too many creatures of the deep looking to taste your toes.  So we dared each other in to our ankles, screaming and running back out until the sun started to turn the beach into the colour of hot lava.



We kept walking, taking photos until we reached SkyCity Casino where we tried to convince the bouncer to let us in with international IDs.  She convinced her way but my tattered NYC license they apologetically just couldn’t accept.  Damn.  Those espressos looked good.  So we returned to down picking a rooftop bar with sprinkling lights and some semblance of human activity, Rorkes.  

Photo Credit: Rorkes Website

It doesn’t really get cold in Darwin.  There’s only rainy season, and hot season.  It was hot season but it felt delicious after the chill of Sydney approaching winter, even as night was falling.  We ate our fill of the tasty olives I’ve ever had because the real food was too expensive.  But apparently, budget doesn’t apply to beverages, as we consumed two bottles of frosty champagne.  We realised suddenly that the bar was PACKED!  An older gentleman stopped my friend on her way back with round three, offering up either of his two sons to her.  Uhhhh.  Thanks for the offer?  

We joined them.  Nothing like creeps to make a good story.  The father and sons were decidedly odd but their group of 30 was decidedly fun. Too fun.  Next thing we know, Rourkes is closing down and we are off to Throb, the late night club, complete with stripper poles and strobe lights.

Photo Credit: Throb Facebook Page

I woke up Sunday morning, head-throbbing, my clothes in a sopping(?!) heap, my sandals gone.  I turned to my friend wide-eyed for an explanation but she looked back with the same expression - a mixture of dazed yet impishness confusion.  Well, at least we were alive, right?  

Turns out I wasn’t so lucky.  As we headed to Cafe Eco, our “local” brekkie spot (for the last 24 hours), my right eye kept tearing up.  As we sat through breakfast, nursing coffees, waters, and small bites of omelette, it continued like a leaky faucet.  And then it started to swell.  Unfortunately, while I transformed into an ogre, my friend chattered excitedly about our plans for the day.  She doesn’t get hangovers.  This place does have the BEST food though.


While perusing Ghost Town earlier yesterday, we decided that Darwin proper is empty during the day because everyone is out enjoying the amazing national parks.  So we rented a car and drove 3 hours Litchfield National Park.  Something was wrong with the music so after every Spotify song ended, the iPhone would revert back to her iTunes library, specifically Taylor Swift.  It certainly became the theme song of the trip (whether we liked it or not).

If you’ve done any research on Darwin, you’re probably thinking AREN’T THERE CROCODILES EVERYWHERE?!!  This is true. But allegedly, Florence Falls, our first stop, was conveniently devoid of these dinosaurs by some stroke of magic (because it certainly isn’t electric fencing).  My friend is a natural water baby and was straight into the water swimming out towards the beautiful falls at the far end of the pool.  I watched from the safety of my rock, dipping a toe or two in when I got too hot noting that we could’ve prepared better with inflatables, goggles and water shoes.


Our next stop was Buley Rockpool.  Had I been feeling like myself, this would’ve been my favourite part.  Imagine a series of step pools leading through wild jungle that are so deep a grown man can cannonball into one.  The water was crystal clear, cool and the pools were small so you feel less worried about creatures from the deep lurking in the shadows.  Sadly we only spent an hour there because we’d gotten a late start and the car rental wouldn’t insurance the vehicle after nightfall due to inconvenient jumping kangaroos. 

Our last stop was Whangi Falls.  It was really cool to see so much waterfall variety in one trip…this final one featuring two tall, skinny plumes of water cascading down the sides of deep red rock.  I felt like I was in Indiana Jones.  Turns out in dry season there is a boardwalk through the jungle up to the top of the falls and back down around the other side.  


Brave Americans, we set off into the jungle confidence dripping from our sweaty bodies.  About five minutes into the 45 minute hike, we were deafened by the sounds of the forest.  The animal symphony was like nothing I’d ever heard and it was getting imperceptibly darker with each step.  I tried to remind myself that crocodiles don’t really hang out in dry season, but the small elevation between the boardwalk and the jungle floor was fueling my imagination.  


At the top of the falls (it’s a very easy hike) we were greeted by a blood red sunset.  It was incredible.  Kilometers of trees and bushes stretched out as far as the “eye” could see.  We were held captive watching the vibrant changing colours of sky as the sun lowered closer and closer to the horizon.  It was right as the sun started to tuck behind that I realised… we still need to get down and only had two iPhone torches to light the way.  


I’ve never hiked downhill faster in my life.

We reached the car and joined Taylor in her tragic love songs for the three hours home, tangerine burned into the back of our retinas.  

Luckily we avoided any ill-fated wildlife bouncing across the road on our way home, returned the car and sleepily stumbled to an early dinner at Ruby Vietnamese.  I remember the food being so so good but I could barely keep my one good eye open so we called it a day and headed home.


The next morning we decided to give town another try. We’d heard there was a little man-made beach called City Beach in the Wharf Precinct.  It being a holiday, we were banking on everyone being out to enjoy their day off.  We were right!  The little man-made beach with humming with people drinking coffees, eating takeaway fish and chips or sipping beers from the ring of restaurants surrounding the water.  My eye was still bothering me and my good humour was wearing thin so I spent most of the day napping on the grass.  It was a nice, relaxing ending to our aggressive weekend.


Growing up in small towns all through Oregon, the kindness of the local people reminded me of home.  The climate was drier which I greatly prefer to the sticky humidity of eastern Queensland and NSW and the natural beauty of the Northern Territory’s national parks was breathtaking.  Overall, I would say Darwin won that round as I returned to Sydney, a shell of a human, but I would go back in a heartbeat.  


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sailing with TAO Philippines


When I originally developed my itinerary for the Philippines, a friend recommended seeing it by boat as it’s a country of islands.  Traveling by boat is one of my favorite methods for seeing a water centric country – Croatia, British Virgin Islands and now the Philippines.  The islands on my trip were so small and remote you can really only get to them by boat anyway.

My friend recommended TAO Philippines as the best operator for my type of travel.  For those who are new to the blog, I prefer hostels to hotels, adventure to relaxation and don’t mind getting a little dirty!

Boat Booking and Trip Prep

TAO requires you to fill out an application after reading through their “Know Before You Go” section of their website.  I found out later this isn’t just to avoid princesses coming on the trip, but also to ensure a range of ages, lifestyles, nationalities, and genders.  They ticked all the boxes with men and women from Germany, The Netherlands, USA, UK, Hong Kong, South Africa, France, etc.  It was the most diverse group I’ve ever encountered.

There are three different boat options.  I wanted the authentic wooden sailboat but it had been booked for months so I settled for the “regular” motorboat since it was about the experience and people not the boat.  Plus you sleep on the islands in base camps so it matters less.



It took three days to receive my confirmation.  I’d selected the boat from El Nido to Coron.  As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, it can take 3 days to get to El Nido and Coron is mostly for divers to you’ll have to decide for yourself at which port you want to start/end.

I did have some frustrations with TAO leading up to my arrival in the Philippines, which I now realize the reasoning but with the knowledge I had at the time, it was a struggle.  I had some questions about what to bring with me versus what I could buy/rent there.  They provide a simplified list on the website but give you a more comprehensive packing list at the boat check-in the day before – I wish I’d had that in advance!  Also, having never been to El Nido and Coron, I asked for addresses to the TAO office and didn’t receive a lot of help.  I understand now that the towns are so small everyone knows where it is and can direct you.

Boat Check-in

Personally, I thought the check-in was unnecessary from an informational perspective as, again, I’d rather have had that information far in advance so I could’ve planned a bit better.  But, I anticipate part of its purpose is to make sure you are in town the night before departure and so you can meet the crew.  Oh, and to collect the second half of your boat payment, which again would’ve been easier via Paypal then traveling to a foreign country alone with that much money on you (do NOT rely on ATMs).  Make sure you bring 200 extra pesos for the tourist fee.  I didn’t realize you pay this at check-in and if you forget it causes problems the next day.

Other fun things to know is that a case of beer and island massage are included in your boat fee (AWESOME).  They recommend you buy another liter of liquor and liter of mixer per person additional.  And if you love beer maybe another case.  We had PLENTY of alcohol left at the end of the trip and tried to drink all of it on Christmas … you can imagine how that evening turned out.  I went with a bottle of rum and pineapple since they would still taste okay lukewarm.  Rum was 100 pesos and so was pineapple juice which seemed so backwards to me.  I shopped around and that’s about what you are gonna get.

I recommend staying in El Nido town instead of near the TAO office since as I had to go back into town for dinner and to buy the final supplies for the trip (you won’t have time in the morning).  For anything you are buying for your TAO trip in El Nido go to one of the open air shops farther from the beach that has ALL the items you want so that you can barter for a bulk discount of items.  You can check out my packing list here.

The following account is from the boat!


Day One - Friday 23 Dec 2016

Woke up early and triked into town.  I accidentally had them take me all the way over to the boat dock instead of into the main town area and I still needed breakfast so I had to lug all my shit back into town.  Won’t make that mistake again.  You will have A LOT of stuff particularly if traveling alone!

Back at the dock, it came to the attention of the captain that I still needed a tourist visa (remember I’d forgotten my pesos the night before).  This caused some confusion which seems silly to me since I never had to reproduce this piece of paper again.

We boarded the boat and sailed to our first snorkeling location near a cliff.  Following the current along the cliff, the reef is super close to the surface and brilliantly colored.  Fair number of fish and all small which was fine by me!  VERY salty though. This was the best snorkeling of the trip. Realizing I probably should’ve brought my own snorkel and mask because mine was subpar and you are stuck with it the whole trip.  Also flippers would come in handy… I forgot how much effort it is to swim.

We took a break on a beautiful secluded beach on Tapiutan Island with very shallow crystal clear water.  It’s fairly enclosed from the ocean so you can walk from one side to the other through the water.  Drank some beers and got to know some of my fellow travelers.


 Back on the boat, I’d already sussed out that the upper deck was the place to be.  Started to get to know some of the people on the boat - Great group!

I’m all about learning and trying new things… Today I gutted my first fish and learned how to tell if it’s fresh.  As Coach Taylor would say, “Clear eyes, Red gills, Can’t lose.”


We arrived at our first base camp, Cadbo, which would prove to be my favorite of the trip.  There were little sleeping huts lining the cliff overlooking the ocean and a row of picnic tables for family dinner.  The crew set up your “room” which consists of a sleeping pad, a sheet, a pillow and a mosquito net.  Like I said, no princesses. There was an outdoor shower with a bucket of cold water to rinse and a row of massage tables.  Remember how I mentioned free massages?!  Note: you can only get them at the first two base camps so don’t miss out!




 It was here that I realized I wish I had a light long sleeve shirt and pants to ward off mosquitoes.  Instead I took a shower and had to re-spray myself with bug juice – yuck.

Back to trying new things – for dinner I ate fish eye, liver and egg sac for dinner.  The eye was crunchy at first with a burst of liquid (kinda gross), the liver tasted like duck pate and the egg sac tasted almost exactly like scrambled eggs.

The evening ended as I’d find most of them would… with games and rum.


Day Two - Saturday 24 Dec 2016

Woke up feeling a liiitttle dusty and immediately combatted it with a morning massage.  Only problem, I was starving by the time it was over and almost missed breakfast! The coffee was DELICIOUS by the way. I’m usually afraid of the dark (I know I’m a wimp) and was impressed that I slept through the jungley night like a baby.

We packed up and jumped back on the boat.  Time to teach you how to use those 3 different bags I mentioned in my packing list.  It is MUCH easier to have all items you will use on the island for the five days in your dry bag.  This prevents you from having to go under the boat to get your big bag and repack a fresh pair of clothes and swimsuit.  You then have your “boat bag” that contains anything you want during the day on the boat (like your boat towel, flippers, etc).  

I’m glad I’d been taking seasickness pills because multiple people had a bad day at sea.  We arrived at Tao Farm, the main basecamp, with a couple unhappy travelers.  The Farm was awesome although I was starting to get that familiar headache right before you get a sinus infection…uh oh. 

The Farm is a self-sustaining village that grows the plants (and animals) that support the TAO boats and surrounding villages.  They use a lot of this money to put back into education for the village children, improve the lives of their locals and prepare for future typhoons.  Very admirable. 

The tour around the island started with 3 day old piglets who were adorable and then sadly ended with the slaughter of a momma pig who would be Christmas dinner…for us.  Yes, even after this harrowing event, I still love bacon.  There was also a baby puppy (don’t worry we didn’t eat it) who loved chasing the ball as people challenged each other to ping pong.  I’d been watching too much television because the leader of the camp, Eddy, reminded me of Bellamy from The 100.  Our visit ending with caramelized, fried plantains – one of my favorite desserts! 





We sailed a little way to Daracuton Island, our next camp.  It felt much less remote than Cadbo.  We slept in a barn-like structure with two floors, on the beach.  We also learned that a typhoon was about to hit the Philippines which could affect our trip…This location also featured on outdoor shower, without walls, which was a little tricky when it came to putting new clothes on.  Butts out! 

Dinner was delicious and cozy in a big wooden mess hall and degraded once again into drinking games.  The favorite of the night was Kings with the holders of the Snake eyes and Question master cards taking down multiple victims.  The best rule was after every drink you had to make a “brrrr” noise and say “I sh-t myself.” Yes, we are children.

Next up was horse-racing which many of the Europeans in the group hadn’t played before, but boy did the Dutch love it.  When minutes, everyone was standing on the dining benches yelling as the “horses” moved down the table. 

Finished the night chasing sand crabs the color of sand.  Time for bed.


Sunday 25 Dec 2016

Merry Christmas!  Ugh I woke up feeling awful (sick, not hungover!) but at least it meant I was accidentally up for the sunrise, which was stunning. I got to enjoy it all to myself as the rest of the drunks slept it off.  I watched a massive storm cloud swallow the sunrise and pass off into the distance leaving a little rain in its wake. 



 I tried to get back to sleep and managed a few more hours before breakfast which was “hash browns” made from garlic and banana leaves??

Was proud of myself; I went snorkeling at the shipwreck near the island.  It wasn’t super impressive but I did see Nemo!  I’m slowly getting better at this ocean business.



 It was a huge sail day because we needed to cross a large channel of water in case the typhoon hit our area.  Spent it up on top of the boat playing 2 Truths and a Lie and the “Rules” game.  One of the girls had never played before and told the most elaborate stories about her boyfriend instead of just one-liners.  Made the game so much better.  He had done such cool shit it was hard to tell which was the lie!

Lunch on the boat was the best yet – fresh caught tuna in soy sauce and garlic and Spanish mackerel ceviche with lime.  We ate while parked at San Miguel (yup like the beer) on Linapocan. You could snorkel around there but I’d recommend against it… smelled and looked like poo.


Spent the rest of the boat trip napping and then chatting to two crew members who has traveled the world for 3 years doing modeling with only two suitcases to their names.  Impressive.

As we reached the Bulwang base camp, we were greeted by the most beautiful sunset.  It was very red though, sailors beware!  You could see the white caps picking up in the distance.  We’d picked this basecamp to post up because it’s very sheltered in case the typhoon came through.  It had a little house for us with four walls, a porch, a POOL and karaoke!



 The pool was sooo nice.  Chubby, the boat dog, kept running around chasing her reflection.  We had actual showers with a shower head this time, but I missed dumping a bucket on my head.  Dinner was curry with fish and rice, easily my favorite dinner of the trip.  More card games ensued – tonight’s game of choice was “Bullshit.”  My partner and I just tried to be invisible to the bullshitters and we took the game with “2 eights.”

We couldn’t end the night without Christmas Karaoke.  The local boat boys stole the show with their dance moves and voices, but our crew put up a good fight.  I couldn’t have the night end without some Boot, Scoot and Boogie and some good ole fashion American line dancing.


Monday 26 Dec 2016

Thanks to the typhoon we spent another day in Bulwang.  The good news was breakfast was hot porridge served in a coconut with honey and fresh fruit on top.  Need to recreate that one at home.


Still feeling pretty under the weather so didn’t mind spending the day napping in the hammock and swimming in the pool.  Have REALLY enjoyed this trip but am about ready for some AC and a soft bed.  Some people decided to take a 3 hour 4WD trip to Culion Town Proper but I stayed to watch the Dutch v. French play card games.  The French girls kept speaking in French so the Dutch called them out for collusion.  Hell, I couldn’t even figure out how to play the game much less cheat!

After dinner things started to “heat up”… with a massive bonfire that is!  We realized it was our last night and we still had tons of booze so Papa Jay and I bartended the bonfire.  Any time someone’s cup wasn’t completely full we’d pour more rum’n’pineapple in.  Next thing you know tribal dancing ensued, multiple people decided to jump over the bonfire and one crew member lost a leg of his disco trousers. Some people made it to their actual beds… some passed out on the beach.  The final few of us sat on the beach and threw rocks for Chubbs to chase.


Tuesday 27 Dec 2016

The sickness officially took over.  I felt awful.  My sinuses were pounding and I desperately wanted to lie in bed all day.  But Suzanne knew me too well and excitedly woke me up because breakfast was pancakes!  They were very delicious even though my head was pounding so hard I couldn’t concentrate on them.  I must’ve looked like hell because I got patted on the back a few times.

We boarded the boat for the final trip to Coron.  I slept alone on the top deck the whole way.  Bummed I couldn’t spend my final hours with these lovely people, but I just felt so bad.  We stopped at the East Tangat Gunboat Wreck where a couple people snorkeled but apparently it wasn’t great because the typhoon had stirred up the water so you couldn’t see much.

We finally arrived in Coron and all said our goodbyes to a good portion of the crew.  The rest of us decided to meet at a restaurant for a final family dinner before parting ways.

TAO has over 300 base camps so they can change the itinerary based on weather and crew interest.  Here's a picture of the overall trip we took.  


I would highly recommend both sailing The Philippines AND TAO as a company.  I loved the diversity and the energy and engagement of the crew.  I say “crew” because TAO treated us like part of the family, teaching us how to cook, clean fish, and most importantly, KARAOKE!  It’s nice to know I’ve added to my international travel family and look forward to visiting them in the future.  For those of you who were on the boat and reading this post, it was so great to meet you and if you ever find yourself in Sydney you best say “hey!”
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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Philippines - My Island Adventures


I’ve broken up my next two posts on The Philippines into my time on the islands themselves and my sailing experience with TAO because there is so many tips and tricks to share.  For those of you just looking for an itinerary and packing list, check out my last post.  For those, interested in TAO, stay tuned to my next post.

I’ve traveled to many areas of Asia and Southeast Asia from Japan and China to Thailand and Indonesia.  The Philippines has proven to be one of my favorites for three reasons.  
  1. It is noticeably less touristy.  The locations seemed cleaner and safer and the people more honest.  I didn’t feel like I was getting the “tourist price” like I have in other parts of Asia. 
  2. How the country feels so different from America and is similar in many ways thanks to a shared American history from favorite childhood fast food in the Manila airport and the fact that English is the primary language.  It sounds trivial, but when traveling alone it was nice to sometimes feel like we had things in common.  
  3. This country contains all the allure, beauty and charm of the countries that surround it – delicious food, surreal landscapes and friendly locals.
Here’s my breakdown of the cities I visited.

MANILA

When I originally planned the trip, I didn’t feel I needed to spend much time in Manila, but after meeting people on my TAO boat experience who live there, I realize it probably would’ve been fun to spend NYE or a couple days there.  Like most large cities, I think it’d be better to see with someone local to show you around.  I think 1-3 days would suffice.

Getting There -

I flew Cebu Airlines from Sydney which was everything you’d expect from a budget airline – no in-flight entertainment, delayed departures and subpar inflight food. I couldn’t even figure out how to tell if I’d pre-paid for food on the flight.  Turns out you can check the bottom left corner of your airline ticket, but it was too late I’d already ordered a Rueben sandwich from Campos Coffee in the international terminal.  Pretty annoyed, but at least the Rueben was delicious. Once in Manila, it took 40 minutes for my checked bag to come out which was really ridiculous but the upside was the pretty decent free airport wifi.

Accommodation -

The Remington ($104 AUD/night) provided a free airport shuttle (walk towards “Bay 12” and look for a big red bus).  It was a little unnerving having a metal detector and drug dogs at the hotel entrance but otherwise it was a beautiful lobby and lovely people at reception.

The room could’ve been nicer (didn’t quite match the downstairs décor) but was clean, cold and dark perfect for my short overnight stay.  Make sure you ask for a non-smoking floor.  It had a hairdryer, toothbrush/paste, aircon, an inner lock on door and free water.  The late checkout until 2pm would’ve been nice but nothing opens near the hotel until midday and breakfast ends at 10am so you can easily get stuck with nothing to do until your flight.  I’d stay here again as it’s a great option for an overnight airport hotel.  If you are looking to stay in Manila, maybe not the best choice.




Dining –

I received two breakfast vouchers from the hotel so I switched it up with a Filipino meal and an “American breakfast” (just in case).  They were both quite good and the staff was very attentive.  The restaurant itself was a pretty standard hotel lobby café.




PUERTO PRINCESA

The drive from the airport to my hotel reminded me of the drive from Ngurah Rai International in Bali to Ubud with little shops along the road, random stray dogs and motorized trikes. If I’d had the extra holiday, I would’ve liked to see more of Puerto Princesa, particularly the underground river.  Aim for 1-2 days here if you decide to go.

Getting There -

My flight from Manila was delayed about 40 minutes, but at least the flight was short and easy, my bag came out quickly and more free airport wifi.  There was a hotel rep would found me at the airport with a free ride to the hotel (I gave the guy 100 pesos as a tip which I later learned was overkill - 20 pesos is plenty!)  AND THEY HAVE CINNABON!!!



Accommodation -

The Dolce Vita hotel ($64 AUD/night) was way nicer than I anticipated.  Easily the nicest one of the trip besides Boracay and the tea they gave me as a welcome drink was YUM.  My room, Rosal, was larger than my NYC apartment with two double beds plus a bunk bed, a walk in shower, aircon, fridge, free water, etc.  The free toiletries were a little more limited- It had soap.  There’s a lovely pool and restaurant as well.  I would hands down stay here again.






Dining -

The on-site restaurant was adorable and so were the staff.  For 525 pesos, I had two delicious dinners (clearly won’t be losing weight on this trip), a plate of blue marlin and my fav, sizzling sisig.  The marlin was good but completely overshadowed by the sisig.  You can tell the ingredients are SO fresh.  I was so full and still ate every last bite.  One of the most memorable meals of the trip.  I also ordered my complimentary breakfast of taga to be ready at 7:30am the next day.  Taga consists of strips of garlic beef with garlic rice and scrambled egg.  You better like garlic if you come to the Philippines.  It too was lovely.





EL NIDO

For how difficult it is to get to El Nido, I think it’s definitely worth at least 2-3 full days there.  While I enjoyed the bus trip from Puerto Princesa, I’d probably suggest flying direct from El Nido to maximize your time.  It’s maybe a little lonely for the solo traveler, but a perfect spot for honeymooners or co-ed backpackers trip.  It’s just a little beach town like you would find driving the coast of California or Australia.  Wish I’d had more time to check out all the beaches!







Getting There –

You can fly direct from Manila on a pricier ticket or take a cheaper flight to Puerto Princesa and then a bus. I voted for the bus.  First I took a 100 pesos trike to the San Jose bus station in Puerto Princesa from my hotel.  On the way, the driver suggested taking a private van hire instead of the Cherry bus which I’d already booked.  Apparently, the Cherry bus takes 8 hours and the private van takes 5-6.  That’s not what the Cherry bus website told me but of course when I tried to call from my trusty Optus plan it didn’t go through.  I was only down $13 AUD if I ditched the bus so I figured even if I was being played, it was worth the gamble. You can walk to the private van hire area from the bus station in 3 minutes so feel free to do some price comparisons. I bartered a ride to El Nido for 500 pesos in the van.

The van was filled with Filipino women so I felt safe and they were all super friendly showing me photos of their recent trip to El Nido.  Three hundred photos later I had a pretty good idea what I was in for ;-)  I’d also purposely took the day trip instead of traveling at night.  So far I’ve been really impressed with how safe I’ve felt in the Philippines as a white female traveling alone.  I arrived in El Nido at 2pm (trip took 5 hours) and the van dropped me at my hotel.

Accommodation –

At Buena Haven ($83 AUD/night) I was shown to very cute room with aircon and its own private balcony.  The concierge asked if I had a boyfriend which was touching?  Philippines is clearly a couple’s trip as everyone keeps asking “just you?” when I arrive.  It was very homey, more B&B than hotel but it’s a 15 minute trike ride (bargain it down to 30 pesos) from downtown El Nido.  I’d picked it because it’s walking distance to TAO’s office, but knowing what I know now I would’ve stayed in El Nido instead. I ended up making a lot of trips back and forth.  But if you are looking for a nice little hotel near the beach and care less about the town it would make a lovely option for a family or couple.





Dining –

For lunch, I realized I’d forgotten my extra cash at the hotel so after buying a cute bracelet I had to search out a restaurant that took cards.  Make sure you ask before you order and be ready to pay a 6% fee – damn.  I settled on a beachside restaurant with a lovely view and had fresh grilled barracuda with butter and (you guessed it) garlic and a Red Horse beer.  All trip I kept calling it Dark Horse beer until someone pointed out that was the name of a Katy Perry song.  It’s a very strong beer - beware!




For dinner, I met up with some of the girls for at Mezzanine El Nido, an Italian restaurant that took FOREVER to bring our food but the focaccia was worth the wait.   My salad was basic but fresh. 

For breakfast, I got coffee from an amazing little shop near Artcafe.  It’s just a window without a name (sorry!)  She made me the closest thing I’ve had to an American iced coffee in ages – so YUM.  Wish I’d gotten another one.  I asked her for a good local spot for brekkie and she recommended IBR.  The only way you can identify the restaurant is the large yellow sign.  Very non-descript (sort of reminds me of the interior of a McDonalds) and good although I’ve had better meals.  I had the adobo chicken for 160 pesos.





CORON

Glad I didn’t spend more than a night in Coron.  Felt it was very grungy and quiet.  From what I’ve heard people come for the diving so I probably just wasn’t seeing it for what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t need to go back.  I vote 0 days for this spot.



Accommodation –

I tried to walk to my hotel from the boat dock which turned out to be way farther than it appeared on the map.  Ended up grabbing a trike halfway for 20 pesos which was probably over-paying.  I checked into the Darayonan Hotel ($53 AUD/night) which was the least nice place I’ve stayed, so luckily only here for the night.  The room was dumpy, although large, the AC wasn’t very strong, no toiletries besides a bar of soap, no sheet on the bed and no wifi in the rooms.  The wifi only “worked” in the main reception area and at that not very well.  Breakfast was free but not very good either.  I’d pass on this hotel but after chatting to my friend it was probably one of the nicer options.  Eek.  The picture below makes it look way nicer than it was...




Dining -

Our boat crew had our final dinner at Blue Moon a few “blocks” down from my hotel. I struggled my way through dinner with very little appetite because I was sick but even still I thought the pizzas were good and the tuna Arrabiata pasta was delicious.  I ordered a chocolate sundae because I’d been randomly desperate for ice cream the whole boat trip and it was giant and icy cold and soooo good.

Leaving There –

I arrived in Coron via boat so I can only speak to my transportation experience leaving Coron.  It was horrible. I booked a shuttle through the hotel and next thing I know the driver is trying to pack 11 people into 7 seats plus bags.  People were getting super pissed about being late and the complete lack of respect for personal space.  Turns out, while it was annoying at the time, they know what they are doing and we got to the airport with plenty of time to spare (40 minute drive).  Granted I was not happy to fork over the 150 pesos for the ride.  Of course the airport was terrible – no wifi, one food option, no coffee, two toilets for the whole airport and to top it all off my flight was delayed and I had to pay a 100 peso airport tax.



BORACAY

Boracay gets a lot more attention because I spent the most time there, but also because I liked it the best.

Basically, the entire town is built RIGHT along the beach.  As you walk down the “boardwalk” you’ll pass bar, bar, restaurant, shop, smoothie stand, etc.  Mostly all commercial stuff.  If you are looking for actual admin like doctor, phone, grocery, etc, that will be off the beach.  The water is amazing.  It’s only about 3-4 feet deep for about 20-30 feet so you can just lie in it.  So clear and no animals – just how I like it.  The sand in Boracay is  a little weird though.  It attaches to you and never let’s go which is somewhat uncomfortable and sticky.  Better to live in the water!



The boardwalk crosses three different “stations.” 
  • Station 1 is at the “top” and is where Boracay Beach Club (BBC) is located.  The beach here is more rocky, there are less people but still lively, and just feels nicer and more upscale. 
  • Station 2 is where most of the action is and most of the bars.  This is where we spent most of our time.  Definitely more people and more going on and more people pestering you to buy things.  If you want to avoid being sold to, walk on the beach instead of the boardwalk.  I think Station 2 has the best beach and water.  Nice sand without rocks and clear shallow water. 
  • Station 3 was my least favorite – too remote, no people, long stretches in between bars/restaurants, and the beach is filled with boats because this is where you take off for all the water adventures (sailing, parasailing, etc) 

Overall, I had an amazing time here and would highly recommend it for 4-5 days.  I was there in peak season and didn’t feel that it was loud and touristy and dirty like many people warned me it would be.  Easily my favorite parts where our hotel, the pub crawl and Spider House.  And the sunsets are damn incredible.  Any type of traveler would like it here from high-end hotel’ers to backpackers to couples, families and friends.



Getting There –

It’s key to book one complete flight to Boracay instead of two separate flights if you are on another island (most place you must fly through Manila to get there).  It means your checked bag goes all the way through and even better you can take an internal transfer bus from Terminal 3 to 4 rather than getting your checked bag and having to go externally to Terminal 4 where you’ll have to wait in two sets of airport security (you must go through a massive security line just to enter the overall airport).  My travel partner, who was meeting me at our gate, had to pay the guard off to let her cut the first security line. So annoyed I did the Optus mobile plan – everywhere (except Coron) has wifi!

On arrival in Boracay, one of the best choices I made was booking the $25 USD transfer to/from the airport to Boracay Beach Club.  You take a 15 minute van to a 20 minute boat to a 20 minute van to get to the main area of Boracay from Caticlan airport and we didn’t have to wait in any ticket lines.  A guy was there to sort the whole thing.  And they didn’t have a van filled to the brim with people and bags.  Private van hire for the win!  One thing to note is that two porters grabbed our big bags to carry them to the boat, which we thought was part of the service.  It’s not.  They asked for a tip once we got to the boat (20 pesos are PLENTY).

Accommodation-

Boracay Beach Club was the nicest hotel of the trip and the staff were SO lovely (which it better be for $269 AUD/night).  Huge living room with separate bedroom, very comfy bed (first of the trip), great AC, wifi in the room, amazing bathroom and a hair dryer.  FANCY.  They provide new towels and free waters every morning.  Only thing I’d avoid is the welcome drink (or else the airport McDonald’s wasn’t sitting well with my stomach).  For beach towels, they give you “tokens” which you exchange for a towel.  They do this so you can go wherever you want on the island with the hotel towels but if you lose them they’ll know.





Dining and Drinking -

I’m providing a laundry list here because we ate and drank a lot over the four days in no particular order.

BBC in Station 1 - great free breakfast options at the hotel particularly the pancakes. Loved eating Frosted Flakes after a year in Australia (although I forgot how much Asia loves warm milk). 

Sunnyside Café in Station 3 – I’d been told the pulled pork eggs benedict was to die for.  They proved good but I’m realizing that outside of garlic, Filipino food just doesn’t have much spice/flavor so it can seem kind of bland.  I felt like I needed to put hot sauce on the eggs.  My travel partner got the weird looking purple pancake made from yams which were a little sweet but delicious.





Hama Sushi in D Mall in Station 2 - The sushi was good/standard although a bit overpriced particularly when you also have to pay a service charge for the meal.  Very extensive menu though.

Army Navy Burger and Burrito in Station 2 - The quesadillas are out of this world.  I would’ve ordered two orders had I known. I went back for a round two but turns out the rest of their food is subpar – stick to the quesadillas. 

Mango Smoothie Stands – these are everywhere and I wish I’d discovered them sooner.  Yes please!

Treehouse Bar in Station 3 - SO cool.  There was an old Filipino man playing the guitar and singing Johnny Cash, Jefferson Airplane and a bunch of other great oldies.  We sat on floor pillows while leaning against a tree trunk while we sipped our beers.  The staff was also lovely – only downside is it was pricey – 100 pesos for a water and a beer.




Spider House – As mentioned one of the top three things I did in Boracay.  It’s a bit of a hike though.  You take a 20 minute (150 pesos) motor trike which drops you at a walkway entrance.  You cross a little hidden stretch of beach towards Spider House perched on the cliff in the distance.  Walk through a dark creepy cave up into yet another treehouse-like structure.  You need to get there as early as possible for a sunset table and by 3:30pm for ANY table.  If you are waiting for a table or food, feel free to jump off the edge of the restaurant into the ocean (HIGH TIDE ONLY) and kick it in the water.  





I recommend ordering a bunch of food and drinks at once because the kitchen and service gets overloaded.  I got a pizza with salami, green peppers, onions and pineapple, the Spider House sushi special, an order of tuna rolls and like 4 drinks.  The pizza was AMAZING.  The best non-Filipino food of the trip. The sushi special was also good and thank god they forgot to bring my tuna rolls because I was stuffed.  Note – the gin and tonics are very strong so if you don’t like that order the drink in a tall glass.  They also had hookah for 1000 pesos.  You can pay with cash or card and be prepared for a good-looking, young crowd (think Meatpacking NYC, Manhattan Beach CA, and Coogee Pav Sydney).




Exit Bar in Station 2 – My favorite late night bar/club of the trip.  It reminded me a lot of Burning Man thanks to the open-air atmosphere, dancey crowd and DJ playing great house music. 

The Pub Crawl Bars & Clubs:
  • GT Hotel – starting point of the pub crawl, pretty bleh
  • Gypsea – treehouse bar that is AWESOME but maybe not the best first stop.  The area we had was small and dark and loud which makes it a difficult place to meet people.
  • Epic – beach club that is one of the more popular, good music, good crowd, not really a club so much as an area of sand with walls and a bar, kind of annoying that if you leave you have to wait in line to get back in
  • Paraw – loved this place, two level club on the beach, great music and open to the beach so you drink beers and come and go.  We went back for NYE and they set off fireworks from the water.
  • Cocomangas – VERY standard backpacker bar, we were pretty drunk by the time we made it here so perfect for dancing like maniacs, sub-standard Top 40 music and right next door to BBC for easy stumble home




Activities -

Parasailing - We got a guy in Station 3 down from 3000 pesos for 2 to 2400 for 2 to go out at sunset.  When we arrived, he asked if two more people could join our boat and we’d pay 2000 for 2.  It wasn’t until we’d been on the outrigger for 15-20 minutes that I realized we’d somehow ended up on a regular sailing trip not the parasailing. I was so pissed because I’d been very clear and after 5:30pm they won’t take you out anymore so we were SOL. I do think it was an honest miscommunication but I still insisted on our money back. We managed to get 1300 of our 2000 back but it was our second to last day and he told us that since tomorrow was NYE the parasailing was done.

Pub Crawl – SO WORTH IT!  Costs 990 pesos for 5 stops and you get 10 free shots, drink specials, free entry to the 2 clubs and a T-shirt and shot glass to keep.  See above for the bars on the pub crawl and my thoughts on each.  I was surprised at the variety of ages on the pub crawl – everywhere from 18 to mid 30s I feel like.  Also by the end there was probably about 100 people that showed up so it was full on.

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