Secret Paradise in Palawan

I just stumbled on a precious find and initially deliberated whether to share it or just keep it to myself. Like prophetic good news, my conscience dictated that an ethereal sanctuary like this is a joy forever and ought to be shared. Truth is, “passionate desires to fulfill one’s dreams are the reason for this secret.”
 
For many years, it was a childhood wish of amiable gentleman Mark to be a steward of his dream destination. As a precocious toddler, his loving grandmother would read to him stories about swashbuckling pirates enamored of beautiful maidens, hidden treasures of nature in far away tropical islands where forested mountains towering high above seemed to kiss the sky and playful turtles came to lay their eggs as they followed the luminous glow of a glorious moon.
 
Mark’s dream was not in vain; good luck, good karma, sheer determination, persistence and hard work enabled this indefatigable carpenter with a kind heart to fulfill his destiny. For decades, Mark worked many hours as a carpenter nine months of the year and traveled the world the remaining time as an adventurous backpacker in search of beauty in other cultures, lands and people.
 
After traveling the most exotic destinations of the globe for 20 years that took him to the hill tribes of Burma and Thailand, the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, sights and scents of Vietnam, the beaches of the Caribbean, quaint towns of Europe, landscapes of America and Australia, he finally found the “pearl of great price” in the Philippines — right there at the pristine cove in Turtle Bay, Barangay Barong Bong, Port Barton, San Vicente., Palawan. A Philippine corporation set up the Secret Paradise Resort and Nature Reserve, where Mark sits as CEO. To protect the environment and its inhabitants, the Turtle Conservation Sanctuary was established with creative genius Raul Boncan Jr. (president of Cordillera School of Digital Arts) as executive director. For this dynamic duo, their love for nature was an instant catalyst that brought them together.
 
In retrospect, a child who belonged to the clan who owned the property figured in a serious fall and without batting an eyelash, Mark took the child to a nearby hospital on his motorized banca, thereby saving the child’s life. This act of unconditional kindness endeared Mark to the family and they allowed him to create the development that beckons today. The emerald jewel is a 52-hectare nature reserve, which is a stunning island retreat with luxuriant vegetation nestled along a lagoon of serene waters whose color graduates from sparkling blue to turquoise as they lap up the shore. Bounded by lush forests and a three-kilometer long coastline dotted with coconut trees, the resort features three gorgeous white sandy beaches, namely “Sunset Beach,” “Turtle Beach” and ”Hideaway Beach,” which are all accessible within a 15-minute walk of each other. Every night is an amazing sunset in front of the bay. The resort is situated between Sabang’s Puerto Princesa Underground River, named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World 2012 and Port Barton’s Marine Park. San Vicente is only one hour away where the new airport is being built.
 
The resort offers six cozy cottages and rooms with all the luxuries in life one will ever need. Currently, it is the only premier resort in Port Barton that accepts PayPal, provides free Wi-Fi access for all its guests, has air-conditioning, hot-water showers and a native sauna. My gregarious sister Jaqui Boncan truly enjoyed their hilot massage using their own concoction of coconut oil. The chefs at the resort can also cook fresh catch from the sea to your heart’s delight. Freshly harvested sea urchin, succulent squid and various fish are served here as well but sourced nearby. Fishing is not allowed in this protected marine reservoir.
 
Hundreds of narra, mahogany and other hardwood trees planted in the area have earned these stewards numerous carbon credits. Mark shares, “Secret Paradise Resort and Nature Reserve is a refuge for all animals to be free, it is there to protect the sea turtles, corals and encourage more sea life.”
 
Did you know that in this sanctuary, turtles come to shore and lay their eggs, which hatch in 45 days? What a surreal sight to witness hundreds of baby turtles marching back to the sea to propagate. After 26 years, these turtles will return to the exact spot where they were hatched. Studies show that out of hundreds of eggs hatched, only 10 percent survive. The 90 percent get lost going the opposite way into the jungle and are eaten by predators. Others are eaten by Palawan eagles, dogs, monkeys, or large fish. Turtle Bay is a large 28-hectare sea area that has successfully protected these endearing creatures. All year round, one will find turtles swimming in the bay.
 
There is also diving available in the Port Barton Area, just a stone’s throw away from Secret Paradise Resort. The dive operator took us to a reef system in the middle of the channel. A series of craggy rocks breaking the surface was our telltale sign of the underwater community underneath. The location in the middle of a channel with strong currents guaranteed sightings of both aquarium and food-grade fish. There were three kinds of angelfish, anthias and fusiliers. There were pockets of colorful soft corals in the overhangs we saw. It was also heartening to see that corals, both hard and soft, were regrowing as this area was hard hit by the 1998 El Niño phenomenon. We were told that there were other reefs and even a Japanese-era wreck in the vicinity.
 
Conde Nast Traveller has cited Palawan among “The Best Beaches Overall in Asia.” Blessed with over 1,700 islands, it boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites — the Puerto Princesa Underground River named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World 2012 and the Tubbataha Marine Park off the municipality of Cagayancillo. When visiting Secret Paradise Resort, a trip to this amazing underground river that is just an hour and a half away is highly recommended. Our group led by Mark traversed the surreal cavern with high-powered lamps handled by expert guides. We were awed by the spectacle of mysterious grottos, gothic chambers and massive geological formations that resembled the set of an Indiana Jones film. It was like cruising onto the set of a National Geographic show. Reputed to be the “world’s longest navigable underground river,” at a former length of 8.2 kilometers, recent explorations of over five kilometers of new tunnels with dramatic passages with amazing dimensions by Italian explorers have increased the length of the Underground River complex to over 30 kms. Altogether, almost 10 kms. of caves were found, seven to eight kilometers of which were newly explored. Expedition member Luca Gandolfo described this feat as a victorious conquest of “those adrenaline-soaked sensations that come from venturing out where no man has ever been before, in the bowels of the Saint Paul Dome.”
 
After the cruise in the Seventh Wonder of the World, Mark took us back to Port Barton where we boarded the van for the airport. I will never forget how he shared that, 20 years from now, the Secret Paradise Resort will be even lovelier than when he found it. Most of us desire to embrace life in paradise. More often than not, paradise is described as living in a tropical haven on island time — when we find the luxury to observe the waves that drift unabashedly ashore, when we can lie on a hammock under the swaying palm fronds and dance gracefully before a sunrise or sunset. We gravitate towards the islands that possess a magical quality that unleashes an endorphin rush to the heart and mind. Just like Mark, who followed the golden path to his destiny, let us seek and conquer our hearts desire. This is the only way we can truly claim that we are happy, whole and perfect. Lest we forget, life is short and no secret can be kept hidden for long — especially if it’s as magical as the one we just found.
 
* * *
 
Private transfer by land and boat to and from Secret Paradise Resort can be booked by visiting www.secretparadiseresort.com. For inquiries, e-mail inquiries@secretparadiseresort.com. For more turtle information, e-mail boncan@secretparadise.com : You can view their turtle video on YouTube or on their website.
 
Airphil Express flies from Manila to Puerto Princesa City twice daily. For reservation, call 855-9000.
  
Published on January 29, 2012
The Philippine Star, by Christine Dayrit