Our "honeymoon in a honeymoon" brought us to the Philippines where we enjoyed a five night/four day expedition in Palawan, the western most part of the Philippines. The company we traveled with, Tao Philippines, is an ethical tourism company that offers free-form maritime expeditions exploring the Linapacan group, a remote chain of islands that is home to a few fishing villages but no other outside tourism. Tao calls it an "expedition" not a "tour" because there is no set route or plan for the trip. The boat travels between the towns of El Nido and Coron with a direction of travel but no fixed itinerary; the boat crew, almost all Palawan locals, determine the route and stops based on weather, supplies, and of course, sharing with passengers the best beaches, snorkeling, hiking, and island exploration we've ever seen. Each day we'd visit 3-5 beaches or snorkeling sites, eat our fill of fresh, gourmet-level Filipino food on the boat, and camp out for the night in beach huts at one of the many base camps along the way. There were also massages, a visit to Tao's foundation farm, a kayak trip through mangrove swamps, a hike to a hidden waterfall and freshwater pool, fishing off the boat, plenty of local rum cocktails, and the brilliant colors of each day's sunset.
A normal Tao expedition has 10-20 passengers plus crew. Since we booked one of the first cruises of the season, however, the only other passenger on our trip was a friendly Australian woman traveling alone. With only three passengers and a crew of six on a boat designed for 20, we had ample room to spread out on what turned out to be our semi-private getaway.
Our meals were prepared by our on board chef Aldrin, who made us Filipino meals based on fresh, local produce and fish caught daily from the back of the boat or a local village. Aldrin was both skilled and friendly, happy to answer our questions about how he prepared the meals as we at times peppered him with questions about how to cook Filipino style. Our favorites were Filipino adobe dishes and the Thai curry dishes. Below are some photos of several of our meals, including fresh fish, crab, and squid. The sashimi in the pictures was made with fish caught five minutes beforehand!
Swimming is something I can do (MIT still has a swim test as a graduation requirement), but I never became comfortable in the water. Every time I swim I seem to use more energy and to breath harder than everyone else around me, including people who I was in obvious better physical health than. This made such a water-centric trip a challenge for me. Everyday we were snorkeling, often 3 or 4 times. I had never snorkeled before and the first several times we snorkeled, I felt like I couldn't quite get enough air through the snorkel and that it took too much energy to stay afloat. Several times we snorkeled in deep water and I found it very frightening. As we floated along, I would be using all my energy to stay above the short waves and sucking hard on my snorkel trying to pull down more oxygen than it would provide. There was always a kayak nearby watching us and ready to help if we couldn't stay afloat, but the first couple of days snorkeling was a taxing and unpleasant experience for me.
Being on a boat trip, however, there was no better time to try to force myself to become more comfortable in the water. Although nervous, I jumped into the water at each stop and each time improved my floating and swimming ability a little bit. After the second day I could relax enough in the water to enjoy the view of the colorful tropical fish and coral. By the end of the trip I became better at slowly breathing and floating. The expedition proved to be a great opportunity to become a little more at ease in water, something that would prove invaluable before our scuba class the following week (which will be a topic of a follow up blog post).
We stopped at countless numbers of beaches and snorkeled at least twice daily, but my favorite activity of the trip was the time we got into kayaks and paddled through a mangrove forest to an island with a secluded waterfall. In the highlight video below is a segment of us both in the mangroves and jumping into the cool freshwater river by the waterfall.
(The video also includes the preparation of chicken and fish on the boat.)
Tao Philippines was founded by two men after they took a boat trip through northern Palawan and were inspired to share the region's natural beauty with other travelers. Much of the profits of the company go to the Tao Foundation, an organization they have set up to help the villages on the various islands their expeditions visit. In recent typhoons they have been the first organization (or only organization) to reach many of these villages to help out after the storm. In addition to relief work, they have funded daycare center in villages to allow women to have jobs outside the home.
The first stop on our trip was to the Tao farm. Tao is aware that many of the fishing and farming practices of the villages, including dynamite fishing and slash and burn farming, are unsustainable. On the Tao farm they are experimenting with crops not native to the area to see if they can grow in Palawan. They hope to identify farming and fishing practices that they can introduce to the villages that are more sustainable than the current practices or that will work after fishing ceases to become a stable source of income.
Other projects on the farm included the development of a stove that would require less wood or charcoal (and reduce the number of trees needed to be harvested for fuel), aquaculture and the building of a large, permanent school.
The Tao Philippines trip was quite expensive for us compared to our normal travel budget, but we were happy to be supporting a company that was invested in the community. During the expedition the staff would regularly mention how the founders had helped build homes in one village or replaced typhoon-damaged boats in another. Tao Philippines also did an excellent job of making sure our voyage was environmentally responsible by recycling, building beach huts with local material, and relying entirely on local fish and produce.
The Tao Expedition is the entire reason we diverted our journey from China to the Philippines. Our week on the boat felt like a real honeymoon adventure.