Louise Southerden floats past jellyfish and limestone cliffs while paddling a remote archipelago.
The Philippines is, to most of us, a tropical mystery. A place more often associated in the past with kidnappings and typhoons than experiences that might entice us to visit. But to stay away would be to miss out. ''It used to be an easy decision: just don't come here,'' says our guide, Lee, an American who has lived in Micronesia for more than a decade - first Palau, then Guam and now the Philippines. ''Now, people are coming and seeing how beautiful it is and the drawcards are starting to outweigh the drawbacks.''
It's true: tourism has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s and 132,000 Australians visited the Philippines last year, half as many as went to Fiji.
The key to enjoying this nation of islands, as Lee says, is to quickly escape the frenzy of Manila. So we do. Early the day after we fly in, we're flying out again - to Palawan, 430 kilometres and 90 minutes by chartered flight south-west of Manila.
Of the 7107 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago, Palawan is the third largest and the most sparsely populated. It's also a world away from the rest of the Philippines and has more in common with Borneo in terms of its flora, fauna and geology, because the two islands were once connected by a land bridge.
Our starting point is El Nido, in northern Palawan, a ramshackle tourist town squeezed between high limestone walls and the blue waters of Bacuit Bay, which my nine Australian companions and I have come to circumnavigate by sea kayak. From the air, the 45 karst-limestone islands populating the bay are a motley bunch: there are rocky question marks and commas curving around empty beaches; some have beards of green vegetation and many rise like fins from the shining South China Sea.
From sea level they're even more impressive. As soon as we arrive at El Nido we're launching our single and double kayaks from the strip of sand in front of a row of beachfront cafes, dodging children somersaulting into the water from the outriggers of tourist boats, and heading for Cadlao Island, just offshore. Here, we have our first taste of what we've come for: big-wall paddling. It's intimidating at first, paddling past limestone cliffs that rise vertically from sea level to a neck-craning height of up to 200 metres. Imagine Halong Bay in Vietnam or Guilin in China (which are geologically similar, being on the same continental plate as Palawan) in a tropical setting - that's Bacuit Bay.
We also see how El Nido (''the nest'' in Spanish) got its name. Halfway up one wall, there are huts and bamboo scaffolding, used to harvest edible swiflet nests that are exported to China for bird's-nest soup. Harvesters arrive at the walls by boat and climb up to the nests made by these sparrow-like birds; if the nests are unfinished, the men must stay, for days or weeks - in the huts or perched on wooden poles wedged in cracks in the rocks - to prevent other harvesters gazumping them. Nests can fetch $US5000 ($5080) each, so it's worth their wait.
Lee directs us to a tiny beach and we don masks and snorkels. It's an ''average'' snorkelling spot by Palawan standards but the range of marine life blows us away; we end up spending more than an hour face-down in the 28-degree water, watching lionfish, metre-long sea cucumbers, Nemo-like anemonefish and 200-year-old volcano sponges.
This first day sets the rhythm for our nine-day trip: we kayak a bit, cool off with a snorkel, kayak to another beach, snorkel some more, kayak, snorkel, kayak, snorkel - until we find ourselves at our island campsite, a row of yellow tents pitched above the high-tide mark by our Filipino crew (all the gear is transported in a support boat, the Loralei Jean). The keener members of our group snorkel until dark while the rest of us rinse off the day's salt, taking turns in the shower tent (there's a drum of warm water we ladle onto ourselves) and pore over Lee's reference books - he happens to be a marine biologist.
Jacques Cousteau considered Palawan one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world. It was designated a game and wildlife sanctuary in 1967 and the waters around El Nido were protected in 1998. Now it's a safe haven for 200 bird species, 600 species of butterflies, 1500 kinds of flowering plants - along with 400 corals and 1300 species of tropical fish.
Every day we see fish we've never seen before, corals we've never heard of and tropical creatures as colourful and curious as their names: zebra moray eels, hump-headed bannerfish, Christmas tree worms, Javanese damselfish and beaded anemones. We see chequered snapper, mantis shrimps, blue-lipped giant clams, rainbow runners, parrot fish and crocodile needlefish.
We're seldom more than an hour's outrigger ride from El Nido but the beaches we camp on seem days away. One, Culasa Beach, is surrounded by fortress-like limestone walls topped by grotesques - Lee says Filipino guides can always see Jesus or Mary in rock formations - and inhabited by macaques that wake us in the morning by tossing seed pods onto our tents. Another camp, on the island of Pinagbuyatan, has a powdery white-sand beach and a view across the water to Malapacao, a mini Lord Howe Island, with two rocky peaks and another fine-sand beach between them.
We dine each night - on fairly bland chicken, pork or fish, with rice - at a long table with our feet in the sand and our eyes on the karst islands rising like tombstones in all directions. For light, there are flaming torches on bamboo poles stuck in the ground around us and, some nights, bioluminescent crustaceans at the water's edge and fireflies in the trees.
Most mornings we have a swim before breakfast to cool off after a hot night and set off early while the water is still glassy.
We stop to snorkel five or six times a day, for up to an hour each time, but it never gets dull. In Tapiutan Strait, on day four, there are so many fish and the water is so clear it's like swimming in an aquarium. At the Corner, where the coral reef below us falls away to a depth of 20 metres to 30 metres, the water is so blue it's like floating in space. Jellyfish drift past our masks, completing the illusion.
In fact, this is a snorkelling trip as much as a kayaking one. Not that the kayaking is just a means of getting from one snorkelling spot to the next, not at all.
Paddling quietly alongside those big walls, for one thing, close enough to touch the sharp grey rock, offers an intimacy with them that's impossible to access any other way.
We thread ourselves through natural archways and, seeking relief from the heat on windless days, duck under overhangs. Unlike other ''mushroom'' islands - in southern Thailand, for instance - Palawan's islets are so undercut, so eroded by the sea, that we can paddle three or four abreast and all be in the blessed shade.
Crossing between islands, we keep our eyes peeled for dolphins, minke whales and dugongs and temporarily lose each other in the troughs between swells. At Big Lagoon, a 250-metre-long ''marine lake'' created by rain leaching through solid limestone, we drift in single file through a side canyon we call the Tunnel of Love, pushing off the walls with our hands, our kayaks like boats in a theme park.
Halfway through the trip, we stay at an eco-resort on Miniloc Island. I feel scruffy paddling past the resort's water-view cottages and landing on its neatly raked beach but we're given the same singing welcome and long, cool drinks as guests who arrive by boat.
Built in the 1980s by Ten Knots Development Corporation (formed by a group of environmentally aware divers in 1981), Miniloc Island Resort is surprisingly, authentically green with plenty of visible eco-initiatives such as solar panels, biodegradable soaps and plastic bags to encourage guests to collect rubbish on the beaches they visit.
By sunset, we're sipping Bacuit breezers and clownfish monk cocktails at the thatched beachside bar, feeling transformed by conditioner, combs and clean clothes. Dinner is almost surreal: at an outdoor table decorated with fresh flowers and candles, we feast on a buffet that includes mango cheesecake and a chocolate fountain for dessert, before leaning back in our cane chairs to watch a performance of south-east Asian dances.
We're back in our kayaks next morning, refreshed after our night of low-key luxury but ready to paddle again. Our first stop is Small Lagoon, a popular tourist spot. We see tourists almost every day, mostly on the beaches we stop at for lunch and passing us in motorised outriggers but very few travel by kayak. Some might take day trips in sit-on-top kayaks but ours is the first multiday trip in Bacuit Bay using expedition kayaks and there are only two scheduled departures a year - which makes the trip feel more exclusive than any resort.
Besides, kayaks have advantages over tourist boats. We paddle inside a cave that larger boats can only nose into, their passengers taking turns standing on the bow to see what looks like a flooded cathedral. Because we're so quiet, we often see turtles, schools of sardines that move across the water like skimming stones and hundreds of silvery-blue flying fish. One flies into the side of my kayak - thwack! - before coming to its senses midair and leaping away.
We also have the freedom to leave the tourist track completely.
On day six, we paddle past Vigan Village, waving at children waving at us from the cut-out windows of stilt huts held together by political campaign posters (for coming elections). On our last full day paddling, we take the kayaks up a mangrove-lined river that narrows until the roots make muddy brushstrokes on the sides of our kayaks and the air becomes still and filled with bird calls and mosquitoes. Large green leaves close in overhead, blocking out the sky. It's a relief when we finally turn around and feel the sea breeze on our faces again.
Back in El Nido on our last morning, we ride to the airport in cyclos - motorbikes with covered side-cars and names such as Born 2B Alive and Sagittarius. Local regulations require us to arrive two hours before our 90-minute flight back to Manila, which gives us time to make the transition from sand, sea and sky to airline schedules and airconditioning. It's a long wait.
There are postcards to be written and An Inconvenient Truth screens non-stop on the wall-mounted television (this small airline was the first in the Philippines to offer carbon offsets).
But I'm daydreaming about Palawan's beaches and wishing I was back at one of them, watching the day changing into its evening colours, the sea rocking me gently and my head, happily, as empty as a shell.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Southern Sea Ventures.
Philippine Airlines flies non-stop from Sydney to Manila (7hr 40min) for about $1060; Melbourne passengers pay about the same and transit in Sydney. Fare is low-season return, including tax. Qantas also flies non-stop from Sydney.
Island Transvoyager Inc flies three times a day between Manila and El Nido (90min), where kayaking trips begin (charter flights are included in the trip cost). You can buy carbon offsets for your flights to and from El Nido for 200 pesos ($4.70) at El Nido airport.
Southern Sea Ventures runs nine-day sea kayaking trips (with eight days of paddling) in Palawan twice a year. The next departures are February 3 and May 16. Trips cost $US2250 ($2287) a person, including kayaking and camping gear, experienced guides, a support boat, all meals, twin-share hotel accommodation on day one and resort accommodation on day five and return flights to El Nido from Manila. Some paddling experience is recommended; single and double kayaks are used and there are three to five hours of paddling a day. There's also an optional three-day side trip to snorkel with whale sharks at Donsol, for $US360 plus domestic airfare of about $US110.