The nest best thing

El Nido's Lagen Island Resort offers a sea change of pace, writes John Borthwick.

EL NIDO'S upstart islets might have been sculpted by some Jurassic-era genius. As piers of coral, undercut for eons by the tide, the most delicate of them now balance like carved ballerinas on a sea-blue stage.

El Nido means The Nest - after the swallow's nests collected here for bird's nest soup - and its marine reserve is the jewel in the crown of Palawan, a spectacular archipelago in the south-western Philippines.

With 1770 islands that stretch 650 kilometres down the South China Sea, Palawan is one of the Pacific's best-kept secrets.

Lagen Island Resort sits in Bacuit Bay, surrounded by a lei of some 45 limestone isles that hide tiny half-moon beaches and soaring cliffs. The 310-hectare island takes its name from the local word for "stone stove" because its shape resembles a primitive stove with funnels.

As the most luxurious resort in the El Nido region, Lagen has 51 spacious over-water cottages and beach suites. My water cottage looks across a lagoon cove, around which vertical, vine-clad cliffs rise to enclose the resort and its crescent of beach. The water cottages and beachfront cottages line both sides of the cove, while the the forest rooms and suites nestle, as the name suggests, back near the jungle canopy.

My cottage has huge sliding glass doors that open to a private balcony over the little lagoon. The polished wooden floors and furnishings made from indigenous woods and textiles maintain the warm Filipino ambience, as opposed to a could-be-anywhere luxury decor. Of my various electronic apparatus - TV, CD player and air-con - the one that stays definitely untouched is that bizarre self-serenading device, an in-room karaoke system. No way. Instead, from the daybed on my balcony I dangle a line in the lagoon, feed the fish, read, or photograph the local banca boats putt-putting across the sunset.

My fellow guests are a mix of Western tourists, expats, Filipinos and several honeymooning Korean couples. You know you're getting old when the honeymooners look too young to even vote. One evening, as I survey the lush dinner buffet - will I have sashimi, chicken adobo or beef satay? - I notice a young Korean looking perplexed. Spoilt for choice by the gourmet overload, perhaps? After he has a worried word with the head waiter, a chef soon hurries from the kitchen to present him and his bride with their hearts' desire - instant noodles in a cup.

The resort's sports centre has water toys galore - kayaks, sailboards, aqua-bikes, water-skis, Hobie cats - and offers daily island-hopping to the pristine lagoons and coves of El Nido Marine Reserve. The reserve and its uninhabited islands are home to a score of scuba diving sites, most with 20- to 30-metre visibility. Wherever our excursion boat wanders seems to be a diver's, or snorkeller's, paradise with some 200 species of fish and 100 species of coral down there for our delight.

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The boatmen - all local villagers - show us their domain of secret lagoons, ancient burial caves, tiny beaches and the 250-million-year-old limestone cliffs that they still scale for swallows' nests, a precious if dubious gourmet treat.

By using local staff and services, upmarket tourism has brought a sustainable, alternative income to many villagers.

Swapping our motorised outrigger boat for kayaks, we make our way through a coral archway into a lagoon that's accessible only at low tide. Within its silent grotto we see elegant black herons swoop above a lagoon that's tinted as though with ink, while stingrays pulse languidly across the sandy floor.

Next morning as I snorkel off Lagen lagoon, I scatter some bread in the water. Soon I am the most popular man in El Nido as a whirlpool of thousands of jackfish churns the water around me. Later, heading to breakfast, I notice that the noodle-loving couple are also enchanted by snorkelling - but in the pool. Should I tell them about the bread-and-jackfish show? No, they're having too much fun.

TRIP NOTES

* Lagen Island Resort: Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines.

* Getting There: Fly Philippine Airlines to Manila (phone 1300 888 725; http://www.philippineair.com). From Manila there are daily flights (90 minutes duration) to El Nido Airport; it is then a 50-minute scenic boat ride to Lagen Island.

* Contact: sales@elnidoresorts.com or phone (0011) 632 894 5644.

* Website: http://www.elnidoresorts.com

* Rates: From $US190 per person per night, all inclusive.

* Special: Pay four nights, get the fifth free. Children up to age 11 stay free.

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