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A speck of white, a sea of blue

The big boat dodged the big waves, the rest it just rode out. It’s been almost an hour of rough seas, and my companions were turning green, trying hard to keep from grumbling.

I, however, was lost in my memories. Our big, bouncy boat was taking us to my favorite secret place of all, and no seasickness can bring me down (besides, I am the granddaughter of a fisherman—I dig waves).

The grumbling stopped before the boat’s engine did. Isla Arena’s white sand glinted from afar. Everyone forgot the dicey trip and focused on the best color of bikinis for this immaculate backdrop.

Isla Arena sandbar

Isla Arena sandbar

“Welcome back!” bellowed no less than the owner, Roland Rodriguez, who everyone calls Mr. Fuji (his features are Japanese but his burnt brown skin is undeniably Filipino—he enjoys confusing people on his nationality). My husband and I were his first media guests on the island two years ago.

To our companions, he said: “Please treat this as your private island for the next three days. It’s all yours.” That sent the boys and girls practically all over him in excitement.

Mr. Fuji introduced us to a balikbayan family from Australia who was just leaving the island when we arrived. They had been to the Great Barrier Reef a few months before their Palawan trip, and recalled vividly the feeling of swimming with magnificent marine creatures. They were thrilled by the experience but Isla Arena is another story altogether, they said.

The place gets even more beautiful at dusk

The place gets even more beautiful at dusk

There was a different vibe here, a sense of being left alone—but with enough resources to last until you decide you’d like to connect with the outside world again.

“You can say it’s the poor man’s Amanpulo. You may not get the same amenities, but you get the same privacy,” says Mr. Fuji, an engineer from Puerto Princesa who spotted the island from one of his mountaintop posts in Narra in 1976.

Isla Arena sits on a 30-hectare coral garden, an hour by boat from the mainland municipality of Narra, which is two hours’ drive from Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa.

For 28 years, it has been a well-kept private island, open only to friends and family of Mr. Fuji. In 2011, he decided to open it as an exclusive getaway, partly to encourage marine conservation and partly to maintain the island.

Unfrequented by humans, Isla Arena’s beach is an ideal nesting site for turtles. Each night, a guard roams the island to check for new nests. The summer months of March to May are especially busy.

The Philippines is home to five of seven known species of marine turtles in the world (Green and Hawksbill Turtles are the frequent visitors to Isla Arena), all of which are either threatened or endangered.

While females lay as many as 150 eggs at a time, less than one percent of hatchlings survive. Once out of their nests, the baby turtles are prone to predators like birds, crabs, big fishes and other sea creatures.

The last time I was in Isla Arena, there were more turtles than humans on the island.

In fact, my husband and I had not been three hours there when tiny, almost-black hatchlings—at least 40 of them—emerged from the sand, a few meters from where we had just finished lunch, and were scurrying blindly in different directions. The staff scrambled after the little creatures, picking up as many as they could and placing them in a basin with saltwater. We watched, fascinated by the whole scene.

It was good luck, they told us during that first visit, to chance upon turtle eggs hatching.

Now I don’t believe in luck, but I believe in good, and I was sure that where we were then, that white speck in the vast, blue Sulu Sea, was a very good place.

That’s why we were back two years later with family, friends and high expectations, to finally share our secret paradise in Palawan.

There were no more turtle hatchlings this time, as the government has asked the resort to halt its rear-and-release program in January this year. But everything else was still there—the thoughtfully placed hammocks, the charming treehouse, that perfect driftwood table under the Balete tree, and the silence.

While day-trippers from another resort occasionally come to Isla Arena, Mr. Fuji limits the number of people on the island to keep it relatively undisturbed. Peace and quiet, after all, are its precious gifts. And they are unmatched.

“This is where you go to think or write a book. You can stay for a few weeks or a month—no one is going to disturb you, and the staff can bring you whatever you need,” Mr. Fuji said.

The island is self-sufficient: it has two casitas (best for honeymooners), two pavilions (for large groups), a desalination plant, a treatment plant for rainwater (which is used in the toilets), solar panels, a generator that runs after 6 p.m., and a well-equipped kitchen that prepares whatever the “fishing unit”—staff assigned to go out and catch food everyday—gets from the sea or buys from passing fishermen.

On our first visit, we were spoiled with sand lobsters, shrimps and the freshest sashimi; on our second visit, we had all kinds of fish. If you crave meat and vegetables, just inform the staff in advance so they can go to the market in the mainland.

If you want a massage, let them know ahead of time as well, because the resort’s “resident” masseuse actually stays in Narra and will be fetched only for scheduled massages. I tell you, they send out a boat for her for a good reason—she’s well worth it. It’s hard to top having a massage on that island, being lulled to sleep (on your own bed, not on the sand) by the gentle breeze.

Truth is, it’s hard to top anything on Isla Arena: videoke is never as liberating—with no one to complain, you can belt out and sing to the Sulu Sea; reading is never as relaxing, your feet up on a hammock or sprawled on a beach mat; afternoon dips are never as undisturbed because there are no vendors trying to sell you pearls; morning coffee, even if it’s just the instant 3-in-1, is never as insightful.

In fact, as I enjoyed my Nescafe and took in the 360-degree sea view, my sisters out in the water, my friends taking self-portraits, I felt a rare, impenetrable sense of contentment and gratitude. It’s not every day you get to sit down and really dwell in such simple, pure moments.

I suddenly remembered what the resort staff told us about catching turtle eggs hatching—I am, it turns out, more than lucky. ##

under the tree, down there it's better...

under the tree, down there it’s better…

PRICE TAG

casita dos

casita dos

Isla Arena Turtle Sanctuary Resort has two casitas (Php25,000/night for two people), two pavilions (Php15,000/ night for 10 people inclusive of airport transfers) and a treehouse (Php8,000/night on single occupancy). Full-board meals for non-casita guests are Php800/ person. All bookings come with free boat and land transfers from Puerto Princesa, personal butler, use of snorkeling gear, and use of the treehouse and floating deck. For inquiries, visit www.arenaisland.com.

The resort also offers promotions in low season and on coupon-buying sites like Deal Grocer.

AND GUESS WHAT?

Palawan was named 2013 World’s Best Island by readers of Travel+Leisure, a well-respected international publication and authority on travel. Last year’s best island, Boracay, dropped to second place this year. Both Philippine destinations bested usual favorites like Bali (Indonesia), Maui and Kauai (Hawaii), Santorini (Greece) and even the exotic Galapagos.

IMG_4933

Doesn’t this just call out to you?

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