After the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, what’s next?
An island-hopping voyage through the Philippines, suggests Lindsay Talbot, who heads east to explore the next great cruising destination.
This past winter, my 70-year-old aunt and I flew from New York to Hong Kong and headed south for the Philippines. The 7,107-island chain has long been overlooked by American travelers, but I was enticed by its mix of historic cities and empty emerald keys. Most of all, I wanted to visit Coron, an undeveloped tropical sliver of Palawan, an island and its adjacent islets that stretches between the Sulu and South China seas and calls itself “the last frontier.” (Palawan is, in fact, having a moment: Last year, it was ranked the number one island in the world in Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards.) Palawan’s most pristine islands are accessible only by boat—there are hardly any hotels—but how to get there? The 650-foot-long Seabourn Sojourn, which was just small enough to fit into shallow ports and to reach remote isthmuses, was an ideal choice.
Growing up, I had been on more than a dozen cruises, but those were mostly on gleaming-white mega-ships through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, complete with midnight buffets, lido decks with putting greens, and amusement park–worthy water slides. Still, I’d come to appreciate the ease of traveling by ocean liner. I loved the rush and frenetic zip that come with being in a state of constant embarkation: the daily port of call, the bustle of shore excursions, the catharsis of returning to the cool confines of the ship after a day ashore, and the thrill of setting off for yet another place at each day’s end.
But once I climbed aboard the Seabourn Sojourn for 11 days of its two-week, nine-stop sail, I entered the world of small-ship cruises. There were only 458 passengers (many of them chic septuagenarians from the Cotswolds who spent their entire winters on board), rows of empty deck chairs, and memorable food (the company recently teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller).
The result was a trip that took me to places I’d never expected: into archipelagos of tiny islands, empty grottoes surrounded by chocolate-colored hills; through seas in shades of blue so unreal that they could’ve been stolen from screen savers; and into the stygian darkness of the world’s longest subterranean river, past cathedral-like caverns dripping with millennia-old stalagmites. Above all, it was a trip full of surprises. “The thrill is in the voyage itself,” my aunt said to me as we climbed on board. “It’s a sufficient joy just to be afloat.” What we actually saw, though, was so much grander than we could’ve hoped.
PORT 1: HUNDRED ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK
After setting sail from Hong Kong, I awoke to find the sea studded with 123 islands (or, at low tide, 124), all of different sizes but each shaped like a portobello mushroom: little stems of limestone rock topped with caps of thick green shrubbery. Apart from the occasional thatched hut selling coconuts or buko shakes, the archipelago (declared a national park in 1940) was uninhabited; it was as if I’d wandered into the tropical world of Mario Brothers’s Mushroom Kingdom. Traveling by outrigger, I hopped to a dozen islands, snorkeling reefs where taklobo, the world’s biggest bivalve mollusks, hid in neon purple and yellow shells.
PORT 2: MANILA
As the ship approached Manila Bay, I saw the outline of a skyscrapered metropolis—a stark contrast to the otherworldly isles I’d left behind. In town, I convinced a jeepney driver to head out to Villa Escudero, a coconut plantation dating to the 1880s. The two-hour ride took me past terraced rice paddies punctuated with buffalo, fruit orchards, and highlands overlooking Taal Lake’s volcanic caldera. A second day in port was just enough time to explore Old Manila, including the 1930s Art Deco houses on San Rafael Street, the Spanish colonial walled city of Intramuros (Manila was under Spanish rule until 1898), and the 16th-century San Agustin Church.
PORT 3: BORACAY
In a rickshaw ride through the village’s strip of bamboo shacks, I quickly realized that Boracay, once considered the most beautiful beach in the world, had gone the way of Phuket and southern Bali. Its famous three-mile White Beach, where volcanic grottoes are surrounded by azure waters, was still surreally picturesque—but the island teemed with tourist-filled cafés and trinket shops. So my aunt and I chartered a blue-sailed paraw for the day and set off in search of the island’s more remote corners—like Puka Beach, a secluded cove whose flour-like sand is actually composed of snail shells. Dangling over the bow of the boat, we circled the entire island, skimming over aquamarine waters with currents of electric turquoise.
PORT 4: CORON
The approach to the Calamanian isle of Coron was like entering an empyreal land of jade-green lagoons and colossal limestone cliffs. I was surrounded by bosky little sierras that had almost no trace of human development—just a few nipa palm houses tucked into jungle-like hills, which are still inhabited by members of the Tagbanua tribe (who arrived on the island nearly 500 years ago). We took a balangay to Siete Pecados, an aquarium-like coral reef with clown fish, sea horses, snapper, lionfish—and a view of the seven sunken Japanese warships that lie off Coron Bay. Next, it was off for a swim in the majestic Twin Lagoons. With each stroke, the temperature shifted from warm to cool—a sensation created by the mingling of salt currents and freshwater. It was as sublime as I had hoped—and, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip.
PORT 5: PUERTO PRINCESA
After a banca boat ride to Palawan’s northern shore, we canoed into the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, which, along with Halong Bay and Komodo Island, is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Then it was off to the City Public Market, with vendors selling spices and rice, magenta-pink eggs, and spiky fruits like rambutans and durians, and back on board for the sail to Malaysia (our point of disembarkation, though the itinerary continued down to Singapore). As a cotton candy–pink sunset fell over Honda Bay, my aunt said, “I would have been happy with just the immensity of the sea and sky.”