As I drift along with the current, the sunlight dances on a purple forest of coral stretching out below me. A clown fish peeps out from between the branches. Snorkelling in the Philippines is sublime. I’ve never seen so many different species of corals and marine animals. Giant brain corals, fern corals, sponges, clams and fish in every colour of the rainbow. Nothing I’ve experienced before can compare to the coral reefs that surround the islands of Palawan. And the white sand, palm-fringed beaches are even more beautiful than I had imagined. Island Hopping in the Philippines with Tao Philippines is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I grabbed with both hands despite some reservations. How could I say no?
Island hopping, snorkelling and unwinding with Tao Philippines
Three days. A dozen strangers. One boat in the bluest of oceans. We spend our days swimming, kayaking, snorkelling and relaxing as our boat glides through the waves to the next coral reef. In the evening we sip rum punch as the sun goes down before mooring up at the next island. At night we sleep in simple thatched huts on the beach with a view of the stars and the sound of the waves. The lack of WiFi ensures a complete digital detox.
Clockwise from top left: 1. The wonderful range of coral formations, 2. Protoreaster nodosus, horned starfish, 3. Diving down for a closer look (that’s not me by the way) 4. Copperband butterflyfish, 5. A school of Sergeant Major, a type of damselfish. Click on any image to see it full-size.
What are the Tao beach camps like?
The thatched huts we slept in were simply a raised floor on stilts with a roof and just light curtains at the front and back allowing any breeze to pass through. Inside was a thin but adequate mattress, a pillow, sheets and a mosquito net. At the second camp, we also had an electricity supply and an electric fan. The electricity though is cut off each night at midnight but having the fan when I first went to bed, made it easy to get to sleep despite the heat.
The facilities at the camps vary but you can expect a decent toilet block with either flushing toilets or a bucket and ladle, cold showers (which may or may not be private) and while some camps have an electricity supply, most don’t. I thought the cold showers might be unpleasant but it was so hot that the cold water really wasn’t a problem.
Even with a torch, I found finding the toilet block in the dark at the second camp really tricky so do make a good note of where it is from your hut. I thought I had but I still got lost!
Beers and juice were always available to purchase on the boat and on the islands, although everyone was so tired from the day’s activities, they tended not to drink that much. At the second camp, was on Ngey Ngey Island there was a bar, a communal area with hammocks, a library and a pool table. I found out I’m just as terrible at playing pool as I ever was! I would have loved to have spent a couple of nights on this island before heading off again.
If staying in a beach hut really isn’t for you, then there are also plenty of island-hopping day trips available from Coron, El Nido and many other locations in the Philippines.
An alternative option also worth considering if you’d prefer to scuba dive rather than snorkel is liveaboard scuba diving. You’ll be able to see even more of the magical undersea world and spend the night on board the boat as opposed to on the beach!
What’s the food like with Tao Philippines?
I had heard that the food onboard would be good but it was even better than I had expected. We dined on the freshest of fish and seafood – deep-fried, curried or stir-fried with noodles and served with plenty of vegetables and rice.
Breakfasts were good too. The bread rolls freshly baked on one of the islands were particularly good, stuffed with a fried egg, bacon, slices of tomato and cucumber and a delicious banana flower fritter, served with tomato and banana ketchup.
There was one vegetarian in our group and while some of the dishes we all enjoyed were suitable for her, she was always also given an additional vegetarian dish for herself.
Do you need to be able to swim to join a Tao experience?
No. We had one person on our trip who couldn’t swim, however, she was still able to do some snorkelling using a life jacket. Several times we moored near an island and while most of us swam to the beach, there was always the option to go by kayak. We also had one very nervous swimmer and she was always well looked after by the Tao team. You do need to let them know though if you need help.
The Tao Community
On our last morning, a few of us opted to have a massage on the beach. Ladies from a neighbouring island paddled over and showed us to a row of massage tables set up on the sands. They had been trained by Tao and it cost just 450 pesos (about £7) for a one hour massage. They were extremely good and superb value for money. This income is making a huge difference in their lives.
This is just one of a number of Tao initiatives. Watch this video to learn more about how Tao works with the communities of the Palawan Islands providing employment for some 300 people.
Getting to Coron and preparing for our adventure
Having flown with Singapore Airlines to Manila, we spend a couple of nights in the city before catching an internal flight to Coron on Busuanga Island, the most northerly island in the province of Palawan. We spend the night before and after our boat trip at Bacau Bay Resort. I particularly loved the bar on a jet looking out across the bay, the perfect location to watch the sunset.
That evening the team from Tao Philippines hold a briefing covering health and safety on board, what to expect, what we need to take and so on. Everyone one of us is getting excited, looking forward to what promises to be the highlight of our trip to the Philippines. The boat is a traditional paraw with a small galley and bridge, a covered dining area and a covered sundeck above the bridge and galley. The single toilet had a bucket and ladle to flush it.
What’s included on a Tao Expedition
- Transport between islands from Coron
- 3 meals a day
- 1 or 2 snacks a day
- Mosquito net
- Snorkel and mask
- Drinking water
- Coffee and ginger tea (the latter is good for seasickness)
What’s not included on a Tao Expedition
- Alcohol and soft drinks
- Transport to Coron
What to pack for island hopping in the Philippines?
- Lightweight trousers and long sleeve top (for sleeping in)
- Reef shoes
- Sun cream
- Insect repellent
A drybag is essential to carry your overnight gear in from the boat to the islands where you’ll spend the night. One or two sites have a generator for you to recharge your power banks and cameras but, on the whole, you’ll be without electricity so taking a couple of power banks and spare batteries for your camera is a must, although it surprising how long your phone battery lasts in airplane mode.
You’ll be spending long periods in the water and you may come across jellyfish so a rash guard (top and better still, leggings too) is advisable both to protect you from the sun and from jellyfish stings. I did get stung several times but I found the stings were no worse than an ant bite. After a brief spell of slight discomfort, they were completely forgotten. The anticipation of possible stings was worse than the stings themselves. We did see one, much more dangerous, box jellyfish but, once it was spotted, we easily managed to keep well away from that one.
Mosquitoes are common on the islands too so long trousers and long sleeve tops for the evenings and to sleep in are recommended. Although I found it too hot to sleep in anything at all.
- Insect bite/jellyfish sting soothing cream
- Long sleeve UV protective t-shirt*
- Insect repelling sarong*
- Motion sickness tablets
- Power bank/s
- A good book
- An underwater camera (see below)
- A dry bag for your phone*
What camera kit to take
I used my GoPro Hero4* and my Samsung Galaxy 8* to make the Island Hopping video (as well as all the photos in this post). My GoPro is quite old now but still going strong, however, I’d love to upgrade to a GoPro Hero 8* mainly because of its stabilisation feature. I’d also love to upgrade my phone to a Samsung Galaxy 10*. The camera on the 8 is good but the 9 and 10 just get better and better. I didn’t take my large DSLR with me on the trip and, to be honest, I didn’t really miss it at all!
Do you need travel insurance?
I never travel overseas without insurance. From losing your luggage to breaking your leg, there is plenty that could go wrong while you are away or something may happen that could stop you even taking your trip, such as a family bereavement. When something awful happens, having travel insurance from a reliable company will save you a lot of time and stress as well as money.
My travel insurance company of choice is WorldNomads.com*. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities*.
Whichever insurance you get, do check carefully whether the activities you are likely to be doing, such as snorkelling or scuba diving, are covered and whether certain conditions need to be met. For instance. kayaking may be covered but only if a lifejacket and helmet are worn.
Who should go on an island hopping adventure with Tao Philippines?
A holiday island hopping with Tao Philippines isn’t for everyone. This is not glamping by any means but I had everything I needed. I loved relaxing on the boat, chatting with everyone, reading or simply watching the islands slip by and, of course, the snorkelling was wonderful – definitely the best I’ve experienced to date.
Was I fit enough? While snorkelling, I did struggle one day to get back to the boat when the current unexpectedly changed and, without fins, it was quite a challenge. I had intended to hire some before we left but they didn’t have any small enough for my size two feet! So I’d highly recommend you take your own fins. It makes a huge difference and is so much safer in my opinion.
I also found getting back onto the boat a bit tricky on one occasion when the tide had gone out. The boat was some way down from the jetty and with my dodgy knees (my knee-caps are too small and bend the wrong way a tad!!) I was nervous about jumping down. However, the crew were incredibly helpful. While I did feel a bit of a wally, needing their help, I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world.
So, if you don’t mind roughing it a bit, the heat and the odd jellyfish sting (the ones we had really didn’t hurt) and love snorkelling, I urge you to add this to your wishlist.
While I admit I was looking forward to a hot shower and a proper bed, I was sad that our island hopping adventure was over. I’m so glad I didn’t let my concerns about being overweight, over fifty and my knees, not to mention the jellyfish, the heat and the camping conditions put me off. It was a magical experience that I’ll NEVER forget.
*Please note that links marked with an asterisk are affiliate links so if you click on them and go on to make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
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