PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 1998, 12:00am

The northeast monsoon was really humming, rushing across the open water and kicking up short, steep waves capped with a layer of white froth.

The banca, a long narrow boat stabilised with bamboo and coconut wood outriggers - the universal sea transport of the Philippines - ploughed onwards, bashing a spray-filled path through the waves.

At about 20 metres long, this was one of the biggest bancas I had been on, and yet still there was only one dry place on the whole boat, on the narrow, high foredeck right up in the bow.

One of the crew and I had grabbed that spot, and we sat there, hanging on against the increasingly wild gyrations of the boat's forward extremity, watching the repeatedly submerged outriggers kick up walls of spray which the wind then flung right across the mid-section of the boat.

The two French women I had hired the boat with sat huddled under an awning - they had declined advice to move to the bow - while most of the crew had retreated to the steering area right in the stern.

The banca was making its way up the west coast of Palawan, the western extremity of the Philippines and open to the South China Sea, and was just entering Bacuit Bay, close to the island's northern tip.

We were soon surrounded by islands that dotted the bay, with the mountainous mainland off to the right.

They were not just ordinary islands, I should add, but great slabs of rock that rose straight from the water, sheer cliffs that towered sternly high above.

I was immediately reminded of the weird karst limestone peaks of the Guilin area of southern China, so beloved of traditional Chinese art, though this was a partially drowned maritime version instead of terrestrial.

On some of the islands snippets of land that were not wholly vertical were covered in dense rain forest, and along the few parts of shoreline that did not consist of towering rock were little golden beaches, lined with coconut palms. Most were deserted, just the occasional fisherman's hut the only sign of human life.

As we came in closer to the mainland and among more islands, the sea calmed, and once the banca had turned past a headland we were approaching an enclosed bay that glittered in the morning sun.

Towards the shore crowds of bancas rode at moorings and behind them was a small town, strung out along the beach and backed by a vertical cliff.

We had finally arrived at the town of El Nido, 'capital' - if that is the right word - of Bacuit Bay, one of the Philippines' most beautiful and furthest-flung locations. The banca nudged its way among a crowd of boats and up to the wharf, and finally I was ashore.

I soon discovered that El Nido is a very small place indeed. Two streets run parallel to each other and the beach, with a few connecting lanes, and that is about it.

A small market lies at the southern end, and here was the only traffic - a couple of beat-up jeepneys, extended jeeps that are standard public transport in the rural Philippines.

The vehicles comprised the only, and very unreliable, road connection with the rest of Palawan to the south.

I dropped my stuff at a guesthouse and ambled along the beach. Between the lines of boats local children splashed about in the water, still clear and stunningly aquamarine despite the closeness of the town.

This may seem a town that time forgot, but actually it is one that time is catching up with.

Though only discovered for its beautiful location a few short years ago, already El Nido has several small guesthouses that see a steady stream of foreign and Filipino visitors, while several small resorts - a couple bordering on the exclusive - have been developed on the coast further south as well as on a number of the islands.

El Nido is being marketed as Southeast Asia's newest Shangri-La, a place to which jaded urbanites can retreat to find relaxation and the meaning of life, or perhaps just to play Robinson Crusoe.

While El Nido town is a friendly, relaxing place with a stunning location, it is really the islands that everyone wants to head for.

Visitors who stay in town have a wide choice of boats available for hire to whisk them off to the nearby wonderland of deserted islands, while those who opt to stay at one of the island resorts can wake up each morning surrounded by the astonishing craggy limestone scenery.

In exploring the islands, Miniloc is one of the most popular due to its superb lagoon, a small bay completely ringed with jagged cliffs and rocks, filled with crystal-clear water and home to an array of corals.

It was early morning when I ventured there in a small launch, the sun just breaking above the cliff-top.

As we slowly left through the narrow inlet we were joined by a turtle, which swam seawards, just below the surface and ahead of the boat.

Ferociously jagged cliffs seemed to surround Miniloc, with offshore many more razor-sharp islets, including the Tres Marias, a group of three pyramidal rocks rising out of the sea.

I had been told that some of El Nido's best diving was just around here, but when I later tried it out I had to confess to being disappointed.

Though the corals were superb in the very shallow waters at snorkelling depth, lower down the reef was fragmented and in poor condition.

Dynamite fishing had done its worst, the shallow corals saved simply by the fishermen's own desire not to blow themselves out of the water.

The use of dynamite to stun fish and bring them to the surface is a scourge in this nation, and though it is now being stamped out in much of the country, in Palawan it remains a serious problem.

Miniloc is also the site of one of El Nido's two most up-market resorts, the second being on Lagen Island.

Both are owned by Manila-based company Ten Knots. They are set in attractive coves, surrounded by stunning cliffs, while the latter also backs on to a swathe of rain forest.

They are luxurious places, if for no other reason than that their rooms are air-conditioned and supplied with water and electricity 24 hours a day.

Ten Knots claim that their resorts, especially the new place on Lagen Island, are environmentally friendly, water coming from a desalination plant, for example, rather than a well, though it is hard not to wonder how beautiful the coves on which they stand might have been without the bungalows, restaurant and breakwater.

Still, they might be right. A walk through the forest above and behind the Lagen Island resort was a step back into a primeval world of tall, dense trees, vines and palms, filled with the sounds of bird-life, the occasional chattering of monkeys and the crash of a monitor lizard in the undergrowth.

One evening, sitting in a tree high above the restaurant was the black and white shape of a Palawan hornbill, a rare bird restricted to this western part of the Philippines.

He did not seem to mind the human presence at all. Which is just as well, because I have a feeling that in a corner of the world as beautiful as El Nido, he will soon be seeing a lot more of us.