PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 1993, 12:00am

IMAGINE pristine waters so abundant with fish you can hook one within minutes of dropping your line. Imagine cooking your catch over an open fire on a secluded beach at sunrise.

Think about lying on a boat at night, gazing at a sky full of stars as you sail the warm waters of a tropical archipelago, your boatman using the stark outlines of surrounding mountains to navigate.

It is no wonder visitors to the Philippine island province of Palawan are awestruck when they first venture into this little-known paradise, an hour's flight from Manila.

Palawan is known not only for its stunning beauty, but also for its profusion of first-rate diving sites, its crystal clear waters and, best of all, its lack of tourists.

There are only three major resorts in northern Palawan, so it is not hard to find a deserted island to claim as your own for a day.

Palawan is no Boracay. There are no tacky souvenir huts and no noisy clubs. It is less accessible than its smaller but more famous sister and, most importantly, strict development laws have prevented too many resorts being built. Those who make it to Palawan's northern reaches will be rewarded with scores of secluded islands and empty beaches.

Thanks to tough enforcement of conservation laws and the existence of marine reserves, Palawan also has some of the Philippines' richest fishing grounds and greatest expanses of coral.

There are no telephones or power lines. In fact there is little to remind you of the outside world.

Palawan, 400 kilometres long and 40 km wide, can be divided into two parts - the area around the capital city, Puerto Princesa, where there are few attractions for tourists, and the better-known northern islands of the Bacuit archipelago, where the sea is a perfect clear blue and the scenery spectacular. This is where you will find the resorts of El Nido, Pangalusian and, further north still, on Dimakaya Island, Club Paradise.

Development has been carefully controlled, but has not been prevented completely. Three resorts are to open within the next two years, indicative of the growing popularity of Palawan, particularly its northern shores.

Ten Knots, the company which owns El Nido and Pangalusian, will open a resort on nearby Lagen Island. Noah's Century, the cooperative management company running El Nido, will open a resort in northeast Palawan in late 1994. It is to be called Club Noah Isabelle, and will incorporate a marine reserve and diving facilities.

In December, on Pamalican Island in the Sulu Sea's Cuyo Island group, a joint-venture resort is being built by Amanresorts and the Soriano group. It promises to be top of the line in terms of luxury - and price.

To get to Palawan from Manila, take a 70-minute flight operated by Ten Knots from the Soriano Aviation hangar near Manila's domestic airport. There are two flights a day during the high season (October to May), and one during the low season. The return fare is 5,130 pesos (about HK$1,900) plus a 200-peso terminal fee.

Pangalusian, managed by Stettler Hotels Inc - the same company that operates Friday's resort in Boracay - is the newest resort in the Bacuit archipelago. Perched on its own island, it is known for its food and its landscaped setting. The air-conditioned cottages are scattered along the beach.

The chefs in the resort's only restaurant excel at presentation; soups and some drinks are served in coconut shells. The kitchen bakes fresh bread every day in time for breakfast.

Meals and water sports at Pangalusian are not included in the room price. Room rates during the high season (October 15 to May 31) range from US$90 to US$125 (about HK$695 to HK$965). There are 30 air-conditioned cottages, all facing the palm-fringed beach.

For a day of island-hopping, packed lunches are essential. At Pangalusian they are almost gourmet in standard. Those who select the barbecue lunch are accompanied to their island of choice by resort staff who prepare food on the spot.

The more energetic can take a diving course for US$300, or US$250 for smaller groups.

In the evening at Pangalusian, guests lounge around at the two-storey clubhouse, originally built by an eccentric Scotsman, Jack Gordon, and his Filipina wife. It has been renovated and now has a bar, restaurant, games room and video room.

El Nido has few of the facilities of Pangalusian, but for many that may be its charm. El Nido makes a good base camp for a Palawan adventure. There are few diversions, so hire a boat and visit the surrounding islands. Planning your days at El Nido is easy;after dinner a guest relations officer talks to every guest about possible schedules and activities for the following day.

Wherever you are on Palawan, save at least one day solely for island hopping and snorkelling, keeping an eye out for green turtles. The great thing about the area is that there are scores of isolated islands and beaches.

Another must is the Small Lagoon, accessible only at low tide. Take your swimming gear because you will want to plunge into the lagoon's calm, dark waters. A visit to this secluded retreat is unforgettable. Almost as impressive, and just around the corner from El Nido, is the Big Lagoon, accessible in the mornings.

Casandra Island - actually a sandbar visible at low tide - is a marvellous place to eat lunch and sunbathe, but beware of the jellyfish. Vigan Island, near Pangalusian resort, is perfect for watching sunsets. There is yet another deserted beach on Turtle Island.

There are two caves worth visiting: Cathedral Cave - so named because its towering walls bring to mind a cathedral - and Pinaglugaban Island Cave. You may also consider a trip to El Nido town, one of the cleanest in the Philippines. You can buy provisions and eat in one of a handful of spartan restaurants.

Those who intend to do some serious diving at El Nido, should bring their certification cards - the resort has a strict policy when it comes to organising dives. New divers or those without cards can have two introductory dives with an instructor. Certified divers can take a maximum of two dives a day. The best time to dive is from March to May, when underwater visibility can be as much as 30 metres.

El Nido caters strongly to the Japanese, so do not be surprised if you run into a Japanese tour group, complete with underwater cameras and designer diving suits.

The nice thing about El Nido is it only takes a maximum of 60 guests at a time, so it is never overrun and never tiresomely busy. The drawback is the food, which is served buffet-style and - particularly if you are last in the queue - is often lukewarm. The Japanese food is better and the occasional outdoor dinner on the waterfront makes up for the disappointment of the buffet.

When you book accommodation at El Nido, insist on one of the seven water cottages, which sit on stilts at the resort's perimeter. Unlike the more modest land cottages, you get a waterfront balcony, more privacy and the chance to be lulled to sleep at nightby the sound of the waves underneath. None of El Nido's cottages are air-conditioned.

In the far north of Palawan, near Busuanga Island, is Club Paradise. This German-run resort has 40 cottages and is known for its swimming-pools and its speedboat connection to the 'African' safari reserve on Calauit Island. The reserve was created by the Marcoses in 1977 with eight species of African animal shipped in to wander free there. Rumour has it Bong-Bong Marcos used to visit Calauit for target practice.

Club Paradise has tennis courts, sailing boats, hiking trails, herds of deer and good diving. To get there you will take a flight from Manila to the nearby Coron Airport.

Tourist facilities are minimal in southern Palawan, around the capital of Puerto Princesa, but are improving.

The only place worth staying at in Puerto Princesa is the 109-room Asiaworld Resort Hotel, which was renovated in 1991. Asiaworld's best feature is its large outdoor pool.

You can use the Asiaworld as a base from which to explore the capital, central Palawan, and its mountainous jungles. Staff are good at arranging outings; two popular side-trips are to an underground river and to the Vietnamese refugee centre near the airport.

The underground river tour takes a full day. It involves a bumpy ride across the mountains and a 20-minute banca ride to St Paul's Cave. Small bancas - outrigger boats - with kerosene lamps take you 1.5 kms into the cave. If you are afraid of bats, stay away.

The Vietnamese camp has been a tourist attraction since the Marcos government opened it in 1979. It has interesting temples and you can get authentic and cheap Vietnamese food and freshly-baked French bread. The camp is due to close by the end of the year,but don't bank on it.

Island Divers, at 371 Rizal Avenue in Puerto Princesa, can arrange island-hopping trips and diving expeditions. One-day dive tours start at $40.

There are other resorts in central Palawan but most involve gruelling journeys of several hours over bumpy roads.

HOW TO GET THERE Philippine Airlines flies from Hong Kong to Manila every day. Cost: HK$1,750 (group ticket). Philippine Airlines flies daily from Manila to Puerto Princesa on Palawan. Cost: US$108 (about HK$840). Cathay Pacific also flies to Manila daily. Cost: $1,900. All prices for return ticket.