The Beach, by Alex Garland, is a must-read book in traveller circles. Before it was turned into an overblown Hollywood movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach captured the idea of the traveller's paradise. Ewan McGregor was originally supposed to star in the film adaptation about a British backpacker who stumbles upon a secret beach in Thailand, a Utopia free of Lonely Planet-clutching hordes. Filmed on the southern Thai island of Koh Phi Phi, there's a little known fact about both the book and movie: Thailand wasn't the inspiration for either - it was El Nido, a picturesque region on one of the thousands of islands in the Philippines, and one spared by the recent typhoons and flooding.
And Bacuit Bay in southwest El Nido is probably the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Crystal-clear warm seawater, sharp limestone cliffs, luminous tropical fish, sea turtles, white powdery beaches, sparkling lagoons, coconut trees and world-class diving abound.
Well before Garland wrote about backpackers searching for Utopia, El Nido was known to and written about by the Chinese, whose traders collected birds' nests from the limestone cliffs. Caho Ju-kua, a Chinese nobleman, wrote about his time in the land of beautiful harbours, in his book Chu Fan Chai. The name El Nido was given to the province by the Spanish, after the same swiftlets' nests.
There are 45 islands around El Nido, located on the northern tip of Palawan and known as the one of the last ecological frontiers in the Philippines. The islands are mostly deserted, protected by law, and boast beaches as isolated as they are beautiful. Tourism is still in its infancy: the first foreign visitors came in the early 1980s for the superb diving, and when the crew of their stranded dive boat woke one morning to El Nido's towering cliffs, a tourism destination was born.
Besides the small town, also called El Nido, there are a couple of swish resorts in the bay including Lagen Island and the decidedly more rustic Miniloc Island (site of the first dive operation), both owned by the El Nido group, as well as Aman Resorts' Amanpulo, on its own private island. There are also plenty of affordable bungalows in town and in the coastal villages. Expect stunning views from your bedroom, world-class snorkelling and diving, yachting and long happy hours at the beachfront bars. From the second I arrive, all I can think about is how I'm going to be able to tear myself away.
Turquoise light blinds me as I prod my sea kayak through the limestone channel of the Big Lagoon. Visitors come from all over the archipelago to visit this stunning natural feature, lined by cliffs and crowded with tropical fish and schools of massive jacks. They come on traditional boats and sea kayaks, which can shore up to unoccupied beaches, the gift of your own island for a day. Pack a picnic, leave enough time to get back, and channel your Robinson Crusoe.
Underwater legend Jacques Cousteau said Palawan had one of the most beautiful seascapes he had ever seen. Wade into the water from the beach or island jetties and you'll quickly discover an underwater wonderland. I've never had the opportunity to scuba dive, and this is the perfect place to do it.
If you can remember the first time you flew in a plane, saw a lion, tasted a perfect steak, or heard your favourite song, that's what it's like to have your introductory scuba dive in El Nido. The buzz is so huge that the risk of the bends, lungs bursting, ears exploding, shark attacks and anything else you can think of is simply not risk enough. Just a few metres deep, I'm already surrounded by myriad luminous tropical fish - a new world has been opened up, one which I return to as often as I can, snorkel at the ready, over the days to come.
There's not much in town besides a couple guest houses and a local bar, but you don't come to a tropical El Dorado like El Nido for the nightlife. Enjoy the blue seas, the great food, smiling hospitality, the emerald islands, and save your nights for a bit of reading.
May I recommend The Beach, by Alex Garland? His description of this paradise is enough to fill a novel.
Getting there: Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) flies to Manila and connects with South East Asian Airlines (flyseair.com) on to El Nido. Although El Nido is to the south-west of Manila, which bore the brunt of Typhoon Ketsana, check the weather forecast before travelling.
Robin Esrock is the host of Word Travels on Nat Geo Adventure