Puerto Princesa beyond beaches

An invitation to experience the ‘different shades of comfort and hospitality,’ as well as adventures, at the heart of Palawan’s capital

By Don Baldosano

PICTURE PERFECT The 8.2-kilometer-long Underground River

Puerto Princesa in Palawan is home to blissful beaches and the Underground River, a World Heritage Site. Tourism, one of its main sources of income, was badly hit due to the lockdowns brought about by Covid-19. But with our eyes set on what promises to be the end of the pandemic or its endemicity, revenge travel is real and people are now more eager to move around and enjoy traveling again. Puerto Princesa should be a place not to miss.

Here’s an invitation from hyperlocal Hue Hotels and Resort Puerto Princesa to experience the “different shades of comfort and hospitality,” as well as adventures, at the heart of Palawan’s capital. The resort champions the local community in various ways, from hiring 95 percent of its employees locally and supporting local farmers with its restaurant La-ud to showcasing the works of the local weavers with a Rurungan Collectives display right at the lobby of the hotel.

FOR THE FAMILY Hue Hotel Puerto Princesa suite room

Upon our arrival, we couldn’t miss the sleek lobby design consisting of wood carvings of Balinsasayaw birds, the mangrove-inspired walls that lead you to the reception area dressed in colorful locally made banig. We were welcomed by the group general manager of Hue Hotels Chris Guballa, along with Kristine de Guzman of Hue Hotels and Resort, Marc de la Cruz and Gemma Batoon of MGAsia who gathered us all together on the occasion of the hotel’s fifth anniversary. We were then escorted to our elegant, predominantly white rooms. Not only are the rooms posh and relaxing, the early morning view of acacia trees they provide is just the best way to start the day—or the entire vacation. 

NO SAND, NO PROBLEM Hue Hotel Puerto Princesa pool area

An anniversary dinner kickstarted the celebration, to which we and the other guests were welcomed with an elaborate fireworks show, along with a generous pour of some bubbly. The opening remarks were given by the men behind Luana Lifestyle and Leisure Hotels Inc., the owners of Hue Hotels and Resort —Dexter Lee and Dennis Lee. Edward Hagedorn, representative of Puerto Princesa, followed with his own welcome remarks before the anniversary feast prepared by the hotel was served, replete with spit-roasted cochinillo and goat wrapped in tortilla. Also served were churros and a Tex-Mex style nachos bar paired with cocktails or even tequila shots while salsa dancers provided an exquisite performance set the mood for the night.

The Palaweño food scene

Palawan’s food scene isn’t just about ubiquitous exotic eats, such as tamilok or crocodile sisig. It also has an original fusion dish called chao long, which comes with locally baked artisanal French breads slathered in butter. The dish was introduced by Vietnamese refugees, who fled to Puerto Princesa from the horrors of the Vietnam War.

But classic Filipino fare is something that is still true to the hearts of the Palaweños. At the La-ud restaurant at Hue Hotels and Resort, headed by Chef Nonoy Rodriguez, the highlight is classic Filipino comfort food, or our usual Filipino dishes executed perfectly well, using farm-to-table ingredients sourced directly from local farmers and producers.

For starters, we had refreshing salads featuring shrimp or seared nori-wrapped tuna. It was followed by a sweet, gingery binakol served in a coconut shell. The mains were incredible, such as the crispy pork binagoongan paired with the highly praised pinakbet. Of the sweets that capped the meal, what stole the show was mango carioca, a Filipino take on the classic mango and sticky rice pairing.

Aside from La-ud, the ever-so-popular Kinabuch, a bar and grill, which feels like a biker stop in old Philippines, is a mainstay in the Puerto Princesa food scene. It offers a mix of Filipino comfort food and local delicacies, such as blue marlin cooked in butter and soy sauce, a mouthwateringly spicy Bicol express, and crackling crispy pata. Also on the menu is tamilok or woodworm, otherwise known as “naval shipworm,” not a worm, if you’re squeamish, but a shell-less saltwater clam so called because it would burrow itself into the wooden hull of ships for food.

On Cowrie, you get to experience the two different faces of the beach, the calm of the sea on one side or its crashing waves and rip currents on the other.

Interior of Laud restaurant

Eating seafood at restaurants is not a huge practice on the island as seafood is nothing special to the locals. It’s very accessible. But in Puerto Princesa it is a must to have taste of the diverse selection of seafood the island has to offer. Tucked away on the dark street of Abueg is Badjao Seafood Restaurant, helmed by James Albert Mendoza, which uses local seafood but cooks it with some Ilonggo touches due to Mendoza’s roots. It isn’t just the food that’s special at the restaurant. Crossing a bridge surrounded by lush mangroves to enter it is the perfect prelude to a seafood feast. Here they have dishes such as halaan or clam soup, sweet and spicy calamares, crabs showing off their rich, orange-y fat cooked guinataan style, and, to balance things off, even kulawo or char-grilled eggplants served in a coconut cream sauce, which is made out of coconut milk extracted from coconut meat that’s first burnt over embers to give the extract its signature smoky flavor.

A tour of Honda Bay’s islands

ARCHIPELAGIC The islands of (clockwise from top) LuLi, Starfish, and Cowrie

Hue Hotels and Resort also took us on a tour of Honda Bay in partnership with CML Travel and Tours. It was time to see the beautiful beaches and scenery of Puerto Princesa. We started things off with a boat ride to Starfish Island and its striking views of the ocean and mangroves. The island offers a lot of fresh buko juice and even has a “dampa”-like wet market that’s an excellent display of the bounty of the surrounding waters, such as abalone, pen shell, and the 7-11 spotted crab, all cooked to your liking. We didn’t have to look further as CML had prepared a feast worthy of paradise, from liempo and chicken grilled over charcoal, crab and shrimp cooked simply and dipped in vinegar and paired with rice, ensaladang talong, and fresh fruits.

Our next stop was a unique place called LuLi Island, meaning “lulubog, lilitaw,” because the whole island vanishes at high tide, resurfacing only when the tides recede.

Our hosts saved the best for last—Our last stop on Honda Bay was Cowrie Island. Here you can either swim through the exciting waves or sink in the sand, just enjoying the moment with a cold beer in your hand. On Cowrie, you get to experience the two different faces of the beach, the calm of the sea on one side or its crashing waves and rip currents on the other. It’s beach life at its finest, perfect for the surfer and the beachcomber.

A day in the island city

CML also arranged a city tour to flex some of the best gems of the Palawan capital. The tour started with a visit to Rurungan Collectives, which focuses on traditional weaving techniques as well as providing livelihood to the single mothers on the island. We visited Iwahig Prison, a piece of paradise for reformed convicts, for whom it was designed to give them a second chance. Inmates who have proven themselves are allowed to roam the premises freely, working, playing sports, even seeing their families, who get to be with them to an extent.

Next on our itinerary was Palaweño Brewery. Founded by Ayah Javier and Malu Lauengco, the brewery is an unlikely spot in Palawan. It doesn’t offer the usual hoppy beer or IPA (Indian Pale Ale) lineup. It crafts its own drinks, from nut brown ales to honey mead. Palaweño Brewery has created Lagumbomb, an ode to the infamous Soju Bomb, which inspired it. It consists of beer in a glass, into which you drop honey mead, before chugging it down.

Puerto Princesa is a city of hidden cultural gems. It is safe to say that coming here wouldn’t just be about visiting the pristine beaches or the mysterious river, it is also about experiencing life as the Palaweño lives it—distinctly. A cultural immersion in Puerto Princesa is sure to make you want to come back for more and more.