The pretty little town of Concepcion, on the southwestern shore of Busuanga Island in northern Palawan, has seen some changes in recent years. A decade ago, this was the boondocks. There was nowhere notable to stay, no restaurants, and not much to do nearby except watch the world go by.
Now, there are half a dozen scuba operators in and around town. And where scuba divers go, the rest often follow. There are a handful of charming boutique resorts, and tour companies such as locally-based Blue Lagoon which offer island-hopping, kayaking and snorkeling.
But it’s the scuba diving that remains the big draw, with operators including Busuanga Seadive Resort offering trips to 12 Japanese wrecks that lie in the surrounding waters after being sunk by American Helldiver bombers in September 1944.
The helldivers came from an aircraft carrier commanded by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who had missed the Battle of Midway with a skin rash and seems to have had some catching up to do. The wrecks range from the easy to the challenging and include a big Japanese refrigeration ship, the Irako, which is still relatively intact and home to big grouper, poisonous lion fish and yellow fin tuna. Two sea turtles live in the crumpled and folded metal of the superstructure.
From Francisco B. Reyes Airport in Busuanga, Concepcion is 35 minutes by car. Tourists have traditionally headed southeast from the airport to Coron, another jumping off point for wrecks and islands, but improved roads have made Concepcion an equally popular bet and opened the western shore of Busuanga, with onward access to great diving, and more tropical islands than you’ll ever have time to visit, some of them deserted enough to call your own for the day.
Major resorts have opened on some of these islands. At Huma Island Resort & Spa you can arrive by seaplane from Manila and stay in villas with their own sun deck and hot tub.
In and around Concepcion itself, accommodation is easier on the pocket. Puerto Del Sol Resort, which has eight rooms, a dive center and a saltwater swimming pool, sits on a cliff, overlooking Puerto Del Sol Bay. Accommodation is in pretty thatched cottages and staff can arrange all sorts of trips, including island hopping to the likes of Black Island, where there’s a glorious white sand beach and gin-clear water for snorkeling. In the evening you can wander into town, or order fresh seafood and cold beer in the resort’s own restaurant.
A popular day or half-day trip is to Concepcion falls, where you can swim in the falls’ big freshwater pool. On the way back, stop at Laura’s Garden Tropical Restaurant, where the eponymous Laura cooks and serves the best batchoy for miles around. Batchoy is a tasty, local noodle dish cooked with innards and served with egg on top. Or try the pesto made with kangkong (swamp cabbage), pork adobo slow-cooked over firewood, and locally grown and roasted coffee.
Paradise For Beach Bums: Five Islands You Shouldn’t Miss
Black Island (aka Malajon Island)
From Concepcion, Black Island is about one-and-a-half hours by local outrigger. You can arrange for a faster ride, but in keeping with the laidback nature of Palawan, it’s somehow seems appropriate to take it easy and enjoy the scenery. The island’s sand is as soft as flour and just offshore there’s the wreck of a small boat in shallow water, ideal for gentle scuba diving and snorkeling. There’s a small fee of P200 per person, but be nice to the super friendly couple that own the island and they might give you a shot of local coffee, share some tree-ripened bananas, or help you set up a bonfire for a barbecue lunch.
Small and almost deserted, but wonderfully calm and clear waters for snorkeling. You can walk around the island and buy cold drinks from the caretakers. About 1km away is South Cay, a smaller sandbar with equally good snorkeling.
Close to North and South Cay, this deserted tropical gem is ringed by a halo of white sand and lush beds of seaweed that are home to huge numbers of small fish. A real beach bum’s paradise. And if you’re lucky, you might spot a pair of manatees or dugongs eating amongst the seaweed or rising above the water’s surface for air. These gentle mammals grow up to about four meters.
Tiny, beautiful and with a fine-sand beach and shady grassy area behind it where you can enjoy a picnic. There’s a volleyball net on the beach, hammocks, and modest nipa huts you can rent if you want to stay a while, even overnight. But the real star of Pass Island is the snorkeling. Buoys mark the best areas. Be prepared for beds of giant clams, shelves of coral, fields of anemone, and even the occasional eagle ray. P150 a day.
One of the closest islands to Concepcion and therefore ideal if time is limited. Concepcion is neat, rustic, and is generally thought to have some of the best coral in the area, so make sure you’ve got your mask and snorkel. There are coconut trees for shade, hammocks and simple nipa huts so you can stay the night if you want to. P150 a day.
How to get there Cebu Pacific Air and Philippine Airlines fly from Manila to Busuanga daily, while Skyjet Airlines flies every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Best to ask your hotel for airport pick up. For the ultimate luxury, Huma Island arranges seaplane transfer for its guests.
Tours Coron Blue Lagoon Adventure Travel and Tours can arrange travel, accommodation and side trips.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller January to March 2015. Updated June 2015