The magic of Turtle Bay

Secret Paradise Resort in North Palawan has stunning beach coves, but the trip highlight is holding newly hatched turtles and releasing them into the sea

By Myra Santiago

Aerial view of Secret Paradise Resort & Turtle Sanctuary pinched from secretparadiseresort.com

It was late Saturday afternoon and we were standing on the beach of Port Barton, stretching our legs after a six-hour car ride north from Puerto Princesa in Palawan. A trip that usually takes two-and-a-half hours was doubled because we made five stops - Vietnamese Village, Kim's Hot Springs, Batac Tribe Village, view deck overlooking Honda Bay Islands, then lunch with our drivers at a roadside canteen that offered fried fish cakes, shredded stingray in coconut milk and fish head soup.

There was more waiting to do as our boat was being loaded with a couch, a hammock, mattress, and a chest freezer.

An almost apologetic Mark Guevara, our host and one of the owners of Secret Paradise Resort, explained the unusual cargo: "It's an emergency, a one off thing."

"I'm slowly upgrading the rooms," said Mark. "You have satellite TV, air conditioning, hot water, a refrigerator and a two-way radio if you need to contact the staff at anytime."

The urbanite in me was grateful for these comforts, but comfort was not what I sought. I just wanted to get there, plant my feet on white sand, and swim into sparkling waters with the sound of nothing but birdsong and the splashing of my feet.

I asked Mark how far away the resort was from where we were at Port Barton. His reply: "See the end of the peninsula in the distance? It's past that, three coves down to the left, and then a sharp left into Turtle Bay. If the waters are calm, it will take forty five minutes." Secret Paradise Resort and Nature Reserve is all of 70 hectares, located in Turtle Bay, named after the turtles that live and breed in the area, protected from poachers and illegal fishermen.

Beachfront of Secret Paradise Resort & Turtle Sanctuary pinched from secretparadiseresort.com

Lazy Sunday with Big Man
We woke up to an overcast day, the emerald waters of the bay subdued. It was getting dark when we arrived yesterday, so I couldn't fully appreciate the surroundings.

But on this quiet morning of hazy light, I drank in the primordial beauty around me. The beach was strewn with undisturbed shells and corals. The bay was mirror-like, its flatness broken by the occasional ripple of a fish coming to surface. The water reflected the looming cliffs that surrounded the bay enclosing us protectively. And beside me was Big Man, a large unknown tree that had no business growing on the beach, but did anyway to an imposing height. He was old, old enough to have lichen-like plants and wild orchids growing profusely around his large trunk and branches. He leaned outwards, towards the water, creating a canopy that provided shade for guests and the perfect spot to hang a hammock.

Big Man and I spent the rest of the day getting to know each other and ended it by enjoying the sunset together.

Baby Turtles at Secret Paradise Resort & Turtle Sanctuary, by Mon Corpuz. Pinched from secretparadiseresort.com
Day of the Turtles
It was 7:30am and the sun was out. I left the cottage to have coffee at the restaurant and saw a small crowd huddled under Big Man. I wondered if the fishermen brought us another four-kilo mackerel. Last night’s dinner of the freshest catch ended a perfect day of snorkeling, hiking and relaxing and I was looking forward to more of the same. I walked over to the crowd and realized something far more interesting was happening— turtle eggs were hatching.

Newly hatched turtle eggs, by Mon Corpuz. Pinched from secretparadiseresort.com
I knew this place was not called Turtle Bay for nothing, and that it was a marine reserve dedicated to creating a safe place for turtles and their eggs, but to see the eggs hatching before me was surreal. Paper-thin eggshells split open slowly, black goo-covered turtles slowly making their way into this world. All the bleary-eyed guests were in thrall as Mark and staff carefully dug up the rest of the eggs, almost 100 in total. Breakfast was forgotten; plans for the morning were cancelled; and we spent the rest of the day with the baby turtles. We took a quick census: five early hatchers had escaped into the sea; six were petrified; 10 more still needed a day or two to hatch; and 80+ were live hatchlings, including two sets of twins that were separated by a guest who's a doctor. 

European, American and Canadian guests took turns tenderly holding hatchlings, quietly taking photos. We named a few of them. “This one is Ninja, but he looks like everyone else,” said one guest. A Spanish couple on honeymoon named a pair after themselves, Laura and Eduardo.

Tuesday
Today was our last day here and it was spent alternating between snorkeling, visiting the baby turtles, eating, reading, and returning again to check on the turtles.

Today was also the 10th year anniversary of SPR’s Marine Protection Program and the plan was to celebrate this milestone with a bonfire under Big Man. It was fitting that a pair of adult turtles was spotted feeding in the bay.

“As you can all see, our efforts are working,” said Mark, “but it is still a long way to go to educate the people beyond the reserve and to get some sort of government support. We involve as many locals as possible in our efforts but in the end, it is the guests from all around the globe who come here and pay for the resort who allow us to continue our work here.”

Later that evening, we milled around the fire under the canopy of Big Man, just a few feet away from where baby turtles hatched the day before. It was a new moon and the stars were out in full force.

I felt small in that moment, but ever grateful to be a part of it.

Secret Paradise Resort and Nature Reserve, Turtle Bay, San Vicente, Palawan has seven cottages and three rooms with rates ranging from P4,550 (about US$257) to P9,950 that include continental breakfast and free WiFi internet access. Major credit cards are accepted. Time your visit from December to May to get a chance to see the baby turtles hatching. From November to April, it’s egg-laying time on the beach but turtles can be seen swimming all year round in Turtle Bay. For inquiries and reservations, call tel +63999 880 2480, visit Secret Paradise Resort and Nature Reserve.

Activities in The Area
The Viewpoint
is a well-marked 20-minute hike that’s moderately steep but more than worth the effort. The highest point on the hills behind the bay was cleared to give you a spectacular view of Turtle Bay and its emerald waters. A basic wooden perch was constructed beside the telephone company’s repeater so this is a cool place to hang out.

The Native Sauna is a wooden shed that doesn’t look like much from the outside. Inside, it’s every spa addict’s dream. Well-constructed wooden benches line the sides of this shed and the entrance is sealed with a clear plastic sheet, letting in sunshine while giving you a view of the beach. The room is fed by steam from a wood-burning boiler that is filled with water and at least six types of herbal and fragrant leaves from the area. That day, our mix of leaves was composed of lemongrass, mango, kalamansi or native lemon, lagundi, a native shrub used as herbal medicine, sambong or blumea, used in traditional medicine and guava.

Wooden Kayaks for two. The resort has four of these small boats for guests to use to paddle to further snorkeling areas or go to Hideaway Beach, a small cove nearby that was recently included in the marine reserve.

Snorkeling. There is a bonanza of marine life living in the shallow reefs around Turtle Bay. During just one swim, I saw a large turtle among the seaweed, a stingray, lionfish, puffer fish, sea snake, a school of jacks, swordfish, and beds of anemone.

Dining. Chef Rommel elevated dining here to a whole new level. Given that SPR is remote and most ingredients are transported from Port Barton, I was impressed with the fairly extensive menu an daily specials. It was squid season while we were there so we had grilled stuffed squid and spicy squid sambas. One day when a 4++kg tanigue (mackerel) was brought in, we had kilawin (raw seafood or meat dish that’s similar to ceviche) for lunch and tanigue steaks for dinner. Whole steamed Lapu-Lapu (reef fish), pork medallions, and pasyak (shellfish broth) were other standouts.

Sunset at Secret Paradise Resort by Mon Corpuz. Pinched from secretparadiseresort.com
Don’t Forget
Snorkeling Gear.
You can float a few meters from shore and already see enough marine life to captivate you. If you’re lucky like me, you can “disturb” a turtle from its seaweed lair and tick off an item on your bucket list.

Outdooor Sandals. I did all the hikes and walks with simple rubber slippers. They didn’t break but they barely made it through the trip and I could have used more traction on slippery, muddy areas.

Underwater Camera. I wish I had one with me when I saw some of the ugliest-looking fish. A quick post online shared with diver friends would have given me its identity within the day.

From Puerto Princesa to Port Barton, Stop by…
The Viewpoint on Honda Bay,
located thirty minutes out of Puerto Princesa. It sits on top of a small hill beside a souvenir shop, perfect place to take photos and appreciate the breadth and size of Honda Bay and its islands.

Batak Cultural Village is halfway between Puerto Princesa and Port Barton. It’s both a village and a living museum of the Batak indigenous tribe where you can interact with the people as they go about their day or buy handmade crafts like intricately designed baskets and sheets of coconut fiber “paper.” 

Jambalaya Cajun Cafe serves fresh bread daily, a really mean plate of Jambalaya, and the coldest beer in town. At P120 a cup, the brewed coffee is pricey for Port Barton but you get to drink your cup while perched on the lookout bar, reading one of the many used books in their extensive and impressive collection from all over the world. The Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, tel +63915 315 3842

Nearby San Vicente Attractions
Begaho Falls is located halfway between Secret Paradise Resort and San Vicente,
approximately a 30-minute outrigger boat ride from resort. The boat can dock on the beach and then it’s a short walk to the falls on flat ground past a quaint barrio or village. The swimming hole at the bottom of the waterfall is cold and deep enough to swim in, but not safe to dive into.       

Hire a motorbike to take you to long beach, a 14-km stretch of warm-white sand that is the country’s longest beach. The ride takes about 15 minutes on a dusty road. Expect to pay P500 for the whole day rental of the motorbike.

Essentials
How to get there

Cebu Pacific has round trip flights from Manila to Puerto Princesa for about P3,906. 

From Puerto Princesa to the town proper, Secret Paradise Resort or any travel agent can arrange a private air-conditioned transfer from the airport or from your city hotel with cost ranging from P5,000 to P5,500, for up to six adults.

From Port Barton to Secret Paradise Resort, private transfers can be arranged by the resort, a 45-minute boat ride through the marine park of Port Barton. There are also outrigger boats available for hire for P2,400, roundtrip, for up to three people.

Where to stay in the city
ROYAL OBEROI
is a boutique resort located 20 minutes from the airport. Its Suite Villa, a two-storey airconditioned villa with cable TV, WiFi, a mini bar and free tea and coffee facilities,  costs P3,200 for two and can accommodate up to six, for an additional P650 per person. For inquiries and reservations call +6348 434 4920, visit Royal Oberoi.

For more information contact the Provincial Tourism office of San Vicente, tel +6348 433 or +63917 854 4443. Look for Ms. Lucy Panagsagan, Provincial Tourism officer of San Vicente, Palawan.

-Cover photo pinched from Secret Paraside Resort.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller April to May 2013. Updated April 2016