Island hopping has become one of the most popular things for tourists to do in The Philippines and, with over 1,700 islands making up the province of Palawan alone, there is no better way to explore it than on a boat!
TAO comes highly recommended for it’s three and five day tours that are true island hopping adventures! The experiences they offer are totally unique, and the locations that they visit are some of the most remote and authentic, and are otherwise almost inaccessible.
After a delayed departure due to an incoming typhoon, we couldn't have been more excited to be starting the three day expedition from Coron to El Nido. Our first day contained the most time spent on the boat and the longest stretch of sailing of all the three days. Of course, this was broken up with some time for snorkelling along the way, which couldn’t have been much better! The water was clear, the coral was diverse and there were countless shoals of silver and colourful fish. We even saw some squid and a fluorescent green lobster! What's more were the beautiful backdrops of golden beaches and deep, green jungles!
Our first island stop was primarily to restock the fresh water on the boat, but we were also free to explore the little fishing village, experience how the locals live and even look inside their school, with it's walls plastered in English teaching materials and times tables. Our crew and co-explorers swam in the village's very own swimming pool and played basketball with the children, who were all constantly smiling. Honestly, it felt a bit intrusive but we soon felt very welcome and a part of their little community.
On our second day, as well as all the snorkelling (at a shipwreck!), we visited a TAO training camp on the east side of mainland El Nido, where we played football and volleyball on the pristine beach before being treated to fresh coconuts to drink from! We could also seek shelter from the blazing hot sun in handmade bamboo huts!
Our third day was spent around the area of Bascuit Bay on the west side of mainland El Nido. Some of us explored an incredible cave and others simply enjoyed the beach. Next, the boat pulled into a beautiful lagoon amongst tall, limestone cliffs, where we swam, snorkelled and kayaked around. Whilst lunch was being prepared, some of the crew put on a bit of a show, diving and somersaulting in from the top deck of the boat and those that were brave enough did to!
The sun had already set when we arrived on Ginto Island for the first night, so it was pretty much pitch black when we had to kayak to shore... Other than a few nervous giggles, there was nothing but silence on board. Everybody was secretly a little bit scared - including us! But we all made it to the island safe and sound, but not quite dry!
The following morning, we woke up inside our stilted, bamboo beach huts having fallen asleep to the sound of the ocean the night before. As the sun rose higher in the sky, we could explore the small island paradise. There was a certain simplicity to life on the island - somewhere to cook, eat and sleep, and that was pretty much it. Well, there were toilets to thankfully!
Our second basecamp was on mainland Palawan and was similar to our first in terms of where we slept, but it was also even more special. It certainly felt like a bit more of a basecamp thanks to the bar, farm and more built up design. The eating area was somewhat of an open plan restaurant , where the head chef explained our five course meal and outlined the importance of sustainability to then at Tao! Other than the meat, all of the ingredients were grown and sourced from the farm on the island. The meals catered very well for vegetarians and even vegans… That evening, we had sweet potato summer rolls, coconut broth and "banana fiesta" with peanut sauce just for starters! For breakfast, we had the most delicious bread rolls that were made with coconut water and a recipe passed down for generations!
What makes TAO special isn't just the snorkelling, island hopping or amazing food... It's the values that it seems to stand for - the sustainability of the food, lack of single use plastics on board and support it gives to the local communities. The crew on board work with such enthusiasm and passion because of the education and experience they receive from TAO and, through this education, TAO can really make a difference to people's lives. The same can be said for the women on the islands who give massages and stitch all of our bedding, as well as other items available in the basecamp’s shop.
Our three and five day expeditions cost roughly £350 and £500 respectively per person. Sounds expensive, I know. But the experience really is worth every penny! Let’s break it all down for good measure…
2 nights accommodation - we paid 1,250 pesos for a private twin in Coron
3 meals per day - roughly 500 pesos each
1 massage - roughly 500 pesos in Coron
Other island hopping tours - 1,600 in Coron
Mask and snorkels - roughly 100 pesos each on other tours
Water, coffee, tea and rum is included, but beers and soft drinks cost 60 pesos each.
What You Need To Know
TAO themselves make it clear that this is not a tour or cruise like any other, and it certainly isn’t luxury. As they say on their website…
"It might be bad weather, it might be rough waves, limited privacy, barking dogs, crowing roosters, mosquito bites, jellyfish stings, sunburns. But that is the nature of the TAO, the unexpected, the unknown, stepping outside your comfort zone, diving into the experience. We love it, but we understand that this is not everyone’s idea of a holiday.”
That’s just it - it’s an adventure and that’s why it appealed to us! At the same time, you have to go with the flow a lot and trust in your crew. For example, kayaking to Ginto Basecamp in the pitch black or postponing the trip for a day. Those weren’t easy things for everyone to deal with (especially because the hostels in Coron usually fill up and your stay can’t always be extended).
There’s also no wifi, limited electricity and bucket showers - proper island life! That might appeal to you to, but it might not. What helps is being on a boat with 20 other like-minded travellers, and that isn’t something that you’re always lucky enough to get on other tours. Socialising with them all day long allows you to make amazing friends that you’re sad to part ways with by the end of it!
TAO have recently brought in a cashless payment system for buying drinks on board the boat. Roughly 3,000 pesos per person needs to be loaded on to the cashless bracelet the evening before departure, along with a 200 peso environmental fee. Anything remaining on the bracelet will be refunded, so don’t worry if you think you might need more, which you might if you’re doing a five day tour. Additionally, ATM’s in Coron and El Nido are notoriously unreliable, so it doesn’t help to be thinking one step ahead pre-trip.
What To Pack
A dry bag is an absolute must on a trip like this. Your main bag is stowed away on the boat and never taken to any of the islands, so you'll need a change of clothes, toiletries and any gadgets that you might need
A refillable water bottle
Sun protection (organic of course)
A flashlight for when the lights go out at night
Flip flops or wet shoes (or both)
Camera/Go Pro (optional)
A book/journal (optional)