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The chill side of El Nido

El Nido is known for its stunning limestone cliffs and luxe resorts, but once peak season has passed and the party atmosphere has subsided, another El Nido emerges — a side that’s more relaxed and real.

“(This is the) very chill side of El Nido that sits on Lio beach,” notes Francinne Roque-San Juan, founder of the social travel app Turista.ph. “It’s a more laidback, local community where Manileños go to escape from the city. Some decide to live here, some are still putting up businesses to help the community thrive.”

These locals and transplanted Manileños are creative, hardworking, and very passionate (and you need that kind of passion to get through low season in a resort town).

Where to stay

One of them is Marga Jalandoni, a pretty, vivacious 24-year-old who oversees boutique resort Pandan Villas for her father, Junie Jalandoni, who was vice president of Ayala Land and COO of Ayala Land Hotels & Resorts before he retired.

Junie bought the plot of land Pandan sits on and started building the resort shortly after a family trip to Bali in December 2018, which inspired him.

“The identity of Pandan Villas is really catered towards families who want a home away from home; who want to vacation but also feel like they're having a staycation on an island that's a little bit more private and luxurious than most of the other beaches in the Philippines,” notes Marga. “The villas are in the forest, but the beach is just a few minutes’ walk away. It's near the airport as well, and located near a lot of restaurants on the beach and in the Lio area.”

Pandan consists of four villas, each with its own private plunge pool, kitchen, dining area and lanai on the ground floor and two bedrooms upstairs (one with a queen-size bed and another with twin beds). Centrally located within the Lio Tourism Estate (“We now want to rebrand it to Lio Beach because people feel intimidated by the word ‘estate,’” explains Francinne), it’s a minute’s walk from Kalye Artisano and an eight-minute walk to the beach.

Marga, the self-professed “favorite” of her dad who accompanied him on most of his local travels as a child, says, “He would pass down a lot of his wisdom and really sparked my love for the environment and sustainability, which are also some of our core values here.”

That eco-friendliness is seen in the architecture of Pandan Villas, which Junie designed himself in the Filipino coastal style: it’s open-air and naturally lit to minimize air-con and electricity use, built with recycled wood and stone, furnished with upcycled pieces, and landscaped with vegetation so lush it looks like the primeval forest outside has made its way in.

Marga notes that, if you want to book your family at a typical resort, you'd need at least two rooms and have to pay twice the price. “Here it's an all-in-one package.” A full Filipino breakfast with coffee is included, and you can even ask the in-house chef to prepare meals for your group, just notify him in advance and provide funds for marketing.

“We cater to and are specialized to your needs,” Marga promises.

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Pandan Villas is located along Lio Beach in El Nido, Palawan. Book through the Turista.ph app to get the best rate and avail of One Booking = One Tree (see below).

Pandan Villas’ lanai has living and dining areas and a private plunge pool.

What to do

Plant a tree. When you book through the Turista.ph app, Francinne and her Resonate Community team will plant a tree in your name via their TuREEsta Plant a Tree program, which dovetails nicely with the Ten Knots Group’s Be Green, Be Great program, the company’s reforestation initiative.

Lio Tourism Estate sustainability officer Kiko Velhagen took us to their carbon forest to plant trees, the saplings of which were in buri bags woven by the Sibaltan Women Weavers’ Association.

“Out of Lio’s 325 hectares, 75 hectares are dedicated carbon forests,” Kiko notes. “This is part of Ayala Land Inc.’s initiative on carbon neutrality for commercial establishments, which was met in 2022.”

Experts measure emissions from these establishments yearly, comparing them to the emissions being absorbed by the carbon forests. While the best CO2 absorbers are mangroves, we planted coconut and star apple trees to invite birds and other wildlife. “They’re also good for mitigating floods in this area,” says Velhagen, and the fruits don’t hurt, either. “One tree can produce as much as 100 coconuts per year.”

Kayak or snorkel at Cadlao Lagoon. Cadlao’s immense, ancient-looking limestone formations are even more breathtaking than El Nido’s Big and Small Lagoons. Go there via Ice Agustin’s Bellitta Tours, which provides a fun, unforgettable experience. Our guide Dong was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining. After kayaking you can wade through a “secret” passageway through a rock into the main lagoon: a perfect hang and chill spot for fam and friends.

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Contact Bellitta Tours at 09298730283 or go to their Facebook and Instagram @bellittatours.

Do eco activities. Take a nature walk through Lio’s forest on an eco-paved trail. The towering trees and bubbling streams are balm for the soul. You can also kayak through the wetlands to better appreciate the carbon forests.

Francinne sums it up perfectly: “While I know El Nido is known to have luxurious super-escapes, Lio is a laidback, simpler yet more healing alternative.”

Bellitta Tours took us to Cadlao Lagoon, with its stunning limestone formations.

Where to eat

Yoga Tayo El Nido: You can satisfy both body and soul at Yoga Tayo, a yoga studio and café along Lio’s beachfront. Owner-proprietor Isobelle Soriano teaches Vinyasa and other types of yoga, and “all our classes are beginner-friendly,” she says. They also offer Animal Flow classes that families love.

Food-wise, their bestsellers are Blackened Tuna, the Chicken Adoburrito, and Sautéed Squid with sweet pandan rice. All were so yummy I’ll definitely go back to try their new dishes, the Avo-Caprese sandwich and three-cheese Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup.

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Yoga Tayo, open Mondays to Fridays 8 a.m. onwards, is located on the second floor of the Shops at Lio, Lio Beach, El Nido. Follow them on FB and IG @yogatayo.elnido.

La Moro Hill Bakery: We first encountered La Moro Hill’s breads at Pandan Villas, where they were served for breakfast. The malunggay buns were crusty and warm, while the shakoy, or bicho-bicho (twisted and fried donuts), were soft and addictive. Master baker Yana Argano coaxes the best out of La Moro’s naturally leavened breads and laminated pastries. Other must-tries are the croissants, bagels, and superb sourdough loaves.

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La Moro Hill Bakery is located along Lio Beach behind El Nido Grill. Follow them on IG @lamorohillbakery.

LICK Coffee: An acronym for Lost Islands Center for Kape, LICK is a specialty coffee roaster led by champion barista and coffee advocate Silvester Dan “Sly” Samonte, who partners with local farms and cooperatives to source rare Philippine beans before roasting them to bring out their best flavors. A bag of LICK beans is a great gift to take home, or if you want to drink these coffees in all their glory, read the following entry.

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LICK is at Sitio Uno inside Lio, El Nido. For more info, visit Lick.ph or follow them on IG @lick.elnido.

Islas Makinas: The goodness of La Moro Hill Bakery breads and LICK coffees are offered at Islas Makinas, an island coffee shop on Kalye Artisano (also founded by Sly Samonte), where you can have coffee concoctions like the citrusy Sunshine cold brew, steeped for 24 hours and made zesty with Bataraza pineapple; chai latte with orange peel;

horchata (rice milk) with coffee and cinnamon (my personal fave); and brown-sugar latte sweetened with homemade vanilla syrup.

These drinks perfectly accompany Islas Makinas bestsellers like the Fried Chicken Sandwich: “Originally this had a waffle bun, and it went viral for us,” says Yana Argano. “Right now we decided to replace it with a homemade milk bun made by La Moro Hill Bakery.”

Another bestseller is the Pork Katsudon Bowl, a rice bowl developed by Islas’ head of kitchen Jason, who has a background working in Japanese restaurants and made his own version.

Sandwiches include the Bacon, Tomato and Spinach, with the bacon from pigs organically and ethically raised by Bianyas farm in Puerto Princesa. “Everything from the meat to the spinach is all homegrown and locally sourced,” says Yana.

La Moro’s menu is also featured: the Kesong Puti sandwich — sautéed Brazilian spinach, roasted tomatoes and locally made white cheese on a sourdough slice; and the vegetarian Mushroom Toastie, which was so good it blew my mind. “The oyster mushrooms were grown by our resident agriculturist, Landro, so every week we have a new harvest of fresh mushrooms,” Yana says.

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Islas Makinas is on Kalye Artisano, Lio, El Nido.

Bella Vita El Nido: There are few pleasures in life comparable to eating authentic Italian pizza on a boat after kayaking in Cadlao lagoon, but Bellitta Tours provided it to us (along with a killer pancit from Pandan Villas’ chef) after our tour. Though El Nido tour operators are no longer allowed to provide food for guests, you can order your own Neapolitan pizza from Bella Vita, which we liked so much we ordered it again for dinner. Try the 4 Formaggi, Diavola with spicy pepperoni, and Quattro Stagioni with mushrooms, artichokes, black olives and Parma ham.

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Bella Vita is a beachfront restaurant with cocktails and a sunset view at Corong-Corong Beach, Bacuit, El Nido. Call 09053648534 or 09614689518 for delivery. Follow them on IG @bellavitaelnido.

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Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com

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