CORON ISLAND was a fortress of jagged, Jurassic limestone. From a distance, it looked impregnable. As our bangka motored closer, however, emerald coves and concealed passages hoved into view. We are karst connoisseurs – having climbed, sailed and spelunked these fantastical formations from China’s Yangshuo and Vietnam’s Ha Long to Thailand’s Phang Nga. Coron Island exceeded them all: bigger, sharper, clearer, cleaner – and more threatened.
I was glad that I had done my research. Most tours use charmless, chaotic Coron Town as a base for exploring Coron and dozens of other islands around the bay. That seemed sensible until I discovered that Coron Town isn’t even on Coron Island, which is at least a 20-minute boat ride away. That presented three problems. First, we’d waste a lot of time getting to Coron Island and back every day. Second, our ability to travel further afield would be limited. Third, everybody else would be doing the exact same thing.
Averse to crowds and eager to explore beyond Coron, we booked a 3D/2N cruise with Big Dream Boat Man. We’d stay on a different island each night and visit places before or after the day-tours came. Chino, our cheerful and laidback guide, met us at the hotel in the morning. It was obvious that he had a son too; he was an absolute natural with the boys. We climbed into two very odd-shaped trikes and rattled down Coron Town’s main road towards the port.
Our boat for the next three days was a bangka – a photogenic Filipino vessel that looks like an X-Wing Fighter coming at you or like a water strider from above. Essentially a big canoe with twin outriggers, deck space was extremely limited. After cruising on the spacious Sea Gipsy in the Mergui Archipelago and the Carpe Diem in Komodo, we couldn’t hide our disappointment when we first saw it. I wasn’t sure how all six of us and our bags were going to fit. It certainly wasn’t going to be comfortable.
As it turned out, the boat was fine because the crew was fantastic. No journey was longer than a few hours and the scenery enroute was magnificent. Chino found us lesser-known snorkeling spots and empty beaches. Our chef whipped-up delicious, hearty meals in a kitchen the size of a gym locker. Pan-fried grouper with roasted potatoes and bacon bits? The freshest fried calamari? And while there were no G&Ts on the sundeck, there were plenty of T&Cs (Tanduhay & Cokes) on the outrigger struts.
We decided to save Coron Island’s most-famous locations for last. Instead, we sailed south down the island’s west coast, stopping to swim and drink freshly-chopped coconuts at tiny, immaculate Smith Beach. Next, we explored a concealed cave. And after a long swim and snorkelling session, we ate lunch at a bamboo-and-thatch hut built into the cliffs near Sunset Beach. Then Nori and the boys napped as the captain headed southwest across the width of Coron Bay.
When we arrived on pretty little Banana Island in the late afternoon, there were five other boats anchored off-shore and a few dozen tourists sunning on the beach or dozing in hammocks. I didn’t realize that they were day-trippers. But within an hour, they were all gone! I flew the drone over the island and across the channel towards the Two Seasons Hotel on Bulalacao Island. The boys borrowed bicycles and slalomed through the palm trees. Then the six of us went for a long snorkel.
It had been an amazing day, but it was a terrible night of sleep. The electricity went off some time after midnight, bringing the ancient, fuzz-covered fans to a halt. I stumbled around in the dark, trying to locate the magic switch. Eventually, I gave up and crawled back under the mosquito netting. But it was already too hot for me to sleep, and without the whirr of the fan I could hear small animals scampering about in the rafters.