By DAN LEVIN
WE were floating gingerly over a forest of antler-shaped coral when I heard a Swede who was snorkeling with me shout. I popped my head above water and caught only a fragment of his declaration in the slosh of waves: “Monster in a hole.”
Pulling the mask from my eyes, I suddenly felt extremely exposed. We were snorkeling in the waters off Palawan province in the Philippines, and the 82-foot blue-and-white bangka boat that was our home for five days was too far away for a quick escape.
So I readjusted my snorkel, inhaled and pumped down toward the reef. Some members of our 19-member sailing expedition were already there, peering into an orange coral bigger than an armchair. That meant the creature was not lethal. But it did look hungry. Half hidden in a crevice loomed a long speckled predator, jaws agape. I kept my distance and made a mental note to teach my Scandinavian friend a new name: moray eel. But first, I needed to breathe.
Fortunately, relaxation was never in short supply aboard the Buhay. We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.
Most tourists who land in the Philippines for some r-and-r head straight to Boracay, a tropical convenience store fully stocked with jet skis, resort pools and hangovers. But I wanted a real getaway, not one that involved getting hammered on scorpion bowls.
So I hitched a van ride from Puerta Princesa to El Nido, a tiny, dense warren of dive shops that clings to Bacuit Bay in Palawan. What I found, after six hours swerving around goats along a dirt road, was a bangka launching pad to the region’s spectacular islands.
El Nido has carved out a niche on the backpacker circuit by looking as if it just popped up on the map. Towering limestone cliffs fringe a few dusty streets that clear out long before midnight. Resorts are kept at bay by a lack of commercial flights and the town’s creaky infrastructure — there are no A.T.M.’s and the electricity shuts off at dawn, sputtering back on around 4 p.m.
Like most of the town’s itinerant denizens, I spent the brownout hours swimming with parrotfish and picnicking on a flash of white sand. Each spot had a name ripped from paradise mythology, like Hidden Beach and Secret Lagoon.
Except the secret is out. Local tour operators all offer the same four daily itineraries — known as A, B, C and D — so the water, while stunning, was sometimes crowded. When everyone came back to town in the afternoon, they would watch the sunset, order a beer and promptly log on to Facebook at a cafe just feet from the surf. It felt as if the other tourists (and the Internet) were crashing my deserted-island fantasy.
The only option was to cut anchor from civilization and all its modern amenities. In planning my next trip to El Nido in February, I booked online with the bespoke sailing outfit Tao Philippines, which not only explores some of the most remote islands in Southeast Asia, but also offers a total digital holiday: no e-mail, no newsfeed, no phone.
Tao was founded by Eddie Brock, a lanky 34-year-old Filipino, and his British buddy, Jack Foottit, 27, who met waiting tables in Scotland, then lit out for the islands of Palawan. Over the years, Mr. Brock and Mr. Foottit discovered an echt lonely planet of untrammeled islets and fishing villages and, so they could keep the adventure going, began taking those in the know along for the ride. They now have six bangkas, and my shipmates and I were their latest stowaways.
The point of the trip, Mr. Brock said the night before we set out, was simple: “There is no plan.” During our voyage between El Nido and our final destination, Coron, nearly 100 miles to the northeast, each day’s course would be set by the winds and currents. Along the way we would land on islands so isolated that tourists rarely see them.
That first morning aboard the Buhay, we ditched our flip-flops and tested our sea legs. The vessel was a typical bangka reimagined, with double open-air decks and two guitars. In the galley, our chef, Annie, would whip up Filipino island gems during our journey, like tuna adobo and coconut crab curry.
My shipmates aboard the Buhay were mostly European, including two Belgian men trailed by their comely Filipina companions. It was an open expedition, so anyone could book a spot. Each night we slept on a different island, sometimes sharing a hut. Honeymooners and others wanting a more intimate experience can reserve a private boat.
I had come on my own, but by the time we landed at Tao’s base camp on the island of Cadlao that afternoon, any initial discomfort at sharing such close quarters with strangers had vanished in the first plunge overboard. (Being wet and half-naked does that.)
Mr. Brock emerged from the palms to welcome us ashore, followed by Mr. Foottit, a tanned ex-Londoner who traded his car keys for a pet monkey. The baby long-tailed macaque jumped down from his shoulder, squeaked and scampered across the sand to sniff us out. She was an ideal mascot for the camp, a few thatch huts on the edge of jungle.
Fishermen once lived in the area but sold their land to our hosts a few years ago. Today, some of them work for Tao as sailors and cooks. Tao supports each village they work with throughout the islands, building schools and paying for teachers, an investment that has won them local loyalties. Our crew members were from this rural landscape, and they had taught our hosts how to shinny up a coconut tree and navigate by the stars. “It’s a tribe, not a company,” said Mr. Foottit, grinning over a beer. “We’re the lost boys.”
Clambering aboard the Buhay the next morning, we felt like a tribe of our own. The sun was high and the air smelled of salt and sunscreen. Over the slap of wave on hull I could hear the strumming of guitar strings and laughter, my kind of symphony. We were lying belly-up on the prow when Nina Peck, a strawberry-blond Liverpudlian, asked what, at that moment, sounded like life’s most important question: “Is it beer o’clock yet?”
All I knew was that we had yet to feast on lunch, so the bottles of lager would get to chill a bit longer. We resumed watching the clouds, content to wait for the next empty beach ahead.
When the Buhay stopped, Johan, our Filipino expedition leader, announced that just beneath the waves, a World War II-era shipwreck sat waiting to be explored. We raced to snag snorkels, leapt overboard and found a vessel upholstered by coral. Clown fish darted toward our masks from anemones that clung to the rusted hull. It was a submerged playground, complete with portholes big enough to swim through.
Suddenly Nina grabbed my arm and pointed toward the sea floor. There, a cuttlefish was frozen in panic, rapidly flashing green, motley and fluorescent beige like a chameleon on speed.
All this nautical freedom was affecting my shipmates. Before starting the trip, Marly Pols, 43, a Dutch flight attendant, said she had only thought of the beaches in store. But by the second day we were sharing tales and bottles of rum like a band of leisurely pirates. “This is our home now,” she said as we lounged on the top deck the next morning. “We’re in this together.”
Gabie Vervoort, 37, a successful printer salesman in the Netherlands, said he was toying with giving that up. “Back home I want the nicest car and biggest TV, but out here it’s all meaningless,” he said. “I think I was born in the wrong country.”
Yet island life is not always paradise. Rising sea temperatures and overfishing in the Philippines are devastating populations above and below the waves. Fish collapse has begun to hit Palawan, leaving local fishermen unable to compete in the race to feed China. Pearl farming provides some employment (at night we glimpsed the distant lights of bangkas guarding the submerged oysters), though locals receive a fraction of the final profit.
Tao supports a small rural economy that spans the Philippine archipelago. Our morning coffee came from Mr. Brock’s village up north, while dinners were strictly locavore. When we stopped for the night on an island several hours away from the shipwreck, a large boar was roasting on a spit rotated by a barefoot villager. Tao owns 30 acres of the island, turning part of it into a banana plantation with room for eggplant, lemon cucumbers and tomatoes. We dropped off our dry bags in bamboo huts carpeted with sand and, after showering, sat down to eat.
I prefer my pork without a face, but the others did not have such qualms, slurping on morsels of cracklin in the torchlight. Later, we relaxed by the beach until late, mangling the words to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.
On the third evening, on another beach, the lyrics were provided. After sunset and prawns, we assembled in a hut around the reason for the village’s generator: a karaoke machine. English was not the mother tongue of all of my shipmates, but they made up for any mistakes with their fluency in American-Brit pop.
We sang Oasis’s “Wonderwall” and danced the Macarena. For days I’d been wishing that my friends had come with me on the voyage, and then I realized: they were there the whole time.
Taking a breather, I crept barefoot off to the beach, empty save for the ghost crabs who hovered by their burrows, watching me with googly-eyes. The tide was a sigh, the sky aglow with constellations, and I was, thrillingly, the only witness.