As I (Merge) continued my travels in the Philippines on the MS Westerdam, I visited Puerto Princesa in the southwest for a couple of days. On my must-do list were two things. First, explore the historical town and other sites within the area; and two, make the short day-trip to the UNESCO world-heritage Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. So two days was exactly what I needed! Puerto Princesa is the capital city of Palawan province in the Philippines, widely renowned for its exceptional natural beauty and commitment to environmental conservation.
Plaza Cuartel, right in the heart of Puerto Princesa, is known for its role during World War II. Originally a military garrison, it is the site of the tragic Palawan Massacre in 1944, where numerous American prisoners of war were killed by Japanese forces. But today, it is a peaceful memorial park, offering a solemn tribute to those who perished.
Another highlight in the city centre is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. This historical church, characterized by its Gothic-inspired architecture, features pointed arches and stunning stained glass windows. Established as a small church in the Spanish colonial era, it was elevated to a cathedral in 1961.
The Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre was particularly interesting. While it addresses all wildlife that is endemic to the region, it is primarily dedicated to the research and conservation of the Philippine crocodile, a critically endangered species. Breeding and conservation practices are conducted at the crocodile farm, and it is possible to observe crocodiles at various stages of life, from eggs and hatchlings in the nursery to full-grown adults in larger enclosures.
After all this exploring, I needed a break, so I went to the Baker’s Hill Bakeshop, a very popular bakery with both locals and tourists, known for its delicious baked goods and picturesque park-like setting. The most well-known pastry here is the hopia, a Filipino-Chinese cake. Hopia is made of thin flaky pastry, traditionally filled with mung bean paste (or munggo). But nowadays, there are more variations to choose from when it comes to the filling, and the ones that were selling the quickest seemed to be the Hopia ube (purple yam) and the Hopia fudge. I tried one with a cup of hot tea – it was flaky on the outside, and mushy on the inside, and delicious!
Then I was back to touring, this time to Mitra’s Ranch, located in the hilly neighbourhood of Santa Monica Heights. This ranch is privately owned by the late Senator and statesman Ramon V. Mitra, Jr., and it is now open to the public as a prominent viewpoint and leisure spot. From the deck, you get sweeping views of the city and the sea. They also have various recreational activities, including a zipline and horseback riding. Since the afternoon has become quite rainy, I didn’t stay long, other than to snap a few pictures.
I set aside my second day in Puerto Princesa to visit the crown jewel of the area — the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring a 8 km stunning underground river that flows through a spectacular limestone karst landscape before emptying into the South China Sea. It is also recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. The only way to explore this area is on a guided tour. A group of ten of us boarded a van in the morning that made the 90+ minute drive to Saint Paul’s Bay. From there, we caught a speedboat for the ~3 mile journey to the entrance to the Subterranean River National Park. A short trek through the forest, with plenty of wild macaques and monitor lizards (which are endemic to Palawan) to see along the way, got us to the edge of the river. We then boarded canoes 10 at a time with a paddler guide who took us down the river through the limestone caves.
As I returned to the ship later that afternoon, I decided to make a stop at Jollibee, a much-loved symbol of Filipino culinary culture. A large percentage of our crew on board the Westerdam are Filipino, and they have raved about Jollibee chicken. Jollibee is the most popular fast-food chain in the Philippines since its inception in 1978, even beating out McDonalds. It offers a blend of Western fast-food staples alongside items infused with local flavors – such as the Chickenjoy, a crispy fried chicken, and Jolly Spaghetti, sweet-style spaghetti – which resonates deeply with the Filipino palate. What really convinced me to try it though was visible tangible proof – every time we called at a port in the Philippines, I would see hordes of the ship crew returning at the end of the day with several huge bags sporting the cheerful red bee which is the Jollibee brand mascot! I figured this many people couldn’t be wrong. And they weren’t. The fried chicken was delicious – spicy, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Better than I’ve ever tasted at home. I didn’t try the Jolly Spaghetti, but that will be on my next visit.