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Islands of flowers and pearls

By Doreen Yu Published Jul 22, 2023 5:00 am

Even with Betty/Mawar threatening 195 kph center winds, our long-planned outing was not going to be rained out, postponed or cancelled.

Our morning AirSwift flight to El Nido was reset to 2 p.m., but the enthusiasm of our hardy gang of nine—eight seniors and one near senior (though she delusionally insists it’s still many years away)—would not be dampened: “We’ll get there in time for cocktails!”

A little over an hour’s flight to Lio Airport in El Nido, then a 45-minute van ride over paved roads to the Sibaltan pier and a 45-minute boat ride got us to Flower Island, where resort personnel led by the amiable manager Via, her not-as-amiable but nevertheless cute Pomeranian Coffee and the gentle sentinel RJ welcomed us with delightful buko-mansi drinks.

We set up our cocktail spread on the veranda of one of the cottages—a full cheese board, nuts, crackers, and of course wines (a buko in the shell for the dry one, that’s me)—to watch the sunset. What a good start to our vacation!

The lighthouse has three bedrooms, currently unused.

I’ve always liked—and respected—lighthouses, lonesome sentinels whose beams cut through the darkness, offering fisherfolk and voyagers the promise of safe haven. So the sign pointing to the lighthouse was an invitation we could not resist.

The hike up is not for the faint of heart or the weak of knee, so the daring five trudged up the cemented, winding, and in parts very steep path that was supposed to take 15 minutes but took us almost double that, with a voice from the back imploring, “Buhatin nyo na ako!”

Two peacocks and two peahens are permanent guests on the island.

The lush forest offered a welcome canopy and is home to birds that we could hear flying about (thank goodness there were no bats). After the arduous climb, the panorama on top was reward enough: myriad islands big and small scattered around pristine waters in shades of cyan, turquoise, and cerulean as far as the eye could see. On the clear day we were blessed with, we could indeed see forever.

We started down before it got dark so we could make it to cocktails (a bottle of champagne was chilled and waiting) and before the wild animals came out (or so I wanted to think!). Gravity took some of the strain out, but it was hard on our creaky knees, so there were more groans all around. But the cicadas silenced us with a rousing concerto, something we city folks had not heard in a long, long time.

A point of clarification though on the lighthouse—it isn’t a working lighthouse after all, but a structure built like one, with three bedrooms not currently open for guests, although I have to wonder how many hardy—and masochistic—guests would undertake that climb daily. 

* * *

A picnic on Malutamban island awaited us, but first a 25-minute speedboat ride across the Palawan Sea, an exciting ride in this season of habagat. Snorkeling in the rough seas was a challenge, but the waters are so clean—in all the time we spent in the water going from island to island and snorkeling, we never saw a single piece of plastic or trash; only the buoys that mark the oyster nets submerged in these cold waters, and that is, literally, the hidden gem of this area.

A pearl is carefully extracted from an oyster.

Thousands of Pinctada maxima, the pearl oyster, call these waters home, where they hibernate for years (at least two to mature, and three more to make a pearl), feeding on nutritious plankton while they slowly spin nacre to make a precious pearl.

The highlight of a trip to Flower Island Resort is a visit to the pearl farm laboratories on a nearby island. While it is true, as Khalil Gibran said, that “the pearl is a temple built by pain around a grain of sand,” Jewelmer has added science to this miracle of nature to produce some of the most exquisite pearls in the world. From careful selection and propagation of the oysters to cultivating the appropriate plankton (out of about 20,000 species) for their nutrition, the process is the result of decades of research and experimentation.

A sumptuous picnic spread on Malutamban island.

Workers—there are 200 in this facility alone—take the oysters out of their nets, clean each one, keep them ajar with food-grade wedges and line them up on trays. We were allowed to watch a technician implant each oyster with an irritant—a nucleus made from a freshwater mussel bead—and a sliver of tissue from a gold-lipped oyster to produce the much-coveted golden pearls that are a trademark of Jewelmer. There are also silver-lipped oysters, responsible for the creamy white pearls.

Fresh catch uni(sea urchin) in their shell.

The oysters are then put into nets and lowered back into the sea, there to spin their nacre over a thousand days. When the time is ripe, the pearls are harvested and cleaned and handed over to artists who make them into jewelry fit to turn mere mortals into royalty. So how much do they cost? As they say, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

* * *

Although there are flowers on the island—hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani, amaryllis—they aren’t responsible for the island’s name. The original owner had seven daughters, all named after flowers. The resort has 29 beachfront cottages, each with an inviting hammock on the balcony, where the breeze and the sound of the waves will easily lull you to sweet slumber.

As we were about to board the speedboats to go back to the mainland, the staff, including RJ and Coffee, gathered on the beach to send us off. We happily joined in their farewell dance, leaving without pearls perhaps, but with hearts full of laughter, joy, and happy memories.