Growing up, I was told of a paradise called Penglai, an island that sits at the edge of the sea. A place long cited in Chinese texts of yore, where beautiful creatures roam free and vibrant jewels grow from the trees. And while I still don’t know if Penglai is real, this much is true: in the great Sulu Sea lies another paradise where flying foxes soar in azure skies and black tip reef sharks swim in glistening waters; where precious puzzle nuts hang from swaying branches and fiery bougainvillaeas bend over along blissfully quiet paths. A paradise named Banwa. Banwa Private Island.
Like any fabled paradise, Banwa Private Island thrives in all its secluded glory. Located in Northeastern Palawan, one of the world’s most biodiverse archipelagos, the Island’s six hectares of lush greenery blooms at the heart of a 1,896-hectare marine protected area nurtured by its very own Aquos Foundation. Make no mistake, seclusion does not equal isolation — one helicopter ride from Manila or Hong Kong is all it takes to frolic on Banwa’s powder-white sands.
However, as any spirited voyager would, my fellow travellers and I took our time to journey through sky, land and sea to reach our destination. After a brief soar above the Filipino clouds, we were transported by car through the vibrant, bustling streets of Puerto Princesa onto quiet mountain roads that winded through scattered villages and verdant valleys. The next thing I knew, motors were whirring behind me as we rode the waves on Banwa’s amphibious Iguana, the only boat of its kind in Asia (customised with Tiffany blue seats, no less — any fashionista would approve!) And for a moment, as I watched the foaming waters lap fiercely against the side of our boat like the manes of galloping white horses, I imagined roaming the seas like the mighty Poseidon. After all, what is a grand voyage to paradise without a shining chariot?
Soft singing soon broke my reverie. What was once a speck of land on the horizon had now morphed into a long wooden jetty, and on it, some ten people dressed in white and khaki, standing shoulder to shoulder with their hands on their chests. The singing grew louder as we slowly bobbed forward. There must be at least 15 people on that jetty… I thought to myself, squinting between the water droplets on our windshield and counting again. Wait, no, there are more than 20!
I stared at the jetty in awe. “Are these people all just waiting for us?” Words tumbled out of my mouth. Little did I know that being awestruck would be my default state of mind on Banwa Private Island.
The answer to my question – which was unbelievably naive in hindsight – is yes: the noble guardians of Banwa, the Banwaites, comprise an 80-strong army of ground staff armed with the mission of making you feel at home in the tropical sanctuary of your dreams. Flowers were gently laid around my neck as I took my first steps on the Island to the cheerful rhythm of Sa Kapupuruan, a song unique to Palawan, sung by the staff in the region’s Cuyunon dialect.
Among the first things to enter my field of vision was the open terrace of a sleek white building emerging from the olive palms lining the beach. Lo and behold the Latitude Restaurant, where I would soon devour countless pots of Banwa’s signature tea: a sweet, tangy beverage crafted using lemongrass, mint, citrus wedges and precious honey made by worker bees that hustle day after day under the care of in-house beekeepers. Meanwhile, the nectar for humans (crisp, clean Banwater!) is drawn from an artesian well 500 feet below the Island and bottled on-site. And our fuel? Daily catches from local fishermen and fresh produce harvested on the Island’s organic farm in nearby Tumarbong, served directly to the table.
As I neared the end of the jetty, my attention shifted to a silver statue that looked oddly familiar. It is the logo of Banwa Private Island, magnified, comprising two triangles that form a compass arrow-inspired diamond — fitting for this hidden gem of a resort.
More stylised geometric motifs can be found in all the Island’s six villas as a tribute to the craftsmanship of the indigenous seafaring Tagbanua tribe, the protectors of Palawan’s waters. Each villa’s pristine white walls house minimalistic interiors anchored in an aquatic colour palette that recalls the turquoise Sulu Sea, which lies within arm’s reach from the infinity pool outside the room. The line between nature and architecture is tastefully blurred: lampshades are intricately woven to mimic fish baskets, while sculptural coral adornments nod to the Island’s house reef.
“Here are your sunglasses, Miss Kaitlyn.” My villa host Josa handed me a black spectacle case as she helped me settle in. Confusion must have instantly marked my features, for she quickly explained with a shy smile, “You didn’t bring yours from home.”
Taken aback, I thanked her as I recalled a brief comment I made on the car to Pamela, the Island’s Commercial Director, about carelessly forgetting to pack my shades. And as I would soon learn in the days to come, this was only a taster of Banwa Private Island’s attentive and generous hospitality.
After golden hour eco-golf on the jetty and a candle-lit dinner by the beach, I retreated to the comforts of my villa and drifted off in possibly the softest, fluffiest bathrobe I have ever worn. (In the words of Banwa Private Island’s CEO Peter Nilsson, it is a polar bear hug.) So as one can imagine, leaving it behind for 6am yoga at Coconut Grove was a mental game of tug-of-war. It resulted in a breathless sprint to the woods, in the middle of which I nearly collided with a native megapode (tabon bird) scurrying into the bushes. Perhaps it was running late for something too.
On the yoga platform, I eased my tense city-dweller’s body into a series of asanas as the sun rose from the east. My quick, shallow breaths steadied and deepened, gradually sounding harmoniously with nature’s choral symphony: leaves rustling in the wind, waves high-fiving the shore, white collared kingfishers calling out to the dawn of a new day.
As courteous guests, we went around the Island to greet its inhabitants. Among the A-lister line-up were the tabon birds, always in a rush and full of character; a pair of graceful black and white reef regrets walking in synchrony like yin and yang; a nest of baby turtles preparing to debut from their shells; and Banwa’s favourite resident couple: mantanani scops owls George and Georgina.
Under the Palawan sun, I went snorkelling and scuba diving for the first time, conquering my fears of the deep sea in the arms of Banwa’s house reef. Its loving defender is the Aquos Foundation, helmed by environmental heroes who unwaveringly conserve the Sulu Sea’s delicate ecosystems. Notably, the organisation has successfully carried out its Reef Ball programme. Over 400 reef ball structures have been deployed in the marine protected area, providing habitat for coral colonisation to stimulate its regeneration, which shelters the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles and more.
Flutter kicking under the guidance of our dive master Marc, I played peekaboo with schools of fish between the reef’s bright varied corals. Time seemed to stop beneath the waves, and it suddenly occurred to me how small I was in this world — a fleeting feeling, though overwhelming, that was deeply cathartic for a born-and-raised urbanite.
Our balmy Banwa days flew by. In this glorious slither of time, we embarked on an Amazonian adventure on the mangrove-lined Barbacan River and left our footprints on a sandbank that seemed to stretch into infinity — escapades offered as part of the Island’s newly launched Unscripted Adventures. When the stars came to illuminate the dark, we lay on the jetty, sipping on comforting cups of Banwa tea as we chatted into the night under the sparkling constellations of Orion.
Dawn soon arrived on my final day at Banwa, and I set sail one last time. The morning wind sighed, probably at how clumsily I was steering the sails of my hobie cat catamaran. There must be a certain kind of magic that only exists in these tranquil early hours, for the horizon gleamed like a silver thread, weaving together the lavender canopy of the sleepy sky and the navy robe of the awakening sea.
Mere hours later, we descended into Manila. As I dragged my feet through the corridors of the plane to delay my entry back into reality, I felt my phone buzz several times in my pocket.
The turtle nest just hatched a few minutes ago, read a text from Bernard, who spearheads the Aquos Foundation.
A video popped up on my screen. My heart brimmed with joy as I watched baby turtles stumbling and tumbling out into the world, dipping their tiny flippers into a sea of unfathomable wonders — all of which wouldn’t be possible without Banwa’s custodians.
It is not a coincidence that the word “banwa” means “community”. While Banwa Private Island’s breathtaking surroundings and state-of-the-art facilities make it one of the world’s most covetable luxury destinations, it is its people – a community so sincerely dedicated to their craft and their home – that truly distinguishes Banwa from the rest.
CreditLead Image: Courtesy of Banwa Private Island