It's like looking into an aquarium. Beneath my board, revealed in ethereal clarity, pass corals, sponges, and anemones, the zebra-stripes of a passing angel fish flashing between them. Gazing over the waters my eyes fill with an exposition of blues — aquamarine, azure, indigo — before gathering in the limestone bluffs hemming the lagoon. Some walls end in low, blunt towers; others rise hundreds of metres out of sight, disappearing into dense green jungle. It's an idyll entirely in keeping with what some call the most beautiful island in the world.
Todd Lawson and Christina Tottle, the Whistlerites I'm following, are lucky to have called the southern Philippine island of Palawan home for the past four winters. But theirs is no simple sun-seeking getaway. They've built a traditional home outside the town of El Nido and started the area's first stand-up paddleboard adventure business — SUPxplore. Their daughter Seanna goes to school here, and a steady stream of friends and acquaintances cycle through their laid-back beachfront property. They're imbedded, yet bring with them a little slice of home, making for a seamless transition our first morning when we found ourselves doing SUP yoga on a sandbar with Christina and a couple of sunburned Slovenian girls. With the rising sun already set to broil, only a few passing clouds kept us from getting as scorched as the Slovenians.
But that was yesterday, and today we're on one of the pair's marquee paddleboard adventures. SUPxplore's clientele includes everyone from backpackers to families and everything in between. Keen, experienced paddlers are always a treat to take out, but they also embrace beginners who've never set foot on a SUP before. Their fleet of 10 boards includes a monster SUPsquatch large enough to accommodate 10 — great for a tour on Bacuit Bay during what may be the most consistently intense sunset I've ever experienced.
While waiting for a boat that would transport our boards across Bacuit Bay to the lagoons we hoped to explore, we'd paddled around just offshore, surrounded by movie-set South Pacific beauty on every horizon. What I could see said a lot about why these two itinerant travellers had chosen this spot.
"Even before Seanna was born, we knew we'd want to expose our child to a different kind of life experience," Todd tells me. "The plan was to travel four to five months in a different country each year until she started school. Christina had briefly been in Palawan 20 years before and remembered its beauty, and when I saw one particular photo on the Internet, we were sold — it looked like a paddler's paradise."
They'd also long-since discovered that SUPing was one activity they could do as a family. Their first year, when Seanna was only two years old, they brought two boards and spent time exploring almost 50 islands of Bacuit Bay, logging overnight camping, stand-up surfing, and river paddling as well. "We didn't see any other SUPs, so in our third year decided to go for it and offer tours. We created a simple business plan, hired some locals, and it was a success right off the bat," says Todd.
Business has remained solid, with only minor challenges. Cross-bay island/lagoon paddle tours are weather-dependent, and if seas are too rough, the Coast Guard cancels all activity. "But we have a river option as well," notes Todd. "And we've also invested in a boutique eco-resort next door, so the plan is to make the resort a permanent home-base for the business."
In the lagoon, while I watch fish, Todd and Christina, who are also climbers, scale rock faces before jumping off into the sapphire waters. Then we clamber back onto the boat headed for Snake Island, where they set out a lunch spread on a paddleboard table in waist-deep water. Called a "Boodle Fight" in local parlance, we stand in the water and use our hands to eat our way through a spread of fresh barbecued fish and prawns, roasted eggplant purée, rice, and fresh fruit. The word unique quickly loses all meaning.
Some might see bugging out in November and coming back at the end of March as the best of both worlds, but though they escape Whistler's grey pre-season, it's tough for Todd and Christina to watch the inevitable parade of photos and film of friends skiing deep powder. "It's a sacrifice, but the mountains aren't going anywhere," ruminates Todd, who notes they plan to remain in Whistler next winter to make up for the previous four seasons.
"At the heart of this has been our desire for Seanna to have this special chapter in her life. She has her own posse of beach-bum friends, and loves to paddle and explore as much as we do. We found a little slice of paradise here, and now we have a second home. Aside from the jaw-dropping beauty, the Filipino people are kind-hearted and friendly, and it feels good to be part of another solid community in a different part of the world."
And for visitors and SUP adventure first-timers like myself, being welcomed into that community is only an added bonus.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.