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Taking a modern safari in Coron

By THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 05, 2023 5:00 am

The Funny Lion Coron’s hospitality starts as soon as you land in Busuanga airport. At their van, staff dispense cold towels and mineral water, which perked me up from the hour-long flight.

It’s about half an hour’s drive to the 46-room boutique hotel, which will celebrate 10 years next year. Funny Lion Coron was voted Best Hotel in the Philippines by TripAdvisor until it was displaced this year by its more recently opened sister hotel, the 50-room Funny Lion El Nido. But hey, that’s quite an achievement when your hotel brand dominates the two top spots in Palawan.

Whichever one you choose to stay in, The Funny Lion has so much cachet in the region that its operator, One-Of Collection, will open a third Funny Lion in Puerto Princesa in December of this year—the biggest one yet at 77 rooms.

One-Of Collection COO Lyba Godio relates that The Funny Lion got its name when owner Nikki Cauton III and his family went to Calauit to see the African animals and his two kids saw giraffes and zebras but no lions, so they were disappointed. “That’s why Nikki decided to name the hotel Funny Lion, because he wanted it to be the ‘King of Coron.’”

In fact, there’s a whole menagerie of animals at the hotel, from the carved wooden lion mascot to a tiger, giraffe, and animal heads in its Hunt restaurant.

Chillaxing in the rocking chair by my room’s outdoor tub

Upon arrival we were given welcome drinks of lemongrass-pandan coolers. Rooms are divided into six categories: the 26-sqm Cub (with two twin beds and a pullout bed good for two kids six and below), King (with a king bed and pullout) and Pride (with a veranda or lanai, king bed and pullout) rooms; and 36-sqm Savanna (king bed, cable TV and complimentary minibar) and Mara (same as Savanna with pool view and access); and 40-sqm Tana (a couples room with outdoor tub and a view of mangrove trees).

While the names are very Lion King, the interior design is modern safari-style. It’s apparent that the owners had fun with the branding, which is all-encompassing and on-point. I stayed in a Tana room and was bowled over by the generous welcome: on the bed was an eco-friendly backpack with T-shirt emblazoned with a lion’s “Roooaarr” and two bandanas; on the desk were platters of fruit, chocolate-covered cookies, and a fresh buko branded with The Funny Lion logo. The room keys dangle from necklaces that look like dog tags—so clever and fun yet practical.

The Funny Lion pool gets cleaned every morning

The food at the hotel restaurant, Hunt, is exceptional, thanks to executive chef Bobet Clasara, who used to work at Amanpulo. Basically we’re eating Aman-level food at more reasonable prices. I had Hunt’s Tomato Roast soup, which is so large and hearty (it has a cheese sandwich in it that melts into the soup) that it could be a meal. Their deep-fried Crabfat Calamari mixes decadent orange crab fat into the batter. For my main, the Krabi Grouper was excellent, done Vietnamese-style with fish sauce and crab-fat rice.

While chatting over lunch, Godio said they plan to open Funny Lion Puerto Princesa in December so it’s peak season and the hotel will be full. “There’s no point opening during low season,” she says. We also learn that guests usually stay in Coron for five days; they tour for the first two then are perfectly content to hang by the pool and chillax. 

Happy hour is from 5-7 p.m., and it’s either “buy one, take one signature cocktail,” or “buy three beers and get one free.” Popular cocktails include Maldita, with gin and calamansi; and the Calauit Cooler with gin, Triple Sec, sweet calamansi and grenadine.

Exceptional food and drink: Tagbanwa coffee custard made with local coffee, grilled lobster and fresh buko.

For dinner chef Clasara prepared a Coron feast by the pool. We had grilled lobster (for me always a welcome luxury), bistek so tender and tasty it was a hit at our table (chef Bobet marinates the meat in calamansi for three hours), kare-kare with an outstanding sauce, kilawin, crispy pata, camaron rebosado, and chicken binakol soup utilizing the buko’s flesh and juice. Dessert was Tagbanwa coffee custard with caramelized bamboo shoots. Chef Clasara says he supports local coffee.

The next day we went sightseeing with JY Travel & Tours, a seven-attraction itinerary that may sound like a lot but ends up being just right. Our fun and capable guide Jhun Sabroso (“Kwelang Tour Guide” on Facebook) told us that Coron Island, or “Sleeping Giant,” is regarded as male, because its silhouette sports a distinct protuberance.

The regional dialect is Cuyunin, which sounds like Bisaya or Ilonggo but with different meanings. You will know the locals by their red teeth, from chewing betel nut or nganga.

Coron is the wreck-diving capital of the Philippines because of all the Japanese warships that sank there. Its landmark is a huge clay pot beside the municipal hall. Jhun joked that Coron is also known as the Hundred Islands because you pay P100 entrance fee wherever you go, but at least the income goes to the locals.

During the 25-minute banca ride to the first attraction, he also pointed out Culion, an isolated island used as a leprosarium that’s 1.5 hours by boat from Coron. While some of the lepers died, some were cured and had their own currency so that they wouldn’t touch Philippine currency.

Kayaking around Sunset Beach

Our first stop was Sunset Beach, which has nipa cabanas to relax in. I kayaked with one of our boatmen, Orly, and saw monkeys in the trees. He warned that I shouldn’t leave my cellphone lying around because it was liable to be snagged by a monkey.

Next stop was Skeleton Wreck, which offers amazing snorkeling where you can see dalagang bukid yellow-tail fish, Sergeant Majors, parrot fish, and the main attraction, the triangular bow of a sunken ship. Jhun, who was pulling us around on a lifesaver, dived down and blew perfect bubble rings, to our delight.

We then went to Reef Garden, which has replaced Siete Pecados because it offers the same kind of marine life, with stunning fields of gasang, luminous purple-, green- and blue-tipped coral. Jhun said the table coral that was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda or stepped on by tourists takes 20 years to grow back, which shows you how precious this resource is.

We had lunch in a floating restaurant—namely, our boat—complete with an elaborate fruit centerpiece with “Coron” carved from watermelon, and dishes of fresh crab, fish, pancit and eggplant.

Kayangan Lake as seen from the view deck

The rationale behind eating on the boat was that while the rest of the tourists were away having long lunches at restaurants, we would go directly to Kayangan Lake, which we had all to ourselves thanks to JY Travel’s perfect timing. Kayangan’s shimmering blue-green waters were even more beautiful than I remembered them, and so cooling after the hike up to the view deck. Jhun told us that only a few lagoons are actually open for tourism. He went to one that wasn’t, and was amazed at waters so crystalline he said he could probably see a termite if it was 30 feet deep.

Then we went to the iconic Twin Lagoons, which by now was teeming with tourists. There you can swim or kayak in clear-bottomed boats that were instituted post-pandemic; they’re lighter for tourists to maneuver, though you can’t really see anything from the bottom.

Every Saturday night at Funny Lion there’s dinner by the pool, a magical affair where they light up the pool with lamps, have a couple of musicians play a live acoustic set from 7-9 p.m., and have an extravagant buffet with lechon pork belly, seafood and pasta stations, and a “dirty” ice cream cart with two flavors: mango and cheese.

Resort manager Jay Barinque, or “JB,” says The Funny Lion group think of themselves as boutique resorts, and truly, you can’t get this kind of personalized service in larger, more impersonal resorts. 

To illustrate, I had asked JB for a fish dish at breakfast, and he said they would cook lamayo for me, Coron’s version of danggit. True to his word, at breakfast on the last day they served me a personal-sized dish of lamayo with cucumber, tomato and vinegar on the side, and I liked it even better than danggit—the fish was larger yet lighter and crunchier.

Then as I was leaving for the airport, they presented me with The Funny Lion’s friendship bracelet, which a lovely staffer fit around my wrist.

Truly it’s those little creative and thoughtful details that count, indelibly imprinting The Funny Lion in my mind and making me impatient to go back again with my family.