If you’ve ever been flying at 35,000 feet and found yourself thinking “I fancy a crack at winning a large inflatable giraffe”, then there’s one country you really ought to visit: the Philippines.
Their tourist board proclaims: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” and you’ll quickly discover that they’re not kidding. Filipinos have a vivacious sense of humour – as evidenced by Cebu Pacific’s mid-air passenger quizzes – and their easy-going demeanour helps to make visiting this beautiful country a happy experience.
Some of Asia’s most attractive islands and beaches can be reached in less than an hour from the cities of Manila and Cebu – entry points after a 15-hour flight from the UK – and often for less than £100 return.
Cebu Pacific has opened up more of these 7,107 endlessly fascinating islands by providing new routes that other airlines were avoiding as unprofitable. Now that Typhoon Haiyan is a distant memory, the rocky outcrop-studded region of Palawan in particular has been catching the eye of travellers prepared to fly that little bit further.
Of the Philippines’ tourism destinations, Bantayan Island in northern Cebu was the most badly damaged. Over the last 12 months, Bantayan has made a good recovery, with resorts taking the opportunity to upgrade facilities – and the beaches are still as beautiful as ever.
The Philippines’ central islands also suffered substantial environmental damage below the water. But such is the abundance and variety of coral around the Philippines, the country remains well-endowed with a breathtaking range and quantity of coral species, attended by a dazzling array of tropical fish. So the archipelago continues to draw divers from around the world, due to the extraordinary variety of its biodiversity; and clear water allows excellent visibility to appreciate this exceptional underwater beauty.
Haiyan’s course avoided the internationally renowned island of Boracay – so the Philippines’ most popular and lucrative tourist destination escaped relatively unscathed. In the eight months to August 2014, the Philippines’ Tourism Department reports that compared with the same period last year, there was almost a three per cent increase in the number of international tourists visiting the country. So it seems that despite the horrors of Haiyan, Filipinos are building on their promise to tourists that it can still be more fun in the Philippines.
In an archipelago of 7,107 islands, it can be hard for the first-time visitor to decide where to go, however. Below I introduce the country’s highlights.
Palawan: the Final Frontier. Think of ‘The Beach’ with Leo, and you’ll know roughly what to expect from these island’s prehistoric charms. Whether selling cars or beaches, ‘pristine’ is chronically over-used – but in Palawan, the superlative often truly applies. Jagged limestone cliffs rise like ossified Gothic cathedrals, towering over misty lagoons; countless white-sand beaches fringe these mysterious islands. Mostly untroubled by humans, wildlife dominates the environment.
An hour’s flight from Manila to Busuanga and 30 minutes by road take you to Coron Town, a gateway to lovelier islands. To explore the wilderness, you need a bangka: with its sprawling bamboo outriggers, this native wooden boat looks like the exoskeleton of a giant crustacean – with an old truck engine in its rump. For about 2,000 pesos (£28), you can escape group tours and become an Admiral of this outlandish craft with two crew to carve out your own wake. Buy fish, fruit and drinks from the market; your first mate can advise on the tastiest fish that’s easiest to barbecue on board.
As a first port of call you could choose Siete Peccados, for its snorkelling joys: an abundance of vividly pretty, in-your-face fish. On Coron Island, perhaps the most striking experience is at Twin Lagoons, where a low tide allows you to swim through a tunnel into the other lagoon of mixed warm and cold water, surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs.
For a few pesos more, your skipper can show you beaches and lagoons that may not have been seen by too many folks since the dawn of time.
Or you could fly into Puerto Princesa – again just over an hour from Manila. Snorkel around its beautiful Honda Bay; paddle down the five-mile long underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; then catch a boat or drive to El Nido – but maybe not all on the same day.
With several sunken Japanese ships from World War Two to explore, Coron Bay is globally favoured by wreck divers. El Nido has a white beach on its doorstep and clear water for swimming, with free entrance to Bacuit Bay’s beautiful islands.
Accommodation: Coron Westown is well-designed and peaceful, with large modern rooms and balconies allowing serene sea views.
Bohol’s flag looks like the French tricolour, but with blood spilling from a vicious knife fight apparently depicted in the white bit. But don’t let that put you off.
More cosily, Bohol’s 1,200 or so Chocolate Hills are a bit like giant Maltesers melted across a huge tray – which makes this attraction a mouth-watering prospect for those legions among us with a weakness in that direction. Pleasantly unusual to behold rather than stunning, these unique mounds of limestone vary in height, up to nearly 400 feet. To savour the hills at their tastiest, go in the summer (January to May) when they’ve dried out to brown.
Moving on from feel-good comfort food to feel-good mammals: tarsiers are one of the world’s smallest primates, and many live in Bohol. At less than six inches high, these furry little fellows have huge adorable eyes but are rather shy and endangered, which is why they can be found at a sanctuary in Corella.
Connected by bridge to Bohol, Panglao Island has miles of dazzling white-sand to offer beach lovers who prefer drinking in their shoreline without chasers of frenetic hawkers and hustlers. Often cited as one of the world’s best diving spots, it’s also an ideal place to learn your marine matters. Alona Beach is a handy base if you like some casual nightlife options.
About 45 minutes’ by boat from Alona, tiny Balicasag island offers some of the country’s most spectacular snorkelling and diving.
Accommodation: Amorita Resort, for its elevated location and view of Alona Beach.
Overheated and overwhelming, with clogged roads often resembling vast car-parks, Metro Manila can be a culture shock – or maybe just a shock. After a long haul flight drops you into the middle of this bewildering tropical concrete jungle, you might need some quiet recuperation in a cool cocoon away from the noisy heat of Manila’s mayhem.
In Makati, the Philippines’ main business and shopping district, you’ll find Rockwell and Greenbelt. With quieter walkways amongst greenery and soothing air-con relief in malls offering select brands, international and Filipino restaurants, these smart developments provide havens from the megacity’s teeming chaos. Due to its modern style and order with high-rise buildings and glitzy palm trees illuminated at night, Rockwell looks and feels like an architect’s fusion of Singapore and Los Angeles.
Avoiding Manila’s hellish traffic wherever possible will enhance your experience of the city. So walk, perhaps, from Rockwell into the more typical neighbourhoods of Guadalupe or Poblacion, to sample some tasty Filipino street snacks, cold San Miguel beers, and a chat with locals. Friendly Filipinos are Manila’s most attractive assets, and light conversations are easily enjoyed as English is widely and fluently spoken. If you can learn basic Tagalog greetings, you’ll enjoy even warmer hospitality.
From Poblacion it’s only about 10 minutes by taxi to the 71 bar and restaurant atop Gramercy, one of Asia’s tallest buildings. Mingling with Manila’s professionals and socialites on the roof terrace, you can enjoy a cracking view of the city as far as the twinkling lights of ships in Manila Bay.
If Makati is Manila’s 21st century commercial head, Intramuros is its 16th century heart: within these walls, the Philippines’ richest heritage quarter gives a Spanish flavour of Manila’s former glory as a Pearl of the Orient. Fort Santiago’s museum park, San Agustin Church and the National Museum are particularly interesting highlights.
Afternoon tea at the Manila, the Philippines’ oldest premier hotel, followed by sundowners on Roxas Boulevard and perhaps moonrisers in the older district of Malate, could be highly civilised ways to complete the day.
Accommodation: Manila Hotel, for its grand historic feel and proximity to Intramuros.
Imagine a gently sloping shore of talcum powder, and you’re close to visualising Boracay’s White Beach. This white-hot little treasure has been internationally praised to the skies – so Boracay is no longer a haven of tranquility. But its refined sand is soft, silky and snowy-white, so the glare on a typical sunny day can be blinding – even below the water. As the sandy piste eases you on a gentle blue run into clear turquoise water, you might prefer to keep your shades on.
Shaded by coconut trees, White Beach is attended by dozens of restaurants and bars. The first-rate sand and fancier hotels are sprinkled in abundance around Station One. Further south on the three mile strand are Stations Two and Three, where hotels are cheaper as the sand is merely soft, white and lovely – it’s more like, well, sand. No matter where you stay, beachcombers can wander at will.
On Boracay’s northern tip, Puka beach has a rugged castaway wilderness feel, so it’s ideal for a more secluded romantic picnic. Bulabog beach on the windy eastern side draws kitesurfers from around the globe. You can interact with the water in every conceivable way around Boracay, as a plethora of operators will be happy to let you play with their toys. Sunset sailing on a paraw is the most relaxing option.
The tiny island is overcrowded during Christmas and Easter holidays, when you’d think it must sink a few inches as Manila’s millions seem to descend for their traditional breaks.
Accommodation: Discovery Shores for luxury, international corporate style. Next door, Fridays provides luxury, Filipino style – plus fire-dancing and cultural shows. Both are at Station One, on the expensive talc.
A smaller, more relaxed version of Manila, Cebu City allows a gentler entry into the Philippines. Cebuanos tend to be more laid-back than their cousins in the capital, with more taxi drivers inclined to prefer honest routes.
Cebu was first bagged by Spaniards in the 16th century, so it has some interesting historical buildings allowing glimpses into the Philippines’ colonial experience, notably the Basilica del Santo Nino, Fort Pedro and Casa Gorordo.
To enjoy a bird’s eye view of Cebu, take a taxi up to the summit of Mount Busay, where ‘Tops’ affords panoramic views of the city and across the channel to Mactan Island. There are several plush resorts on Mactan, with hotels offering private white-sand ‘designer’ beaches.
Cebu City offers a cosmopolitan range of shopping, dining and nightlife options that are generally cheaper and more casual than Manila; the Ayala Center offers all of the above.
The nearest spot for world-class diving is at Moalboal, less than three hours by road south of the city. Thanks to Cebu’s central location, ferries can also take you quickly to Bohol, Dumaguete, and Siquijor; and four hours by road plus 90 minutes on a boat will transport you to the beautiful islands of Bantayan and Malapascua.
Accommodation: Cebu’s Marriott has large comfortable rooms, and its central location next to the Ayala Center provides a handy base.
Unknown even to most Filipinos, Bantayan is not the easiest place to reach – but the island’s quiet, beautiful white-sand beaches deserve the effort. Bantayan’s splendid isolation has saved it – so far – from package travellers and big hotel chains, so you can find your own stretch of beach-bliss without others cramping your style. If you do bump into foreigners, chances are you’ll enjoy an interesting conversation with discerning travellers who also have an imagination and sense of adventure.
By motorbike you can tour Bantayan in half a day. Wherever you go, there will be islanders who’ll greet you with friendly smiles and easy-going chat. One American NGO worker told me she felt safe walking anywhere on the island, even at night. Without light pollution, this is an excellent place for star-gazing.
There are few contours on Bantayan, so cycling on quiet roads shaded by coconut trees is an easy, invigorating way to beach-hop. Kota Beach has the advantage of a mini lagoon, protected by a white sandbar formed between January and June. Kota’s coffee shop is good for quiet reading, although you might be distracted by one of the island’s prettiest views: the lagoon, sandbar and turquoise sea are neatly framed by palm trees. Order a coconut and an obliging chap climbs a tree directly in front of you to bring it down.
Contrasting with Boracay’s party scene, Bantayan’s nightlife is limited to a few casual bars around Santa Fe. Most evenings, friendly expats and Filipinos gather at Kota; they’ll share island insights and Haiyan horrors over beers and pool on one of the most beautifully sited tables you’ll find anywhere.
To reach Bantayan more quickly, fly into Cebu; then it’s about four hours by bus or taxi to Hagnaya, and 90 minutes by ferry to Santa Fe.
Accommodation: Kota Beach, for its beautiful location and friendly family management.
If you’re feeling beached-out from the Philippines’ salty sea-level pleasures, hit the high road for some cool green refreshment.
Rising to nearly 3,000 metres, the Cordillera Central mountains in North Luzon provide a dramatic but tranquil alternative for hikers, far above and away from the lowland’s noisy heat. Banaue is perhaps the most famous attraction in this area, earning the tiny town a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites with its ancient, towering rice terraces that were so impressively sculpted from mud-walls more than 2,000 years ago. Most visitors would not demur at the Filipinos’ claim that these incredible organic structures warrant consideration as an ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.
An accredited guide from Banaue’s tourist centre can help you to stay safe and get the most from your viewing and hiking, as signs and routes are sometimes difficult to discover; there are also a number of vantage points to enjoy.
From Manila it takes at least nine hours on a long and winding road to reach Banaue – so if you want to break the journey, Baguio would be a good place to stop for rest and refreshment.
Accommodation: Sanafe Lodge has good views of the town and rice terraces.
On the sugar-rich island of Negros, Dumaguete enjoys its sweetest spot. The city is so close to many exciting underwater adventures, divers might think they’ve died and gone to Atlantis.
Apo Island is home to sea turtles and spectacular coral gardens; Bais Bay has dolphins and huts on stilts overlooking turquoise water and a beautiful long white sandbar; Siquijor has miles of deserted white-sand beaches; and at Oslob, whale sharks will be your giant swimming companions.
Essentially a university town, Dumaguete has a tree-lined seafront boulevard, greenery and a refreshing sense of calm. With a large, well-behaved student population and call centres providing gainful employment, the town’s relaxed, urbane atmosphere is reflected in the ambience of its independent coffee shops and restaurants. Dumaguete has achieved international recognition as one of the world’s most appealing retirement destinations, due to its low cost of living and range of facilities for a growing expat community.
Noticing Dumaguete’s development into an appetising prospect for gourmets, Manila’s city slickers fly down to enjoy delicious food that’s made even tastier because of its cheapness.
Accommodation: Santa Monica Beach Club is a relaxing base for exploring the town and local dive spots. Dumaguete’s only hotel on a beach has great views of Siquijor, Apo Island, and on a clear day, Mindanao.
Read more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/philippines/11351415/Philippines-a-introductory-guide.html