Philliphines

Philippines Travel Guide | Independent

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Considering it’s a country of thousands of postcard-perfect islands (7,107 to be exact) and world-class diving, surfing and sand-boarding, the Philippines is still little known among British tourists.

The central and northern islands are gaining traction as high-value, less touristy alternatives to Bali and Thailand, while a new Emirates (emirates.com) route from Dubai to Cebu makes it easy for tourists to bypass Manila and dive directly into Beach bliss. The beaches here are straight out of the Bounty ad – perfect white sand, peridot green seas and strategically placed palm trees are the standard. Even better, even in high season (summer in the Philippines runs from March to June), many of them are empty. But the archipelago offers so much more than sipping a fresh coconut while basking in a sun stupor (no judgement).

Under Spanish rule for more than 300 years, the country’s original name — Islas Filipinas — honors King Philip II of Spain, and Tagalog (the national language) is still littered with Spanish words. Towns called Seville or Valencia are dotted with 16th-century wooden houses and crumbling cathedrals made of white coral and egg white, many of which were damaged in the 2013 earthquake.

jeepney

(Alex Robinson)

The Philippines fell to the Americans in 1898, and although the country gained independence in 1946, American influence is not far off, especially as you drive past Manila’s shopping malls in a crowded jeepney—a brightly colored , the modified Jeep left followed by the Americans – as it shouted Guns N’ Roses.

Stop for a snack at one of the carinderyas (small roadside restaurants) for a glimpse into the country’s past. Pork is on every menu here, whether it’s lechon (roasted baby pig’s head) or adobo – marinated pork. Dessert halo halo — which aptly means “blended” — is made with crushed ice and canned condensed milk. Filipino cuisine also has its own, er, acquired delicacies, including the fertilized duck egg balut—the degree to which you like the embryo to develop corresponds to your manliness (and presumably, presumably, how sensitive your gag reflex is).

Damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 is now mostly repaired, but be aware that typhoon season (approximately June-November) can make traveling between the islands tricky. If you’re here in March, the Malisimbo Arts and Music Festival (malisimbofestival.com) brings world-class performers to Mindoro. Mascara (Bacolod City in October) and Sinulog (Cebu in January) draw thousands of revelers for the Philippines’ version of Carnival.

Currently, 1 British pound is worth 65.4 Philippine pesos, while 1 US dollar is worth 46 pesos.

beach jumping

Each of the 2,000 inhabited islands has its own personality and often its own dialect. The Palawan archipelago is championed for sheer beauty – the jungle beach town of El Nido was the inspiration for Alex Garland’s beach (he was living in the Philippines when he wrote the book).

Palawan Island

Then there’s Boracay, with its luxury hotels, nightclubs and 5km of white sand dotted with bars. This is the Philippine party island – though it’s not quite at the stag party domination levels of Phuket or Koh Samui.

By comparison, Coahagan Island is a tiny speck in the Olango chain, but wandering around the villages here can give you a glimpse of traditional life. Fishermen sell their catch of the day on the beach, and once you’ve selected sea urchin for lunch, their wives will serve it on the grill for you. For a similar pace of life, the former whaling island of Pamilican now offers boat tours with dolphins and a coral sanctuary for snorkeling.

The teardrop-shaped island of Siargao has been a pilgrimage site for surfers since the 1980s, when its hollow, tubular wave — called the Cloud 9 — put it on the map. To the north, La Union’s surf breaks attract backpacker beginners and seasoned pros alike.

The best way to get to most beaches is by taking a banca, a traditional fishing boat with wooden legs that make it look like a spider, but barges and ferries cover the longer crossings between neighboring islands. Be warned though – you could end up sitting with someone’s pet cock.

Aquatic organisms

If swimming with whale sharks isn’t already on your bucket list, it should be. Gliding by their calm, pinprick eyes and gaping mouths is both exhilarating and terrifying. Head to Donsol Bay in Luzon or Oslob in Cebu to look for them – in Oslob they feed on whale sharks, so while sightings of them are guaranteed, there are concerns that this will stop the sharks from migrating.

Top-notch dive sites are ten pesos apiece here, so expect to see more tropical fish than a football player’s aquarium. Many dive companies – of varying quality – dot Panglao’s Alona Beach, but the folks at Phillipine Fun Divers (boholfundivers.com) take care of every detail. They can organize anything from beginner dives and getting licensed, to more advanced excursions with professional underwater photographers. Introductory diving is 2,300 pesos including boat, guide and equipment.

Diving at Apo Reef

(Tierney/Seafocus.com)

For a bigger splash, head to Apo Reef – widely regarded as one of the best dive sites in the world. It’s a three-hour boat ride from Pandan Island, but it’s a great place to spot sharks, manta rays and even dugongs.

adventure time

If you’re expecting a Wonka-style waterfall, Bohol’s Chocolate Hills will disappoint. Instead, the 1,200 dome-shaped coral deposits turn brown during the dry season, making them look like Hershey’s kisses.

Renting a quad bike is the best way to get close to these surreal shapes and explore their base village. Nearby, the turquoise Loboc River is perfect for a riverboat cruise (450 pesos per person, including lunch, buy tickets at Loboc pier). Watch out for excited kids jumping rope swings from the trees above.

chocolate hills

(Alex Robinson)

A 10-hour night bus ride from Manila, the UNESCO-protected Banaue Rice Fields are a giant green terraced staircase carved into Mount Ifugao some 2,000 years ago. The amphitheater-shaped Batad is the most famous attraction – hiking here is pretty good, and guides can arrange overnight stays in traditional thatched-roof huts (banaue.info; 300 pesos per night).

A few hours further north, you’ll see the verdant, misty mountains of Sagada. This is the place to go spelunking at Samaguing Cave and visit the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins – one of the few places in the world where you can find this traditional burial method of hanging colorful coffins from cliffs. Hire a guide from the tourist information office for 200 pesos, or walk alone behind St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, then turn left onto a dirt road that winds uphill to the cemetery.

material comforts

Half mouse, half frog, half monkey – the tarsier has to be seen. These wide-eyed, furry critters are an endangered species and only about 5 inches tall, so you’re unlikely to see them in the wild, but take a trip to Bohol’s tarsier sanctuary (tarsierfoundation.org; admission 50 pesos) is the best way to have fun while they sleep (they are nocturnal).

tarsier

(Alex Robinson)

As dusk falls, head to Maribojoc to see fireflies twinkle like Christmas lights on Oxford Street. Gliding through the mangroves and watching twinkling bee swarms take over the trees, with incredible stars overhead, is a magical experience. Tours start at 1,950 pesos per person, including dinner (boholtourismph.com).

where to live

Bamboo huts are available on most island beaches for as little as 500 pesos a night, but if you’re craving an air-conditioned breakfast buffet, the Philippines is a great value luxury hotel. Shangri-La’s Mactan (shangri-la.com) has a heavenly Chi spa and double rooms from 11,000 pesos, B&B.

Family-run Bohol Bee Farm (boholbeefarm.com) on Panglao Island has a delicious organic restaurant and quirky bungalows for rent. From 3,000 pesos for a double room, including breakfast.

Homegrown hotel group Hennan (hennan.com) balances five-star luxury with local flair – think poolside bars and beach grills. It has three resorts in Boracay, opened a fourth at Alona Beach in 2014, and is currently building a fifth on “Virgin Island” in Malkapua, Palawan. Double Bed and Breakfasts from 4,919 pesos.

reach there

Kate Wills travels with Emirates (emirates.com), which flies to Cebu from six UK airports via Dubai. Returns from Heathrow start at £949 in economy class and £3,535 in business class. Business Class passengers receive complimentary chauffeur transfers within 70 miles of any UK airport from which Emirates departs, as well as access to Emirates lounges. Business class seats include private minibars and full-flat recliners, while meals can be chosen from a gourmet menu.

Other airlines flying from the UK to the Philippines include Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) – the only non-stop service from Heathrow to Manila; Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com); Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) ; Etihad Airways (etihad.com) and Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com).

Tour companies offering packages include Kuoni (kuoni.co.uk), Black Tomato (blacktomato.com) and Audley Travel (audleytravel.com) for high-end beach holidays, as well as G Adventures (gadventures.co.uk), Intrepid (intrepidtravel ) .com) and STA Travel (statravel.co.uk) for adventure travel.

The larger islands have airports, and domestic flights in the Philippines are relatively cheap.

Safety

The southern Philippines is currently on the FCO’s no-go list due to ongoing conflict between the government and Islamist militants. Click here for the latest travel advice.

More information

itsmorefuninthephilippines.co.uk

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