Welcome to the Philippines, a stunningly beautiful archipelago that comprises over 7,100 islands in the western Pacific Ocean. A country of huge climatic variety, visitors to its frenetic capital Manila might be forgiven for seeing it as just another South-East Asian destination; all bright lights, bad traffic, and cheap and cheerful beaches. But for savvy travellers willing to dig a little deeper, the Philippines offers endless rewards – and with the recent closure of Boracay to tourists, there’s never been a better time to get exploring. We take a look at a few of the country’s under-the-radar destinations that deliver spectacular scenery, world-class diving and, of course, blissed-out beaches.
Forget the typical “fly-and-flop” resorts; Cebu has so much more to offer than identikit all-inclusive hotels. Oslob, in the island’s south-east corner, is one of the best places in Asia to spot whale sharks – so much so that local tour providers guarantee daily sightings year-round. But fear not; despite the name, these gentle giants are completely harmless and safe to swim, snorkel and dive with, guaranteeing a memorable experience. Make time for a visit to the ruggedly beautiful Tumalog Falls, where you can shower under refreshingly icy water that cascades from way above your head into a clear blue pool below.
A short boat ride off Cebu’s northernmost tip, Malapascua ticks all your “paradise island” boxes, and then some. Just a few simple beachfront resorts and restaurants line the white sandy shores of this picture-perfect islet, which draws seasoned divers from across the world to its surrounding waters. Rated number 11 in the top 101 dive sites worldwide by Asian Diver Magazine, Malapascua is home to a thriving population of thresher sharks, manta rays and turtles, as well as innumerable tropical fish species. Another great draw for divers are the wrecks – including a number of Japanese craft sunk in WWII – surrounding the island, which are now home to a riot of colourful aquatic life.
Accessible by boat from Cebu or internal flight from Manila is sleepy Bohol. Another world-class diving destination, Panglao Island, lies just off Bohol’s coast, offering crystal-clear water, excellent kite-surfing, and dolphin-watching tours. Away from the shoreline, Bohol features one of the Philippines’ most interesting geographical landmarks, the Chocolate Hills. This crop of over 1,000 limestone mounds creates a truly striking vista, and such is their popularity that they have recently been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bohol’s other living national treasure is the Philippine tarsier, an unbelievably cute nocturnal creature that is one of the world’s smallest primates. A protected species, there are a number of reputable tarsier sanctuaries in Bohol, as well as many that aren’t so diligent, so it’s wise to do a little research before visiting.
Committed surfers should look no further than Siargao for exhilarating waves that rival any Cali coastline. Early risers should head to Magpupungko to catch the sunrise in all its glory, before spending a day of sun, sand and wild swimming in its striking natural rock pools. Another popular spot for a refreshing dip followed by lunch is Taktak Falls, where you’ll find a secluded pool and plenty of picnic tables. One for the adventurous, the Tayangban Cave Pools offer a total immersion experience without the need for a floatation tank; lit only by torches, you’ll be guided to float serenely through a pitch-black cave whilst bats flit overhead. End your day with a stunning sunset view across Siargao’s picturesque mangrove forests.
Another contender for paradise on earth, Palawan is a mere hour’s flight from Manila – yet those city stresses couldn’t seem further away from this idyllic destination. El Nido delivers breath-taking views by the bucket-load; narrowing down exactly which of its beautiful sights to explore is tough, but the dramatic limestone cliffs, sparkling turquoise waters and magical marine life of the Big and Small Lagoons at Miniloc Island are definitely up there. More wonders await if you kayak your way to the majestic Cathedral Cave at Pinasil Island or hike up to the scenic Nagkalit-Kalit Waterfalls… but we won’t judge if you opt to simply soak up the sun on the dreamy shores of Nacpan Beach or Snake Island instead.
Read more about El Nido.
If you’re seeking a little more adventure, there’s plenty to get your blood pumping at Coron. Frequently named one of Asia’s best scuba spots, its waters are home to WWII shipwrecks, multi-coloured coral reefs and amazing underwater creatures (including the gentle dugong, also known as the mermaid of the sea) making this a truly unforgettable place to take the plunge; even snorkelling will reap some serious rewards. Hike to the top of Mt. Tapyas to drink in some incredible panoramic views of the island – time it right to catch an epic Coron sunset whilst you’re up there – before unwinding with a soothing twilight dip in Maquinit Hot Spring, one of the world’s few saltwater hot springs.
When it comes to closest contenders for Boracay’s beach-beauty crown, insiders are talking up San Vicente. Home to Long Beach aka the longest white-sand beach in the Philippines, its seemingly endless kilometres of peaceful pristine sands have to be seen to be believed; remote and still relatively undeveloped, now’s the time to visit this blissed-out spot before it becomes too busy.
Occupying the south-eastern half of Negros island, the stunningly varied province of Negros Oriental is accessible via a short flight from Cebu or Manila, with various ferry options available too. The coastal town of Dauin is a must for diving aficionados; the array of aquatic life at Masaplod Marine Sanctuary is out-of-this-world, with spotted stingrays, porcupine puffer fish and moray eels just some of the creatures you might encounter. The lively Malatapay Market is well worth a wander; held every Wednesday, its stalls are bursting with tropical fruits, fresh seafood and local handicrafts – plus some great local eats, including lechon (roast pig) and kinilaw (a raw seafood dish, similar to ceviche), to feast on along the way.
Dauin is also an excellent jumping-off point for scenic day trips around the region; marvel at the lush tropical beauty of Balanan Lake, go for a picnic you’ll never forget at the gorgeous Casaroro Falls or reconnect with your inner zen at the tranquil Balinsasayao Twin Lakes National Park. Most popular of all though is an escape to Apo Island, where even more spectacular diving and snorkelling opportunities await. The waters here are brimming with hundreds of species of exotic coral and fish, not to mention the charming giant sea turtles that have become the island’s unofficial mascot.
Read more about Apo Island.
Contact one of the experts at Flight Centre to plan your next escape to the Philippines.