Hidden Gems: Philippines
The Philippines’ tourism stature is steadily growing, with places like Palawan and Borocay now well known. But with over 7,000 islands there’s much more to explore. Laura Gelder picks out some ideas
Malapascua, the shark salon
Cebu Island is one of the jumping off points for the Visayas region, but most tourists head to the island off its south-east - Bohol, which is famous for its beaches, tarsiers (the smallest primate in the world) and the Chocolate Hills. Just off the north tip of Cebu, Malapascua is less-developed, has equally beautiful beaches and acclaimed diving. It’s one of the world’s best places to see thresher sharks, huge mercury-eyes predators which usually live in dark depths but come here to be cleaned of parasites. Regal Diving offers stays here.
The country’s first and only UNESCO World Heritage City, Vigan offers a glimpse into the Philippines’ intriguing colonial past. The city couldn’t be more of a contrast to the steel and glass landscape of Manila, further south on Luzon Island. It was established in the 16th century and UNESCO describes it as “the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia”. Vigan’s townscape certainly has no parallel in Southeast Asia. The buildings range from Spanish shuttered houses to the pointed roofs of Chinese shops.
Butanding buddies in Donsol
Once a sleepy fishing village, Donsol is now a centre for whale shark watching. This gentle giant is a shark not a mammal and officially the world’s largest fish, with some reported to grow up to 18 metres long. Known as butanding in the Philippines, it feeds on microscopic plankton and is harmless – hence snorkelling alongside them being the main activity. Tourists head out in a boat with a spotter who signifies when one is near so everyone can tumble into the water and try to keep up. Dive Worldwide has Donsol on its Big Fish Tour.
Surf city Siargao
This teardrop-shaped island is the surfing capital of the Philippines thanks to huge swells and undisturbed winds sweeping in from the world’s largest ocean. Most of Siargao’s surf spots are for intermediate to expert, with the barrel wave named Cloud Nine the most famous. Non-surfers can relax on quiet, pristine beaches or explore the lagoons, reefs and caves of this nature lovers’ isle. The laid-back surf shack vibe is peppered with a few luxury resorts, including Nay Palad Hideaway, a boutique retreat offered by Turquoise Holidays.
Sugar daddy Negros
Once a major sugar producer, Negros’ historic, albeit slightly crumbling, buildings are a reminder of this profitable era. These days the island sells itself on beautiful beaches, lakes and mountains, including one of the highest peaks in the region – Canlaon Volcano. Visitors can cool off at Apo Island, one of the country’s most famous dive sites, or escape to the forested hill stations. Book with Bamboo Travel and your clients can stay at Atmosphere Resort, set in an old coconut plantation.
The Batanes Islands are closer to Taiwan than Manila and markedly different to the rest of the country. An eco-tourism centre, the green rolling hills of grazing cows and horses resemble New Zealand more than southeast Asia but on Sabtang Island visitors can meet the indigenous Ivatan people and see their traditional homes of rock and native grass, built stoutly to withstand powerful typhoons. The islands are shortlisted for UNESCO recognition and Audley Travel offers a stay in the hilltop Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge.
Escape to Lake Taal
Just 60km south of sprawling Manila, Tagaytay is a cool, clean and green alternative (although make sure you avoid the weekend when locals all clamour to escape the city too). The region is like a volcanic Russian doll - inside the Taal Caldera is Taal Lake, which contains Taal Volcano, which holds Crater Lake, at the centre of which is Tiny Vulcan Point Island. Activities include trekking, boat trips and golf. KE Adventure Travel has a 14-day tour which includes a Taal Volcano crater trek.
A former refuge for intelligentsia fleeing dictatorship, this misty mountain town is close to Echo Valley, where the indigenous population have buried their dead in coffins perched high on the limestone cliffs for over 2,000 years – whether to keep them safe from wild animals or closer to heaven no one knows. Explore stops here on its North Philippines Explorer trip. explore.co.uk
Magical & mystical Siquijor
The tiny island of Siquijor lies just below Cebu and Bohol and is famous for its mountain-dwelling mangkukulam (healers) who brew traditional ointments for modern ailments. Add to that caves, waterfalls, coral-filled waters and 65 miles of whitesand beaches and you can see why G Adventures sells it. gadventures.com
BOOK IT WITH... KE ADVENTURE TRAVEL
The 14-day Philippines Highland and Island Explorer includes four days of trekking and includes Manila, Lake Taal, Sagada and Bohol From £2,865 with fights.
01768 773 966; keadventure.com