This article originally appeared on Traveller24 here.
We woke to a rather excited storm, with buckets of rain pummeling the shaky awning under which our six tents were scattered. Eight people from various countries, along with the three staff, were the only inhabitants in the cove of the isolated island. A simple breakfast was served; and I was desperate for water. Rather casually I was informed they had run out of water, but no fear: they had rum and coke. Rum and coke with my eggs, and a little later rum and coke for brushing my teeth. A smile slowly spread across my face as it finally sunk in – I was in the Philippines.
I’d first been introduced to tropical island hopping in Thailand a decade before. This recently extended on trips to Bali and Seychelles. Itching for another tropical holiday (but also on a tight budget) someone suggested the Philippines. After a quick reccie on Instagram and Tripadvisor, I was quickly scouring Skyscanner for flight deals. Discovering a R7k return trip from Joburg – and no visas required for South Africans – it was a done deal. The Southeast Asian country is home to over 7000 islands. It is still fairly new to the tourist scene…so no need to worry about the crowds. It’s refreshing traveling with more locals than internationals!
Manila, the Philipino capital, is sprawling and impressive. I decided to take in its visual splendor first from the Discovery Primea Hotel (sipping a G&T from the infinity’esque pool is a must) and later the roof of the Bayleaf Hotel. The latter is located in the heart of the historical Intramuros area – a walled section of the city that’s worth exploring by foot. The San Agustin Church and a drink at the White Knight Hotel are must-dos.
Whilst there is a plethora of towering glass hotels in the capital, if you’re wanting something more intimate and boutique, the Henry Hotel is an exceptional choice. Its close proximity to the airport makes it a great choice for an overnight in the city. Since however, my reason for coming was the search for islands of paradise, I was quickly on board a flight to El Nido. Local flights are largely inexpensive (providing you book in advance): Air Asia flies between several of the islands, and regularly has flights from R350.
Part 1 – El Nido and Palawan
Thanks to a wave of influencer and blogger visits over the past few years, the island Palawan has begun to receive a fair amount of exposure. El Nido is the uppermost section of the island encompassing several of the smaller adjacent islands; crystal clear waters, vibrant ocean life, towering limestone cliffs, secluded lagoons and palm-lined beaches make up the landscape. A short tricycle trip from the airport and I was in El Nido Town – a mildly frenetic strip that hugs the shoreline, feeling a little like it has sprung up overnight.
The town is the base from which to take excursions to the various islands, of which the most popular are the A, B, C and D tours. Each of these involve visits to 3-6 islands per day with the choice of swimming, snorkeling or kayaking. Your accommodation options are either to return to the town each day to a lodging of your choice, or choose the overnight camping. As described above, the latter is an adventure; just be prepared for a rustic experience and pack enough insect spray! For a tighter budget, and something a little0 out the way, check out El Gordos (if there’s more than two of you make sure to book early and get the top suite.
From El Nido another another fantastic day trip is the drive to Nacpan Beach. The beach is accessed by a 40-minute ride from El Nido: take the air-conditioned van option, particularly if it’s been raining. Allow at least five hours to explore – and enjoy a massage on the beach.
Undoubtedly the highlight of my Philippines adventure was the once in a lifetime experience of visiting Miniloc Island. This luxury island has several accommodation offerings, but most memorably for me: the water cottages. These stilted units sit just above the translucent sea water which constantly laps gently against the unit. Since first laying eyes on pictures of water cottages in the Maldives, it’s always been a bucket-list experience for me to stay in one. It’s a pricey option, but bear in mind the cost includes several excursions per day, and three monstrous meal buffets. This is undoubtedly a bucket-list experience that will forever be etched in memory…and (not surprisingly) my top viewed photos on Instagram.
PART 2 – Cebu & Bohol
From El Nido, a short flight with Airswift took me to a completely different part of the Philippines – the Visayas Islands. Cebu is the largest of these and most well-known for two unmissable attractions: the kloofing at Badian and whale shark diving at Oslob. Although I was a little disappointed to see that the whales are attracted by chumming, it was nevertheless an incredible experience swimming with these gracious gentle giants.
Most tourists head straight for adjacent Bohol Island (a three-hour boat ride), enjoying some of it’s rather unique experiences. You have two options for exploring the island: renting an air-conditioned van with a driver, or rent a bike and DIY. We chose the former for exploring the major attractions of the Island. This started with the Chocolate Hills (over 1200 of these conical limestone mounds punctuate the countryside), meeting tarsiers (one of the world’s smallest primates), and a zipline where you assume the superman positon, horizontal and arms outstretched flying hundreds of meters above the valley below.
Most of the accommodation is located around Panglao, a smaller section of the island connected by a bridge. For a budget-stay explore the Dormitel.ph. A great mid-range offering is the Alona Pawikan Resort with rather stylish bungalows; the bar probably has the best international craft beer selection on the island. I decided to end off my time in this island-country with a little opulence choosing the five-star Bellevue Hotel for an unforgettable last three nights in paradise.
Whilst many South Africans tend to flock to Thailand and Bali, why not break the mold and head to the Philippines. If the ridiculously scenic islands and deserted beaches don’t take your breath away, your heart will quickly be warmed by the friendliest hospitality I’ve encountered. And it’s definitely manageable on a tighter budget.
International Flight: From R7k, Joburg return on Singapore Airlines
Internal flights: from R350 one way
Tricycle rides on islands: R20 per trip
A, B, C, & D day tours: R350pp per day
Accommodation: R200pppn budget, R1-2k mid-range, R5-10k luxury
Meals: around R40 – R70pp street food or local takeaway, R70 – 90 in restaurants