Six of the country’s 7,000-plus islands were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan; many of the others badly need tourists to return. Local writer Aya Lowe picks the best places to go
For a country with thousands of idyllic islands, plus world-class surfing and diving, the Philippines is a relatively undiscovered travel destination. Tourism is crucial to the country’s economy, accounting for eight per cent of its GDP, but compare the UK visitor numbers – 120,000 in 2012 – to those of Thailand (800,000 per year) and you get some idea of just how off the radar this vast archipelago is.
This month, of course, the country is firmly on the world’s radar – for all the wrong reasons. Typhoon Haiyan caused wide spread destruction across the provinces of Leyte and eastern Samar on the mid-eastern side of the Philippines and some parts of Palawan and Cebu on the mid-western side. But while the areas in the path of the typhoon were devastated, much of the country was not damaged. The storm caused havoc on six of the country’s 7,107 islands, so most resorts and tourists activities are open and fully functional, and those that were hit are quickly getting back on their feet in the run up to December and January, two of their busiest months of the year.
The tourist board and tour operators are reassuring visitors that the country is not only safe, but in desperate need of visitors to bring a vital boost to the economy. Those who go will receive a very warm welcome. So, how do you choose which of those 7,000-plus islands to visit? Here’s our guide to 10 islands, each offering something different.
1. Chill out in El Nido, Palawan
This jungle beach town on the northern tip of Palawan hasn’t changed much since before Spanish colonisation and has been cited as Alex Garland’s The Beach. Explore the many islets of the nearby Bacuit archipelago on a boat-hopping tour, where the water so clear you can see the fish darting in between coral at 15 metres deep. Prices range from around £17-£20 per day for a tour and that usually includes lunch. There is grilled seafood is in abundance across the island.
Palawan was one of the islands in the path of Typhoon Haiyan, however it was only the city of Coron and the nearby island communities that were hit. El Nido has not suffered any damage and the surrounding coral reefs are intact, with only very shallow ones sustaining damage.
Where to stay: For beachfront living, Rainforest Beach Hotel offers rooms from £31 per night in high season. For a high-quality budget option, try Residencia Katrina , five minutes from the beach (from £21 per night).
How to get there: Local airlines fly directly to Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa. From the city’s main bus terminal, you can take a seven-hour Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) bus to El Nido for £7, one way.
2. Shake your tail feather in Boracay
With endless beaches of powdery-white sand, long happy hours, abundance of restaurants and hotels to suit all budgets, and plenty of watersports, Boracay is the party island.
It has 12 beaches, the most popular being White beach and Bulabog. The island is divided up into “boat stations”, which are used a reference points. Station One in the north is known for its high-end resorts and tranquillity; station two is the liveliest part, and station three is where all the budget accommodation can be found. While many locals look back longingly at good old days in the 70s before the hotels and restaurants started springing up, Boracay is still a Phuket in its infancy.
There was some storm damage to the island. Electricity still remains a problem for many parts of the island, but most hotels are up and running with generators.
Where to stay: Frendz Resort Boracay has one of the best beach locations out of all the midrange options (£50 for a beachside bungalow, sleeping four). Nigi Nigi Nu Noos has Balinese-style bamboo cottages furnished with handicrafts and wooden sculptures. Rooms are £70 per night.
How to get there: You can fly via Kalibo and then take a two-hour bus ride to the island, across a connecting bridge, for £4.
3. See a UNESCO World Heritage sight in Banaue, North Luzon
North Luzon, the biggest island of the Philippines, is a land of misty mountains, where pines replace palm trees. Head to Banaue and Batad to admire the 2,000-year-old rice terraces etched along plunging ravines. The 20,000km UNESCO-listed terraces still provide a livelihood for the various tribal groups that continue to live in relative isolation in the mountains. Treks along the rice terraces to various villages and waterfalls can be organised through the Banaue Tourist Information Center. Expect to pay around £10 for a guide for a whole day.
Where to stay: If you want to wake up to a view of the famous rice terraces, head to Batad, where a number of low-cost, basic guest houses line the mountains. Try Ramon’s Homestay, where the owners are a great source of information about the local culture. It’s £2.80 for a regular room or £3.50 to stay in a traditional Ifugao (local tribe) hut.
How to get there: North Luzon is best reached by bus, but be prepared for a long journey. Buses leave regularly from Manila and take nine hours to get to Banaue, costing £7.
4. See the curious in Bohol
Located just off Cebu, Bohol’s most famous attraction is the surreal Chocolate Hills: over 1,500 mounds formed by coral deposits sculpted by a millennia of erosion. Depending on the season, they will either be green or brown. The island’s famous resident is the camera-shy tarsier, the world’s smallest monkey. Visit them in their protected enclosure at the Philippines Tarsier Foundation. Don’t visit them in the cages kept along the river; they are mistreated and don’t live long there. Either hire a motorbike or book a tour from a local company, such as Bohol Travel Tours, for around £35 with car, guide and lunch.
In October this year, the island suffered from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, destroying many houses. Two weeks afterwards, Bohol was back on its feet, bringing in tourists as normal. The island was also hit by Typhoon Haiyan, but sustained little damage to its infrastructure. Tour operators and hotels remain fully open. The main issue being tackled by the island’s authority is limited power supply, which is slowly but surely getting fixed.
Where to stay: Alumbung Bohol is a comfortable resort of beachside bungalows on popular Panglao island (from £20 per night). For something different head to Bohol Bee Farm , an organic vegetable and bee farm with rooms on Panglao, from £28 to £70 per person.
How to get there: Local airlines, including Cebu Pacific, fly to Tagbilaran airport from Manila, or you can catch a two-hour ferry from Cebu to Bohol (£7, one way).
5. Go surfing in Siargao
Facing the Pacific Ocean, just north of the island of Mindanao, is Siargao, one of the Philippines’ surf centres. The town sees a steady stream of dedicated surfers who arrive to challenge themselves on the island’s famous Cloud 9 reef break. The small beachside town hosts a number of international surfing competition, which make it a busy during surf season, but completely dead when the waves are down. Novices can hire trainers, who you can find on the beach, for around £7 per hour, or you can book a package from a surf hotel, such as Kermit Surf Resort , which has a package for £394 per person per week, including accommodation, transfers and one-to-one surf lessons.
How to get there: There are direct flights to Siargao Island. Siargao airport is 45 minutes away from General Luna, the location of the popular Cloud 9 beach.
6. Get off the beaten track in Camiguin Island
This pear-shaped volcanic island, just off the northern tip of Mindanao, is often bypassed because of various Islamist uprisings that have been reported on Mindanoa. However, Camiguin itself has never had any incidents and those who make the effort to travel there are rewarded with an island barely touched by tourism. For such a small landmass, this tiny island packs quite a punch, its 29,187 hectares including seven volcanoes. It also offers good diving through an eerie sunken cemetery, waterfalls, a lagoon, and hot and cold springs. All of these can be reached easily by foot, or hire a motorbike (£11 a day with a driver,£7 without).
How to get there: The easiest way is to book a flight from Cebu, via Cebu Pacific Air, then take an 11-hour ferry to the island for (£2.30).
7. Go witch hunting in Siguijor
The magical Siquijor is both feared and revered by locals. It’s the place to go, if you’re looking for a boroboro, or witch doctor. The Provincial Tourism Department has a list of “official healers”, or just ask any local and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. You’ll need to rent a tricycle (a local motor taxi) for around £14 for half a day, as most of the healers live high in the mountains. These witch doctors or healers welcome paying visitors – but be polite and respectful as it is an age-old tradition that is widely believed by locals. Away from all the magic, it’s also a beautiful island for relaxing, snorkelling and diving.
Where to stay: Beachside bungalows at Coco Grove Beach Resort cost £19 per person.
How to get there: There are no direct flights. Fly to Dumaguete city, then take an hour-long ferry to Siquijor (£1.60).
8. Explore the misty mountains of Batanes
The Batanes Islands are found on the very northern tip of the Philippines archipelago, a land of gently sloping hills, thatched roof houses and locals who wear traditional straw hats. With weather reminiscent of drizzly British summers, locals visit the islands for some respite from the tropical heat, while tourists travel here for a completely different island experience from the rest of the Philippines. To get around, rent a bicycle or book a tour with a company, such as Batanes Travel and Tours , which charges £211 for a three-day trip including accommodation, transport and guide.
Where to stay: Batanes Resort offers comfortable, air-conditioned cottages for £25 per night.
How to get there: There are direct flights from Manila to Batanes, but being at the very tip of the country it’s one of the more expensive islands to reach. Flights are often cancelled during bad weather.
9. Go diving in Mindoro
Good dives spots are a dime a dozen in the Philippines, but the best scuba spots can be a bit harder to reach. Apo Reef is one of them. A mostly sunken atoll, two hours off the west coast of Mindoro, the 40 sq km reef is famous among the diving community for its abundance of larger creatures, such as sharks, rays and sea turtles. Most divers stay on Pandan Island (a 20-minute boat ride from Mindoro) and, from there, access the reef via a three-hour boat ride. Apo Reef Club is one of the closest dive operators to the reef. A package of five dives, including two night’s accommodation and transfers, is £212.
Where to stay: As well as dive trips, Apo Reef Club offers clean, simple accommodation . Prices range from £10 to £46 per room.
How to get there: Domestic flights go from Manila to San Jose in Mindoro. Once you get on the island, head to Sablayan port (near the town market) and get a 30-minute boat ride to Pandan island (£7, one way).
10. Go hiking in Davao, Mindanao
Davao is the biggest city on the island of Mindanao, an area that is scarce of tourists due to the aforementioned Islamist insurgencies. Davao City is widely regarded as a safe haven on the island and has been ranked as one best places to live in the country. This is where the world’s smelliest fruit, the Durian, originates from. It is also home to the rare Philippine eagle (pay a visit to the Philippine Eagle Centre for an educational tour).
But the island’s crown jewel is the country’s tallest peak and semi-active volcano, Mount Apo. A 2,956-metre climb to the top will take you through the full spectrum of Filipino biodiversity, from steamy jungle to pine forests, and belching sulphuric vents. Join a group tour with Climb Mt Apo for £56 per person. If you go independently you will need a permit from the city hall in Santa Cruz, an hour south of Davao (contact Julius Paner, +63 2 441 1467). The permit costs £4 per person. You can then hire a freelance guide and/or porter at a rate of £4 per day for the porter and £7 per day for the guide. The permit office will be able to put you in touch with a certified porter and guide.
How to get there: Davao is a 1.5hr flight from Manila and there are at least six flights servicing the city on a daily basis.
Getting to the Philippines: Philippine Airlines flies to Manila five times a week from Heathrow. Once in Manila, the cost of domestic flights to get to the different islands can vary depending on what time of year you are flying and where. Local airlines such as Cebu Pacific, Air Asia and Tiger Airways offer seat sales throughout the year, where you can often bag return flights for around £50. Outside of the sales, expect to payaround £100 return.