Situated in the western Pacific Ocean and amassing 7,641 islands, the Philippines is an archipelagic country renowned for its island hopping tours, tropical white sand beaches, and richness of culture. It was the destination for our next 'flashpacking' adventure, combining plush hotels and rough, sleepless nights in hostels. We dusted off our Osprey backpacks and mentally prepared ourselves for the itinerary done by many:
- Manila (Fly in)
- El Nido, Palawan
- Manila (Fly out)
This list of destinations meant we'd be travelling in a clockwise loop across the Philippines and - based on our research - was quite a typical itinerary to take. My advice for planning such a trip is to research each destination and what it offers, identify a reasonable amount of time to spend in each of them, and set up a spreadsheet pinpointing all those destinations for the entire holiday. I'd reconfirm that there is transportation between them all (sometimes flights or ferries only run on specific days). Plus, check accommodation in each destination and cross reference check-in days with transport before committing. It's much work but worth the upfront cost. That way, with everything booked and organised, you can relax more on the trip.
We flew to Manila from Heathrow with a stop-off at Doha with Qatar airlines. As usual, my long legs resented me for the limited legroom in the plane, having to get up repeatedly to stretch them. The overall flight was 16 hours, with adequate food and service. It was my first time with Qatar airways, and business class was tempting, but I stuck with economy. We arrived in Manila in the evening and found a budget hostel near the airport for £20 to sleep for the night. We wanted to get out of the bustling city of Manila as soon as possible and head to Boracay for an early flight the next day.
Boracay is known as one of the most touristy destinations. Rightly so, it was closed for six months due to over-tourism in 2018. It reopened with new rules, such as prohibiting drinking and smoking on the beach and introducing more sustainable methods of transport, such as the e-trikes. The e-trike was our method of transportation when we were transferred from the airport to our next accommodation, Fairways and Bluewater, an 80-hectare eco-friendly accommodation complete with four pools, an 18-hole golf course, and a private beach. Our main highlights were good food and relaxation at the various pools. We got severely burnt on sunscreen of factor 20... Yeah, you definitely need factor 50 here in the Philippines; the sun hits differently.
Our next stop was Frendz hostel, a much better location than the 'hotel bubble' of fairways.
Frendz is a stone's throw from what's known as 'White Beach'. As you can tell, a lot of thought went into the naming of this. Boracay's White Beach has been recognised as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. There's something about its natural beauty – its crystal blue water, pure white sand, and magical sunsets. However, tourism and overcrowdedness - in my opinion - spoil it. For me, a good beach is beautiful, but also somewhere tranquil, where you can swim freely, mind your business and take in your surroundings without being asked if you want a massage or buy a pair of fake sunglasses. To be fair, it has a good liveliness to the place; we enjoyed some excellent coffee and banana muffins from 'Real coffee', vegan food from Nonies, and some sweet nightlife vibes at Om bar with the DJ inside absolutely going for it on the decks. She was in her element, for sure.
We did a boat tour which involved a stop off at Balinghai beach, lunch at Tambisaan beach, and a trip to crystal cove island to descend into the two famous coves. We couldn't go to puka beach annoyingly due to a government visit which meant it wasn't accessible to the public that day. That would usually be part of the tour. I felt pretty sick and malaised that evening when we arrived back. Whether it was traveller sickness or sunstroke, I'll never know. It could be a mixture of both. My experience of Boracay, I'd give it a 7/10.
Our next destination was Cebu, a province north of Malaysia, considered the "cradle of Christianity" in the Philippines. The island of Cebu was where Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first arrived in 1521. He held the first Catholic mass in the country, converting the chieftain of Cebu and his followers to Christianity.
We opted for luxury at the Shangri-La in Mactan, a famous resort with abundant activities and facilities. Upon arrival, you are ushered through the grand opening and greeted with a smile and a hand on heart by every single staff member. I didn't know whether it was too perfect or excessive and forced. Either way, they try to make you feel welcome and keep a high standard for their guests. On a side note, Filipinos, in general, are the friendliest and most welcoming people I've come across in a country.
We enjoyed the morning and evening buffet, the Chinese restaurant, as well as some of the activities like the games room, the private beach that has a marina of fish on its doorstep (we hired snorkeling gear), and even a bit of mini golf. (Psst, I won). Similar to the fairways resort in Boracay, hotels like this are usually designed to keep you in a bubble where you feel obliged to pay above the odds. For example, Coconuts are sold by locals for as little as 50 pesos (76p) in most places, while in the resort, they are an extortionate 225 pesos (£3.43).
I would say that the tour we did in Cebu with Cebu Tours - albeit a rather long drive from Shangri-La (3.5 hours) - was one of the best adventure tours I've ever done. We packed so much into a day and were back at 7 pm. We visited Tumalog falls, swam with whale sharks in Oslob, visited the gorgeous beach island of Sumilon, and ventured through the impressive Kawasan Falls. We did cliff jumping and rope-swing into the water, swam behind a waterfall, and hiked through the half-track, following the weaving water streams. If there were ever a tour to recommend, it would be this one. Getting up at 3:30 am, however, was the least fun part. I enjoyed Cebu, mainly because of where we stayed and the tour. I'd give Cebu an 8/10.
El Nido, Palawan
Our next stop was the island of Palawan, specifically El Nido, named after the Spanish word for ‘edible nest’. The edible nests of swiftlets can be found in the crevices of El Nido’s limestone cliffs.
It's a trendy tourist destination, and there's no surprise why. It has towering marble cliffs, stunning islands, and enchanting lagoons. The tours are split into four options: A, B, C, and, you guessed it, D. A and C are the most popular. And each tour has a handful of islands or snorkel spots to visit.
We checked in to Frendz hostel in El Nido - of the same name as a previous hostel. This one had a much better vibe and was more 'party party party'. We stayed in a six-bed dorm (like old times), and it was then... I realised I was over this lifestyle. During the night, the light of our dorm toggled on and off like a stubborn candle in the wind. The music's bass vibrated the room. The shared room toilet next to me... Well, I'll leave it at that. Suffice to say, I was glad when we moved to the H Hotel, a vegetarian hotel around the corner with fancy decor situated in the heart of El Nido town.
This town had a great backpacker vibe and a collection of food choices, from Korean (OPPA) and Thai (Big bad Thai) to veggie cafes and coffee houses (Taste). But, boy, is it crowded and chaotic for a small town. The fumes from all the bikes, the open construction along roads, and yet more hassling to buy stuff. It is an excellent base to stay for the food and necessities alone, but it's best to spend the days away by taking a tour or visiting more secluded beach areas.
One absolute MUST is to visit Nacpan beach. Easily my favourite beach, with the only issues being wandering stray dogs that sleep under chairs and beds, although they are harmless. We hired out two sun beds and ordered some excellent food from Sunmai, notably the tempura and locally made fries, as well as the meal option of Vegan A, B, C, and D. See what they did there?
We took a bumpy forty-minute shuttle there, although most visitors opted for hiring a motorcycle instead so they could roam freely. Stay away from travelling there via a tricycle; those things are slow and expensive (for this journey, we were quoted 1500 pesos), and they struggle to go up hills. Well... they do with my big lump in it.
We opted for doing tours A and C. The typical day is a handful of islands, beach, kayak, or snorkel spots on a boat of 10-18 people with a fresh lunch prepared by an onboard chef. You can opt to do a private or shared tour, and I'd suggest the shared one as you need more freedom on a private tour when it comes to duration or flexibility at specific locations.
You follow the same process as those on the shared but pay triple the price. The weather can cancel some tours, usually choppy waters unsafe to ride a boat on, as what happened with us when we wanted tour C. Instead, we did tour D as that was safe enough to do so. El Nido was great, but impacted by tourists and busy tours, but from our overall experience, we'd give it an 8/10.
Our final destination was Coron - still part of Palawan but a separate island in the north. There are three ferry companies: Montenegro, Atienza, and Judy Ferry, that operate between the islands, ranging between four to five hours in travel. We went with the Atienza ferry, which made an otherwise rocky and nauseating ride better with reasonably comfortable seats and the luxury of being handed a sick bag by the crew - just in case! Luckily I made it through without needing it - albeit very choppy at some stages.
Upon arrival to Coron, we had a short walk to our hotel at the Two Seasons Bayside hotel. The hotel has a nice lobby and an infinity pool overlooking the bay.
The downside to the hotel is that it's outside of the main town, where all of the leading restaurants are, so we had to get one of the tricycles whenever we went for food. Some popular places - especially with ex-pats - include Le Voyage and Pacifico, which serves many great breakfast, lunch and dinner options. We had to queue for a table which felt like being back in London.
Super Ultimate Tour
In Palawan style, the main attraction is island hopping, and Coron does not disappoint. We did the most popular tour, the "Super Ultimate Tour". If that name doesn't sell it, I don't know what will. We visited breathtaking lagoons and snorkelled on various coral reefs. The coral reefs are stunning, and we witnessed a shoal of coloured fish. I got some excellent footage on my GoPro.
Other parts of the tour include Kayangan lake, the cleanest lake in the Philippines, featuring underwater rock formations, caves and islets. It's a popular spot for photographers, and now we understand why. There was a big queue to get a picture, and this was ours.
We also took a trip to Barracuda lake, a dive site famous for its Thermocline. It is embedded in a former crater and surrounded by sharp limestone cliffs. It is ringfenced for visitors, and those who want to venture further out have to be scuba divers, but we still had fun with our snorkelling gear. We got our fix of kayaking through the twin lagoons; my concern was how busy it was with tourists and the boats of those tourists blocking the second lagoon once passing through the low limestone pass. I had to put my kayak steering to the test to avoid the boats and various swimmers. We were challenged to figure out where on earth our boat was under the hot sun.
On our last day in Coron, we planned to relax more and a usual thing to do after doing the "Super Ultimate tour" is the Escapade tour, which includes hopping between white sand islands over turquoise waters on this guided day cruise near Culion Island; chilling on stunning beaches. This tour is subject to cancellations because you have to travel out of Coron into more choppier-prone waters, as we, unfortunately, experienced once we arrived at the docks. In light of this, we returned to the hotel to relax by the pool for our final day.
Later, we took a bumpy ride to the Maquint hot springs, one of the few saltwater hot springs in the world. It is said that the water is heated by a volcano and springs up into a two-tiered circular pool. It gets hectic in the evening, as most arrive in time for sunset.
For Coron, I'd give it a 7/10 as I enjoyed the more natural and less-touched tour, but the island feels more limited than El Nido for food and accommodation.
Suppose you're in a position to do so and are after: sunny and hot weather during the winter months, friendly/warm locals, affordable luscious cuisine, and some of the world's gorgeous beaches/islands/waters. In that case, I recommend paying a visit. I much prefer it to a place like Bali, but they share similar issues, such as heaps of litter and plastics in undesirable places, plus tourism taking its toll on the country. Places like Boracay seem to be working on it, as it would be a shame for the sights I've seen on this trip to be impacted further.
That doesn't take away from the fact that the Philippines is a stunning country with so much to offer. One thing I won't miss? The hectic roads, no seat belts, and overall, it feels like a free-for-all. Some of the transport - such as the tricycles - I got in was definitely designed for someone else. I felt like a cricket trying to squeeze into a pistachio shell. Overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and this holiday will easily go down as one of my favourites.