Bantayan Island, Philippines secret travel gems Asia
Five secret travel gems of the Philippines
Home to the peculiar Chocolate Hills on the Batayan Island and to stunning stretches of white sand on Siargao Island, Philippines is a beautiful and riveting place... 1. Calaguas Islands Where on earth is it? A small group of islands in the province of Camarines Norte. Why you need to know about it The Philippines is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any peaceful tropical retreats left to discover. [caption id="attachment_25951" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Calaguas Islands in Philippines remains relatively untouched by people.[/caption] The Calaguas group of islands are largely untouched and the native people want to keep it that way, with government controls on tour operators to maintain its slow-paced way of life.   With a number of campsites and beach huts to stay in on the white sand beaches, such as Mahabang Buhangin Beach on Tinaga, it’s still a relatively undiscovered gem. Get there soon! 2. Siargao Island Where on Earth is it? In the Philippine Sea, 800 kilometres south-east of Manila. Why you need to know about it Siargao (pronounced Shar-gow) is almost blissfully untouched by the hand of man, and what ‘development’ there is is completely laid-back.   The tear-shaped island has long been a drawcard for surfers – it is known as the surf capital of the Philippines – but there’s lots to entice non-boarders, not least the achingly clear waters and white sandy beaches that look as soft as icing sugar.   Island life centres around the town of General Luna, with its bicycle traffic and restaurants, or you can retreat from the world at Dedon Island, a boutique resort that is as breathtaking as its surroundings. [caption id="attachment_25952" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Siargao Island is renowned for it's crystal clear waters (photo: Melanie Huehnlein).[/caption] 3. Bohol Where on Earth is it? A must-visit island off the east coast of Cebu. Why you need to know about it A ferry-hop from Cebu, Bohol is home to the iconic Chocolate Hills, more than a thousand grass-covered, cone-shaped hillocks. The grass turns brown in the dry season, hence the name, and it is surely one of the most alien-like landscapes on the planet. [caption id="attachment_25953" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Bohol, Philippines is where the iconic Chocolate Hills can be found, thousands of dome shaped hills dot the landscape.[/caption] The island is also home to the bizarre-looking tarsier primates, with their enormous protruding eyes, which you can ogle at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary visitor centre in the town of Corella. If that isn’t enough of a reason to come here, the adjoining island of Panglao is one of the world’s great diving destinations. 4. Bantayan Island Where on Earth is it? An island paradise in the Visayan Sea, north-west of Cebu. Why you need to know about it The Philippines is part of the coral triangle, an area with more species of fish and coral than any other marine environment on earth.   Bantayan Island is a great place to base yourself to explore the reefs found in its marine reserves and the stunning beaches around its circumference. it’s big enough to support some lively towns with great hotels, yet manages to retain a chilled-out feel. [caption id="attachment_25955" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Traditional Ivatan stone houses with thatched roofs in Batanes, Philippines.[/caption] 5. Batanes Where on Earth is it? The northernmost archipelago of the Philippines. Why you need to know about it The Philippines is a world unto itself – more than 7000 islands of cities and national parks, beaches and coral reefs. The Batanes sit in the far north of the country, straddling the gap between the Philippines and Taiwan.   Home to the native Ivatans and their traditional stone houses with thatched roofs, it has the lowest population of any of the islands, most of it given over to rolling hills of lush cattle pastures; hire a car or a bike and explore this pastoral dream for yourself.   More… The 17 Secret Travel Gems of Asia
Palawan in the Philippines, ranked #89 in our countdown of '100 Ultimate Travel Experiences of a Lifetime'.
89. Go diving in Palawan, the Philippines
Ranked #89 in our countdown of '100 Ultimate Travel Experiences of a Lifetime'.
Dedon Island Resort, Siargao, Philippines.
37. Dedon Island Resort, Siargao, Philippines
Ranked #37 in our countdown of the 100 Best Hotels and Resorts in the World.
Exquisite sights of El Nido's 'Big Lagoon'.
El Nido: ‘The nest’ of pure Philippines paradise
Globally protected for its biological and geological diversity, this tiny speck in the Philippines is called Heaven on Earth for good reason. Gary Walsh ­island hopped his way south from Manila to the stunning El Nido – “The Nest” – an idyllic ­island outpost he would find very difficult to leave.    You’ve been here before.   You’ve glided past these sudden, cinematic eruptions of karst limestone on a red-rigged junk in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, slalomed between them on a speedboat in southern Thailand, and been paddled serenely along a river in their shadow in China’s Guilin. The thing is, you’ve never been alone. All alone But here you are alone – or as close to it as you’re likely to be in this heavily touristed world. Here, near the northern tip of the Philippines island of Palawan, you have the place almost to yourself.   The Philippines attracts fewer visitors than other countries of Southeast Asia, and here at El Nido you can reap the benefit. [caption id="attachment_8652" align="alignnone" width="1000"] The seclusion of a Palawan beach.[/caption] Arriving and staying in Puerto Princesa I’d arrived in the island’s main town, Puerto Princesa, from Manila and spent a pleasant day exploring the sights – a whitewashed ­cathedral, a port filled with fishing boats, a couple of lively markets – before jumping on a jeepney for Sabang, a sleepy fishing village close to the Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed phenomenon.   I stayed happily in a bamboo nipa hut on the beach for less than $10 a night, eating fish straight from the Sulu Sea and drinking warm San Miguel beer, watching the light fade until the mosquitoes forced me inside, where I read under a bulb that somehow seemed to make the room darker until the generator spluttered to a stop.   The Underground River was fun, and I lolled in a rowboat as I was paddled through spectacular cathedral-like caves and long, dark tunnels, past formations called the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. This is the Catholic Philippines after all. Heading to El Nido But El Nido was where I was headed. Flights between El Nido and Puerto Princesa come and go, and I fluked a time when they were operating. The alternatives – seven hours in a roaring, belching jeepney or haggling for a bangka boat with all the imponderables of weather and sea conditions – didn’t seem terribly appealing.   The town is a couple of streets by the waterside – a huddle of dusty sari-sari stores, cheap hotels and guesthouses, cafés and hawker stalls, dive shops and tourist offices, with tricycles buzzing everywhere. What makes it memorable is the setting. [caption id="attachment_8659" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Over-water luxury at Lagen Island resort.[/caption] El Nido beach is appealing from a distance, with dozens of elegant bangkas, spidery outriggers rolling gently on the swell, waiting to whisk passengers onto a glorious aquamarine sea. But on closer inspection there’s rubbish on the sand and in the water, and you don’t want to consider what happens with the town’s ­sewerage outfall. Still, just raise your eyes. In El Nido In every direction there are islands, some rising sheer from the water, green monoliths with occasional tantalising wisps of white sand. To the west are spiralling limestone stacks crested with dense rainforest foliage, and directly behind the town, the Taraw Cliffs.   Full-scale climbing is growing around El Nido, but the 230m haul up the cliffs can be done without ropes. Estimates of climbing time range from 45 minutes to two hours, and it’s tough going on the sharp rocks and occasional sheer walls, but the reward is a glorious panorama of Bacuit Bay.   I jumped on a bangka for Lagen Island, an exhilarating journey with the boat skipping lightly over the waves and running close to steepling cliffs along a mostly virgin coastline. My Sabang nipa hut was traded for five-star luxury. [caption id="attachment_8653" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Island hopping by local 'bangka'.[/caption] Lagen Island Resort A giant karst stack looms over Lagen Island Resort. As in southern Thailand, the cliffs hereabouts are home to swiftlets whose nests are harvested for soup – the name itself, El Nido, means “the nest” – but Lagen Island is about preservation rather than destruction, with the resort the sponsor of a range of ­environmental initiatives. It has its own ­nature trail that’s home to a colony of macaques and a profusion of endemic birdlife.   Miniloc Island shelters both Big Lagoon, a soaring space with an entrance so shallow that boats often have to be towed through by their wading skippers, and Small Lagoon, the ­entrance to which is wide enough for just one person to kayak or swim through. These are prosaic names for most poetic places. The water is utterly translucent and the bangkas appear to be floating on air.   Secret Lagoon is … well, secret-ish, reached by wading through shallow water and then clambering through a metre-wide hole in the rock.   There’s squeezing and slithering, too, to enter Cudugnon Cave, a Neolithic burial site of quiet magnificence, shafts of lights illuminating glistening multi-coloured rock curtains. Vigan Island gets its nickname, Snake Island, from a narrow serpentine sandspit that emerges only at low tide and acts as an organic pontoon for swimmers and boats.   In truth, it’s partly what you don’t find at El Nido that makes it so magical. No jet-skiing, no parasailing, no banana boats or booze cruises. Just the simple pleasure of chugging along a silvery sea on a bangka at sunset. [caption id="attachment_8658" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Exploring the azure El Nido seas.[/caption] The details Best time to go Dry season runs from December to May, with March to May best for diving.   Avoid Easter, when Filipinos traditionally return to their home provinces. How to get there Philippine Airlines (PAL) flies daily to Manila from Sydney and Melbourne.   Jetstar flies via Darwin.   AirAsia flies daily via Kuala Lumpur.   From Manila there are daily flights to El Nido with ITI and three flights weekly with Seair - 10kg luggage limit applies.   Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa.   Jeepneys to El Nido take around seven hours, and there are also bangka boats from Puerto Princesa and Port Barton. What to do Take to the water. Go on day trips or rent your own bangka, but spend your time exploring the islands.   Scuba sites abound, although much of the coral is bleached, and PADI courses can be undertaken.   Snorkelling is cheap, and many island resorts have small reefs just off their beaches or piers.   Restraints If you’re staying in town, be aware that El Nido’s electricity officially runs for about 18 hours a day, but don’t bet on it.   Visitors to El Nido are charged a 200-peso (less than $5) ecotourism development fee, the proceeds of which are used to protect the environment.   If it helps to preserve this extraordinary place, it’s a remarkably small price to pay. Places to stay Luxury:   Stunning Lagen Island Resort spreads around a horseshoe-shaped bay beneath limestone cliffs. Over-water cottages are prime real estate.   Miniloc Island Resort is slightly older and set on a pretty cove, with snorkelling on a reef from its jetty. Both are around 40-45 minutes from El Nido by bangka.   Comfortable:   Treetops ( is a little out of El Nido town, which isn’t a bad thing. Simple non-air-conditioned cottages and friendly hosts. Close by is Coral Bay Resort, with decent A/C cottages and rooms on Corong-Corong beach.   Affordable:   Smack in the middle of town, the Entalula is a comfortable guesthouse overlooking the beach.   Ipil Travelodge El Nido is one street back from the water in the heart of town. Best thing about El Nido Island hopping by bangka. Organised tours abound, but to see El Nido at its best hire your own boat and head out as early as possible. Worst thing about El Nido The actual township has little to recommend it other than as a transport hub. Get there, and move on as quickly as possible.   If you're interested in planning a Philippines adventure, check out our travel guide to the Philippines, right here...

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