A chilly and windswept winter always has us dreaming of far-off exotic destinations, where white sands and palm trees provide the most perfect backdrops. And boy, do I have a lovely place to share with you! Have you ever considered the Philippines for your next trip? If not, have a glance through this quick guide to island hopping in the Philippines and see if this adventure could be for you!
The Philippines is an archipelago of over seven thousand islands, all with their own unique charm and stunning beaches. It’s a place that isn’t jam-packed with tourists at every turn: it still harbours hidden secrets with pristine and quiet stretches of pale sand to sip coconuts on in blissful peace.
You can easily spend a few months exploring the many islands, but three to four weeks is enough time to give you a good feel for the place and a taste of island life. It also gives you some travel days for ferries and buses – many of the islands don’t have airports and if they do, they’re quite expensive to fly to.
Be careful with talking with other travellers about their route as there will always be another island ready to tempt you. Do your research, see which islands catch your eye and set sail! Let’s get stuck into my quick guide to island hopping in the Philippines…
A quick guide to island hopping in the Philippines
1. Fly into Manila for one night
Manila airport is the hub for all international flights, so you’re bound to be landing in the thick of this crazy-hectic city. It’s a mammoth sprawl scattered with numerous districts, many of which get grid-locked with painfully slow traffic so, for the love of god, stay close to the airport if you’re having a fleeting visit.
The airport borders on Pasay City and trendy Makati, so if you don’t want to stay at a business hotel next door to the airport, aim for one of these districts in which to recover from jetlag. Head to Manila’s top boutique hotel, The Henry Hotel in Pasay, for a luxurious kip in a historical building. This design hotel is packed with lovely little touches (real ground coffee is provided in the rooms) and charming interiors which will please any lovers of Pinterest – fall in love with the beautifully tiled floors! Pick a room with a balcony and look out onto jungle greenery – you will never believe that you were in the middle of such a bustling city. It’s Manila’s very own little oasis.
Wash off any fatigue with a dip in the pool, get stuck into fluffy breakfast pancakes, and take a 15 – 40 min (depending on traffic) taxi ride to the airport – the islands are calling!
2. Fly to Palawan island: El Nido
Palawan is a province that encompasses a few islands between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. The large Palawan island that has the main airports (Puerto Princesa and El Nido) was voted the second most beautiful island in the world (2016) by Conde Nast readers, and it’s easy to see why!
Fly into Puerto Princesa if you wish to explore this town and see the magical Subterranean River – one of the new seven natural wonders of the world – or fly directly into El Nido for some beach life. El Nido’s town is a cramped area that’s full of bars, restaurants and tourist offices. It can feel a bit manic during the day as the narrow roads are busy and there are no pavements, but in the evening the town’s main roads are off-limits to cars and tricycles (the Filipino version of Tuk Tuks) making it easier to navigate.
There are many backpacker hostels and cheap accommodation options around this area, but if you can splurge a bit, head up to Corong Corong for a quieter life, idyllic views and beach bars. Accommodation runs along the beach, but with many, you’re paying for the location and view… the rooms aren’t what you could get in Thailand for the same money. But waking up to a view of dawn breaking over expansive sea with misty islands in the distance really does make it worth it.
Corong Corong only has a small strip of sand for a beach, but it’s enough to pull up a chair and enjoy seafood BBQs with a Pina Colada – plus, the sunsets here are phenomenal. If you’re after a gorgeous beach with swimmable waters and coconuts served from a shack, then head to Las Cabanas, a mere 100 peso trike-ride away! It’s been claimed to be the best beach in the Philippines, and while it has developed over the last few years with a resort added to a far corner and about five eateries/bars popping up, it’s still incredibly quiet… even during peak season. It’s a hidden paradise of white sands, turquoise waters and chilled visitors who are simply there to worship the sun.
3. Island trip through Bacuit Bay
When in El Nido, you’ll see a large amount of tourism companies touting numerous excursions. They range from A to D and each boat trip will whisk you to a range of islands in Bacuit Bay, off the coast of Palawan. Yes, they are group tours so you’ll be sharing the boat with 20 other strangers, but if you are travelling in a large enough group, you can nab yourself a private boat and set off earlier to miss as much of the crowds as you can.
Tour A is the most popular boat trip as the lagoons and coves are absolutely stunning: swim in the Small Lagoon, canoe through the still waters of Big Lagoon, enjoy a seafood feast on Shimizu island, watch the sunset with a beer on 7 Commando Beach. And along the route, you’ll pass by the beautiful Lagen Island….
4. Stop a while on Lagen Island
Lagen Island is accessible by boat from El Nido’s port, but it’s not featured in any of the boat tours. If you want to visit this hidden bay, you’ll have to stay at Lagen Island Resort, which won’t be a chore at all. This luxury eco-resort is set into the east side of Lagen Island, backed by dense forest, fronted by a calm lagoon alongside an impressive limestone cliff that springs out of the crystal clear water.
A pick-up boat will get you from El Nido and whisk you out to this patch of paradise. The 18 water cottages – reminiscent of the famous water villas of the Four Seasons in the Maldives – splay out into the lagoon on stilts, each with their very own verandahs. There are a further 20 rooms scattered along the fringe of the jungle, plus four Forest Suites that are perfect for families. Tired mamas will certainly enjoy the mammoth bathtubs in here…
Now this place is a serious honeymoon destination (it sure had me pining for my loved one!), but also a top place to come to chill with a bestie. Relax by the pool, enjoy a happy hour cocktail (or three) and do a spot of stand-up paddle boarding before succumbing to the spa. If you’re keen for more action, take off along the Lagen forest trail to spot copious amounts of birdlife and swinging monkeys, ending with brilliant views out to sea. Rule over your very own slice of paradise and soak up the relaxation of this sanctuary adrift in Bacuit Bay.
5. Seek out Siquijor
Fly to Dumaguete from either El Nido or Manila for a ferry bound for Siquijor. Shrouded in mystery and witchcraft, this small island is known amongst the locals for the healers who used to cook up potions. Less witches and more beaches is today’s theme, but you’ll still surprise (and sometimes shock) Filipinos when you tell them you’re heading to Siquijor.
Another tropical little island, this place can easily be driven around in 6 hours along the coastal road, where you can visit numerous beaches and picturesque waterfalls:
- Head to Salagdoong Beach for dizzying cliff-diving into the clear open sea.
- Swing off rope swings into the Cambugahay Falls or simply paddle in one of its three tiers.
- Explore the hidden Kangusuan Beach and feel like a castaway.
- Sit in the shadow of the majestic Balete Tree and dangle your feet into its cool pool – let shoals of fish nibble the dry skin off your feet, if you dare!
- Be sure to head to the white sand beach on the southwest of the island – there’s not much going on here apart from the friendliest locals and squealing school kids to make friends with. If you’re game for a spot of volleyball with them, go ahead and get involved!
6. Escape to Panglao Island and Bohol
From Siquijor, catch a ferry up to Bohol and escape to Panglao Island. The southern part of Panglao constituted the most nightlife I saw throughout my trip, and even then, it didn’t ever feel at all feel crazy or out of control. The Philippines is still such a hidden gem!
Panglao Island is a small island attached to Bohol’s south-west tip. The main hustle and bustle is along Alona Beach – stay nearby at either a resort like Panglao Regents Park (lovely pool and incredibly sweet, attentive staff) or in a boutique villa, such as, Villa Kasadya for gorgeous thatched-roof huts and sun-basking dogs. Kickback poolside on chill days and wander the beachside for delicious seafood BBQs – you’ll be spoilt for choice. Be sure to pop into Bohol Bee Farm cafe for organic, wholesome feeds – any sweetness you taste comes direct from the honey of their hives on Bohol – or delicious ice cream served in coconut cones.
Alona Beach can get super busy and has many sections reserved for resorts – venture up to the east side to find a spot, or go as far as Libaong Beach for less tourists and more locals. Oh yeah, and the warmest, cleanest, most turquoise-hued waters!
If you’re after more action, hire a car and take off over the bridge into Bohol. See the Tarsier monkeys at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary and make your judgement as to whether they’re cute or bizarre – spy them napping in the trees, all the while safe in the knowledge that your entrance fee goes to protecting the endangered population.
Journey 1.5 hours inland to the famous Chocolate Hills viewpoint and snap the rolling bump-shaped hills, reminiscent of Hershey Kisses. Over 1,200 of these hills pop out of the land in Bohol and are believed to be the teardrops of giants – they make for the most unusual topography and will have you marvelling at Mother Nature’s weird and wonderful ways.
If you have time, pop by Borocay which is a backpackers’ haven (see the best of Borocay Part 1 and Part 2 for an in-depth guide), and when you’ve exhausted your intake of island life (is that possible?) jet back to Manila for a night of fine-dining or affordable food court munching.
Island hopping in the Philippines will take you back to how SE Asia was before ‘The Beach’ made it everyone’s hot spot. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, it’s relatively untouched, and it’s yet to form a well-trodden backpacker trail. Carve out your own little adventure on these islands; like they say, ‘it’s always fun in the Philippines’!