Martin and I spent 10 days in the Philippines. This is the blow by blow of our stay, along with suggestions, reviews and any insights I can give! For the full reviews of the hotels and restaurants, please click on the links to go to my Tripadvisor reviews.
The 14 hour flight is well worth it for a chance to stay in this beautiful, welcoming, and most importantly hot, land. A Filipino friend told me before I left that 10 days would not be enough, and he was right! I am definitely planning on going back some day and doing all the things I didn’t get the time to. I hope this review encourages you to visit the Philippines and experience the wonder for yourself.
The Philippines is a group of about 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia. The weather when we went in November was a balmy 30 degrees average, and we’d just missed the rainy season, though there were still a few showers from time to time (if anything they provided respite from the heat).
It’s just beautiful there. The water is crystal clear, the beaches are clean and, as the tourism industry is just starting up, the natural beauty is unspoiled by the footfall of thousands of tourists and everything that caters to them.
Filipinos are islanders, for sure. Their pace is laid back, their smiles are welcoming, and everybody speaks English to a good standard. Nobody is pushy, and even the street vendors and tacky souvenir hawkers aren’t overly aggressive. They seemed a happy, content people.
The people who work in the service industry are not as…fawning as some tourists will be used to, but I actually prefer that. Many people on Tripadvisor complain that the service isn’t “up to scratch”, but I think that they’re just expecting to be waited on hand and foot. I actually prefer to be left alone when travelling, and it’s no big deal to actually have to call for attention and ask if you want something. I don’t like standing out personally, and I hate the extra attention you get as a tourist on holiday. If you like to be able to go at your own pace without being harassed, but still want friendly staff, the Philippines’ underdeveloped tourism industry remains a safe haven.
Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Island hopping and the Underground River
After an overnight stay in Manila, an early morning flight had us in Palawan in a couple of hours. There are two key locations on Palawan Island, Puerto Princesa, near the airport, and El Nido, at the northern tip of the island. Unfortunately we only had time to stay in Puerto Princesa, though El Nido is the place to go for proper diving and Island hopping.
You can read more about the hotel we stayed in here, but in sum it was comfortable, had a pool, and was well located for walking around town at night. The staff were nice too and organised our day trip to the islands in Honda Bay and the Underground River.
As we didn’t arrive till the afternoon, we had missed the island hopping tour in Honda Bay and only had time to visit one of the islands for snorkeling. We took a tiny ‘tricycle’ there, which was a bit uncomfortable for a 30 minute journey, but it was still pleasant. We only had time to visit one island and, in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have gone to the furthest one as it took 20 minutes to get there for about an hour and a half stay. As we had missed peak time the only restaurant was closed, but we had biscuits with us and still had a great time swimming and snorkeling. It was a good way to get the holiday going.
Day two was the Underground River tour. It takes a while to get to the location (about 2 hours from the hotel), and a further 30-45 mins to the actual River entrance, but when we did get there it. Was. Awesome. For three main reasons:
- We had an excellent tour guide named Jun-Jun – he was full of jokes and, somehow, lots of Filipinos have adopted western sarcasm and wit, so all the tour guides are pretty much hilarious
- It’s a a river that runs under a mountain, which in itself is awesome
- There’s a buffet included at the end of the tour which has the best food.
I wouldn’t be too worried if you get claustrophobic – it’s quite a cavernous space under the mountain, and you don’t feel hemmed in at any point. There are teeny-tiny bats everywhere (don’t look up with your mouth open) and you might see a water snake or two, which is cool. Overall it was a fun day out, though it is a bit long, so take plenty of water and some entertainment for the kids (Martin didn’t bring a book and wouldn’t stop bugging me about it).
On the second night we ate in a brilliant, beautiful restaurant called The Lotus Garden, which I highly recommend.
A hop on a flight (which we were almost forced to miss by a glum check-in girl), and we were on our way to Manila, to catch a transfer to Bohol. Well, actually… I fell asleep, but apparently we landed at a completely different airport on a completely different island before actually getting to Bohol. But the whole thing was handled with such calm grace that it might as well not even have happened… A true testament to how problems and mix ups are handled in the Philippines.
Big snakes, small monkeys, quad biking round weird-shaped hills.
The area that we stayed in is called Panglao, which seems to be very popular with tourists as it’s filled with upscale hotels and lots of international restaurants, which I was not expecting for such a small place. Seriously, there was a Norwegian restaurant somewhere, and at least 2 or 3 German sausage places/beer gardens.This is the hotel we stayed in, and was probably the best hotel of our trip.
Like most people, we were in Bohol to see the Chocolate Hills, but didn’t realise it came with a whole countryside tour attached which was a pleasant surprise and jam-packed with activities. Organised by our hotel, we got our own driver for the day (Benjamin, the lad), for a base cost of 2700 pesos (£40) + another 500-700 pesos (£7-10) each for all the entrance fees. After ATVing round the hills, you’re taken to a viewing point to get some better photos. Then it’s tarsier monkeys, butterflies, really really big snakes (I never though I was afraid of snakes but omg this snake was fucking huge), old churches and a ridiculously good river cruise. Like. Let me give this cruise its own paragraph.
So, just as we were wondering what was happening with lunch, we’re stopped off at the Loboc River tour. Turns out this is a huge tourist destination, and they have about 10 floating boat restaurants complete with buffet, refillable ice tea and live band to serenade you down the river. At some point, you stop for a performance by the locals. The whole thing was magical, even the mini waterfall at the end of the trail.
We ate out both nights and, as the only beer they serve in the Philippines is San Miguel, I suggest trying out some of the different flavours. The lemon flavour is really nice!
The next morning, a transfer to the port, a ferry ride to Cebu*, and a taxi to the airport had us on our way to Boracay.
OK, so we didn’t do anything but stay on the beach, ride jet skis, eat out and get massages on this part of the tour. Yes, riding on jet skis. Like a rapper.
We arrived at Caticlan airport, which is on a different Island to Boracay and the beaches. If you fly with Cebu Pacific, you should be offered a transfer with Southwest Travel for 400 pesos (£5.50) each way, which I highly suggest you take as travel to the island involves getting from the airport to the port, a boat over to the other port, a transfer from the port to your hotel. The whole thing took about 1-1.5 hours on the way there, but mysteriously only took 30 minutes on the way back.
The hotel we stayed in wasn’t beach front, but to be honest I’m quite grateful for that as the beach front was more like a strip, with restaurants and bars open till late night with entertainment raging and music blaring till the early hours. Though not spoiled by over-tourism, this is still the no.1 party hotspot in the Philippines for tourists and locals alike, but it’s family friendly too, so don’t be put off if you’ve got kids!
The two important locations are D’Mall and White Beach. There are three ‘Stations’, but I actually never found out what this meant. It seemed to just denote different areas along the narrow island, but it didn’t seem to make a difference where you were staying.D’Mall is restaurants and shopping, with a budget mart for all your water and convenience food needs. They have sanitary towels, but no tampons that I spotted, and I don’t know about the availability of feminine hygiene products generally in the Philippines.
This was the pushiest place in terms of street vendors, but it still wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s actually quite useful to know how to rent a jet ski or where to get a massage, and prices seem pretty even across the island, so there’s no need to shop around for a good price. The jet ski was ridiculously fun – like so fricking fun. There’s also parasailing, boat renting, snorkeling, island hopping, diving, banana boating and more on offer. Just be sure to have some money with you if you do this island last as the prices are about the same as if you were doing these activities in Europe.
The cuisine was just as international as Bohol, with Filipino, Italian, Thai, Indian, Mexican and even Full English Breakfasts available. All restaurants seemed to have access to the latest Hip-Hop hits, and one day we spent a lovely morning eating our breakfast along to trap music. We were surprised to find that restaurants close quite early, around 9/9:30, and most people are eating by 6. Another sign that the industry is relatively new.
Some of the restaurants have fire/flamethrower/spinning fire-top thingy shows at night, which are so cool and dangerous they’re a must see. Forget all the big, fancy restaurants, a small, chairs-on-the-floor bar called Hookah Bar (next to Uptown) has a show with the nicest girls, guys and lady-boys and they’re so interactive that the atmosphere is way better than any on the bigger places. We didn’t bring our cameras, but you can pose for pictures while they twirl their fires next to your head (or balls, whatever).
Some things can be haggled for, e.g.sun lounger rental. Don’t let me find out you paid more than 500 pesos for 2 chairs for the whole day. You might be surprised to see there are a lot of children hawking souvenirs, I know I’m a little uncomfortable with child labour, but they’re usually out playing on the beach in the evening, and don’t seem too hard done by.
WE DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE, but alas we had no choice. Our three days were up and it was a tricycle, boat and plane back to Manila for our final day.
It’s hardly worth talking about Manila really – the hotel we stayed in was a basic bitch hostel and we didn’t do any major touristy stuff – but I’ll do so anyway to recommend the one thing we did do.
We arrived in the afternoon and, after taking a quick, 2-hour-hangover-nap, we decided we wanted to go for karaoke. The hotel staff recommended SM Mall of Asia which we assumed was something akin to shopping centres in the UK. Oh how wrong we were. I don’t know if it was just this mall or all malls across the Philippines, but this was way more of an experiential trip than a shopping trip. There were restaurants of every type (we had Jollibee** for lunch, and a really decadent sushi boat for dinner), snack stalls, bowling, ice skating, a cinema, a viewing platform to look out over the bay, a fashion show, shopping, an amusement park and, of course, right at the end of the bay strip, KTV!
We had a really good day out there, it’s way more relaxing than going to a shopping centre in the UK (or Europe for that matter) and if you have time when you’re in Manila, I suggest you check it out!
*Getting the ferry from Bohol Tagbilaran to Cebu and vice versa is super easy and quite cheap. Timings are pretty accurate and a list can be found here: http://www.bohol.ph/article107.html
Go to Jollibee if you can. It’s the Philippine’s original fast food and they serve spaghetti with fried chicken and it’s coming to the UK soon!