With over 7,000 to choose from, there’s inevitably an island within the Philippines archipelago that suits you! From secluded and adventurous to easily accessible and luxurious, this country has a lot to offer. Within the main islands groups, Luzon and Visayas are the most visited, as Mindanao has been plagued by political instability and conflicts. This complex archipelago, and therefore maritime area, makes it a country with abundant natural resources and one of the world’s greatest biodiversity. With over 100 million inhabitants and a large diaspora, it counts as a political force in Asia, and a newly developed economical one as well, with a large growth in manufacturing and services over the past years. Discovered by Magellan in 1521, the Philippines were part of the Spanish Empire for more than 300 years, explaining the well-known Hispanic influence. Apart from the short Japanese occupation (1942-1945, a direct consequence of the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), the Philippines were otherwise under American rule during the first part of the 20th century: this is still very palpable in the culture and cuisine for example - or lack thereof for that matter!
The capital of the Philippines is infamous for being the most densely populated city in the world. Most tourists therefore escape as fast as possible from the city to the surrounding islands and nature. While it will never be the top destination in the country, Manila has regained some attractiveness with large land reclamation and development projects ongoing. They are the perfect example of what the growing middle class is looking for: safe neighborhoods, low unemployment, and shopping paradise. Their sustainability has however been criticized - especially since the city is directly impacted by natural hazards, climate change, pollution and poverty. The visitor is left with pondering whether to enjoy these “westernized” neighborhoods or regret the disappearing old ones.
This place is literally 2 in 1: coffee and cocktails - and a top location for both! Located on the first floor of an apartment building in a quiet street of Makati, the Curator is a lovely place to enjoy a great coffee or snack on a light lunch. The super design interior houses an ancient coffee machine, whose copper goes beautifully with the bare concrete walls. Coffee is crafted the same way a cocktail would be in other places, and is brought to an art by the lovely staff. In the adjacent room, a different, cozier atmosphere is another option to chill out around cocktails at night.
Palanca Metro Ma, Legazpi Village, Makati
There’s a mix of underground / speakeasy feeling in finding your way to 20:20: it is tucked in the back of a courtyard, past a gate guarded by security. Inside, 20:20 is very neatly decorated with wood and metal fixtures, complemented by streetart on some of the concrete walls. The prohibition-era feeling is enhanced by the flickering light and the DJ spinning - even in the late afternoon when the bar opens. This attention to detail is also very much present in the food - bar food mostly, but in a good and beautiful way - and of course in the cocktails, which are perfectly crafted by the mixologist and each served in a specific glass. Once the party gets going, the XX XX club located at the right side of the entrance is a great place to go dancing.
20a – 20b La Fuerza Plaza 1, 2241 Don Chino Roces Avenue, Makati
Cebu is the second largest city in the Philippines after Manila, and was the first capital. It is a hub for economic and industrial life in central Philippines. The city itself is not particularly attractive but there are a few places that deserve a visit if Cebu is used as a one-night stop given its strategic location in the Central Visayas.
THE PIG & PALM
Opening a restaurant in your wife’s hometown when you are a Michelin-starred chef: what else? The Pig & Palm is a modern restaurant serving Filipino tapas and cocktails that are as innovative as fantastic. Located on the ground floor of a residential / business area so remote that you’ll wonder whether the taxi really knows the way, the inside is very cosy, modern, and design, with impeccable service. The focus here is on pig-based plates sources from local farms in Cebu (Cebu has quite a reputation for pork) but various dishes including vegetarian are available. The large terrace is a good excuse to start or end your meal with just another cocktail.
Negros Road, Cebu City, Cebu
THE HENRY HOTEL
This arty hotel offers beautiful and spacious rooms with unique paintings on the walls made by a local artist. Located just off a large and noisy street (like many others in Cebu), the quiet pool area is a benediction and a great way to start the day before or after a long flight. The staff is very helpful. And breakfast is served in a bright room with funky furniture and fixtures.
Paseo Saturnino, Cebu City, Cebu
Busuanga is the northernmost island in the Palawan archipelago, and the second largest island in the province after Palawan island itself. A top destination for diving (a dozen Japanese warships lie at depths between 10 and 40 metres off the southern coast, while the northern coast is the gateway for dugong watching), Busuanga has also the charm of other islands in the Philippines and a fantastic base for adventure. (Busuanga is also known as Coron, as the Municipality of Coron covers two-thirds of the island. Not be confused with nearby Coron island though.)
“Welcome to Al Faaaaroooooo!” says the staff with flower necklaces as a welcome at the top of the hill one has to hike to reach the hotel. Far from being cheesy - as it would be pretty much anywhere else - this gesture on the opposite illustrates the genuineness of the staff and the simple vibe to this place. It is reachable by boat only, and this fact strengthens the end of the world feeling.
Small, white-stoned bungalows located around a pool in a flamboyant garden dominating the small bay give to this place a Greek island touch. A few days at Al Faro reading by the pool, kayaking or snorkeling in the bay, drinking cocktails and eating and their simple yet fantastic cuisine is a great way to feel completely disconnected from whatever was on your mind before you heard “Welcome to Al Faaaaroooooo!”.
Malapascua is a very small island in the north of Cebu, mostly known as a dive destination. Several dive spots are located near and around the island, the most famous being Monad Shoal an underwater plateau where thresher sharks and manta rays can regularly be sighted. The island itself has kept some of its charm, apart from the large hotel complex that have appeared recently.
Malapascua is a true backpacker guesthouse, which is locally run and locally priced. It is centrally located (it is a small island) yet secluded and it feels almost like in the middle of nature. It is right in the middle of The Village, and away from all the big resorts, and therefore a great way to experience the local Malapascua. Villa Sandra offers a fantastic chillout space to enjoy the delicious, local and cheap food prepared by the nice local staff in an open kitchen that has nothing to envy to a trendy Parisian restaurant!
Daanbantayan, Malapascua, Cebu
* If you're considering diving in Sogod Bay (and you should) read our blog post on Diving in Sogod Bay *
Sogod Bay is a large bay of the Bohol Sea in Southern Leyte named after Sogod, a municipality located at the head of the bay. It is clearly off the beaten track, mainly because it is quite a journey to go there, but has nothing to envy to other destinations in the Philippines. Visitors will be rewarded for their journey by unspoiled nature, wonderful dive sites, and an opportunity to get a feeling of local life. Tacloban is the capital of Leyte and has an airport linked to other major cities in the Philippines - but it is a long drive to Sogod Bay. Other options to get here are by ferry from Cebu (to reach Maasin or Ormoc on Leyte) then by car or bus. If you are diving in Malapascua before, there is a ferry from Maya to San Isidro, followed by a long drive south to Sogod Bay - a great way to get a first feeling of Southern Leyte.
The bay is home to a variety of animals and fishes, and is one of the landmarks of Filipino history (see Limasawa below). Whale sharks started visiting the bay in the early 2000’s (although it is surely related to the abundance of plankton, corals and marine life, it remains a mystery why it started then) and Sogod Bay became rapidly a diving destination. Even if their time of presence has shrunk in the past few years, the bay remains the best option to see whale sharks in the Philippines (if, like us, you consider that Oslob - where the animals are fed, and snorkeling with them looks like finding a spot for your beach towel on the Riviera in August - is not a real option). Padre Burgos is the town where most diving resorts are, but remains very quiet and local. Panaon island is the real deal for the proximity of top dive sites and the possibility to explore the untouched nature. #sogodsogood
Limasawa is a small island at the mouth of Sogod Bay to the West. It is famous as it is believed to have been the site of the first mass in the Philippines, when Magellan first reached the area in 1521, just a few months before he was killed in Cebu. It is remembered by a large wooden cross on the top of the main hill, which offers a fantastic view on the bay. It is easily reached by banca (Filipino boat) from Padre Burgos and offers unique opportunities to enjoy the pristine and deserted beaches as well as a walk on the inside through the jungle and the small villages. The highlight of Limasawa is its diving: Adrian’s Cove and Zach’s Cove are the two most famous spots (named after the sons of the German diver who uncovered them and still owns a diving resort in the area): wall dives with unmatched visibility and abundant sea life, while having the feeling of being the first to enjoy this underwater beauty.
Panaon island is a small island closing Sogod Bay to the east. It is connected by a bridge to the north to the main Leyte island and is about 30km north to south. Another option to reach the island from Padre Burgos to avoid the drive around the bay is to hire a fisherman’s boat to cross the bay. The only dive resort is located in Pintuyan, a small city in the south, but most dive sites are accessible from Padre Burgos through a longer boat ride. Exploring Panaon island is a wonderful experience to stop in small towns and talk to locals (a motorbike flat tire will help), find the gold miners who still work there in unbelievable conditions, or hike up the main hill to enjoy the view on the bay. The highlight of Panaon is a dive site located in San Francisco named Napantao. The NGO Coral Cay Conservation has set up a base here and does a fantastic job - in an incredible setting - to help keep the Marine Protected Area how it is. The wall here is incredible: so deep and large that it is split into southern and northern sections. The first part of the dive takes place deep along the wall with incredible visibility, before itching back up to the white-tip sharks and ending the long dive at low depths with armadas of colorful fishes and friendly turtles. So good you’ll likely want to go for the same dive a second time!