Exploring The Philippines' Most Well-Kept Secret

Exploring The Philippines' Most Well-Kept Secret
Miniloc Islands is known for its turquoise lagoons, Photo Credit: Getty Images

There's everything you need from that perfect beach destination in the Philippines, minus the exorbitant prices. The ever-smiling people are a pleasant bonus

Shabnam Minwalla
January 01 , 2019
13 Min Read

Metro Manila is best imagined from the air. Distance, sunlight and anticipation impart dazzle to the city below. Red and green roofs glitter—like a maharaja’s prized jewels—against a satin sea. Tongues of land dart into shimmering water. Twists of blue weave through gardens and streets. 

It feels as if we’re descending into a fantastical, watery world. Which is not far off the mark. The Philippines is a country of more than 7,107 islands scattered in the Pacific Ocean. An embarrassment of palm-fringed beaches and sea-view properties. An aquaphobe’s nightmare, where the whisper of water and the weight of briny air are ever-present.

As soon as we land in Metro Manila, we’re whisked onto a domestic flight. The toy plane flies low above islands shaped like amoebas, each dolloped with cumulus clouds. The in-flight magazine has an article on ‘Where to Find the Best Beaches’—and one gets the sense they didn’t have to look very hard.

We land in El Nido, where a solicitous attendant thrusts bright-purple umbrellas into our hands for the short, sunny walk to the airport. Four aunties with bright cotton skirts and brighter smiles burst into a song of welcome. It’s the first of many musical welcomes and farewells in this land of smiles, songs and shopping malls.

El Nido, with its dense mangroves and turquoise sea, feels utterly removed from everyday life. But when we climb into a bangka—the local canoe with wooden tentacles that make it resemble a water strider—we realise that we’re retreating further into the blueness.

As we chug past limestone islands, we grasp the reality of life on an archipelago. Even a short trip is a jigsaw puzzle of flights, drives and boat rides. Every home is open to wind and water, vulnerable to impatient typhoons—the Philippines is lashed by around 10 every year—and greedy colonial powers.

For over 400 years, it was a colony of the Spanish, the British, the Americans and the Japanese. The Spanish arrived in 1521, before the scattered islands managed to forge either unity or a durable culture. When the American withdrew in 1946, they left behind a land of McDonalds, strip malls and Taglish (Tagalog plus English equals bisquit, interbyu and kukis).

We arrive at Miniloc, an island at the very edge of the Filipino cluster. It is a small patch of limestone, looking out at the vast expanse of the South China Sea. Here it seems we could be swept away on a whim of sea or man.

Coconut water and a merry welcome song speedily dispel these fears. Our rooms at the Miniloc Island resort just over a bay so clear that it’s possible to see inquisitive little Nemos and spiky sea urchins amid the coral.

In the morning we wake up to a flat, silver sea, clouds and an army of waiting bangkas—like watchful insects. And to a fabulous breakfast spread that includes chicken adobo and garlic fried rice.

The resort encourages its guests to visit the breathtaking beaches, eerie island caves and magical lagoons in this part of Palawan. We lunch on fried seafood, banana bread and juicy pineapple under a thatched roof on a secluded beach. We gaze with awe into the Cathedral Cave—hewn by air and water to look like the interior of a grand church. We kayak into an enchanting lagoon, ringed by stern, jagged rocks and embroidered with ferns and wild orchids. I’m convinced we’ve stumbled upon Mermaid Lagoon in Neverland and that Peter Pan will fly past with a cheeky grin.

We spend that evening with Mark Guerrero, the resort manager. “The Philippines is among the cheapest countries in Asia,” he says, listing the Hollywood big shots and the big fat Indian wedding that the resort has hosted. “You can get a good meal for $5. There’s no language barrier because everybody speaks English. And the people are friendly and happy.”

That Filipinos are a happy bunch comes up again and again during our trip. Their favourite fast-food chain is called Jollibee—to reflect their jolly temperament. Hoardings advertise Hapee toothpaste and Happy Cookware. Everything is greeted with a shrug and “bahala na” (whatever happens, happens).

Mayon volcano adds great drama to the landscape

This approach is endearing in tiny Miniloc, but incredible in Legazpi. The town—full of pop-art jeepneys and scuttling tricycles, where traffic jams are caused by a drowsy duo painting zebra crossings at rush hour—crouches next to the Mayon volcano. Here fire is as much a reality as water.

Mayon is one of approximately 25 active volcanoes in the Philippines. She erupts every few years. Her last display went on for two months. In 2006, her fury caused widespread damage and around 1,000 deaths. Still, Mayon remains a beloved figure on the horizon—the inspiration behind fire dances and chilli ice cream, lava cakes and lava pizzas. “She’s a very sexy lady,” says Maria Ravanilla, former director of tourism, who is working on a partnership with Mount Fuji—which she describes as plump and distinctly male. “According to our myths, Mayon is a beautiful princess mourning her dead lover.”

To our disappointment, Mayon remains veiled in clouds and refuses a single glimpse of smoke and spunk. (Unlike the fireflies of Ogod river.)

On a moonless, rainy night, we drive past sleepy roads and shops—Chooks to Go, Elvie’s Store, Tin Tin Sweets. Then we sit in a bangka which glides through hushed, inky mangroves.

The boat stops at a bend in the river. “Tun tun balagun,” the boatman whispers and there, around a single tree, are hundreds of twinkling fireflies. “Clap, clap, clap,” the boatman instructs. So we clap, clap, clap in unison. The tun tun balaguns blaze. The patch of darkness lights up like a Christmas tree. At that moment, it’s easy to believe in magic.

On our last day in Legazpi, we eat lunch on a boat drifting on the serene Sumlang Lake in the shadow of Mayon. We drive through leafy lanes with names like Dona Aurora and admire the traditional bahay na bato houses, made of stone, wood and exquisite oyster-shell windows.

Our Lady of the Gate church has intricately carved details

We visit the remains of the Cagsawa church that was burnt by Dutch pirates. We also visit Our Lady of the Gate, a substantial Mexican-Gothic church atop a hill. But history and tradition is an evanescent business in the Philippines. Too many stories and relics have been destroyed by fire, water and foreign conquerors. Too many monuments rebuilt.

Metro Manila is our last stop. We arrive on a rainy afternoon and stare outside our car window— so different from the view from the sky. The city seems a mix of other places—a shanty town similar to Mumbai, a new development like Beijing, vast stretches of the American Midwest boasting McDonalds, KFCs, Dunkin’ Donuts and Jollibees.

Metro Manila is made up of 16 cities. Our hotel is in Manila city, and we immediately perk up when we visit Intramuros. The Spanish walled city was destroyed during WWII and the St Agustin Church was the only survivor.

The St Augustin Church in the walled city

Even so, the careful reconstruction recalls an earlier age. As do the net-and-satin weddings at St Agustin and the Manila Cathedral. Although that Sunday afternoon the rain falls on the happy couples, giggling flower girls and stout matrons, nobody seems dismayed. “They must have forgotten to offer a tray of eggs to St Clare,” shrugs Boyet Sayo, the Philippines Department of Tourism official who has accompanied us during our trip. “Maybe that’s why it’s raining.”

On weekends, Filipinos go malling. So do we.

We buy pearls and brand knock-offs at Greenhills. And then gloat over our bargains when we visit SM Mall of Asia, one of the 10 biggest in the world.

On our last day we visit Tagaytay, a hill station where we experience a soothing hilot massage at Nurture Wellness Village. On our way back the van stops at a lookout point for Taal Lake. “The lake is a dormant volcano,” explains our guide Pau Lagahit. “In the middle of the lake is the crater of the Taal volcano, which is an active volcano that erupts every 10 years. That crater too is filled with water. If you take a boat to the island, then hike to the crater, you can feel that the water is hot. We describe this as a volcano within a lake within a volcano within a lake.”

As we drive away from that spellbinding sight, the words ring in my head. They seem to describe not just the volcano but this entire land of fire, water and carefree smiles.

Adventure for the unadventurous

A diver in El Nido

I experience the first twinge of unease when the itinerary arrives. I’m not exactly a rappelling, rock climbing, bungee-jumping type of person. Well, I don’t even own a functional swimsuit. So I panic.

I don’t want to kayak and snorkel (day 2), ride an ATV to a lava wall, or zipline or swim with whale sharks (day 4 and 5). I’ve never done any of this—and as a middle-aged mum of three, I don’t intend to start now. Even so, my family forces me to purchase a swimsuit. Good decision.

I attempt to sit out kayaking on our first morning on Miniloc Island till our guide Meko points to a little hole in a wall of rocks. Evidently, kayaking is the only way I can enter the lagoon. “You can’t leave Miniloc without seeing the lagoon,” he insists.

So with a thumping heart, I step from large bangka into wobbly kayak. My kayak-mate Khurshid is good at paddling. And we actually reach the hole, squeeze our way through it, and enter the small lagoon. It is a place of incredible, hushed beauty—and I admit it was worth the effort.

Even so, when the bangka anchors in the middle of nowhere, I refuse to put on my snorkelling gear. “I can’t swim,” I protest. “As long as you are wearing your life jacket you cannot sink,” Meko grins. “You can’t leave Miniloc without seeing the corals.”

I’m reluctant to make a fool of myself, but there’s nobody around to notice anyway. Here, only the parrotfish will know. So I lower myself into the water, bob about and attempt a bit of snorkelling—enough to spot castles of coral and a few six-bar sergeant major fish. And apart from a jellyfish sting— that subsides with a dab of vinegar—I’m none the worse for wear.

As I’m wet anyway, I crawl into the depths of eerie Cudugnon Cave—where the bones of Japanese soldiers were once found. Then I agree to paddle around Snake Island. Our Filipino guides are encouraging, and the water is neither hot nor cold—but like Baby Bear’s porridge, it is just right.

Two days later, in Legazpi, it is swimsuit time again. I grumble—I’ve had enough adventure for a decade. Even so, I find myself sitting on the side of a bangka, wearing flippers and clutching snorkelling gear.

I’m not going to jump into the choppy grey sea. I’m not going to put the snorkel mouthpiece in my mouth— who knows who used it before me. But then suddenly Jerry, our Whale shark Interaction Officer, yells “Jump, jump. Don’t be afraid. Jump.”

And to my complete astonishment, I actually jump. “Look down, look down,” Jerry yells. To my even greater amazement, I shove the dubious snorkelling thingummy in my mouth and look down. I’m a couple of feet away from a baby whale shark that flips and leaps and seems to smile—and suddenly I’m in heaven.

Ten minutes later, back in the bangka, I’m an official convert. I’m willing to give adventure a shot—at least in easy, affordable Philippines.

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

  • Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air Asia fly to Manila from several Indian cities. A round trip from Mumbai starts at around `30,000. Philippines Airlines is expected to start direct flights connecting Mumbai and Delhi to Manila.
  • Within cities, jeepneys are the most exciting way to travel. Between cities, flying is the most practical option.

VISA

  • If you have a valid US, Canada, UK, Singapore, Japan, Australia or Schengen visa, you do not need a visa for the Philippines. It takes 10 working days for the visa to be processed. A single-entry visa, valid for 15 days, costs `4,500.

WHERE TO STAY

EL NIDO

El Nido Resorts’ Eco-Discovery island resort, Miniloc (from `32,000 doubles; elnidoresorts.com) allows you to experience life on a tropical paradise—with meals, snorkelling and island adventures as part of the package.

Qi Palawan (from `11,000 doubles; qipalawan.com) is about an hour from El Nido and offers activities like kiteboarding.

LEGAZPI

The Oriental Legazpi (from `4,200 doubles; theorientalhotels. com) has great views of the Mayon volcano but unimpressive rooms.

Lola Sayong Eco-Surfcamp (from `1,000; lolasayong.org) has you stay in traditional huts

MANILA

The Manila Hotel (from approx. `7,000 doubles; manila-hotel.com.ph) offers a wonderful location, cosy rooms and a slice of history.

The Bayleaf Intramuros (from approx `4,000 doubles; thebayleaf. com.ph) is a quiet, friendly boutique hotel in Intramuros


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