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Philippines: Insider’s Guide

by | February 22, 2016
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Things to Do and See

Most overrated place
Two decades ago, when intrepid backpackers discovered it, Boracay Island was a pristine haven of powder-fine white sand. It now resembles touristy Cancun, Phuket, or Ibiza, with a profusion of resorts lined end-to-end on the world-famous White Beach.

Most underrated place
Palawan: Considered the last bastion of paradise in Asia, this chain of islands in the Coral Triangle still has primary forests and mangroves with unique wildlife and deserted white-sand beaches. Part of the province is now a marine bioreserve.

Hidden gem

Batanes Island Philippines

Batanes Island is one of the Philippines’ hidden gems. Photo: Fundacion Pacita Batanes

Batanes Island lies in the northernmost tip of the Philippine archipelago, quite remote and removed from the rest of the country; locals claim that you can even hear music that’s traveled all the way from Taiwan to here! With a population of fewer than 9,000, the island feels lost in time, remaining culturally intact and authentic since the first Spanish conquistadors landed in the 16th century.

Siargao is another gem located in the northwest tip of the Mindanao island group. It’s also not easily accessible, with only one commercial daily flight via Cebu, which is exactly what has helped preserve its pristine state—unlike overdeveloped neighbors Cebu and Bohol. Siargao is world-famous for its Cloud 9 surfing break and also has powder-fine, white-sand beaches.

Cheap thrill
It is a welcome surprise to come across playful dolphins, whale sharks, and manta rays when crossing islands by local outrigger fishing boats. In areas where the seas are crystal clear, you can see hundreds of feet down to the coral depths, with their colorful marine life. Taking a local outrigger boat—which costs practically nothing—you will also come across many deserted islands where you can hop off for an impromptu beach picnic.

Kayaking El Nido Palawan Philippines CR Global Nomad

Kayaking El Nido, Palawan. Photo: Global Nomad

How to spend a lazy Sunday
In bustling cities, people opt to sleep in and meet for brunch in private homes; Filipino families are matriarchal and close-knit, but they do readily open their homes to invited guests. In smaller towns, church bells peal at early hours (this being the only Catholic country in Asia), and you may wake up with neighborhood roosters crowing. The pace of this day tends to be slower and more relaxed, whether winding down from a weekend spree or in preparation for the coming weeklong hustle.

Paoay Church, Ilocos Norte Philippines

Paoay Church, Ilocos Norte. Photo: Global Nomad

Where to Stay and What to Eat

Best-value splurge hotel
The Peninsula Manila, in the heart of the Makati financial district, has the same high-touch service you expect from this hotel group, but at much lower rates than many of their other properties: Superior Rooms here start at less than $175 a night. The grand lobby is a classic spot for well-to-do Filipinos to see and be seen. Request a room facing the residential neighborhood behind the hotel, rather than the noisy main avenue in front.

Dish to try
Roasted suckling pig on a spit, or lechon. Anthony Bourdain swore that this was the best damn pig he had ever tasted. It’s served at every special celebration, from birthdays to graduations to weddings. Cebu’s version, cochinillo, is particularly famous, stuffed with lemongrass and so tender that you can slice it with a plate. Your guide can help you order lechon a day in advance from a restaurant, or you can stop for a taste at one of the many roadside lechonerias.

The ubiquitous halo halo, which literally means mix-mix, is a perfect treat in tropical weather, and quite colorful to boot: Sweetened beans, tapioca pearls, ube (purple yam) ice cream, langka (jackfruit), and other colorful tropical fruits are spooned over mounds of shaved ice, then topped with condensed milk, toasted rice, and sometimes caramel custard.

beach dinner at Amanpulo resort Philippines

Your own private beach dinner in the Philippines. Photo: Global Nomad

Meal worth the splurge 
Antonio’s, in the cooler foothills of Tagaytay (an hour’s drive outside Manila), is one of the top restaurants in Asia. The chef/owner bought an old hacienda and has decorated it with rustic colonial furniture and photos of his grandparents; he also purchased several of the surrounding organic farms, which now produce many of his ingredients. It’s a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

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Best Time to Go

The Philippine islands are near the equator and thus have only two seasons: wet and dry. From mid-December to early February, the weather is dry, and the temperatures are not yet too hot—making it ideal for island hopping.

Worst Time to Go

Monsoon season—June through September—means lots of rain and occasional typhoons; Mother Nature’s full force can lead to delays and inconveniences for flights and boats.

Can't-Miss Photo Op

The turquoise waters of the Big Lagoon in El Nido, a protected area on the island of Palawan. Many people arrive here in local outrigger boats from the nearby town of El Nido to spend the day, but they all have to leave well before dark. If you overnight instead at the Miniloc Island resort, just behind the lagoon, you can stay to enjoy the sunset—often all by yourself.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Assuming, based on glossy brochures, that the island of Cebu is pristine and lined with white-sand beachfront resorts. Cebu is the country’s second-largest city by population, after the densely packed capital of Manila.You’re better off heading out to a more pristine and less commercially developed island.

Airport Intel

Without the Fast Track VIP airport service, you can get stuck for hours in immigration; with the service, an airport concierge whisks you through a special immigration line, assists with luggage, and helps you navigate to your waiting vehicle.

Tipping Tip

In major restaurants and hotels, a built-in 10% service charge is pooled among the staff, so you needn’t tip. In smaller establishments, it’s best to leave a couple hundred pesos ($2–$5), depending on the bill.

Scam to Avoid

Gypsy cabs at the airports that claim their meter is not working. Take only metered yellow cabs, or splurge a little to hire a car from your hotel ahead of time and avoid long rush-hour or rainy-day queues.

The Souvenir

Philippine South Sea pearls: naturally cultured in pollution-free waters at Palawan pearl farms, prized by jewelers. The Muslim pearl dealers at the Virra Mall, in the Greenhills district of Manila, offer the best bargains.

A bespoke Barong Tagalog—the Philippines national dress shirt for men. It is the ideal tropical wear, lightweight and breathable yet formal enough for a wedding. Silk Cocoon, in Manila’s Makati financial district, offers a well curated selection; some of their limited-edition pieces are designed and hand-painted by famous national artists.

For unique gifts sourced from different ethnic tribes all over the country, go to Silahis Arts & Artifacts, inside the 15th-century walled city of Intramuros, the historic core of Manila.

Must-have App

Uber can be a lifesaver in perpetually gridlocked Manila, especially at rush hour or during a sudden downpour.

Don't Forget to Pack

Whatever you bring, try to fit it into a suitcase weighing no more then 22 pounds, which is the weight limit for many of the island-hopper flights. If necessary, you can leave the rest of your luggage at your hotel in Manila. Be advised that the local culture is generally conservative, so thongs and skimpier attire are best left at home.

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