From the mega mall madness of Manila to the blissful beaches of Boracay, the Philippines boasts stunning scenery that’s almost as diverse as its history. Words Kaye Holland
Whether you want to get down and dirty in the big cities, get back to nature in the mountains, or get that tan topped up on the beach, the Philippines offers more for less. The second-largest archipelago in the world, with 7,101 islands, it’s a tropical paradise – and something of a cultural amalgam, having been ruled first by the Spanish for 300 years and then by the US for half a century. And being on the far side of the South China Sea, it is often overlooked by other travellers, meaning it’s easier to get that ‘off the beaten track’ feeling that’s nearly impossible to achieve in many South East Asian countries…
Chances are your introduction to the Philippines will be the chaotic capital of Manila, a heady mix of the exotic and the familiar. The teeming metropolis – the most devastated city of World War II after Warsaw – is a fascinating contrast of the historic and the modern. Streets bursting with the sound of rickety tuk-tuks, and the aroma from stalls selling traditional food that’s even hotter than the weather, are in sharp contrast to the unexpected shrines to commercialism – it’s not just in Dubai that the shopping mall is king. Manila has plenty of super-sized shop zones to choose from, but for the ultimate, visit SM Megamall (Epifano De Los Santos Avenue, 02 633 5043); an air-conditioned celebration of consumerism.
Explore the city’s main districts ever so slightly, and a host of sites, parks and museums will unravel before you. Check out the colonial architecture of the walled Intramuros – the political and religious centre during the Spanish era. World War II may have destroyed much of the grandeur, but it’s still a fascinating place and a must for any visitor. Ermita is the place to go for some light-hearted fun and entertainment. But for a walk on the slightly darker side, head to the nearby Chinese Cemetery, where Manila’s wealthiest are laid to rest in extravagant ‘houses for the dead’ – complete with marble bathrooms, fitted kitchens and crystal chandeliers . One of the best things you can do while in Manila is take a tour with Carlos Celdran (0926 259 7506, http://www.celdrantours.blogspot.com). A flamboyant performance artist, Carlos is a guide with attitude, and his street tours are idiosyncratic one-man plays. Donning a top hat similar to a latter-day Spanish aristocrat, he adopts a variety of voices to deliver his offbeat, funny and sometimes controversial interpretations of local history.
Gutsy visitors should jump on a jeepney. These pimped-up jeeps have been modified with an array of lights, mirrors and assorted bling, and their destinations are displayed in the front of the windscreen. Admittedly they aren’t the quickest way to get around (every hour is rush hour in Manila, as the saying goes). For speedy commutes, the elevated railway is a far more efficient way to see the city. But jeepneys do offer a unique glimpse into Manila life. Both the commuters you’ll meet and the sights you’ll see on the way will be etched into your memory.
In the evening watch the sunset over Manila Bay – arguably the city’s greatest free spectacle – from the beautified promenade. Then bounce between the bars and clubs of Malate; Café Havana (521 8097) on Adriatico Street is a popular place to quaff cocktails while soaking up a salsa soundtrack.
There is no shortage of hotels in Manila. Service at the Edsa Shangri La (633 8888,http://www.shangri-la.com) is excellent, and rooms have real style, plus the hotel is conveniently located next to two major shopping plazas. Alternatively check out the Hyatt Hotel & Casino Manila (245 1234, http://www.manila.casino.hyatt.com) – rooms here are as opulent as anything you could hope for.
When the neon lights, noise and frenetic activity of the streets and stinging exhaust fumes get too much – and they will – take a trip to Taal, just an hour’s drive from Manila. Go early and enjoy a delectable breakfast on the terrace of the Taal Vista (886 4325, http://www.taalvistahotel.com). The hotel provides breathtaking views of one the smallest but deadliest volcanoes in the world, also called Taal, which last erupted back in 1977, leaving behind a spectacular lake. From Taal, meander to nearby Tagaytay – popular with Manila’s high society. Tagaytay is everything the capital is not; cool, clean and relaxing. Spend the afternoon walking along the ridge, watching the mist tickle the volcanoes multiple craters.
And if returning to the vibrant, pulsating capital doesn’t interest you, head north to Banaue – an eight-hour overnight bus ride away (tip: take a blanket to combat the arctic air conditioning). Banaue is famed for its World Heritage-listed mud-walled rice terraces. As yet, fab hotels are few and far between, but for an uber-rustic experience, check into Greenview Lodge (386 4021). Don’t expect luxuries like hot water and you won’t be disappointed. Rise early the next morning and make your way to the nearby village of Batad which boasts amphitheatre-like rice terraces widely considered the world’s most striking. The main draw of Batad is its hiking opportunities – but note that hiking here is certainly no walk in the park. Despite what your guide book may claim, it’s a steep, two-hour descent, and once you’ve reached the bottom there’s no chance to bail out; it’s another couple of hours climb back up to the top. Persevere, however, and you will be rewarded with stunning views.
Cebu is the country’s oldest city. It’s perfectly pleasant and has some fantastic places to stay, but the jewel in the crown has to be Shangri La’s Mactan Island Resort & Spa (231 0288, www.shangri-la.com/cebu/mactanisland). Make the effort to venture outside your luxury resort and experience sights such as Santo Nino church; the eloquence of the early days of the building is reflected in the surviving façade and altars covered with carvings and statues, painted ceilings and colonnaded tiers. Other landmarks include Magellan’s Cross, Colon Street – named after Cristobal Colon (that’s Christopher Columbus to you and me) – and the colourful Carbon market. But don’t linger too long in Manila Minor (as Cebu is often referred to). Instead, view it as the gateway to the island of Boracay, for no visit to the Philippines is complete without spending some time here.
The pristine beaches and balmy waters provide a welcome escape for weary travellers. Yes, grass-roofed, fixed umbrellas are everywhere. And yes, hawkers do patrol the beach looking to sell their crafts. But it’s still possible to secure a stretch of sand for yourself, settle back and enjoy the unhurried pace of life. Some whinge that Boracay has become commercialised – that the island has too many resorts, eateries and bars (there’s even a shopping mall). Yet, while there are signs that the island is going upmarket (a Shangri La is scheduled to open later this year), for now at least, Boracay still lags way behind any of its Thai equivalents, as far as rampant development goes.
At night, the island comes alive. Filipinos certainly know how to party. Head for the landmark beachfront bar of Hey! Jude or Bom Bom Bar – a sizzling hot sundowner spot. Under the setting sun and the blare of pop hits, you can enjoy timeless and unpretentious Filipino fun that modernity can’t surpass. When it comes to accommodation, plenty of traditional, delightful wooden resorts dot Boracay’s landscape, but we recommend the Balinese-style bamboo cottages at Nigi Nigi Nu Noos Beach Resort (288 3101, http://www.niginigi.com). Or for style on a shoestring try Villa Camilla (288 3354, http://www.villacamilla.com) – where JingJing and colleagues will welcome you like family.
Wherever you go in the Philippines, a warm welcome can be assured. Even off the beaten track, out of the tourist areas, Filipinos will go out of their way to help, and you’ll leave having amassed a book’s worth of tug-at-your-heartstrings experiences. Filipinos have rightly earnt a reputation for being among the happiest people in the world, despite the poverty and hardships they endure on a daily basis. They don’t ask for more from life than it can give, and as such smiling faces are evident everywhere; from the taxi driver who starts crooning his favourite tune to help pass the time while going absolutely nowhere in the traffic, to the teenagers playing an impromptu basketball match on the rubble. And now is the time to go before over-development and mass tourism hits, but keep in mind that one trip will never be enough to soak up its complicated history, heritage, culture and sunshine.•