There’s no place more beautiful than home.
We have been to quite a lot of places in my home country, the Philippines, and there are still a lot to see. It will take a lifetime to visit each of its over 7,000 islands.
Here are our picks of our most-loved places in the Philippines.
1. Bucas Grande Island, Surigao
One of the most private island adventures we have had, and very well worth the recommendation, was our trip to Bucas Grande Island in the south. If you want to be enveloped by nature and experience crystalline lakes, underwater caves, and stingless jellyfishes — and be alone, Bucas Grande is the place for you. We have to warn you though, this is going to be nature-overload.
Bucas Grande Island is known for its crystalline lakes, underwater caves, and stingless jellyfishes. It is the least touristy island I have ever been to, and to get there takes about a two hour van ride to the port from the airport, and then about 30 minutes boat ride to the island. While there are other resorts to stay at in the area, please note that the experiences I will be sharing here are all about our stay on the private island cove.
What to Bring: Swimsuit, Sunblock/sunscreen, food and drinks, binoculars (for birding), camera
Tip: Skip Manila traffic and fly direct to Surigao del Norte. We scored this private island cove via airbnb, with everything prearranged, from airport pick-up to boat transfer (and back). There’s a Gaisano supermarket near the airport to get your supplies but it’s better to buy food at the local market.
So what are the things we did that you might enjoy on the island? Here are a few:
a. Row your own boat and explore the islands. As we were on an island in the middle of nowhere, we were provided with our own boat (at no extra charge). Unlike other island hopping adventures we have had where we had to have a boatman, having our own boat felt freeing and empowering because we were able to paddle wherever and whenever we wanted. We were also provided with snorkeling masks, fins, and life vests, so no need to worry if you don’t know how to swim. With our boat, we were able to get to our other destinations – the jellyfish lake, kayaking lake, and well, just around.
b. Snorkel! One of the best things about island hopping is snorkeling. For people who need a life vest to swim (like myself), snorkeling is our best bet to exploring the marine world. I personally enjoy it as it gives me a different view of the world, seeing and appreciating fishes, corals, and other life forms. Also, it’s sweet to snorkel while holding hands with your mahal (trans. beloved).
c. Kayak and appreciate nature. Like the boat, we were also provided with our own kayak (again, at no extra charge). There is a lake tuck at the back of the island, which is only accessible by foot. From our private cove, it takes about ten minutes to get there (there’s a trail). When you get on your kayak, you would initially think that the lake is small, but you will be pleasantly surprised once you get past the tall boulder somewhere near the center. You’re in for a treat and be prepared to kayak til you drop. Oh, the lake is calm so you would not get the “adrenaline rush” that you would when you go rafting or kayaking in open rivers. What you would get is this great view of the islands hugged by trees, and of the many endemic birds.
To get to the island, fly to Surigao del Norte. Here’s a link to the private island cove just in case you want to treat yourself.
2. Hundred Islands, Pangasinan
From Bucas Grande Island in Samal to the hundreds in Alaminos, Pangasinan, we love the Hundred Islands because of it’s over-a-hundred islands. It’s convenient and easy to get to (if you’re from Manila), very inexpensive, it’s a great snorkeling destination, plus, you can even camp there!
If you are “g na g” (gipit na gipit, trans: on a tight budget) and you would want to get a glimpse of Palawan, Hundred Islands is your best bet. We love snorkeling here! There’s a particular snorkeling area here where you could see ginormous clams which would make you wanna sing The Little Mermaid’s Under the Sea… or if you want, you can “just keep swimming” as you get lost in the beauty of anemones. Note: This place could get heavily touristy, especially in Quezon Island.
One of the most loved nature tourist destinations in the Philippines, it’s a 1,844-hectare national park and protected area consisting of 123 islands. People from the busy Manila (capital city of the Philippines) and provinces nearby get their much-needed nature break here. In a way, it’s almost a preview of the exquisite Coron in Palawan, with the many islands you get to see all at once, only, more accessible and less expensive.
What to Bring: Swimsuit, Sunblock/sunscreen, food and drinks (although there are mini-food shops on some islands), slippers, snorkeling gear and fins (you can rent them!), tent (if staying overnight in one of the islands), binoculars (for birding), camera (for your selfies and jumpshot photos)
Tip: While there are tents for rent at the Tourist center, it is best to bring your own. We spent a night with a rented tent, it rained, and we ended up getting wet inside. Also, take advantage of online deals. We particularly loved the Hundred Island adventure tour of the Phil. Adventure Consultants Inc. We found them on a group buying site, and they’re so cool we stayed in touch with them.
So what are the things you can do and enjoy at the Hundred Islands? Here are our recommendations:
a. Island Hop! (Obviously). The ones that are readily-accessible are Governor’s Island, Children’s Island, Quezon Island, and Marcos Island. If you’re a fan of Pinoy Big Brother, it might interest you to know that a Big Brother house can be found (and be rented) at the Governor’s Island. Children’s Island is called such because the water there is shallow, adults can actually walk. Quezon Island is my least favorite because it could get too crowded. The last time I went on an island hopping tour, we snorkeled away because there’s just too many people. Marcos Island is fun, especially for semi-dare devils who love jumping off cliffs. There is a Bat Island too, ask your boatman to take you there.
b. Swim, Snorkel, and Helmet Dive. The underwater scene in Hundred Islands is surprisingly so beautiful. There’s just so many fishes and marine animals, and there are giant clams that I feel could fit a person. We were brought to this wonderful coral garden by our tour guide, and snorkeling there was just superb! [Note: I did not try Helmet Diving because I have a fear of being underwater for long periods of time.]
c. Explore the Caves. To be honest, I have not really explored a lot of caves here. There’s a small one where the boats dock at the Governor’s Island, and that cave-looking spot at Marcos (which people call Imelda) where you could jump off and swim your way out. I am not sure if it’s technically a cave that we saw at Virgin Island (or just a passageway) but you could check it out yourself. We snorkeled our way there from our camp site at Governor’s, and we saw a snake. Ahhh!
To get to Hundred Islands, take a bus to Alaminos, then a tricycle to Lucap Wharf.
3. Bohol, Central Visayas
There is a grand reason why Bohol has consistently been among the top destinations in the Philippines – nature! The island is a tropical paradise. Its coastline is kissed by white sand beaches; it has the most weirdly awesome hills in the world; it has caves and rivers; its man-made forest feels like a mini Redwoods; its smallest primate, so delicate; and the people, they are so warm and friendly.
If there is only one place in the Philippines I wish you could visit, it would be Bohol. Here’s why:
a. White sand beaches. Even if you are terrible at swimming, the water here is always calming. Considering how popular Bohol is as a tourist destination, its beaches are more quiet and peaceful than most. Here, you can walk comfortably without bumping into other people, or relax under the sun with very grandiose view. One thing you would love to do here is to snorkel as the place is known as a haven for divers and snorkelers. They also have dolphin and whale watching tours.
b. The Chocolate Hills. When people say Bohol, Chocolate Hills will always, always be the first nature destination that one would think of. Why? Because Filipinos have been seeing and reading about these hills since grade school. To get to the Chocolate Hills, you will pass by a man-made forest. We were told that the deep-rooted beliefs of the locals on spirits help keep the nature there pristine. Birding here is apparently great too, according to our guide. Oh, and there is a romantic story about how the Chocolate Hills were formed. The hills were apparently tears from a giant who fell in love with a mortal and whose heart got broken. I assure you, you, too, will fall in love with Bohol… but your heart will not get broken.
c. The River Cruise. If you have a few hours to spend, do not miss the river cruise. It is a feast for the tummy (with the sumptuous local food buffet), for the eyes (trees and greens everywhere, yay!), for the ears (imagine being serenaded on the floating restaurant), and the senses (dancing time with different choirs stationed along the different parts of the river).
d. The Tarsier. If you are as curious as I was to know how I looked like as a baby, check Bohol for the tarsiers. I finally found out about how cute I was when I went to Bohol so maybe you would want that too. Tarsiers are known to be the world’s smallest primates, and probably the most sleepy (if you get there during the day). Apparently, at night, they would go far into the forest to look for food.
e. The People. One of the things I would most remember about my trip to Bohol’s the lady guide we had. She kept laughing that at times, I could no longer understand what she was saying (haha!). What I am trying to say is that almost everywhere we went there, we were greeted with the warmest smiles possible, and that kind of welcome is the best of all. I am positive you would want to experience that as well.
To get to Bohol, fly to Tagbilaran via Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airline (from Manila). * Once in Bohol, you could easily travel by bus, private cars, taxi and rental cars.
4. Calaguas Island, Camarines Norte
Another island’s on our list, this time it’s Calaguas in Daet, Camarines Norte. We hope this still rings true to date — the best thing about Calaguas is its rawness. We went there in 2014, and except for a resort that was being built there, the island was so innocent. At that time, you have to tent camp and share restrooms with other campers. Aside from its powdery-sand beaches, and picture-perfect vistas, what we loved are the people on the back side of the island — where the locals are (which probably has now been converted to a port, as they had told us when we were there).
The boat ride to the island is a treat itself — be prepared to get wet as the waves could get strong in some parts of the sea. If I remember it right, it took over an hour for us to get to the island, so make sure you get the best seat on the boat (and with that, I mean your butt firmly planted on a leveled surface). We love everything about the island, but here are our top three:
a. The Beach. The island is popular for its seemingly untouched powdery sand beach and extremely clear waters. I did not really see a lot of jaw-dropping corals and fishes like in the other islands of the Philippines (at least in that area, I guess), but what I could remember and love most about it is the trek up its many hills to do a bit of bird watching and nature-appreciation.
b. The Hills. There’s also a hill you could climb for a fee (I don’t know why there’s a fee, it’s fifty pesos each) which would give you access to the best view of the island (beach part). We met a local girl as we climbed, and she told us there’s a better view near their house. We trusted our instinct and followed her, and she took us to this spot that could win any man a woman’s heart if he happens to propose there (haha).
c. The Locals. We also explored the backside of the island where we were able to mingle with the locals. There’s a school, there were lots of houses, and lots of people to talk with. They were really nice, they let us use their comfort room for free too (there were a lot of people when we went to Calaguas, hence the long queue to use the make-shift bath/comfort rooms).
The downside about an island like Calaguas becoming popular is that money tends to be more valued than the community and the environment. When we were there, there’s a resort being put up. The folks in the community who we shared conversations with also told us of a port being constructed on their side of the island which would serve as a dock, drop-off point for tourists. While it could be exciting to see infrastructure being built, in the long run, the island would get eaten alive by resorts, eventually be filled with trash and its waters contaminated (like another popular island in the country, which is sad). I wish they would reconsider and realize that nature will always, and always will be over and above any man-made structure on earth.
If you’re the type who wants to relax and stargaze at night, you will love Calaguas. Be aware that there could be some loud music (as there was when we were there — probably because it was peak season and some people wanted to party). Good thing was we were stationed on the far right side of the island, cause we did not really want that. We just want nature and the serenity that it brings.
Side Note: We were four when we went there — my husband’s colleague arranged for us to get on this boat with students who would be doing a clean-up on the beach that day, so we got a really sweet deal (yeah, we are thrifty nature-lover hippie backpackers! woohoo!). I think we only spent a little over a thousand pesos each on that trip, including tent and meals.
5. Puerto Princesa, Palawan
I love island hopping and the Honda Bay tour in Puerto Princesa gives such an adventure. I have been on this tour before but even so, the experience still was great (and also different). If you are checked in at a resort, your tour guide will take you over to a mini-store where you could rent snorkeling gears, flippers, camera cases for underwater shots, as well as bread for fish-feeding before heading to the terminal where the Honda Bay boats are. If you are a back-packer/couch-surfer, you could definitely just head over to the area. You will have to list your name for the tour, for safety reasons.
So what is it about Puerto Princesa? Here are top five reasons:
a. Fresh Coconuts at Cowrie Island. Nothing beats the thrill of discovering islands and seeing how one is different from another. I am not sure if Cowrie Island’s the default first stop, but that was our group’s first and also where we had lunch. We were given two hours to do as we wish which I spent “trying” to swim and snorkel (so frustrating when you’re afraid to swim but want to see corals). I really must conquer my fear of the underwater. In the super short time, I was able to snorkel. I saw a couple of angel fishes swimming over some white corals. After my failed attempt to swim, I spent the remaining hours walking around the island, saw some ruins, and then had a refreshing coconut drink at the lone bar on the island. Pretty sure, you could do better. Oh, and you could also rent banana boats there.
b. Starfishes at the Starfish Island. Get ready to see a lot of, well, starfishes on Starfish Island. You have to walk almost to the edge of the island if you want to see so many of them. The second time I went there, the tide was low, so I was able to get to the edge of the island where it definitely felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. You also shouldn’t miss the photo opportunity sites near the cottages where you could dress in straw Hawaiian costumes (like my friend, Alron, in the photo) or do jump shots on a broomstick like witches in heat.
c. Get lost in Luli Island. Luli is short for “Lulubog Lilitaw” — more of a “now you see it, now you don’t” island. If you want to see crablets popping in and out of the land, there’s plenty on this island. I believe that it’s not always part of the island-hopping tour since the island is a “luli” so in a way, you’re lucky if you get to see it. After getting to Luli, you will really be glad for the simple reason that who else could say that they had the chance to spend a few hours on an island that totally disappears when the tide is high.
d. Kissing Crocodiles at the Crocodile Farm. If you’re brave enough to kiss one, that is. Be prepared to see a lot of crocodiles in Puerto Princesa’s Crocodile Farm. There’s an area where baby crocodiles are hatched, and an area where giant crocodiles are waiting for tourists to fall into their cages (mouhahaha!). Of course, you need to hold on to the railings, otherwise, you really could be their dinner. You could also touch, kiss, and have a photo with a crocodile taken for a fee. I did it and now I feel guilty about it. Crocodiles should not be forced to take photos with me if they did not want to.
e. The People. The people of Puerto Princesa are so friendly and accommodating. In fact, no less than Mayor Hagedorn welcomed us the first time I was there. There was a presentation on how nature is at its best, and is well-protected, at Puerto Princesa. We were treated to a cultural show by the Mayor. I remember feeling safe to walk around the area too. You could easily get on public transportation and work your way around the crowd.
Aside from these, the Underground River (PPUR) tour is another must on the island (I have never been, but Larry has). For thrill-seekers, there’s a zipline adventure right after you go through the Ugong Cave (it’s a stop after you’ve been to PPUR). There’s the Ihawig Prison Tour, the chance to watch fireflies at night, and again, of course, mingling with the beautiful locals.
Bonus: Davao City, Bukidnon, and Ilocos Region
Davao City. Whether you are in a dire desire to see fresh pearls, or you just want to spend a quiet time in nature with your loved one, Davao is the perfect spot. Samal Island is the place to go to when you are looking for a beach adventure, accessible via ferry service or shuttle boats (there’s a docking area at the Waterfront Insular Hotel) for a very minimal amount. On the island is an array of beaches you can choose from, depending on the type of adventure you would want to experience. We particularly love the quaint resort, Chema’s by the Sea , for its privacy and it’s rustic appeal. Davao also is home to the vast Eden Nature Park, (if you are an adrenalin junkie, try skycycle!), the Malagos Garden Resort, and the Eagle Conservation Center.
Bukidnon. From snorkeling and island adventures, our next favorite is situated at an elevation of the Mt. Kitanglad Range in Bukidnon. If you are interested in agro-eco-forestry, you should check out the Mt. Kitanglad Agri-Ecological Techno-Demo Center in Barangay Imbayao just outside Malaybalay City, and the Binahon Farm in Lantapan. Nature-lovers troop to these places to experience and learn about organic farming, indigenous trees, birds, and sustainable living. Both nature centers also has rooms for people who are doing more than just a day trip — which is most likely the amount of time you would be needing to absorb all the beauty (and learning) these places have to offer.
Ilocos Region. If you want a pack-filled weekend of nature adventure, our next favorite destination might be what you exactly need. This is mainly for the activities we love in Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte – posing for “vintage-style” photos in Vigan; the Paoay Sand Dunes Adventures; going eco-conscious because of the windmills in Bangui; swimming in Pagudpod beach; admiring the Kapurpurawan and Pangil rock formation; exploring Bantay Abot Cave and Timmangtang Rock; and going for a really cold dip at the Kabigan Falls. While you’re there, don’t forget to also check the Marcos Mausoleum and the Paoay Church.
Have you been to the Philippines? Share your comments below!