HAVING recently visited nearby Malaysia, I thought I had a fair idea of what to expect from the Philippines. A bustling Asian melting pot where a hotchpotch of cultures, religions and cuisines collide in the middle of the Indian ocean, right?
But stepping off the plane at our first stop – Mactan Island in Cebu – felt more like landing in the Caribbean. As we made our way through the arrivals lounge after a 14-hour trawl via Hong Kong, our hosts rushed forward with jasmine flower necklaces and loud exclamations of “Mabuhay” – Tagalog for welcome, and the one Filipino word I hear more than any other during my week in the country.
Cebu – the first place Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines – is the perfect place to start a holiday, steeped as it is in so much of the islands’ tumultuous history.
Though Magellan was swiftly killed after converting the island’s ruler to Christianity, his voyage set in motion the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines that lasted more than 300 years and left an indelible stamp on Filipino culture – undoubtedly what makes it feel so different from the rest of Asia. From the traditional guitar-making shops on every street corner in Cebu to the habit of serenading passers by in as many public places as possible, the entire country is imbued with the spirit of its conquerors.
Our hotel – the Shangri-La Mactan – is one of the group’s five resorts in the country, and sits on a narrowing peninsula towards the north east of the island. My sea view room, fitted out in shades of dark bamboo and wicker, looked over the hotel’s gardens towards a breezy, calm sea and across to Olango Island, a popular site for scuba diving.
Though days could easily be whiled away doing nothing more than soaking up the sun or indulging in the local Hilot massage (dispensed at the hotel spa) the area has so much to offer you’d be foolish not to venture further afield.
So while dragging yourself out of bed in the early hours of the morning on holiday may seem unappealing, take my word that a day trip to nearby Bohol Island more than makes up for the 5am wake-up call. Just a two-hour ferry ride from Cebu, Bohol is the island that really does seem to have it all, from world-class diving sites and whale watching to rural towns steeped in tradition and the stunning geographical phenomenon of the Chocolate Hills – 1,776 naturally occurring limestone domes that stretch across Bohol’s highlands like thousands of giant molehills.
But it’s the tarsiers that most visitors to Bohol really come to see. These tiny, bush baby-like primates are native to this part of South East Asia, and Bohol has a sanctuary dedicated to their preservation. Come anytime and you’ll have a good chance of seeing them, as after the guides’ expert eyes have spotted them in the morning the sleepy mammals aren’t inclined to move much.
Back on Cebu we had three days of acclimatising to the time difference and making the most of the tours offered in the local area – from Cebu city to spectacular snorkelling and island hopping trips – before it was back to the airport for a short hop to our next destination, Boracay Island.
Arriving at Caticlan airport should give you fair idea of what a stay on Boracay – just an hour’s flight from either Manila or Cebu – is going to be like. Even the airport toilets look like a spa hotel. Within 10 minutes of arriving on the tarmac we were greeted by a Shangri-La rep and whisked to the hotel’s “Mabuhay Centre”, a private lounge on the jetty port where you’ll be greeted with fresh calamansi juice, made from the tiny tangerine-coloured native fruit that locals will tell you cures everything from insect bites to the common cold.
From there, it’s a 15 minute hop by speedboat over to Boracay, a lush eco-reserve covering just 10 square kilometres, and the runner-up in TripAdvisor’s best beaches of 2011 award.
Two days of pure relaxation followed. Shangri-La’s resort on the island has two private beaches – perfect for following the sun as it made its way across largely unclouded skies, interrupted by the occasional tropical downpour to break the 30 degree-plus heat. For true indulgence book yourself one of the resort’s 11 treetop villas and gawp at the views from your two-storey pad, kitted out with everything you could ever need, including a private hot tub deck overlooking the bay and a mobile phone with which to contact your on-call butler, just in case the local beer in your minibar needs topping up.
Again, if you can manage more than luxuriating in the sun, a short shuttle bus ride away (or tuk-tuk sidecar for the brave) is White Beach – a four-kilometre stretch of just that, lined with beach bars, restaurants and shops. Here, it’s all hustle and bustle: hawkers peddling knock-off Ray-Bans and even a beachfront Starbucks, but the beach itself is surprisingly calm and uncrowded, not to mention stunning. It’s also home to some pretty lively nightlife come sundown.
Boracay is so spectacular that I was tempted to shed a tear as I waited on the resort’s jetty for my transfer back to the airport, but as a city dweller all of my life I was also itching to get to Manila, and kick the adrenalin levels up a notch (see next page).
As with every stunning new destination, a week was far too short to fully delve into everything the Philippines has to offer. Given longer, I’d have loved to seek out one of the country’s never-ending supply of fiestas – regional saints’ days where vast quantities of food are cooked and open-house rules apply – and spent longer delving into the fascinating years spent under US control and then the iron grip of the Marcos administration.
But as an introduction to the islands, one of the least visited stops on the well-trodden South East Asia trail, it was just enough to convince me that the country’s president Benigno Aquino – an ex-advertising man who’s declared himself the Philippine’s “chief promoter” – will have an easy job on his hands.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IN MANILA
Manila, the Philippines’ official capital since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, gets a bad rep. Officially the most densely populated city in the world, a straw poll of Western opinion will cite heavy traffic, smog and a fairly stark division of wealth among reasons not to visit. But as ever, behind the developing world clichés are enough hidden gems to merit more than a stopover.
From the pseudo-Caribbean feel of the outlying islands, arriving in Manila is like being flung back into Asia at full speed – jeepneys (jeep-bus hybrids run like communal taxis) and smoke-spewing motorbikes weave terrifyingly through rush hour traffic that starts backing up around breakfast and doesn’t move much for the rest of the day.
To see as much of the city as possible, take a full or half-day tour around some key landmarks. It’s the only way to navigate the impenetrable road system and a local driver’s short cuts will mean you’re never short of something to gawp at through the window.
Intramuros is Manila’s well-preserved Spanish quarter, with shady courtyards and Hispanic architecture that feel like a little part of old-town Central America uprooted and plonked right in the middle of the surrounding hubbub. Despite covering less than one square kilometre it’s home to seven Catholic churches, including the stunning San Augustin, a vast baroque building that serves as a popular wedding venue for the well-heeled. We managed to (discreetly) crash one ceremony from the church’s top floor gallery, and its endless rows of pews were still only half full despite one of the biggest bridal parties I’ve ever seen.
Nearby attractions worth visiting include Casa Manila, a (surprisingly authentic feeling) reconstruction of a Spanish colonial house commissioned in the 1980s, and Fort Santiago, the city’s original defensive fort and site of national hero and revolutionary José Rizal’s execution.
Elsewhere, Quiapo is the city’s old downtown and home to wet and dry markets selling cut-price everything – from local wicker handicrafts to religious amulets and pirated DVDs. Also worth a visit is the Chinese cemetery in La Loma, where some of the city’s Chinese-Filipino community are entombed in multi-storey crypts that look more like upmarket holiday homes – ask the driver to take you there past some of the traditional Lechon (pork) roasting houses.
The Makati Shangri-La was the group’s first hotel in the country, and remains a 28-storey lesson in opulence – step into the huge atrium lobby at the right time of day and you’ll encounter a full string orchestra playing to guests who’ve stopped by to sample afternoon tea, Philippine-style. Rooms are spacious with a businessy feel, and the higher you go the better the views over Makati, Manila’s modern business and shopping district.
Manila is also the best place to sample some of the best food the Philippines has to offer, though the islands’ selection of fresh seafood was pretty hard to beat. For an authentically Filipino feast head to Abe, a local favourite with several locations across Manila. Order Lechon (Philippine-style melt-in-the-mouth pork belly), chicken adobo, marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar, and the butterflied deep-fried tilapia fish, served whole and standing up on its wings, eyes intact.
Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights in the Philippines, with three nights at Shangri-La's Mactan in Cebu (www.shangri-la.com), two nights at Shangri-La's Boracay and two nights at the Makati Shangri-La Manila. Prices include breakfast, plus flights with Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.co.uk) from Heathrow, domestic flights and private transfers. Prices for 2012 are from £2,259 per person based on two sharing.