Most flights to the Philippines arrive in Manila, the crazy, chaotic capital which, despite first impressions, is worth at least a day or two of your time. The city’s major historical attraction is the old Spanish walled city of Intramuros, while the best museums in the country can be found in nearby Rizal Park and skyscraper-smothered Makati. There are also some worthwhile day-trips from the city; top of the list is the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, which was fought over bitterly during World War II and, with its now-silent guns and ruins, is a poignant place to soak up the history of the conflict.
Within easy striking distance of Manila – about two hours south by road – the province of Batangas features Tagaytay with its mesmerizing views over Lake Taal, the picture-perfect crater lake with Taal Volcano in the middle. Around the small coastal town of Anilao you’ll find the best scuba diving near Manila, while the adjacent agricultural province of Laguna is known for its therapeutic hot springs and luscious buko (coconut) pies.
To the north of Manila the theme parks, beaches and wreck dives of Subic Bay make a tempting break before the long bus ride to the extraordinary attractions and spell-binding mountain scenery of northern Luzon. From the mountain city of Baguio, it’s a rough but memorable trip north along winding roads to tribal communities such as Sagada, known for its hanging coffins, and Banaue, where you can trek through awe-inspiring rice-terrace countryside. Off Luzon’s northern tip are the alluring islands of Batanes, one of the country’s greatest secrets, while along Luzon’s west coast you can surf around San Fernando or explore the ravishing colonial town of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Head south from Manila through the Bicol region and you’ll reach perhaps the best-known of Philippine volcanoes, Mayon, an almost perfect cone that towers over the city of Legaspi and is a strenuous four- or five-day climb. Around Donsol you can swim with whale sharks, and in Bulusan Volcano National Park trek through lush rainforest to waterfalls, hot springs and volcanic craters. Even further off the tourist trail, Catanduanes offers excellent surfing while Marinduque is a pastoral island backwater that only gets touristy for the annual Moriones festival, held at Easter.
For most visitors, the myriad islands and islets of the Visayas, right at the heart of the archipelago, are top of the agenda. The captivating little island of Boracay, with its pristine beach, is on almost everyone’s itinerary. If Boracay’s a little too touristy for you, try Panglao Island off Bohol, the tantalizing beaches and waters of Malapascua off the northern top of Cebu Island or tiny Apo Island near Negros, a marine reserve where the only accommodation is in rustic cottages. For trekking and climbing make for Mount Kanlaon National Park on Negros, one of the country’s finest wilderness areas. The largest city in the Visayas, Cebu City, is the arrival point for a limited number of international flights – as well as a major hub for domestic flights – making it a good alternative base to Manila. It’s friendly, affordable and has a buzzing nightlife scene, with great restaurants and live music.
If you’re looking for some serious diving (see also Diving in the Philippines), head for Puerto Galera on the northern coast of Mindoro Island. It also boasts some excellent beaches, and trekking through the jungled interior to tribal communities. There’s more world-class diving off the west coast of Mindoro at Apo Reef, although you’ll have to join a liveaboard boat to get here.
To the west of the archipelago, out in the northern Sulu Sea, is the bewitching island of Palawan, most of it still wild and unspoiled. Many visitors come for the superb scuba diving, especially on the sunken World War II wrecks around Coron Town in the Calamian Islands to the north of Palawan proper. Palawan itself is home to the seaside town of El Nido and the Bacuit archipelago, hundreds of gem-like limestone islands with sugar-white beaches and lagoons. From Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s likeable capital, strike out for the laidback beach town of Port Barton or the Underground River, a entrancing cavern system only accessible by boat.
In the far south, the large island of Mindanao has long been the Muslim heartland of the Philippines, with enticing destinations ranging from the surf beaches and secret lagoons of Siargao Island, to the pristine waters of the Enchanted River and tribal homelands of the T’boli people around Lake Sebu in the south. Off the island’s northern coast, one of the area’s major attractions is the wonderfully friendly and scenic island of Camiguin. Mindanao’s biggest city is durian-capital Davao, from where you can head inland to Mount Apo, the tallest mountain in the archipelago and a tough ascent even for experienced climbers. Note that much of western Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago, is dangerous to visit because of continuing Muslim separatist unrest.