Isolated bone-white beaches, reefs teeming with marine life, cascading rice terraces – it’s no wonder that the Philippines is often associated with tropical paradise. And there’s even more than meets the eye, from the world’s smallest primate to the unique hanging coffins of Sagada. Yet, with well over 7000 islands – in fact the precise number is a hotly debated topic – it’s easy to get overwhelmed by what’s on offer. Whatever kind of trip you’re after, here’s our guide to the best islands in the Philippines.
For beaches and wildlife: Palawan
The Philippines’ eco-island remains a firm backpacker favourite. Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa is carbon-neutral, while the island and its beaches have collected countless accolades – particularly for the jaw-dropping Nacpan Beach near El Nido. A visit to Palawan is all about getting out on the water – island-hopping between hidden coves and deserted beaches, and snorkelling in the coral reef-filled waters. One of the island’s main attractions is the famous Puerto Princesa Underground River – one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature' – which runs for 8.2km underneath the St Paul Mountain Range.
For reef diving: Mindoro
While the Philippines is full of excellent snorkelling and diving opportunities, Mindoro goes the extra mile. Some 30km off the coast lies the Apo Reef Marine National Park – one of the world’s most spectacular and important reefs, a vast area that’s home to over 450 different species of coral. These coral systems attract all sorts of marine life, from giant schools of tuna to barracudas, sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. Other top dive sites around Mindoro can be accessed from the popular town of Puerto Galera, situated in the north of the island.
For nature: Bohol
Part of the Visayas group of islands, Bohol is a nature paradise packed with national parks, spectacular beaches and cascading waterfalls. Amongst the island’s otherworldly landscapes, the most famous are the aptly named Chocolate Hills – a stretch of over a thousand rounded hills, that at the end of the dry season appear to turn a chocolate brown colour. Bohol also offers numerous encounters with wildlife – the highlight being a chance to see tarsiers, a hand-sized, saucer-eyed creature that’s the world’s smallest primate.
For wreck diving: Coron
One of the Calamian Islands, Coron is known for its diverse opportunities for shipwreck diving, which include the chance to explore World War II Japanese ships. Besides wreck diving, other top dive sites in and around Coron include the jungle-encircled Lake Barracuda and Siete Picados Reef where you can see everything from sea turtles to staghorn coral. Snorkellers can also explore these sites, as well as the eerie Kayangan Lake, where strange rock formations and bizarre needle fish lurk just beneath the surface.
For partying and adventure sports: Boracay
Located in the central Visayas region of the Philippines, Boracay is one of the smallest islands on our list but it’s one of the most developed in terms of tourism. Here you’ll find many of the top international chains of hotels and resorts, as well as a surplus of beach bars and clubs – especially around White Beach and Bulabog Beach. Adrenaline seekers will be spoilt for choice here with a range of adventure sports on offer, from windsurfing, kitesurfing and parasailing to cliff diving, horse riding and sailing.
For diversity: Luzon
The Philippines’ biggest and most densely populated island, Luzon is home to the nation’s capital, with its bustling traffic-clogged streets and swanky shopping malls. North of Manila, this vast island unravels a range of sights, from 2000-year-old cascading rice terraces and Sagada’s rock face-clinging hanging coffins to the historic colonial city of Vigan. Meanwhile, Southern Luzon is known for its coconut-infused cuisine, wild windswept eastern coastline and the perfectly conical Mt Mayon – the Philippines’ most active volcano.
For getting off the beaten track: Ticao
The little island of Ticao is part of the Masbate Province and lies just off the tip of Southern Luzon and the Bicol region. Home to just two resorts, a smattering of tiny villages and one small town, most of the island is given over to isolated golden beaches, rainforest and waterfalls. Here you’re unlikely to meet other travellers and you’ll always be able to find a whole stretch of paradisiacal beach just to yourself, as well as prime near-deserted snorkelling spots. The waters off the coast of the island are a favourite for a variety of manta rays and sharks, including blacktip reef sharks, whale sharks and even hammerheads.