The Philippines has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the last few years. From Typhoon Yolanda, the superstorm which left a band of destruction from Leyte to Palawan in November 2013, to controversial President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, a leader so unpredictable and unapologetic he’s become known as “Duterte Harry”, the archipelago is rarely out of the news.
But the peaceful, unruffled island of Camiguin, located around 20km off the north coast of mainland Mindanao, offers a welcome bit of good news. While Mindanao is mired in anti-government insurgencies and tourist kidnappings, Camiguin is one of the country’s safest and most appealing beach escapes, offering ivory-white sandbars, iridescent lagoons and jagged volcanic mountain tops.
That it’s under-the-radar, a world apart from the bumper-to-bumper resorts of Boracay and Alona Beach, is reason enough to put it at the top of your travel list. Here’s why you should go now, plus everything you need to know to plan your trip.
The Philippines has more than 7000 islands: why is this one so special?
That’s easy. Camiguin offers the best of the Philippines in a microcosm: picture-perfect beaches, bubbling hot springs, jungle cascades, perma-grinning islanders and quirky festivals.
There’s also no shortage of adventure, with unbeatable scuba diving (you can spot sharks, turtles, giant clams, even a sunken, underwater cemetery within metres of the shoreline) and bucket-list volcano trekking. In particular, don’t miss summiting Mount Hibok-Hibok, a 1332m-high cone that offers spellbinding views across the island.
But Camiguin’s real beauty is that it doesn’t really matter where you stay, as you can see all the sights easily from anywhere. The coastal road is only 64km long, making it entirely feasible to circle the island in a few hours. And doing that by motorbike, as you chase sunset around the coast, sets up one of those rare, pinch-yourself moments you can only have in Southeast Asia.
Why is it only being talked up now, then?
Historically, it’s been a problematic island to get to. Shoestring backpackers have long had to make do with a tiring overnight ferry from Cebu City (11–12 hours, if you’re lucky), or a bum-numbing bus-boat-bus-boat-bus combo from the neighbouring island of Bohol via Cayagan De Oro on Mindanao.
But the arrival of daily 50-minute Cebu Pacific flights to the island’s pipsqueak capital Mambajao has thankfully put an end to that particular headache. Now, a recently introduced second service on Monday, Friday and Sunday makes Camiguin even easier to get to. The grim reality of having to overland through mainland Mindanao’s danger zone is no more.
Sounds almost too good to be true. When’s the best time to visit?
Undoubtedly the last week in October during the Lanzones Festival. It’s an insanely brilliant tribute to the golfball-sized local fruit (a sweet lychee meets bitter potato), one of the island’s major sources of income, with revellers dressing up Rio Carnival-style in kaleidoscopic costumes and fruity headdresses.
Considering its popularity among Mindanoans – who’re known to go gaga on local hooch and party long into the night – it’s advisable to book a bed far in advance. This year’s festival takes place from 24–30 October.
Other than odd fruit, is there anything else the island is famous for?
One of Camiguin’s most popular trips is to White Island, a dazzling sandbar only visible at low tide and easily reached by bangka, or outrigger canoe, from the beach village of Yumbing.
Looking back to Camiguin, 1.5km to the south, with Mount Hibok-Hibok framing the jungle and brilliant blue sea, you could easily mistake it for a make-believe tropical Xanadu. If it looks familiar it might just well do: it’s become one of the most Instagrammed images in the Philippines.
You’ve mentioned that volcano twice now. Is it dangerous?
Yes and no. The volcano had its last major eruption in 1951 with tremors and landslides tragically killing 500 people.
But since then, Philvolcs, the country’s leading group of volcanologists and seismologists, has set up a scientific outpost and research centre on the flanks of the volcano’s northern slope to monitor any rumblings. Better still, they’re happy to talk to visitors about their work, and have a number of lung-emptying photographs of past eruptions. It’s a beautiful motorbike ride into the interior, too.
We’re sold. Any other spots we should definitely visit?
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a number of charming accommodation and eating options, in part thanks to the island’s scattered European transplants. For free-diving and yoga, drop in to say hi to Diggi and Valerie at Kurma, a German-Filipino beach resort and vegan café, or for a wellness break get to know Elena, an Italian whose hilltop Nypa Style Resort is centred around a beautiful Indian-almond tree and natural swimming pool.
For Euro eccentricity, stop by The BeeHive on Catibac Beach, a Belgian-run shack with conch shells swinging from the ceiling, driftwood tables and an idyllic Robinson Crusoe vibe. Try a honeycomb-shaped pizza, or buy a souvenir pot of tropical organic honey. Didn’t expect that, did you?