These tiny, emerald-like islands – actually there are 123, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it – are part of a national park covering almost twenty square kilometres in the Lingayen Gulf. Some islands have beaches, but many are no more than coral outcrops crowned by scrub. Sadly, much of the underwater coral in the park has been damaged by a devastating combination of cyanide and dynamite fishing, typhoons and the El Niño weather phenomenon. The authorities are, however, going all out to protect what coral is left and help it regenerate, meaning you can only snorkel in approved areas. Marine biologists from the University of the Philippines have been at the forefront of the protection movement, replanting hundreds of taklobos (giant clams).
The best place to base yourself for exploring the islands is the small town of Lucap, from which you can island-hop by day before returning to a shower and a comfy bed in the evening. Lucap can be reached by tricycle (15min; P60) from the city of Alaminos, which is on the National Highway.
The only three islands with any form of development are Governor’s Island, Children’s Island and Quezon Island. A day-trip to all three costs P800 for a small boat for five people (larger boats are also available). You’ll need to choose one island on which you will spend most of your time – the boatman will leave you there for a few hours then return, and you’ll visit the other two more briefly.
A much more appealing option is to pay P1400 for a “service boat” allowing you to visit the more interesting undeveloped islands. Some of these dots of land are so small and rocky it’s impossible to land on them, while others are big enough to allow for some exploring on foot, with tiny, sandy coves where you can picnic in the shade and swim. One of the prettiest islands is Marta, actually two tiny islets connected by a thin strip of bright white sand that almost disappears at high tide. Marcos Island has a blowhole and a vertical shaft of rock; you can clamber to the top and then dive into a seawater pool about 20m below. A number of islands, including Scout Island and Quirino Island, have caves; on Cuenco Island there’s a cave that goes right through the island to the other side. Shell Island has a lagoon in which you can swim at high tide, while birdwatchers should ask to stop beside Cathedral Island.