Philippines – Picture Perfect

Our Philippines experience has been all about beaches and lagoons. This is not surprising considering the country is made up of 7,641 islands. The tricky part was narrowing down exactly which islands we were going to visit. Obviously , the best way to research this was by pouring over Instagram photos and finding the ‘OMG, we need to go there’ pics. Luckily, most of these photos seemed to be centred around one region, Palawan.

First location decided, we flew into Manila, stayed overnight in a cheap hotel near the airport, then flew into Puerto Princesa the next day. Puerto Princesa (PP) is Palawan’s main city, but if you are imagining tall buildings and trendy cafes then think again. It’s a nice enough coastal town but far from any imaginings of an ‘urban city’. The main reason tourists visit PP is for a quick trip to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Underground River before heading to other parts of Palawan. The river itself is quite impressive. It ‘s about 8km long, winding underground, of which you can comfortably travel about 2 km by boat and torchlight. The cave complex is packed full of rock formations resembling everything from Jesus to a T Rex. It’s quite a spectacular sight but be forewarned, you need to keep your mouth closed in case of falling guano. The caves are home to thousands of bats, some the size of your thumb.

Next stop was a place called El Nido. In my opinion this is the most beautiful place we visited in the Philippines. El Nido itself is a bit ‘shanty town’ but the day trips to surrounding islands, lagoons, hidden beaches and caves were spectacular. The Instagram photos I had poured over were actually true to life (except Instagram made it look like you were the only person there – this was certainly not the case). We swam through narrow cave openings into huge lagoons completely surrounded by tall cliffs. We all hopped on a kayak to reach some of the hidden beaches. The girls confidence in the water was impressive. We were the only family with kids on these boats and the twins could navigate the water better than most of the other adults (yes some racial stereotyping here). When we weren’t island hopping, our beach-front place in El Nido offered a lot of shells to collect and loads of hermit crabs to race. A pizza and beer watching the sunset topped off each glorious day.

The other big tourist draw card in Palawan is a place called Coron. It’s a 4 hour boat ride from El Nido. We pre-prepared with snacks, water and sea sick tablets ( we learned our lesson in Thailand crossing Hua Hin to Pattaya). Coron made El Nido look like a resort town in comparison. If I’m going to fling about terms like ‘shanty town’ then I should have saved it for Coron. Luckily we had booked accommodation on a small island near Coron which was perfect for us. We could paddle the clear bottom kayaks around the island, feed fish off our balcony and sit on our veranda while the girls swam in the infinity pool. The restaurant served calamari, so the girls were very content. On our second day I took the boat from our island across to Coron town to do a spot of shopping and sightseeing while Murray and the girls stayed at the hotel. I had traversed the entire town within 10 minutes with sadly not a shop I cared to step into within sight. Instead, I sat in Coron town’s only first world establishment, a café, and used their free wifi, which was surprisingly fast.

We did a couple of island hopping tours here and similar to El Nido we were in awe of the clear blue water and spectacular scenery. Our favourite spot was a white sandy island in the middle of sparkling aqua blue water where we got to swim and play in the afternoon sun.

After Palawan we took a short flight to Cebu, one of the biggest cities in the Philippines. It is not a pretty city, but the malls were excellent. We were able to do a bit of Xmas shopping while the girls were signed into a play centre. Everyone was happy!! Our main reason for stopping in Cebu was to make our way to a small town about 4 hours away called Oslob. This is where you get to swim with whale sharks. We had been looking forward to this for weeks leading up to the event and we weren’t disappointed. After a quick briefing on the ‘Do Nots’ ( do not get too close, wear sunscreen, use flash photography etc) and assuring the twins that we were not going to be sent to jail ( penalty for breaking these rules is $50 or 6 months in prison) we head off on a short boat ride to where the whale sharks were swimming. The boats all line up in a row, you then jump off with your snorkel and another boat throws fish overboard as it slowly passes you with whale sharks in tow. The whale sharks come incredibly close (within a metre or so). After 30 minutes you are taken back into shore. Overall it was an exhilarating experience and a memory to treasure for life. The whale sharks are big, beautiful creatures and far from scary.

Our final island destination was of course to Boracay ( the Bali of the Philippines). Murray and I had some fond memories of spending a long weekend there 5 years ago staying at the Shangri-La ( sadly this was not in our budget this time). The island had re-opened about 4 weeks prior to us arriving after a major effort to clean it up and rebuild the drainage system. There is still a long way to go before completion. The muddy streets and half finished buildings don’t really take away from the Boracay experience though, it’s all about the beach front and Boracay’s beaches are some of the best in the world. The water is blue and the sand is powdery white, stretching for miles. There are nice boutique shops, loads of restaurants and chilled-out beach side bars. The vibe is fun and it’s the sort of place you can’t not enjoy. We quickly settled into a routine of lazy mornings around the pool, lunch at our favourite beach front restaurant, paddle boarding in the afternoon and dinner drinks around the pool. It’s an enviable lifestyle and one I’ll reflect back on probably about winter time next year.

The Philippines has been a pretty easy place to travel as a family. Kids are adored ( especially blonde haired twins), most people speak excellent English, taxis are cheap and accommodation is easy to find. It is a country that is obviously very poor in most parts and locals live very simply. Despite this I think it is one of the most forward thinking third world countries when it comes to the environment. Plastic bags have largely been eliminated from most supermarkets, a lot of hotels offer water through water tanks ( not plastic bottles) and straws, if you can get them, are made of paper. Even on our boat tours we were told to bring water in a reusable bottles ( luckily we had one). Admittedly there are a lot of head-scratching contradictions to some of the rules …we won’t give you a plastic straw but we will put a plastic lid on your cup. My favourite was…you can’t take your plastic bag to carry wet clothes onto the boat … instead I’ll give you this plastic bag !?! Honestly though, you have to admire the Philippines where there is noticeably less plastic trash on the beaches and trash that does wash ashore probably comes from Vietnam or Malaysia.

Philippines has been amazing, Boracay we will be back!