With more than 7000 islands, ringed by coral sands and scattered across a vast sweep of turquoise ocean, the Philippines is the vision of tropical paradise. The only majority Christian nation in Asia offers spectacular beaches, towering volcanoes, colonial cities and fantastic fiestas, as well as some of the finest diving in the Pacific.
Planes, boats and buses connect the scattered cities of the Philippines, joined by thousands of jeepneys – lavishly decorated stretched jeeps that function as public buses across the archipelago. An astonishing variety of ferries link the islands, from roll-on, roll-off car ferries to outrigger bangka pump boats.
Manila is the gateway to Luzon island, the largest landmass in the archipelago. This fast-paced city is famous for its energetic nightlife, colonial relics and spectacular sunsets, which light up the sky over the waters of Manila Bay.
North of Manila rise the Central Cordillera mountains, studded with tribal villages and painted vivid green by jungles and some of Asia’s most spectacular rice terraces, best explored from the townships of Banaue and Sagada. To the south, a chain of volcanoes points the way to the Visayas, where palms flutter above perfect sandy beaches.
To the west is rugged Palawan, crowned at its northern end by the karst outcrops of El Nido and the Busuanga Islands, where an entire fleet of WWII shipwrecks lure scuba divers beneath the waves. Further south, the island of Cebu is the gateway to Boracay, perhaps the most perfect spread of sand in the archipelago, and serene Bohol, with its chocolate drop landscapes and Spanish colonial relics.
In the far south, Mindanao is only just being explored, with more stunning beaches, spectacular diving, towering mountains and the Philippines’ most thrill-charged surf breaks. No trip to the Philippines would be complete without attending a festival – high-spirited fiestas fill the streets throughout the year across the archipelago.
Beautiful Boracay may be the most famous strip of sand, but you’ll find idyllic beaches ringing almost every island in the archipelago. Visitors rave about Nacpan Beach near El Nido and Bounty Beach on Malapascua, whose fringing reefs are visited by inquisitive thresher sharks. Even bigger fish ply the coast near Donsol, one of the best places in the world to see migrating whale sharks. For a slightly different experience, climb a live volcano; the archipelago is studded with them, from perfect Mount Mayon to the ruined craters of Taal and Mt Pinatubo.
Filipino cuisine is the quiet cousin of Thai and Malay food – simpler and milder, using fewer spices, but drawing on a fantastic variety of seafood hauled fresh from the ocean. Manila and Cebu City offer the best fine-dining experiences, but every resort in the islands can rustle up a spectacular dinner of fresh crabs, lobster, jumbo prawns and other treats from the Pacific. Many dishes have a subtle Spanish flavour, including abodo (a rich stew with soy sauce and vinegar) and lechon, whole suckling pig, a particular speciality of Cebu island.