From Minnesota, we first flew to LAX. Then from LAX, we flew over 13 hours to Shanghai, had to wait out a long layover, before finally landing in Manila. Shortly after landing, we hopped on a local flight that would bring us to the fine white sands of the world-famous Boracay Island.
Located in the province of Aklan, Boracay is undoubtedly a Philippine gem - what with its clear turquoise waters and 2.5 miles of powdery white sand beach. In the last few years, it has been named one of the best islands in the world by international travel magazines Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveller. Millions of tourists visit every year, and after experiencing it for ourselves, it’s easy to see why.
What to do in Boracay:
1. Explore the length of Boracay's White Beach on foot: Walking (or jogging) from the end of Station 4 to Station 1 is a great way to take in all the island energy. It’s only a 2.5 mile walk - you can do it leisurely, stopping at sandcastles built by local kids, or sampling the local fare. Must-try: Chori burger and Jonah’s fruit shakes.
2. Try the various water activities: There are island hops, jet-skis, banana boats, stand-up paddles, kayaks and parasails. On the eastern side of the island, there’s Bulabog Beach where all the windsurfing, kiteboarding and kitesurfing can be had as that is where the strong winds are. For those inclined, various dive sites surround Boracay island and are ready to be explored.
3. Food trip and bar hop: There’s no shortage of food options in Boracay, especially along Station 2 where the bulk of restaurants and bars are. At night, most restaurants offer buffets at a reasonable price so you can really eat to your heart’s content. Sign up for the Boracay Pubcrawl for a fun and social way to meet new people while also sampling the alcohol on offer.
4. Catch the Boracay sunset: Just sit by the shore, or by a beach-side bar or restaurant with a beer in hand while waiting for the sun to set or, better yet, ride the local sailboats called paraw just in time for the sunset as the experience is as relaxing as the sunset is magnificent.
After 3 days in Boracay, we flew to another popular island south of Manila called Cebu. It was the tail-end of a popular festival called Sinulog when we arrived in Cebu, but we managed to witness the final presentation of the festival winners. Sinulog means ‘celebration’, and it is an annual festival of energetic street dancing, powerful music and colorful elaborate costumes. It is a Philippine-style mardis gras, and it began as a native tradition that got mixed with religious icons upon the introduction of Christianity by Spain to the islands in the 1500s.
By itself, Cebu could have filled our 2-weeks with sights to see and things to do, as the island is surrounded by beautiful beaches, and by countless islands with pristine waters. But since we had limited time and just wanted a taste of the best of Cebu, here is…
What we did in Cebu:
1. Sinulog Festival: If you plan to go to Cebu in the future, best to time it during the Sinulog Festival if you want to experience the explosion of colors and music. It is often a month-long celebration, but the highlight is typically held on the 3rd Sunday of January.
2. Food trip: Cebu is known for the freshest seafoods and - according to travel show host and chef Anthony Bourdain - the best roasted pig he’s ever tasted! Popular spots for lechon are CnT Lechon, Rico’s Lechon, and Zubuchon. For seafood, try any of a number of what is known in Cebu as SuTuKil - a seafood market/restaurant where you pick the fresh seafood you want cooked, and they will prepare the seafood 3-ways or SuTuKil: Su for Sugba (grilled), Tu for Tula (stewed) and Kil for Kilawin (local version of ceviche, where the seafood is ‘cooked’ in vinegar and spices).
3. Swim with the Whalesharks: One of the highlights of our Cebu trip was being able to swim with whalesharks, or what is locally known as butanding. These are not actually sharks but gentle giant fishes that are the size of buses that feed on krill. They frequent all over the Philippines, but appear more consistently in the town of Oslob, Cebu.
4. Canyoneering and Cliff jumping: For adrenaline junkies like us, canyoneering and cliff jumping in Badian, Cebu up to Kawasan Falls was truly one for the books! The whole thing took 4 hours (but didn’t feel like it) and we hiked up mountains, crossed crystal clear waters, and hurled ourselves off cliffs and waterfalls onto cool rivers and natural pools. It is a thrill-seeker’s heaven!
5. Sunrise and Sunsets: Take in all the sun you can get while in this 365-day sun country. While at it, never miss a chance to catch the sunrises and the sunsets. In Cebu's Mactan Island, we caught the dramatic sunrise off the coast of Mactan's Newtown beach.
Bohol island is just an hour and 45 minute ferry ride away from Cebu, so we took advantage of its proximity and did a day tour of it. It’s an island that is also famous for its beaches like Cebu, and also for being the site of a unique geological formation playfully called the Chocolate Hills.
Here’s what’s to see in Bohol:
1. Panglao Island: Once in Bohol mainland, Panglao island is just a short commute away as it is accessible via a bridge. If you want to experience a white sand beach comparable to Boracay but with fewer crowds, then Panglao Island is for you. This would be your jump-off point if you’d like to do any diving, snorkeling or island hopping. There are dolphin watching tours on offer, so that’s something to try for sure.
2. Chocolate Hills: Like we mentioned, this is the #1 attraction that draws people to Bohol – to see the so-called Chocolate Hills. These are limestone cliffs that have through time been smoothly carved to look like chocolate kisses. The reference to chocolate is more apt during the dry months when the grass covering the hills turn brown, but for most of the year, the hills are green yet still no less a sight to behold. There is a viewing deck you can go to to see the expanse of the chocolate hills. But if you’re ready to get dirty, there are ATV tours being offered that will allow you to motor around and get a close-up of the chocolate hills. We highly recommend this!
3. Baclayon Church: All around Bohol are centuries-old Spanish era churches that are remarkable not just for their age, but also because of the materials they were built with. Baclayon Church for example is well-known because it was built with corals. Bohol being an island, corals provided plenty of free building materials for this church. Unfortunately, in 2013, a strong earthquake shook the island and destroyed the beloved church. Thankfully, 5 years since, the church has been completely rebuilt.
4. Loboc River Cruise: This is a must-do! The Loboc River Cruise is an hour-long cruise along Bohol’s Loboc river. While on the cruise, a sumptuous buffet meal will be served and the meals can be enjoyed with onboard live music, as well as the serene views along the river.
5. The World’s Smallest Primate: Bohol is home to the world’s smallest primate called the tarsier. An endangered species, the Philippine tarsier is a nocturnal animal about the size of a fist. It has big, round, Yoda-like eyes, and they are gentle creatures. Hush! Being nocturnal, they sleep during the day so be careful not to wake them up!
After exploring Cebu and Bohol, we flew to what is considered the Philippines’ Last Frontier – Palawan. We were excited to go to Palawan because we’ve read so much online about it and we couldn’t wait to experience it for ourselves.
We landed in Puerto Princesa City, the administrative capital of Palawan. We were only staying here for a night but we made the most of it.
Things to do in Puerto Princesa:
1. Lunch at Ka Lui: This is a colorful and stunning restaurant that serves only the freshest seafood, fruits and vegetables. Yup, no meat is served here but you’ll certainly won’t miss it as the incredibly delicious dishes that this restaurant serves will make you forget about meat.
2. Crocodile Farm and Nature Park: Did you know that the largest crocodile ever recorded was caught in Palawan? Nicknamed ‘Lolong’, it was a saltwater crocodile, and it measured 6.17 m (20 ft 3 in), and weighed 1,075 kg (2,370 lb). Lolong may have already died in 2013, but in the Crocodile Farm and Nature Park there are hundreds of crocodiles that are being bred – not for commercial purposes, but for distribution all over Palawan to continue to grow the local population. In addition to crocodiles, the park boasts of some of endemic and endangered species found only or mostly in Palawan.
3. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park: 2 hours from Puerto Princesa is a spectacular natural wonder that is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park or the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Essentially, it is a vast and long cave with a river that runs through it. When touring this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will ride a boat exploring the inside of the cave while marveling at the millions of bats hanging by the cave roofs as well as the fascinating rock formations inside. You will be awed by the jaw-dropping huge expanse that is inside the cave. The tour takes an hour to complete, but that is only covering the navigable portions of it. Designated in 2012 as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, this is a must-visit!
After touring the Underground River, we took a 5-hour van ride north of Puerto Princesa going to El Nido – another part of Palawan that should be in every Palawan visitor’s itinerary. While it was a long ride going there, the travel time is made pleasantly bearable by picturesque sceneries of rice farms, mountains, far-off islands and the long coastline of Palawan.
When in El Nido, here is what you can do:
1. Explore El Nido town: There is so much activity going on this small beach-side town. You could walk along the side streets or along the beach that is dotted by restaurants and resorts. Surely you won’t miss that limestone cliffs that protect the El Nido bay and provide a beautiful backdrop to the glorious sunsets at the end of a long day.
2. Rent a motorbike: There are tricycles all over that can help you get around, but if you want it DIY, you can rent motorcycles for a day or two. Just look at the map of El Nido and plan your beach-hopping among the many options available along the coast.
3. Go beach-hopping: A favorite spot is Nacpan Beach which is 45 minutes from town, but definitely worth a visit for its lack of crowds and amazing beach. There is also Lio Beach which is a new eco-conscious private resort. There are small shops, restaurants and bars, but it is a mostly quiet and uncrowded spot ideal for relaxing. Then there’s also charming Marimegmeg Beach, which is another white sand beach, where about half the stretch is lined with beach chairs and the other half by sunbathers. There is a nearby Sun Bar where cheap cold local beer could easily be had while waiting for the golden El Nido sun to go down.
3. Island-hopping: Of course, all over Palawan are islands of various sizes and features, and the one around El Nido are no less special. Around town are various tour agencies offering island hopping tours to pre-set options of about 5-6 islands/beaches/wrecks per set. You can never go wrong on any option, but ask the agency what is the most popular. Palawan is busy with tourists year-round, so know that there will be more than a handful of tourists in these popular spots.
4. Boat cruise from El Nido to Coron: We were planning to go to Coron anyway, so instead of going to Coron via public fast-crafts that could take almost an entire day, we decided to take a 3-day boat cruise that would allow us to meander among less-visited islands and beaches from El Nido to Coron, while also enjoying the company of fellow adventurous souls from around the world who sign up for the exclusivity as well as the unique, bare-bones experience.
We camped for 2 nights in different islands, pitched a tent, watched sunsets, lit a bonfire, told stories, played card games and sang on the karaoke!
We were sufficiently fed by our on-board chef and one lunch was by sandbar. The sun can be scorching hot, but we well hydrated with all the beer we could drink. What’s not to like?!?
After 3 days of sun and sea inside the boat cruise, we finally arrived in Coron - the biggest and northernmost island of Palawan. After seeing much of Palawan already, what else is there to see in Coron? Well, plenty!
Choice activities while in Coron:
1. More island-hopping: Yes, more island hopping! But even after 3 days of island hopping from El Nido, the islands in Coron have a charm all their own that is truly worth a visit. If you had more time, try as many of the island tours available – one tour or set of islands per day. The most popular one is often called Tour A which really has the highlight destinations of Coron. It includes visits to Kayangan Lake (the cleanest lake in the Philippines), Twin Lagoons (wade from one lagoon, then swim through a narrow opening onto another lagoon), Siete Pecados Marine Park (a snorkeler’s dream - teeming with colorful corals and tropical fishes) and the Skeleton Wreck (an old shipwreck from the Japanese era).
2. Maquinit Hot Springs: Maquinit Hot Springs is one of only a few saltwater hot springs in the world. After a full day of island hopping, taking to the hot springs promises to be a soothing dip as it is best visited in late afternoons to the early evenings.
3. Mt. Tapyas: Catch the sunrise or the sunset atop one of Coron’s most accessible peaks to get a breathtaking view of Coron town and the neighboring islands. It is only a 45-minute hike up from town so it is doable if you are relatively fit. Rest assured, the panoramic view is ample reward for all the trouble of going up there!
That about covers all the fun things we did while exploring the best of the Philippines for the most memorable 2 weeks we’ve ever had on vacation.
Ever since we started working on Bizzy Coffee, we have not had a vacation this long or this far away. We’re so glad we did it as we have since been more inspired to work on new projects for Bizzy Coffee. We found great memorable adventures in the Philippines – we hope you find yours there too!