Get yourself to northeast Luzon and you’re deep in the Filipino frontier. Hill tribes, huge swathes of forest, small towns connected by smaller lumber tracks – you won’t find many Filipinos, let alone foreigners, out this way, with the exception of hip surfing town/weekend getaway of Baler.
One of the oldest towns in the Philippines, Vigan is a Spanish-colonial fairy tale of dark-wood mansions, cobblestone streets and clattering kalesa (horse-drawn carriages). The truth about this Unesco World Heritage site is a little more complicated. Yes: Vigan is the finest surviving example of a Spanish colonial town in Asia.
You can’t get further away from the Philippines without leaving the Philippines than Batanes: a group of 10 islands floating off in the ‘Here be Dragons’ corner of the map near Taiwan. Only three of these specks are permanently inhabited: the main island, Batan; tradition-rich Sabtang; and remote, northernmost Itbayat.
Virtually all visitors to Batanes enter through Batan, the commercial centre and site of the provincial government. You’ll want to spend at least a day circumnavigating the island, taking in the fabulous scenery, navigating its hilly roads, and visiting its villages. Batan is blessed with ample natural beauty, but for raw Ivatan culture, Sabtang Island is a better bet.
Like nearby Vigan, Laoag is a town with some history behind it. Unlike Vigan, said history is only evident in a few locations, and Laoag largely comes off as a noisy step to something better. This is still loyal Marcos country, and around here the old dictator is still referred to somewhat reverently as ‘President Marcos’.
The Northern Loop
OK, this is a figure-of-eight rather than a loop. First, head north of Basco to the Basco Lighthouse (1.2km); it's possible to climb it for stellar views of the coast. Further north, there is a short walking path up the crest of one of the Vayang hills, with Itbayat and Dinem islands on the horizon.
With a wealth of accommodation options and a few decent restaurants, Batanes’ compact capital makes an excellent base for exploring the rest of Batan Island. Awash with bougainvillea and shrouded in greenery, Basco's streets are a pleasure to walk. Abad St is the main drag; it really comes to life in the evenings with fragrant smoke rising from half a dozen streetside grills.
Bustling Bontoc is one of the most important market towns and transport hubs in the Cordillera, and you'll find yourself spending a day or two here if you're looking to get out to the rice terraces of Maligcong and Mainit or stay in the former headhunter villages of Kalinga, as it's an excellent place to arrange a guide.
Hemmed in on all sides by dramatic rice terraces, Banaue is directly accessible from Manila and, as such, can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by visitors. It's hard to blame them: the local mud-walled rice terraces have a pleasing, organic quality that differentiates them from the stone-walled terraces in most of the Cordillera.