Manila’s moniker, the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, couldn’t be more apt – its cantankerous shell reveals its jewel only to those resolute enough to pry. No stranger to hardship, the city has endured every disaster both human and nature could throw at it, and yet today the chaotic metropolis thrives as a true Asian megacity.
The Western Visayas
In general the Western Visayas attracts three types of visitors. The most common is the vacationer drawn by Boracay's gorgeous White Beach, and the commercial hubbub that surrounds it: a collection of resorts, restaurants, bars, and tour promoters all lined up along one great stretch of sand.
For most visitors to the Philippines, Panay is the island they land on in order to get to Boracay. But what does Panay itself have to offer? Think of it as distinct provinces, as the locals do. In the northwest, Aklan Province (which includes Boracay) is best known for hosting the amazing Ati-Atihan Festival, the country's largest fiesta, in its capital, Kalibo, every January.
North Luzon, a region that invites intrepid exploration, encapsulates a nation in miniature. Machete-toting mountain tribes who are quick to smile and quicker to share their rice wine. Surfers racing waves onto sunny beaches. White-sand beaches lapped by teal waters. Impenetrable jungle hiding numerous endemic critters.
Mindanao & Sulu
Despite boasting jaw-dropping beaches, killer surf, rugged mountain ranges and indigenous cultures living very much as they have for centuries, Mindanao remains off the tourism industry’s radar. Of course, the conflict that has ebbed and flowed now for several generations bears much of the responsibility.
Nothing defines Palawan more than the water around it. With seascapes the equal of any in Southeast Asia, and wildlife terrestrial and aquatic, the Philippines’ most sparsely populated region is also the most beguiling. Because of its silhouette – a long sliver stretching 650km all the way to Borneo – there’s a certain liberating logic to travel here.
Cebu City is like an entrée-sized Manila; it’s energetic, exciting and fast-paced, or loud, dirty and ruthless, depending on your perspective. On the surface, it does its worst to attract tourists, with its honking jeepneys spluttering exhaust fumes, shopping-mall culture and lack of world-class sights. Yet give it a chance and you'll find plenty to do here.
With its rugged mountain interior, unspoilt beaches, underwater coral gardens and urban grooves, Negros has the most to offer in the Western Visayas after Boracay. This is particularly true of its southern coast, stretching from Danjugan Island around the tip to Bais, where diving has become big business.
While only 7km tall and at its bikini line 500m wide, tiny Boracay has rapidly become the Philippines' top tourist draw, fuelled by explosive growth and a tsunami of hype; in 2013 the readers of Travel & Leisure voted it the second-best island destination in the world after Palawan.
Bisected by a virtually impassable mountain range – aptly named the High Rolling Mountains – rugged Mindoro is part tropical paradise, part provincial backwater. Forming a dramatic backdrop almost everywhere, the mountains separate the island’s two provinces: rough and rugged Mindoro Occidental to the west, and more prosperous Mindoro Oriental to the east.
Just a quick ferry journey from Cebu, Bohol offers independent travellers a wealth of options both on and off the beaten track. The island province is promoted almost exclusively through images of cute bug-eyed tarsiers and the majestic Chocolate Hills, and while both are fantastic highlights, in reality it’s the diving on Panglao Island that brings in the crowds.