Home to dazzling white-sand beaches and astonishing coral walls, the world's smallest mammal and its biggest fish, eastern Visayas are the aqua heart of an island nation. This region's natural appeal is utterly compelling – the Chocolate Hills of Bohol and shimmering millions of sardines of Moalboal, waves and caves of Samar and waterfalls and rice terraces of Biliran.
Manila’s moniker, the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, couldn’t be more apt – its unappealing shell reveals its jewel only to those resolute enough to pry. No stranger to hardship, the city has endured every disaster humans and nature could throw at it, and yet today the chaotic metropolis thrives as a true Asian megacity.
Western Visayas tends to attract three types of visitors. The most common is the holidaymaker drawn by Boracay's gorgeous White Beach and the fiesta hubbub that surrounds it: a collection of resorts, restaurants, bars, masseuses and tour touts lined up along one great stretch of sand.
Cebu is the hub around which the Visayas revolve. It is the most densely populated island in the Philippines and is second only to Luzon in its strategic and economic importance to the country. This is one of the most prosperous regions in the country – the 2016 growth rate was 8.8%, considerably higher than the national average.
A region that invites intrepid exploration, North Luzon encapsulates a nation in miniature. Surfers race waves onto sunny beaches, where whites sands are lapped by teal waters. Machete-carrying mountain tribespeople are quick to smile and quicker to share their rice wine. Impenetrable jungle hides endemic critters.
For most visitors to the Philippines, Panay is the island they land on in order to get to the famous White Beach on Boracay. But what does Panay 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 in its capital, Kalibo.
Nothing defines Palawan more than the water around it. With seascapes the equal of any in Southeast Asia, and terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, the Philippines’ most sparsely populated region is also the most beguiling. Because of the silhouette of its main island – a long sliver stretching 650km all the way to Borneo – there’s a certain liberating logic to travel here.
With its rugged mountain interior, unspoiled beaches, underwater coral gardens and urban grooves, Negros has the most to offer in western Visayas after Boracay. This is particularly true of its southern coast, stretching from Danjugan Island around the tip to Bais, where diving is big business. Here the natural base is Dumaguete, a funky college town and expat hang-out.
The coastline from Cagayan de Oro to Surigao and the offshore islands off the far northeastern tip is a region apart from the rest of Mindanao. Though largely spared from the violence experienced by other parts of the island, it’s often inaccurately stigmatised simply by dint of association. Siargao is one of the best places in the Philippines to hang ten or simply hang.
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.
While only 7km tall and at its bikini line 500m wide, tiny Boracay is the Philippines' top tourist draw, fuelled by explosive growth and a tsunami of hype. The centre of the action is dreamy White Beach, a 4km, postcard-perfect stretch of sand lined from one end to the other with hotels, restaurants, bars and dive shops several blocks deep.
Southeast Luzon is one of the more overlooked parts of the Philippines, but those travellers who do make it here will find a wildly varied and unusual part of the country, where you're likely to encounter anything from creatures of the deep (in Donsol and Ticao) to Easter-time Romans and self-flagellation (Marinduque), cowboys rounding up both steers and crabs (Masbate), and .