- 2 Weeks
In two weeks you can have it all: stunning seascapes, white beaches and emerald-green rice terraces.
Fly into Manila, which remains the best hub for reaching the Philippines' famous beaches and is worth a one-day stopover to tour historic Intramuros and its nearby museums.
On day two fly to Busuanga in Palawan's Calamian Islands. Visit majestic Coron Island, dive the WWII wrecks, do a kayak tour, snorkel 'til you drop, and camp overnight on an idyllic offshore island such as Calumbuyan, Pass or North Cay.
Next, take a ferry to Palawan's other crown jewel, El Nido, home to some of the world's prettiest beaches and jumping-off point for island-hopping trips in the spectacular Bacuit Archipelago. Enjoy El Nido's burgeoning drinking and dining scene – a warm-up for your next stop: Boracay, where the party never stops.
Join the party, or just relax on signature White Beach for a couple of days, then fly back to Manila and take an overnight bus to Banaue, jumping-off point for the rice terraces of Ifugao. Enjoy the Zen-like peace and quiet of Batad for a day before taking a bus back to Manila to catch your flight home.
- 1 Month
This trip cuts through all three of the Philippines’ main island groups – Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao – and requires just one flight or so.
Spend your first three days in Manila getting acclimatised, reserving one day for a journey outside Manila – climbing moonlike Mt Pinatubo, whose eruption shook the world in 1991, would be our first choice (pre-dawn departure from Manila notwithstanding). Scenic Tagaytay, which has some of the best restaurants in the country, is a mellower option.
Next, take a night bus (or fly) to the Bicol region in Southeast Luzon. It's an adventure hub with surfing, wakeboarding and volcanoes on offer. Around Legazpi you can snorkel with the whale sharks off Donsol or climb the symmetrical cone of Mt Mayon (if it's not erupting).
Proceeding south, cross the San Bernardino Strait to the rugged islands of Samar and Leyte in the eastern Visayas. Along the way, have the spelunking adventure of a lifetime in Catbalogan. Stop off in Tacloban, Imelda Marcos’ home town. It was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Typhoon Yolanda) but has reinvented itself as a hip provincial centre. Head to nearby Red Beach for a dose of WWII history. Then take a ferry to the Visayas’ gritty capital, Cebu City, for modern comforts and nightlife.
You’ll be approaching week three of your trip by now, and possibly ready for some serious beach time. Take the fast ferry to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol and gateway to the beach resorts of Panglao Island. From Panglao you are well positioned to enjoy all Bohol has to offer: go diving, snorkelling and dolphin-spotting offshore, then head inland to stand-up paddle the Loboc River, view the Chocolate Hills, kayak with fireflies on the Abatan River and spot palm-sized primates at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary.
Next, move north from Panglao and catch a classic back-door ferry: 3½ hours from Jagna, Bohol, to Camiguin Island. Camiguin can keep both adventurous travellers and beach bums satisfied for days. Spend at least several here, then make the short hop over to mainland Mindanao by ferry. For your last few days, choose between Cagayan de Oro, a buzzy university town with white-water rafting, and Siargao, the Philippines' top surf spot as well as an idyllic island with lagoons and mangroves galore.
Voyage to the Visayas
- 4 Weeks
Beach bums and dive buffs need look no further than this central group of idyllic islands.
Kick things off in Cebu City, soaking up some history during the day before partying it up at night. Then it’s time to hit the islands: divers will want to head straight to Malapascua Island, where you'll have a good chance of encountering thresher sharks; while sun worshippers should check in on laid-back Bantayan Island. Double back to Cebu City and continue south to adventure mecca Moalboal, where waterfalls abound and you can go freediving with schooling sardines.
Continue to Cebu's southern tip and cross the narrow Tañon Strait to Negros and Dumaguete, which is all about promenading on the scenic boulevard, great seafood, rowdy nightlife and superb diving at Apo Island. Next, take a detour to the mellow island of Siquijor, just 1¼ hours away by ferry. Spend a day or three here and be sure to visit one of its famed folk healers.
Retreat to Dumaguete and take the long bus ride around the southern horn of Negros to delightfully laid-back Sugar Beach on the west coast. It's a divine sweep of fine golden sand in range of quality diving and mangrove kayaking. From here another long bus journey north takes you to Bacolod, where you can revel in great food and bar-hopping, and take a side trip to Silay for a fascinating journey through haciendas and sugar-cane plantations.
From Bacolod it's an easy fast-ferry trip over to Iloilo City on the island of Panay. Check out the colonial architecture of the Jaro District and have a night out in Smallville. A short boat ride away is Guimaras, a gem of an island with low-key resorts, mountain-biking and famous mangoes. Return to Iloilo and meander north via Antique Province, where hidden beaches await, before alighting on Boracay to whoop it up on White Beach.
Before long you may be inspired to seek permanent-resident status, but if you find the lifestyle too taxing, take a vacation from your vacation by catching a ferry north to the island of Looc in Romblon Province, then continue to Romblon and/or Sibuyan Islands before returning to civilisation via Manila.
Water world: Palawan
- 2 Weeks
The Philippines' star attraction lends itself to easy south–north (or north–south) exploration.
Puerto Princesa, the capital and transport hub of Palawan's long, slender main island, is the most convenient place to begin. Spend an evening checking out the city’s culinary scene and a day exploring the surrounding countryside on a motorcycle. From Puerto, organise a ride to Sabang, a laid-back beachfront village and the base for trips through the famous Underground River.
From Sabang, hightail it further north to Port Barton, a beautiful and relaxing retreat with limited electricity, chilled-out beach bars and excellent island-hopping. Heading north again, reserve at least a day for undiscovered Taytay before rejoining the tourist masses in El Nido, sandwiched between limestone cliffs and the fantastically picturesque Bacuit Archipelago.
From El Nido, take a boat to Busuanga Island. If you have time, the trip to Busuanga can be done as a five-day island-hopping expedition through the heavenly Linapacan and Calamian archipelagos. From Busuanga, venture out to the striking lakes of Coron Island and some of the best wreck diving in the world. Flights and ferries are available to usher you back to Manila and reality.
- 3 Weeks
Not a beach person? The mountains of the Philippines' main island delight inland explorers with rice terraces, trekking and hill tribes.
Head north from Manila to Baguio, the gateway to the Cordillera Mountains. A few of the city's museums provide worthwhile introductions to the region's fascinating ethnographic make-up.
From Baguio, take a bus to relatively untouched Kabayan, centre of Ibaloi culture and base for hikes in Mt Pulag National Park. Next, Sagada beckons. This tranquil backpacker village with cool temps, a laid-back vibe and top-notch hikes is tough to leave.
Take a jeepney to Bontoc and explore the amphitheatre-like rice terraces of Maligcong on a day trip. Continue north to Tinglayan, a base for treks into indigenous Kalinga villages where the contemporary world feels far away.
With a little R&R in mind, catch a bus south to San Jose (you might have to overnight here) to connect to another bus to the surfing town of Baler.