The Philippines is generating a buzz as a less-discovered alternative to Southeast Asian beach hotspots like Bali and southern Thailand. It's not hard to see why. The country has more than 7000 islands, most boasting at least an idyllic beach or two. With such a wealth of coastal pleasures on offer, it can be tricky to pick your spot. Here are a few areas to home in on.
The dramatic limestone formations of the Bacuit Archipelago keep the postcard vendors in business, but unless you're a serious rock climber you'll spend more time on the beaches around this laid-back northern Palawan town. The islands of the archipelago are blessed with dozens of beaches, the best of which are visited on island-hopping excursions out of El Nido. Alas, these do get crowded and cost a bit of money to get to.
Not to worry, DIY explorers have several options at their disposal within an hour of town. A 20-minute tricycle ride south, the best sunsets in the area are at Marimegmeg Beach, also known as Las Cabanas Beach, where you can kick your feet into the sand and order suitably fruity cocktails at cool-kid happy-hour hangout Beach Shack. Forty-five minutes north of town by motorbike, Nacpan Beach is a divine 3km slice of beige sand that's perfect for swimming. Development is limited to a few rickety huts specialising in yummy seafood and shakes, and there is rustic accommodation here too. Another fine option is 7 Commandos Beach, which is on the mainland southwest of El Nido but is accessible only by boat. The standard El Nido island-hopping tours come here, but a better way to arrive is on your own by sea kayak from El Nido or Corong Corong Beach, 5km south of El Nido. Allow time to stop and snorkel on the way.
This banana-shaped island has accessibility going for it – international flights from Asian hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore fly right into the Visayas' largest city, Cebu City. Near the airport on Mactan Island you'll find a variety of high-end, family-oriented resorts. The beaches on Mactan are nothing special, so hire a boat to take you out to islands in the Bohol Strait, where ample quantities of white sand grace the numerous beaches.
If you have more time, travel three hours by car to the northern tip of the island, where pump boats make the 10-minute trip to dreamy Malapascua Island, home to blinding-white Bounty Beach and, for scuba divers, thresher sharks. Alternatively, drive southwest to the diving town of Moalboal, which offers the rare chance to swim just offshore with giant schools of sardines.
If you want to sample several world-class beaches in one short trip, look no further than southern Negros. Fly into Dumaguete, the regional capital of Negros Oriental, and you are within an hour of Apo Island, a top dive site with backpacker-friendly accommodation on an utterly isolated stretch of sand; escapist paradise Tambobo Bay; and Siquijor Island. rung with bone-white beaches and exceptional value accommodation. Further afield (four hours away by bus), you'll feel like you've reached the end of the Earth at Sipalay's Sugar Beach.
The crown jewel of Philippine beaches has experienced a surge in popularity as travel publications rush to add it to their world's-top-beaches lists. What took them so long? Boracay's 5km signature White Beach has been dropping jaws for decades. All that publicity has spurred development and turned Boracay into a big-time party beach. Still, the island remains mellow compared to regional luminaries like Kuta Beach and Ko Samui, and you can escape the crowds without too much trouble. Kite surfers love it too.
Easy to access it is not, but those with a sense of adventure are well advised to travel to Pagudpud, a town on the northern tip of the Philippines' main island, Luzon. The highway up here is the Philippines' answer to the Great Ocean Road or the Pacific Coast Highway. It zigzags around dramatic headlands and skirts seemingly endless beaches such as Blue Lagoon, where Luzon's whitest sand and bluest water can be found in one place.
It's best known as the Philippines' top surf spot, but an all-day loop around the island of Siargao brings you up close and personal with beaches equal to any in the South Pacific. Cloud Nine is ground zero for surfers, but to escape the crowds head offshore to any number of uninhabited islets. Or drive up to Burgos near Siargao's northeastern tip, where coconut palms back a three-kilometre crescent of powdered-sugary soft sand, and perfect waves peel off in several directions in the bay.
Other good bets for beaches include Baler (Luzon), Panglao Island (Bohol), Coron (Palawan) and Camiguin (off Mindanao). Or just check out a map of the country, point to an island, and go. You'll inevitably find a lonely stretch of sand that few tourists have trod on before – your own private patch of paradise.
This article was first published in May 2012 and updated in August 2015.