7 days exploring the Philippines, from beach to buzzing city to Spanish Old West
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What do you think about when you think about the Philippines?
I don’t know about you, but all I thought about was pink sunrises, straw hats and climbing palm-trees on the shore. Close your eyes and you can already imagine it; the picture-perfect beaches, pristine water and sand so soft it’s gliding over the fine grain sugar of your wildest dreams.
You’ll think corals and underwater reefs the colors of your prettiest painter’s pallet. You’ll envision sipping coconut milk, flower necklace round your designer bikini, whilst you pop your hip and stare into the camera, the sun gracefully caressing your burnt shoulders and the salty breeze combing your hair into the bombshell summer-waves look from the cover of Vogue.
And you think correctly; the Philippines is exactly all of this. A heavenly depiction; it’s the gold-dust of unforgettable summer memories and fun, the Instagram-ready destination.
But the Philippines is also, incredibly, so much more. This conglomerate of islands, more than 7,500 of them to be specific, is a full package in the bargain of holiday making precisely because you’ve got so many differing unique destinations to choose from.
It’s true, Palawan is as beautiful as it gets, and the diving in Boracay is unfathomable, but there’s such a richness in culture, tradition and vegetation that is often overlooked when it comes to what this nation has to offer.
For example, the northern part of the archipelago is seldom taken to heart as much as the south of the Philippines, although there’s equally a large amount of discoveries to be overwhelmed by!
Thankfully, we’ve paired up with the tourism board of the Philippines to offer you a sneak peek of where you should go in order to get a taste of more than the typical tourism destinations of the islands.
Here’s a rough week-long plan for your jollies. You should look out as we’ll be posting articles tailored to each and every one of these destinations later on in the year too!
Day 1 – City life in Manila
Flying to the capital of the Philippines is an easy-peasy job, as the well-connected Ninoy Aquino International Airport is served by a large array of airlines and has a vast number of internal flights between the islands on a daily basis.
Whilst visiting Manila you can experience the core sentiment of a buzzing Asian megalopolis, as skyscrapers and buildings of stunning-modern architecture shoot from a base of shantytowns crammed atop of each other.
In fact, what’s peculiar about Manila is the soothing harmony with which opposite architectural realities hug each other in a very large but very buzzing chunk of land. Unlike Singapore or Taiwan, where discerned districts fully emphasize a difference in architectural style and general vibe, the business district being fully homogenous in luxury and grandiosity.
In Manila the simple and the complex both share the same spaces and same spreads of land. Manila is homogenous in diversity; congested roads are honking pythons strangling the necks of skyscrapers and simple huts alike.
The capital city of the Philippines has an enormous amount of possibilities to offer so it does take a couple days to learn more about the culture identity and reality of the city. For the sake of this itinerary we’ve kept our visit to the brevity of one single day, but at least a couple more is absolutely advised.
Day 2 – Views in Tagaytay
Escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital with a day-trip to the holiday region of Tagaytay, just a couple hours’ drive south of Manila. This is a more tranquil, more natural and rural area. The district overlooks the undisturbed serenity of Taal Lake, formerly known as Bombòn Lake, which hosts a tiny complex volcano, Taal Volcano, also known as the second most active volcano in the Philippines with its 33 historic eruptions.
A great destination for photographic feats, you can visit the Palace in the Sky or the Taal Vista View Deck to get a great scenic view of the lake and the volcano below you, lush greenery blowing in the wind.
You can get a taste of some relaxation in nature by visiting Nurture Spa & Wellness for a real getaway with a soothing massage, or you can have a cleansing, healthy lunch munching on organic veggies at Sonya’s Garden, amidst thousands of flowers and botanical beauties.
Day 3 – Tradition in Laoag
Fly over to the northern part of the archipelago with a brief internal flight from Manila to the province of Ilocos Norte in the region of Ilocos.
Facing the South China Sea to the west and the Luzon Strait to the north, this province is noted for being the birthplace of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Laoag is the capital of the province and also the political, commercial, and industrial hub as well as home to its only commercial airport, the Laoag International Airport.
Take in the historical architecture with a tour of the Laoag Cathedral, built in 1612 by Augustinian friars to replace a wooden chapel, and a visit to the majestic Paoay church, main attraction of the neighboring fourth class municipality of Paoay.
For a truly relaxing and typical experience, stay over night in the astonishing Fort Ilocandia, an internationally praised resort and the first hotel built in the area.
Day 4 – Authenticity in Vigan
On your fourth day, step up your discovery of the rich cultural heritage of the northern Philippines by visiting the time-traveling city of Vigan.
Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is one of the few towns left in the Philippines whose old structures have mostly remained intact. It’s like time traveling to the old Wild West in Spain, as you can stroll around a town that is fully characterised by rough cobblestone streets and unique architecture of the Philippine colonial era. Eat the typical traditional food and take a ride on the horse carriages, the main method of transportation in the area.
Day 5 – Adventure in Pagudpud
Take a break from the cultural richness of Ilocos Norte for a fun-filled day in the beautiful area of Pagudpud.
Pagudpud is the northernmost settlement on Luzon Island and a very popular tourist destination because of its beaches, with resorts lining the long stretch of Saud Beach.
You can try sandboarding on the scorching hot sand dunes and skidding around on a 4x4 for a real feel of the desert life. Then cool off on the paradisiac beaches eating fresh fish whilst listening to tiny waves crash against the pale sand.
Last but not least, go explore the stunning greenery of the neighboring Bangui district, admiring the majestic Bangui windfarms where 20 towering 70-metre high wind turbines arch one the shoreline of Bangui Bay, facing the West Philippine Sea, providing a whole 40%-70% of the region's electricity in what is the first renewable energy initiative of its type in South East Asia.
Although an archipelago replete with unique islands has a thousand differing perks, it has one main disadvantage: getting around. In fact, whilst our plan includes a visit to the northern islands of Batanes next, there’s a bit of flying between islands that makes this transportation a tad more complicated than it could be. We advise you fly from Laoag back to Manila, take a day off in Manila and then catch the next flight to the region of Batanes.
Day 6 – Nature in Batan
Next step in your discovery of the unspoken wonders of the Philippines is to fly over to Basco, the capital of the island of Batan. Batan itself is the main island of Batanes, an archipelago province comprising of ten islands, also the northernmost province in the country, almost closer to Taiwan than to the Philippines mainland island of Luzon.
This province is also smallest of the Philippine provinces, both in population and land area, because just three of the ten islands are actually inhabited; Batan, where you’ll be flying to, and then Sabtang and Itbayat.
A stay in Batanes will be a fully natural one as almost one-half of Batanes is rolling hills and mountains in the most stunning of ways, almost like a version of Scotland in a tropical humid heat of 30°; almost like going as far from the Philippines as possible whilst never leaving them.
Since last year’s devastating typhoon, the islands aren’t served with any internet connection - hence your stay can truly be one of immersion in nature and detoxing from the city life.
You can stay at Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge for a luxurious experience with the best view and the most artsy of vibes as earth and art come together in the former home studio of internationally acclaimed artist Pacita Abad.
Day 7 – Indigenous reality in Sabtang
When the sun rises take the first boat from the shore of Basco and cruise to the nearing island of Sabtang, taking you from nature to tradition. Sabtang, only a 45-minute boat ride from the main island of the complex of Batanes, is an island for you to experience the pith of life in the Philippines; coming together with the indigenous tribes of the area for a natural experience of immersion into the customs and traditions of the Ivatan people.
Small churches, fishermen’s villages and women wearing traditional costume in traditional houses of thatched roofs. Keep an eye on the boat schedules to make your way back to the main island of Batan.
Overall, although we’ve limited our visit of the island to one day for the sake of this itinerary, a relaxed getaway of a couple of days amidst the breathtaking natural landscapes and tranquility of mind is for sure advised.
Philippines fun fact: yes, the islands were dubbed as "The Philippines" after King Philip II of Spain. Plus, they've got a reversable flag. It is flown with the red stripe on top when the nation is in a state of war, otherwise, in a time of peace, the blue is actually on top.
Sofia travelled to the Philippines with a direct flight from Heathrow to Manila with Philippine Airlines. She was hosted by the Philippines Tourism Board and travelled through the north of the archipelago. Their tourism website, which you can find here, runs with the slogan that it's more fun in the Philippines!