by John Borthwick

Congratulations to our long time contributor John Borthwick who has recently won the prestigious ‘gong’ of Travel Writer of the Year in the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ annual awards. Ed.

An archipelago of cathedrals and beauty queens, spas, bars and whale sharks. Toss in fiestas, coups and volcanoes, and the Philippines can seem like a brew of magical realism. So go see for yourself.

This nation of almost 100 million people with over 7,100 islands and a brand new, loose-cannon president greets you at its super-sized capital, Manila — a vastness of people and Jeepney jams, glittering wealth and its grinding opposite. Just keep moving, through a few of these easier alternatives.

Baler (pron. Bal-air) is where you go if you love the smell of surf in the morning. This little-known town in Aurora province on the east coast of Luzon was invaded by Hollywood in 1975 when Francis Ford Coppola spent 11 months there filming Apocalypse Now. On endless Sabang Beach, Coppola’s apocalypse is long gone but the Pacific waves still pump and the locals are cool. Way back in 1899 Baler was the scene of the most famous military siege in Philippine history. For a full year Spanish soldiers held-out inside its church, refusing to believe that, after 400 years, a ragtag gang of Filipino rebels had kicked Spain out of its Asian feudal fiefdom.

Banaue, a day’s drive north of Manila, is famous as the home of “The Stairway of the Gods” — thousands of hand-hewn rice terraces notched into precipitous slopes. Construction began 3,000 years ago and still continues — the longest “Men At Work” project in history. Ifugao tribal folk decked in hornbill head-dresses sometimes plonk themselves in the middle of your vista for “twenty pesos a picture” photo opportunities. One of them assures me that, “If you place all these terraces end-to-end, they would reach more than halfway around the world.”

Boracay, 350 km south of the capital, is the country’s best-known resort island and its four-kilometre White Beach is one of the most photographed in the Pacific. So they paved Paradise and put up everything but a parking lot … scores of small hotels, boutiques, dive shops and bars have sliced and diced its celebrated strand. The island has some 30 other beaches and coves, plus sports galore – diving, snorkeling, sailing and kayaking, even golf.

Cebu, the second largest city, is the hub of the central Philippines. “Unfortunately, we murdered our first tourist,” your guide might joke, referring to navigator Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to land in the Philippines, who was felled in 1521 on nearby Mactan Island. These days visitors receive a friendlier welcome. Cebu, like Manila, is an excellent shopping destination; think shoes, clothing, furniture and handicrafts.

Calauit Island at the north of the Palawan chain is home to giraffe, zebra, antelope and a slew of non-predatory African species. No kidding. President Ferdinand Marcos parked them there in the 1980s so he could go shootin’ without ever needing a passport. He’s long gone but it’s too far for his stranded critters to swim home.

Donsol, near Legazpi, has the highest concentration of whale sharks anywhere in the world and they linger here for almost half the year. Swimming with whale sharks – butanding — is very well organised. From small boats visitors slip into the water and snorkel beside these gentle giants, the largest fish in the ocean. Moving majestically, the whale shark often cruises just below the surface, allowing you to swim eye-to-giant eye with the it. The season runs December to June, but avoid the Christmas and Easter crowds.

Marinduque, a short flight south of Manila, is a small, tranquil island of waterfalls, sleepy villages, jungles and old Spanish churches — in short, authentic, regional Philippines, untrammeled by resorts, go-gos and bogans. Nothing truly special to do: a few good resorts and just you and the blue Sibuan Sea.

Palawan, the long archipelago stretching southwest towards Indonesia, is rich in everything — uninhabited islands, unsullied nature and clear waters. Its stunning El Nido Marine Reserve has a score of pristine dive sites and secret lagoons. With a handful of upmarket resorts, this is, for me, the Philippine’s most outstanding island destination. By good management and communal support El Nido has been preserved from logging, dynamite fishing and cheapjack development. Southern Palawan is less spectacular than El Nido, but so are most places on earth. Its claim to fame is the Underground River, the longest navigable cave in the world, which flows through limestone tunnels for eight kilometres. You can explore the first kilometre by canoe.

Vigan looks like a slice of old Spain that the colonists left behind. One of my favourite places in the Philippines, this World Heritage-listed, 17th century town is the capital of Ilocos Sur province in northern Luzon. Pony-drawn carriages still clatter along its cobbles, shaded by iron lace balconies. The Spanish built massive basilicas in this fertile but earthquake-prone Ilocos region, with the huge stone belfries set well apart from the main churches. Should the bell tower tumble it would not crush the church — an architectural style called “Earthquake Baroque”.

Information: This is a year-round destination but seasonal variations are significant: March—June is the hottest time, June—July the wettest and November—December the coolest.