This is the Philippines in numbers. There are 7,107 islands. More than 100 million people call the nation home, making it the 12th most populated country on Earth, but only the 72nd largest. Its economy is swift-moving and it shifts around 19.5 million tonnes of coconuts and almost nine million tonnes of bananas a year.
In the face of rapid modernisation, the island collective – named the Philippines after King Philip of Spain in 1542 – has blockbuster panoramas, a clutch of crumbling Spanish buildings and some of the world’s most boggly-eyed wildlife.
But when it comes to picking the right island for you, where do you start?
Foodie haven Luzon
Manila is one of Asia’s coolest capitals: we’re talking jazz clubs, speakeasy bars and endless cabaret nights. It was the Battle of Manila, against Japan in 1945, that halted the city’s vibrant street life, but the good news is Manila – the Philippines’ main entry and exit point – is thriving once again.
First, forget fine dining in five-star restaurants. The most memorable feeds are at Manila’s fast-growing street food stalls, which compete with the best of those found in Bangkok and Singapore. Delve into Mexican feasts with a Filipino twist at Makati’s El Chupacabra (the corn tacos stuffed with pork sisig are formidable) and look out for the city-wide food truck parks that serve pulled-pork sandwiches and bowls of steaming ramen.
Beyond the spunky bars, there is an exploding love for art and Manila is embracing its growth. Two favourite galleries, Galleria Duemila in Pasay and The Drawing Room in Makati, are studded with contemporary canvases, sculpture and design and the work of up-and-coming Filipino artists showcasing the unstoppable urbanisation of the islands. Keep a look out for flyers advertising pop-up exhibitions – a few dozen appear each month.
Three hours north of Manila is Banaue, the gateway to the rice terraces of northern Luzon. These terraces – watch the sun steam through rumbling clouds to form a silky haze across sparse green paddy fields – were built over 2,000 years ago. It can’t have been easy work, considering many of the fields hover on sheer drops. The Igarot hill tribes still hand-sow their grain and handpick their harvest, just as it was done more than two millennia ago.
Diver dream Malapascua
You’re under the water, against a wall of bright coral, calmly taking in the open water around you. Against the gentle sunlight streaming in through the blue, you see the silhouette of a sleek, long-finned shark.
These five-metre-long thresher sharks come to clean themselves with a little help from the parasitic fish found in Malapascua’s tropical waters. They’ve no taste for humans, though – they feed on small fish and squid. To take the 30-metre plunge, you need proof of Advanced Padi certification, but an alternative is to complete a one-off Deep Diving Certificate while on the dive with an instructor. Post-dive, drop in on the island’s beach bars overlooking the white sand and topaz waters of Bounty Beach. I recommend Oscar’s Beach rooftop bar and restaurant, which serves every cocktail you can think of. Try the mango daiquiris, which are best soaked up with the bar’s signature Irish beef stew.
Idler bliss Palawan
In laidback El Nido, at the northern tip of Palawan, limestone cliffs tower out of the ocean, white sands lie under the cloudless skies and island hopping is the daily agenda. As local legend goes, the small islet of Matinloc was where author Alex Garland was inspired to write The Beach on a visit (although the movie adaptation was shot in Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi, giving the rival island a huge tourism boost in the 2000s).
With its mossy cliffs, sweeping bays and azure water, El Nido is stunning – but it’s also stuffed with tourists during peak season. Avoid them on a loud jeepney bus heading south to sleepy Port Barton, where there’s little more to do than sunbathing on empty stretches of sand, hiking in the jungle to cascading waterfalls, or just hanging out at the bars. Happy hour at Summer Homes’ beach bar begins at 4pm and the sizzling chicken is some of the tastiest in town.
Explorer lure Bohol
Small, round Bohol, just south of Cebu, is home to green rainforest canopies, winding rivers and tarsiers, the oldest – and one of the smallest – species of primate in the world. These bug-eyed creatures, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, were first hanging around the islands 45 million years ago. Tarsiers are most commonly found here – more rarely on Mindanao and Leyte – because of the island’s dense rainforest, which protects them from predators such as owls and feral cats.
This is also where the Chocolate Hills are found – 1,260 Malteser-like mounds spread over an area of 50 square kilometres. Legend has it that two feuding giants threw rocks and boulders at each other, the remnants forming the rolling landscape you’ll see today.
Reveller retreat Boracay
Picture the Palest sand, the bluest seas, private cabanas with hammocks and fresh coconuts filled with rum – oh, and your own waiter to deliver them. This is glamorous Boracay, often spotted on lists of the world’s best beaches.
Here on the sugar-white sands of the Philippines (so white there’s even a White Beach, one of the island’s most popular) there’s little more to do than treat yourself to the ‘King and Queen’ massage and scrub package at Bella Isa’s spa, grab a sundowner at Calypso and Sanga Beach Bar, where the San Miguel beer – brewed in the Philippines – is just 55 pesos (HK$9), before taking part in friendly shuffleboard contests. If that’s too low-octane, you’ll probably want to tramp about in fun nightclubs such as Paraw and DJ-friendly Epic. Impressive, given that Boracay was once inhabited by just 100 people growing rice and raising goats.
If you like glitzy Macau, try the wonderfully plush tables at PAGCOR, Cebu City’s best casino. Or razz the streets of southern Cebu in a cartoonish motorbike sidecar before filling up on South African food at Boljoon’s Granada Beach House.
Swap the fresh seafood of Thailand’s Koh Samui for Davao City, Mindanao – where Ahfat Seafood Plaza rules the restaurant roost.
You’ll want to avoid the hordes – so you’ll want to get to Panay. Think Koh Lanta, but two decades ago.
Step back in time to the Batanes islands, where locals live in old stone and grass houses and farming is the way of life.
Check out the barrelling waves of the Cloud 9 break at Siargao, where both pros and novices take to the water.
The city of Dumaguete, Negros, is the place for lively bars serving freshly caught seafood.
Boat it over to the tiny-but-spooky Siquijor, where tales of witch doctors and faith healers will keep you wide-eyed for hours.