Asia’s new must-see destination point is The Philippines – Daily Mail
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In a world that seems to be getting smaller, it’s difficult to find a place that’s not already trending with tourists or, worse, gap-year students.
That was my only criticism of Thailand when I visited ten years ago. Yes, I certainly loved the country that means ‘Freedom’, but there was little of it that wasn’t marred by Western influence and even on my arrival on the island of Koh Samui, I was greeted with a McDonald’s sign.
So, when the Philippines came calling, I was instantly intrigued by the famed archipelago which boasts 7,000 isles south-east of Asia’s mainland. Why? Because it’s the road less travelled.
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Life’s a beach! The Philippines is a famed archipelago which boasts 7,000 isles south-east of Asia’s mainland…with epic vistas
Remote experience: The vast number of islands allow visitors to enjoy a truly secluded sunshine break – without added expense for space
One explanation for this slight under-discovered feel could be because so few carriers have previously offered competitive-enough deals to get the masses over there, but – with a tempting new schedule by Philippine Airlines in conjunction with Hayes and Jarvis – that almost certainly looks set to change.
And, this time, I was determined to go ahead of the curve.
Fourteen hours of non-stop business class later and we touch down in the hustle and bustle of the capital city, Manila. A neon landscape taller – and broader – than expected, it was like driving through a pinball machine with the volume cranked-up.
Notorious for its epic traffic, the adrenaline-inducing roads were surprisingly entertaining thanks to inventive ways locals out-smart their tail-backs with jeepneys – Manila’s death-defying buses (military jeeps left-over by US troops following the Second World War).
The thriller that’s Manila: The city’s famous Jeepney buses – old US military trucks from WW2 – ensure the capital’s roads are never dull
Traffic: Famed for its epic gridlock, the adrenaline-inducing transport system is an unlikely (but must-see) tourist trap
Fast-forward sixty minutes and we arrive at the grand Shangri-La Makati hotel, located in the affluent business district.
Five-star by any standard, the clientele was a reassuring mix of international travellers and discerning locals who clearly rated the traditional, in-house restaurant, Inagiku. Always a good marker of credible quality.
Greeted by cocktails in the hotel’s penthouse Sage Bar, this warm welcome formed a springboard for our first night in the place author Dan Brown once described as ‘the gates of hell’. Naturally, we saw no evidence of this – on the contrary, instead we witnessed a shimmering city in flux. In particular, one that’s hospitality industry is thriving.
The skyline’s the limit! Manila at night became a shimmering city in flux – both taller and broader than expected
Life in the fast-lane: While the Jeepneys cost just 11p per ride, visitors can also indulge their wanderlust in a motorised rickshaw ride
From our vantage point (Manila’s tallest night-spot, 71 Gramercy – a must-see) we could truly appreciate the scale of a modern metropolis in metamorphosis.
And, while other Asian cities may suffer from a seedy underbelly, Manila’s is either well-hidden or discretely indulged in private.
By day, the revelation continued. We saw a surprisingly organised, clean side of Manila – one that’s evolved from the original plan devised by Daniel Burnham in 1905 (who later sketched layouts for Washington and Chicago and was similarly responsible for New York’s Flatiron building).
San Juan River: Peter Lloyd stands on the cusp of the city’s Spanish Quarter as he overlooks river boats and the financial district
Retail therapy: Manila offers plenty of street vendors, but also boasts 16 air-conditioned ‘super malls’ that are decidedly middle-class
Historic and beautiful: Manila’s Fort Santiago, houses a memorial to the Philippines’ national hero, José Rizal
Like America, which once ruled the Philippines, Manila is unapologetically retail-tastic. And all the better for it, too. The arrival of Greenbelt Super Mall in the 1980s (which is so epic it spawned a fifth wing in 2007) is living proof of this.
Packed with restaurants, nightclubs, medical centres and immaculate shops ranging from Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, visitors should be under no illusion: it’s decidedly middle-class, not some poor man’s Westfield in the sun. In fact, with sixteen air-conditioned malls in total, shopping here is a way of life for locals.
A more bespoke shopping alternative, however, is The Henry Hotel, where live-in designer Eric Paras curates a handsome boutique that’s previously attracted the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, no less. Situated in a gated community, it’s also the city’s best small-scale hotel on offer and was the recent location of an Elle Magazine shoot.
Classy: A more bespoke shopping alternative is The Henry Hotel, where live-in designer Eric Paras curates a handsome boutique that’s previously attracted the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker
Not that it’s all commerce, of course. Manila’s historic Spanish quarter boasts plenty of heritage with their Tower of London equivalent, Fort Santiago, housing a memorial to the Philippines’ national hero, Dr José Rizal. The San Agustin Church, a compelling UNESCO site, is also worthy of attention.
But there’s also more left-field fun to be had. As a self-confessed movie buff, I organised a bespoke tour of filming locations for some of the Philippine Film industry’s best-known productions, including The Bourne Identity and Brokedown Palace, starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale.
This included the Manila Hotel – a classic spot from 1912 that once hosted John F Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway & The Beatles – plus Coconut Palace, a building commissioned in 1978 by former First Lady Imelda Marcos (and famously snubbed by Pope John Paul II during his 1981 papal visit for being too opulent. Fabulous).
Too cute! A tiny tarsier perches on a tree branch at a forest reservation in Corella, on Bohol island in the central Philippines (right). Peter overlooks Bohol’s Chocolate Hills where one thousand dramatic 40m mounds dominate the landscape (left)
However, for all it’s urban glory, the Philippines is much more than just Manila – which is welcome news for anyone who might struggle with the testing humidity. Mercifully, respite is offered in the form of The Philippines’ 7,000 idyllic islands. Islands which, unlike those surrounding Thailand’s mainland, feel truly secluded and untouched.
Any traveller going for weeks (rather than months) will only be able to do a handful during their stay, but I strongly suggest Bohol (and neighbouring Panglao in the central Visayas region), plus the stunning Palawan.
An hour’s flight south of Manila, the former is the larger and offers a perfect segue between the city and the sedate.
That said, it still buzzes with sights to see – namely the Tarsier Wildlife Sanctuary, which houses the endangered species in a specially-built eco-system, plus Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, where one thousand 40m mounds dominate the landscape. So-called because they resemble giant cocoa beans.
The stuff of legend: So-called because they resemble giant cocoa beans fallen, the Chocolate Hills are also part of Filipino folklore
My personal highlight of my trip, however, was without question when nature and adventure collided in the form of paddle-boarding along the epic Loboc River.
Four hours of wading through Iguana-rich waters complete with dramatic rain (as tourists trawled by on luncheon liners) resulted in a waterfall crescendo which left us – quite literally – speechless. Never, ever have I felt closer to nature. And I’m not sure I ever will again.
Believe me, the Philippines may offer a tropical climate, but this particular experience was seriously cool. And the people who call it home don’t take it for granted.
Chatting with one local about whether she’d ever swap it for a life elsewhere she didn’t miss a beat in explaining: ‘People spend years working hard to make money so they can retire, leave the madness and live on a beautiful island. I already have that – and there is more than one way to live a rich life’.
A highlight was when nature and adventure collided in the form of paddle-boarding along the Loboc River
Stunning scenes: Four hours of wading through Iguana-rich waters resulted in a dramatic waterfall crescendo which left them – quite literally – speechless
Unable to top that, we then headed to the province of Palawan, where we caught a speedboat to the privately-owned Dicilingan Island, home of the luxury Huma Island Resort and Spa.
Standing at the bow of the boat as it blasted along the water – clothes dripping wet – there was literally nothing else in sight. No crush of humanity, no roads, no competing land. That journey, they told us, was their average morning commute.
Greeted by local singers who serenaded us in style, they then escorted us to our private cabins which consisted of apartments afloat on the water.
Rising on stilts above the island’s coral banks, the 64 water villas offer stunning, uninterrupted views of the sea. With 102 square meters of floor space, they are made for a cosy romantic hideaway, and a picturesque honeymoon retreat.
But, because the Filpinos know how to enjoy themselves, we hosted a private party of our own…without fear of waking the neighbours.
VIP: Peter headed to Palawan, where we caught a speedboat to the privately-owned Dicilingan Island, home of Huma Island Resort & Spa
Wow-factor: Rising on stilts above the island’s coral banks, the resort’s 64 water villas offered stunning, uninterrupted views of the sea
It was during this moment, flanked by a star-gazing sky and surrounded by fabulous people who remain new friends, that I realised the magic of the Philippines is the same whether experienced from the city or by the sea.
Because, ultimately, it’s a heady combination of the people and the place.
Yes, it’s true that Asia’s more commercial offerings may have long enjoyed their moment in the sun, but – when it comes to the Philippines – their time is most definitely now.
Don’t be late.
Peter travelled with Hayes & Jarvis, which offers a seven-night trip to Manila, Bohol and Palawan from £1,899pp, including B&B accommodation, tours, internal flights and transfers and flights from London Heathrow with Philippine Airlines.
Visit www.hayesandjarvis.com or call 01293 762 456.
Shangri-La Makati rooms start at £130 a night Tel: +(63 2) 813 8888.
The Henry Hotel: rooms start from £80 per night. www.thehenryhotel.com
Huma Island Tel: +(63 2) 553 0119.
As of the 28th of June 2016, Philippine Airlines will introduce a new non-stop daily service between London Heathrow and Manila. Prices to start from £600 including taxes.
Asia’s new must-see destination point is The Philippines – Daily Mail}