The Philippines offer the very best of exotic vacations. It has everything you imagine when you think about a luxurious beach vacation. The soft white sandy beaches, the clear turquoise water, the fresh coconuts, sweet juicy fruits, happy-get-lucky locals (that speak English!), and lots of green jungles. An immense feeling of freedom.
Cheaper than Thailand.
And most importantly- jumping (real life!) dolphins! Free! We saw them while on ferries several times. They just show up, whole pods of them, swimming and jumping right next to the boat.
A few shorts words on the Philippines:
The Philippines are divided to four main districts. North (Luzon), center (Visayas), the south (Mindanao), and the island Palawan which is west of Visayas, towards Malaysia.
The archipelago consists of over 7,000 islands, and the main venues of transportation between them is by using the excellent ferry network (depending on the distance between islands, sometimes it’s a small ferry, sometimes a big one, almost a bus, and sometimes it’s a huge ferry that takes you 24 hours or more on the ocean waves), or by flight. You can also take a bus, I mean- you take the bus, and it goes on a ferry, and continues on another island:-).
The locals are charming, welcoming and hospitable, and always happy to help. But there’s two things they don’t believe in in the Philippines that it’s important you know about: hot water in the shower, and blankets.
Meaning you’ll only have hot water in medium level hotels and above. And the same goes for blankets.
It’s simply too hot there for either anyway.
The capital: is Manila, and she’s not welcoming to families. There’s a lot of traffic and sometimes the city just doesn’t feel safe. There are areas that bunch together strip clubs and gambling establishments. But together with all that- it’s the place to go shopping, there are crazy big malls there, with all the biggest brands. Personally I only go there to freshen up my wardrobe. My favorite place is called ‘Glorietta’ and it’s actually 4 connected malls. There are also some pretty big attractions (which I haven’t visited) like chinatown.
Money: the local currency is called Peso. $1=50 Pesos. You can find ATM mechines, but it’s not always easy, especially if you leave the highly touristic areas. Anyway the feeling is that there aren’t enough of them. Sometimes the line is very long. What they do have there are lots of money changers, and international money transfer. There are everywhere.
Visa: most people get free visa upon arrival of somewhere between 21-30 days but it always pays to check in advance. The most important thing is to have an exist ticket to somewhere.
Best seasons: it’s always hot in the Philippines. They have a rainy season and a typhoon season. December to May is the best time to visit. For vacations- Christmas! But summer vacation can also work, provided you can stay for a longer time, allowing for flexibility.
Food: it’s a tropical country so there’s a wide selection of fruits, dozens of types of Mango and Avocado, Coconuts, Jackfruit, and a lot of other we don’t even know about in the west. Most of their food is rice based, they have different kinds of white and pink and red rice… and a ton of seafood (goes without saying) as well as chicken and pork. They love their barbecue, and grill every type of meat they can find. You’ll see people fanning the flames everywhere. You choose the slice and they grill it for you on the spot. Try the chicken legs, a local favorite.
I will now write a recommendation for a fun route you can go on with the kids, based around central Philippines. I built it around the center on purpose as it’s considered the area best protected from typhoons, and therefore better at summer (and summer vacation). It’s flexible from a days-per-location perspective, so you could twist it to fit however long you have available.
The route starts in Cebu. The second largest island in the Philippines.
You can stay in Cebu city, of find quieter places. I like recommending this hotel, on Mactan Island that is connected to mainland(ish) Cebu by bridge (the international airport is also on this island). It’s not cheap but will provide an excellent opening to any vacation.
Take two-three days to get over the flight and just have a good family time, then fly from Cebu to the tiny volcanic island “Cameguin”.
During the flight the staff entertains the passengers with riddle games. There are even prizes:-).
This tiny island sits on a volcano, which turns some of the beaches black. Beyond that, despite the size of the island it has many fun activities. There are some nice waterfalls (where you can swim), a site with a few hot spring pools, each with a different temperature. There’s a Zipline near the beach that goes above a sweet water lake, kayaking and other sea activities, and a site with giant clams (careful, they swallow everything!). A few museums and even an ostrich farm.
We’ve visited this island twice. Zig-zagged all across it on a bike we rented and discovered some lovely isolated corners. Climbed one of the mountains, and at the top we found a beautiful waterfall and remnants of volcanic ash.
When we went to the Zipline booking office the kids really wanted to go. For me it was enough to just see the cable stretched over the water to give up the pleasure. But the Zipline rules say you have to go in twos, so found myself being launched (twice! It’s a two-leg journey…) together with my youngest daughter.
I recommend to sleep in the hot spring campus called “Ardent”, that way you could go for a swim any time you want (the pools are open 24 hours), even after the kids fell asleep… :-). They have simple rooms with an A/C and a family room. Costs $80 a night.
There’s a restaurant there that’s not fantastic but it’s not bad either and the staff is nice. There are also a few stands just outside the campus. Basically, sausages and corn are readily available.
After three-four days of rest, day trips and being spoiled, take the ferry to Bohol Island. The ferry leaves every day at morning and by noon makes port in the city Jagna at central Bohol.
The journey takes about three-four hours.
My kids like Jagna because you can find the Filipino delicacy Calamay everywhere. Calamay is a sort of a sweet spread/jelly made of coconuts that they sell in a coconut shell packaging.
A word about ferries in the Philippines: I recommend that you bring some food with you, because the food on the ferry is expensive and the options are usually very limited.
And another thing- there’s no problem getting tickets in the port. Just make sure to get there some time ahead. Usually, especially before the ferry leaves, there are long lines. You’ll need to pay for the tickets (=first line), harbor tax (=second line), and for your suitcases (=third line). Children under 10 get a discount. Ask for the A/C class (=most expensive), or outside (=cheapest, and there’s a breeze:-))
When you get to Jagna you’ll have two options:
You can take a taxi or a minivan (air conditioned) to the biggest city in Bohol called Tagbilaran. Most tourists on the island go to its most famous beach, which is near Tagbilaran. It’s called “Alona beach” and it really is a nice beach with many nice restaurants, an ATM, agencies offering day trips and island-hopping, stores for beachwear, etc…
If you don’t want to party with all the tourists, you can always look for a guesthouse or a hotel in the city proper (it has a few nice malls, my favorite is ICM that has some video games in the top floor and even a 3D cinema). Or you can look around the road that surrounds the island, and soak in the magnificent ocean view. Another nice area is the town “Anda”, and near it the resort “Peace 1”, that has a private beach frequented by some sea turtles.
A minivan from Jagna to Tagbilaran costs 100 pesos per person.
Bohol is a relatively small island but it has a lot of attractions, and it’s a fun place to spend a few days. You can go on tours and watch dolphins, snorkel in the oceanic nature reserves near the island. There are kayak trips, an Extreme Park, river boating, a beautiful natural phenomenon called “chocolates hills” (yeah yeah) and some incredibly sweet creatures called “Filipino monkey” that became the island’s symbol. Professional name: Tarsier.
You can get almost any tye of food there, from real local food to big fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC and domino’s pizza. And of course Dunkin Donuts, that took over the Philippines and apparently conquered them.
We lived in Bohol twice, for a few months each time. We rented a small house with a private beach in a small fishing village and just lived with the locals and the ocean. We would shop at the local market, go for walks in the village, play with the locals, and learn from them about sea life.
We loved going to some nearby islands called Pamilican and Balicasag. On the way to them we usually saw dolphins. Near the islands there are beautiful reserves and we would jump off our little boat and snorkel for hours. We even saw small sharks and sea turtles. The boat’s driver would throw some breadcrumbs to attract the fish to us, to the great joy of my youngest daughter, that didn’t want to go too far from the boat.
After Bohol, take another ferry to Siquijor. This is a small, peaceful island, with incredible quiet beaches. It’s also called the “Isle of Fire”, because of the millions of fireflies that fly near its beaches at night.
The island itself offer a number of activities, most of which are nature related (waterfalls, springs, ancient trees, night walks to see the fireflies).
And of course there’s diving and snorkeling.
We arrived there completely on accident. While visiting Dumaguete, we met at the hotela Filipino friend. After an interesting conversation with him, he told us that he has a resort in Siquijor (a quick boat ride away from Dumaguete) and invited us to stay there. So we found ourselves, a few weeks afterwards, in Siquijor :-).
Most of our time there we spent in the great swimming pool in the resort. It was so fun and relaxed we didn’t even need to leave.
4.5 Optional: Dumaguete
From Siquijor you can go slowly to Cebu Island. Before that take a short ferry to Dumaguete.if you have time you can explore it, it’s another nice island with plenty of activities.
Another article giving details about those four places, including costs, you can find here.
The Philippines have two types of public transport that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The Tricycle, which is a bit like the Thai Tok-Tok or the Indian Rickshaw, meaning, they took a motorbike and added a contraption with seats on it. The Filipinos like stuffing as many people as possible into those. It comes in different sizes, some only fit three people, and others fit six or more. The other vehicle is called a Jeepney and it’s actually a jeep that has been turned into a bus. They make it themselves, so every Jeepney looks a little different. They paint it in screaming colors, add some designs and sometimes even add a few quotes. It’s similar to an open bus, and there too they stuff as many people as they possibly can. Try to ride both those vehicles at least once. It’s an experience of a different type:-).
From the city Dumaguete leaves a (air conditioned) bus that goes on the ferry to Cebu with you inside it, and continues until Cebu City. You can also get off halfway there, in south Cebu there is a (debatable) attraction that offers diving/swimming/watching Whale Sharks. These are sharks that feed only on Plankton and, despite their huge size, they’re very gentle creatures. This activity is not cheap at $150 per person.
After you get back to Cebu City, you can finish the journey with some shopping in a few of the huge malls in the city. All the brands you know and then some:-).
More details to help you plan your trip and budget for it you can find here.