A hidden treasure
Armed with my Lonely Planet Guide I joined 49 others for a 14-hour direct flight. I was pleasantly surprised during my first introduction to Filipino food - the experience was far superior to many major airlines' offerings.
Manila itself, is a big sprawl of a city with a mix of neighbourhoods, and as such it is impossible to see it all. However many a varied sightseeing and creative experience is to be had. From Colonial to modem skyscrapers, from shanty-town and old city fort to lustrous Malls.
My first real experience was of a great colonial hotel, the Manila which is one of the smaller hotels in the city but with impeccable service and food. I just wish I could have stayed longer!
Lunch was to be a sign of things to come - we were spoiled having someone who had just spent 3 years touring the 7000 plus islands, then writing a cookery book on all the best recipes from the different regions. Needless to say, I have a copy and will be sampling them at home.
The next day the whole group split into three - ours went off to Cebu, where we stayed at a beach resort, taking a boat trip to explore the various islands and several snorkelling trips to see a plethora of colourful fish, giant clams and star fish.
Next we were off again on a ferry from Cebu to Bohol, which was no different to any European fast ferry. A word of advice on this - to make sure you travel business class. It's not a big difference in price, however a lot more comfortable and was in fact empty.
Bohol is amazing! A completely different feel to Manila and Cebu. In fact, it felt like a different world. Greener, cleaner and a really nice atmosphere to the place. From the cute and cuddly, shy Tarsier monkeys, who in reality are surprisingly small, to the beautiful Chocolate Hills. Although it was rainy when we visited, it gave the Hills a mystical feel, with their summits surrounded by wispy clouds. There are in excess of 1260 of these natural phenomenon so named as their grassy covering changes to a roasted chocolate brown colour in the dry season.
Then we were off sky-biking. It's not for the faint-hearted, so only a few were brave enough. I went first so that I didn't have time to contemplate, and talk myself out of it. I was encouraged by the need to keep up with my 75 years plus Mum, who recently loved zip wiring in St Lucia! It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I was told to slow down, as I was peddling too quickly!! The pictures are proof of my bravery. We then had lunch on a strange boat with the Captain sitting in a little boat behind, pushing us along. The lush tropical forest and deep emerald green waters were beautiful. School holidays were on, so the local children were climbing and jumping from trees. What a memorable experience.
To sum up the Philippines - they are a beautiful collection of over 7000 islands with happy, friendly people, who have English as their second language. I had not appreciated that English was taught as a second only to the local dialect, which makes it so easy to travel around. The food has many influences with lots of rice and fish (I didn’t see one potato), although pasta seems to be a popular and a trendy alternative in the hotel restaurants. It was always very clean and safe to eat there.
The influences of Spanish-Filipino architecture, come from the three centuries of Spanish influence, thus the still prevalent Catholicism and colourful fiestas still shape local culture. The country suffered greatly during World War II. Along with memorials and museums, Jeepneys, the local transport still in use today are a reminder of the army jeeps left behind by the Americans.
Who would I recommend the tropical islands of the Philippines to? Those who enjoy the outdoors in any shape or form. There is something for everyone from amazing beaches, to diving, snorkeling, hiking, trekking, canoeing, motor-biking and caving. As the world's second largest Archipeligo, there are literally thousands of unique mammals and birds, many only discovered literally within the last few years. Some of the National Parks have the infra-structure, others not. My advice is to plan and research wisely in advance, using expert knowledge.