Made up of 7,107 islands, the Philippines is the world’s best-kept secret with its heady mix of cosmopolitan cities, romantic hideaways and tropical adventures, rediscovers Ma Felicidad De los Santos
As soon as I’d spoken I wished I hadn’t. I’d phoned my sister Marites, all excited, to tell her that I’d soon be whizzing down an 800m zip line. I should have known full well news of this upcoming adventure would provoke a ‘safety first’ tirade. And her reaction was as instant as it was predictable.
“You can’t! Is it safe?” she shrieked, decibels rising with every syllable. “I can’t wait,” I said and quickly added, “I’ll be fine! After all, it’s more fun in the Philippines!”
There it was. I’d said it. Like a true tourist I’d quoted the country’s popular tourism tagline. It seemed to put my sister’s mind at rest though. “Yes it is,” she laughed. “But I can’t believe you’re not visiting us.”
I was about to embark on a five-day trip, taking in three very different islands across the Philippines. But I wasn’t a tourist. I was born and raised in the Philippines, shuttling between my hometown of Guiuan and the big city of Manila, where my sister and other family members are. Now living in Dubai, my last visit was in January and I return at least twice a year to spend time with my loved ones.
So this visit was just for me. But in the same way Londoners never visit Buckingham Palace or residents of Dubai rarely go up the Burj Khalifa, I’d become blinkered to my country’s beauty and the tourist spots. Having been away for eight years, I wanted to see the country outside of my old hang-outs. I’d take in the natural wonders foreigners rave about and rediscover the sights and sounds that I had taken for granted, with fresh eyes.
Made up of 7,107 islands, each with its own unique draw: mountains, volcanoes, beaches, forests, wetlands, skyscrapers and even deserts, and each just minutes away from each other by boat or plane, the Philippines has a lot to offer.
I planned a city escapade in Manila before island-hopping adventures in Cebu and Palawan. Armed with my camera and comfortable shoes, I was ready to explore.
This city-island mix inspired the crew of 2012’s The Bourne Legacy to film the movie’s climactic scenes there. Starting with the thrilling motorcycle chase scene in Manila, and in Palawan (the site of my zip line adventure), where pristine blue waters flanked by virgin islands set the backdrop for the movie’s closing scene. Acclaimed producer Frank Marshall described Palawan as the most beautiful place he’d ever visited.
Now, with budget airlines operating direct flights from the UAE, you certainly don’t need to be on a Hollywood pay package to visit. In fact, budget flights from Dubai to Manila with Cebu Pacific (around Dh1,600 return) have helped tourist numbers from the GCC jump by 15 per cent to 80,000 visitors last year, according to the Philippine Department of Tourism.
Settling into the nine-hour flight I allowed my mind to wander to the streets of Quiapo, Manila, where I used to haggle for camera accessories back in my college days when I was crazy about photography, and The Fort Santiago where I took most of my very first shots. Soon I’d be eating taho (fermented soya beans) and visit Jollibee, the popular Filipino version of McDonald’s – a guilty pleasure.
On leaving, UAE temperatures had reached a searing 43 degrees, so stepping off the plane at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I welcomed a more bearable (if a little humid) 33 degrees.
I hopped on to a minibus towards the five-star Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel, breezing along the South Luzon Expressway as cars, jeepneys and public buses buzzed and beeped in lanes alongside our vehicle. Most tourists find Manila frenetic, but I’m used to this pace and actually quite like it. I’m a city girl at heart.
Manila is the capital and second-largest city of the Philippines after neighbouring Quezon city. It is one of the 16 cities that, along with the municipality of Pateros, make up Metro Manila, the National Capital Region, with a population of around 12 million.
My hotel was located near Mall of Asia and Intramuros, Manila’s oldest district, which dates back to the 16th century. I usually stay in our family house in Quezon City – just a 30-minute drive from the hotel in Manila – so it felt like a real treat even if I did need to avoid relatives angry that I wasn’t going to be visiting them.
The hotel lobby was buzzing with, mainly, locals checking in. I loved the classy modern interiors with touches of Philippine design such as the capiz shell lampshades, and views of Manila Bay from my room.
Back downstairs after a quick freshen-up I stood facing the hotel buffet. Food is a big part of the Filipino culture, and I honed in on one dish – freshly fried danggit (deboned dried fish) – a delicacy normally served in Manila restaurants for 800 pesos (Dh67) per small serving, which is pretty pricey by local standards.
I heaped danggit on to my plate and savoured every delicious, crispy bite. And I wasn’t alone. A woman at the next table went back for second and third helpings. And as I left to join an afternoon city tour, she was on her fourth. It’s really that good!