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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Philippines - My Island Adventures

I’ve broken up my next two posts on The Philippines into my time on the islands themselves and my sailing experience with TAO because there is so many tips and tricks to share.  For those of you just looking for an itinerary and packing list, check out my last post.  For those, interested in TAO, stay tuned to my next post.

I’ve traveled to many areas of Asia and Southeast Asia from Japan and China to Thailand and Indonesia.  The Philippines has proven to be one of my favorites for three reasons.  
  1. It is noticeably less touristy.  The locations seemed cleaner and safer and the people more honest.  I didn’t feel like I was getting the “tourist price” like I have in other parts of Asia. 
  2. How the country feels so different from America and is similar in many ways thanks to a shared American history from favorite childhood fast food in the Manila airport and the fact that English is the primary language.  It sounds trivial, but when traveling alone it was nice to sometimes feel like we had things in common.  
  3. This country contains all the allure, beauty and charm of the countries that surround it – delicious food, surreal landscapes and friendly locals.
Here’s my breakdown of the cities I visited.


When I originally planned the trip, I didn’t feel I needed to spend much time in Manila, but after meeting people on my TAO boat experience who live there, I realize it probably would’ve been fun to spend NYE or a couple days there.  Like most large cities, I think it’d be better to see with someone local to show you around.  I think 1-3 days would suffice.

Getting There -

I flew Cebu Airlines from Sydney which was everything you’d expect from a budget airline – no in-flight entertainment, delayed departures and subpar inflight food. I couldn’t even figure out how to tell if I’d pre-paid for food on the flight.  Turns out you can check the bottom left corner of your airline ticket, but it was too late I’d already ordered a Rueben sandwich from Campos Coffee in the international terminal.  Pretty annoyed, but at least the Rueben was delicious. Once in Manila, it took 40 minutes for my checked bag to come out which was really ridiculous but the upside was the pretty decent free airport wifi.

Accommodation -

The Remington ($104 AUD/night) provided a free airport shuttle (walk towards “Bay 12” and look for a big red bus).  It was a little unnerving having a metal detector and drug dogs at the hotel entrance but otherwise it was a beautiful lobby and lovely people at reception.

The room could’ve been nicer (didn’t quite match the downstairs décor) but was clean, cold and dark perfect for my short overnight stay.  Make sure you ask for a non-smoking floor.  It had a hairdryer, toothbrush/paste, aircon, an inner lock on door and free water.  The late checkout until 2pm would’ve been nice but nothing opens near the hotel until midday and breakfast ends at 10am so you can easily get stuck with nothing to do until your flight.  I’d stay here again as it’s a great option for an overnight airport hotel.  If you are looking to stay in Manila, maybe not the best choice.

Dining –

I received two breakfast vouchers from the hotel so I switched it up with a Filipino meal and an “American breakfast” (just in case).  They were both quite good and the staff was very attentive.  The restaurant itself was a pretty standard hotel lobby café.


The drive from the airport to my hotel reminded me of the drive from Ngurah Rai International in Bali to Ubud with little shops along the road, random stray dogs and motorized trikes. If I’d had the extra holiday, I would’ve liked to see more of Puerto Princesa, particularly the underground river.  Aim for 1-2 days here if you decide to go.

Getting There -

My flight from Manila was delayed about 40 minutes, but at least the flight was short and easy, my bag came out quickly and more free airport wifi.  There was a hotel rep would found me at the airport with a free ride to the hotel (I gave the guy 100 pesos as a tip which I later learned was overkill - 20 pesos is plenty!)  AND THEY HAVE CINNABON!!!

Accommodation -

The Dolce Vita hotel ($64 AUD/night) was way nicer than I anticipated.  Easily the nicest one of the trip besides Boracay and the tea they gave me as a welcome drink was YUM.  My room, Rosal, was larger than my NYC apartment with two double beds plus a bunk bed, a walk in shower, aircon, fridge, free water, etc.  The free toiletries were a little more limited- It had soap.  There’s a lovely pool and restaurant as well.  I would hands down stay here again.

Dining -

The on-site restaurant was adorable and so were the staff.  For 525 pesos, I had two delicious dinners (clearly won’t be losing weight on this trip), a plate of blue marlin and my fav, sizzling sisig.  The marlin was good but completely overshadowed by the sisig.  You can tell the ingredients are SO fresh.  I was so full and still ate every last bite.  One of the most memorable meals of the trip.  I also ordered my complimentary breakfast of taga to be ready at 7:30am the next day.  Taga consists of strips of garlic beef with garlic rice and scrambled egg.  You better like garlic if you come to the Philippines.  It too was lovely.


For how difficult it is to get to El Nido, I think it’s definitely worth at least 2-3 full days there.  While I enjoyed the bus trip from Puerto Princesa, I’d probably suggest flying direct from El Nido to maximize your time.  It’s maybe a little lonely for the solo traveler, but a perfect spot for honeymooners or co-ed backpackers trip.  It’s just a little beach town like you would find driving the coast of California or Australia.  Wish I’d had more time to check out all the beaches!

Getting There –

You can fly direct from Manila on a pricier ticket or take a cheaper flight to Puerto Princesa and then a bus. I voted for the bus.  First I took a 100 pesos trike to the San Jose bus station in Puerto Princesa from my hotel.  On the way, the driver suggested taking a private van hire instead of the Cherry bus which I’d already booked.  Apparently, the Cherry bus takes 8 hours and the private van takes 5-6.  That’s not what the Cherry bus website told me but of course when I tried to call from my trusty Optus plan it didn’t go through.  I was only down $13 AUD if I ditched the bus so I figured even if I was being played, it was worth the gamble. You can walk to the private van hire area from the bus station in 3 minutes so feel free to do some price comparisons. I bartered a ride to El Nido for 500 pesos in the van.

The van was filled with Filipino women so I felt safe and they were all super friendly showing me photos of their recent trip to El Nido.  Three hundred photos later I had a pretty good idea what I was in for ;-)  I’d also purposely took the day trip instead of traveling at night.  So far I’ve been really impressed with how safe I’ve felt in the Philippines as a white female traveling alone.  I arrived in El Nido at 2pm (trip took 5 hours) and the van dropped me at my hotel.

Accommodation –

At Buena Haven ($83 AUD/night) I was shown to very cute room with aircon and its own private balcony.  The concierge asked if I had a boyfriend which was touching?  Philippines is clearly a couple’s trip as everyone keeps asking “just you?” when I arrive.  It was very homey, more B&B than hotel but it’s a 15 minute trike ride (bargain it down to 30 pesos) from downtown El Nido.  I’d picked it because it’s walking distance to TAO’s office, but knowing what I know now I would’ve stayed in El Nido instead. I ended up making a lot of trips back and forth.  But if you are looking for a nice little hotel near the beach and care less about the town it would make a lovely option for a family or couple.

Dining –

For lunch, I realized I’d forgotten my extra cash at the hotel so after buying a cute bracelet I had to search out a restaurant that took cards.  Make sure you ask before you order and be ready to pay a 6% fee – damn.  I settled on a beachside restaurant with a lovely view and had fresh grilled barracuda with butter and (you guessed it) garlic and a Red Horse beer.  All trip I kept calling it Dark Horse beer until someone pointed out that was the name of a Katy Perry song.  It’s a very strong beer - beware!

For dinner, I met up with some of the girls for at Mezzanine El Nido, an Italian restaurant that took FOREVER to bring our food but the focaccia was worth the wait.   My salad was basic but fresh. 

For breakfast, I got coffee from an amazing little shop near Artcafe.  It’s just a window without a name (sorry!)  She made me the closest thing I’ve had to an American iced coffee in ages – so YUM.  Wish I’d gotten another one.  I asked her for a good local spot for brekkie and she recommended IBR.  The only way you can identify the restaurant is the large yellow sign.  Very non-descript (sort of reminds me of the interior of a McDonalds) and good although I’ve had better meals.  I had the adobo chicken for 160 pesos.


Glad I didn’t spend more than a night in Coron.  Felt it was very grungy and quiet.  From what I’ve heard people come for the diving so I probably just wasn’t seeing it for what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t need to go back.  I vote 0 days for this spot.

Accommodation –

I tried to walk to my hotel from the boat dock which turned out to be way farther than it appeared on the map.  Ended up grabbing a trike halfway for 20 pesos which was probably over-paying.  I checked into the Darayonan Hotel ($53 AUD/night) which was the least nice place I’ve stayed, so luckily only here for the night.  The room was dumpy, although large, the AC wasn’t very strong, no toiletries besides a bar of soap, no sheet on the bed and no wifi in the rooms.  The wifi only “worked” in the main reception area and at that not very well.  Breakfast was free but not very good either.  I’d pass on this hotel but after chatting to my friend it was probably one of the nicer options.  Eek.  The picture below makes it look way nicer than it was...

Dining -

Our boat crew had our final dinner at Blue Moon a few “blocks” down from my hotel. I struggled my way through dinner with very little appetite because I was sick but even still I thought the pizzas were good and the tuna Arrabiata pasta was delicious.  I ordered a chocolate sundae because I’d been randomly desperate for ice cream the whole boat trip and it was giant and icy cold and soooo good.

Leaving There –

I arrived in Coron via boat so I can only speak to my transportation experience leaving Coron.  It was horrible. I booked a shuttle through the hotel and next thing I know the driver is trying to pack 11 people into 7 seats plus bags.  People were getting super pissed about being late and the complete lack of respect for personal space.  Turns out, while it was annoying at the time, they know what they are doing and we got to the airport with plenty of time to spare (40 minute drive).  Granted I was not happy to fork over the 150 pesos for the ride.  Of course the airport was terrible – no wifi, one food option, no coffee, two toilets for the whole airport and to top it all off my flight was delayed and I had to pay a 100 peso airport tax.


Boracay gets a lot more attention because I spent the most time there, but also because I liked it the best.

Basically, the entire town is built RIGHT along the beach.  As you walk down the “boardwalk” you’ll pass bar, bar, restaurant, shop, smoothie stand, etc.  Mostly all commercial stuff.  If you are looking for actual admin like doctor, phone, grocery, etc, that will be off the beach.  The water is amazing.  It’s only about 3-4 feet deep for about 20-30 feet so you can just lie in it.  So clear and no animals – just how I like it.  The sand in Boracay is  a little weird though.  It attaches to you and never let’s go which is somewhat uncomfortable and sticky.  Better to live in the water!

The boardwalk crosses three different “stations.” 
  • Station 1 is at the “top” and is where Boracay Beach Club (BBC) is located.  The beach here is more rocky, there are less people but still lively, and just feels nicer and more upscale. 
  • Station 2 is where most of the action is and most of the bars.  This is where we spent most of our time.  Definitely more people and more going on and more people pestering you to buy things.  If you want to avoid being sold to, walk on the beach instead of the boardwalk.  I think Station 2 has the best beach and water.  Nice sand without rocks and clear shallow water. 
  • Station 3 was my least favorite – too remote, no people, long stretches in between bars/restaurants, and the beach is filled with boats because this is where you take off for all the water adventures (sailing, parasailing, etc) 

Overall, I had an amazing time here and would highly recommend it for 4-5 days.  I was there in peak season and didn’t feel that it was loud and touristy and dirty like many people warned me it would be.  Easily my favorite parts where our hotel, the pub crawl and Spider House.  And the sunsets are damn incredible.  Any type of traveler would like it here from high-end hotel’ers to backpackers to couples, families and friends.

Getting There –

It’s key to book one complete flight to Boracay instead of two separate flights if you are on another island (most place you must fly through Manila to get there).  It means your checked bag goes all the way through and even better you can take an internal transfer bus from Terminal 3 to 4 rather than getting your checked bag and having to go externally to Terminal 4 where you’ll have to wait in two sets of airport security (you must go through a massive security line just to enter the overall airport).  My travel partner, who was meeting me at our gate, had to pay the guard off to let her cut the first security line. So annoyed I did the Optus mobile plan – everywhere (except Coron) has wifi!

On arrival in Boracay, one of the best choices I made was booking the $25 USD transfer to/from the airport to Boracay Beach Club.  You take a 15 minute van to a 20 minute boat to a 20 minute van to get to the main area of Boracay from Caticlan airport and we didn’t have to wait in any ticket lines.  A guy was there to sort the whole thing.  And they didn’t have a van filled to the brim with people and bags.  Private van hire for the win!  One thing to note is that two porters grabbed our big bags to carry them to the boat, which we thought was part of the service.  It’s not.  They asked for a tip once we got to the boat (20 pesos are PLENTY).


Boracay Beach Club was the nicest hotel of the trip and the staff were SO lovely (which it better be for $269 AUD/night).  Huge living room with separate bedroom, very comfy bed (first of the trip), great AC, wifi in the room, amazing bathroom and a hair dryer.  FANCY.  They provide new towels and free waters every morning.  Only thing I’d avoid is the welcome drink (or else the airport McDonald’s wasn’t sitting well with my stomach).  For beach towels, they give you “tokens” which you exchange for a towel.  They do this so you can go wherever you want on the island with the hotel towels but if you lose them they’ll know.

Dining and Drinking -

I’m providing a laundry list here because we ate and drank a lot over the four days in no particular order.

BBC in Station 1 - great free breakfast options at the hotel particularly the pancakes. Loved eating Frosted Flakes after a year in Australia (although I forgot how much Asia loves warm milk). 

Sunnyside Café in Station 3 – I’d been told the pulled pork eggs benedict was to die for.  They proved good but I’m realizing that outside of garlic, Filipino food just doesn’t have much spice/flavor so it can seem kind of bland.  I felt like I needed to put hot sauce on the eggs.  My travel partner got the weird looking purple pancake made from yams which were a little sweet but delicious.

Hama Sushi in D Mall in Station 2 - The sushi was good/standard although a bit overpriced particularly when you also have to pay a service charge for the meal.  Very extensive menu though.

Army Navy Burger and Burrito in Station 2 - The quesadillas are out of this world.  I would’ve ordered two orders had I known. I went back for a round two but turns out the rest of their food is subpar – stick to the quesadillas. 

Mango Smoothie Stands – these are everywhere and I wish I’d discovered them sooner.  Yes please!

Treehouse Bar in Station 3 - SO cool.  There was an old Filipino man playing the guitar and singing Johnny Cash, Jefferson Airplane and a bunch of other great oldies.  We sat on floor pillows while leaning against a tree trunk while we sipped our beers.  The staff was also lovely – only downside is it was pricey – 100 pesos for a water and a beer.

Spider House – As mentioned one of the top three things I did in Boracay.  It’s a bit of a hike though.  You take a 20 minute (150 pesos) motor trike which drops you at a walkway entrance.  You cross a little hidden stretch of beach towards Spider House perched on the cliff in the distance.  Walk through a dark creepy cave up into yet another treehouse-like structure.  You need to get there as early as possible for a sunset table and by 3:30pm for ANY table.  If you are waiting for a table or food, feel free to jump off the edge of the restaurant into the ocean (HIGH TIDE ONLY) and kick it in the water.  

I recommend ordering a bunch of food and drinks at once because the kitchen and service gets overloaded.  I got a pizza with salami, green peppers, onions and pineapple, the Spider House sushi special, an order of tuna rolls and like 4 drinks.  The pizza was AMAZING.  The best non-Filipino food of the trip. The sushi special was also good and thank god they forgot to bring my tuna rolls because I was stuffed.  Note – the gin and tonics are very strong so if you don’t like that order the drink in a tall glass.  They also had hookah for 1000 pesos.  You can pay with cash or card and be prepared for a good-looking, young crowd (think Meatpacking NYC, Manhattan Beach CA, and Coogee Pav Sydney).

Exit Bar in Station 2 – My favorite late night bar/club of the trip.  It reminded me a lot of Burning Man thanks to the open-air atmosphere, dancey crowd and DJ playing great house music. 

The Pub Crawl Bars & Clubs:
  • GT Hotel – starting point of the pub crawl, pretty bleh
  • Gypsea – treehouse bar that is AWESOME but maybe not the best first stop.  The area we had was small and dark and loud which makes it a difficult place to meet people.
  • Epic – beach club that is one of the more popular, good music, good crowd, not really a club so much as an area of sand with walls and a bar, kind of annoying that if you leave you have to wait in line to get back in
  • Paraw – loved this place, two level club on the beach, great music and open to the beach so you drink beers and come and go.  We went back for NYE and they set off fireworks from the water.
  • Cocomangas – VERY standard backpacker bar, we were pretty drunk by the time we made it here so perfect for dancing like maniacs, sub-standard Top 40 music and right next door to BBC for easy stumble home

Activities -

Parasailing - We got a guy in Station 3 down from 3000 pesos for 2 to 2400 for 2 to go out at sunset.  When we arrived, he asked if two more people could join our boat and we’d pay 2000 for 2.  It wasn’t until we’d been on the outrigger for 15-20 minutes that I realized we’d somehow ended up on a regular sailing trip not the parasailing. I was so pissed because I’d been very clear and after 5:30pm they won’t take you out anymore so we were SOL. I do think it was an honest miscommunication but I still insisted on our money back. We managed to get 1300 of our 2000 back but it was our second to last day and he told us that since tomorrow was NYE the parasailing was done.

Pub Crawl – SO WORTH IT!  Costs 990 pesos for 5 stops and you get 10 free shots, drink specials, free entry to the 2 clubs and a T-shirt and shot glass to keep.  See above for the bars on the pub crawl and my thoughts on each.  I was surprised at the variety of ages on the pub crawl – everywhere from 18 to mid 30s I feel like.  Also by the end there was probably about 100 people that showed up so it was full on.


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