15 things not to miss in the Philippines from January to December

Our guide to the country’s island destinations, from the ultimate dive site of Tubbataha, the hidden gem of Danjugan, to a romantic firefly tour in Sorsogon

Cover photo by Jay Alonzo

1 Palawan
Tubbataha Reef Natural Park
Go from February to June
By Gutsy Tuason

TubbaTaha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 160 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, is every diver’s dream destination. It’s home to the Philippines' largest coral reef covering some 33,000 hectares, consisting of two atolls. It’s at the center of the Coral Triangle, holding 40 per cent of the world’s fish and 70% of its corals, making it important not just for the Philippines but the world. Expect sightings of hammerheads, thresher sharks, whale sharks, whitetips, reefsharks, tigersharks, leopardsharks, and the rare shovelnose ray. At many dive sites you’ll find stingrays, spiny lobsters, manta rays and turtles. Not to miss dive spot is the Shark Airport in North Island named by underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason as one of his favorites. He calls it the sandy area and prefers the shallow part because it’s got nice white sand, good lighting and marine life to see. “But if there’s a current Shark Airport turns into a washing machine.”
How to get there. Philippine Airlines flies from Manila to Puerto Princesa City, from where dive tour boats depart for Tubbataha, a 10-12 hour travel. From the Tubbataha mooring area, the sites are about five minutes away by chase boat. Where to book. Most divers book liveaboards to explore Tubbataha. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park’s website has a list of licensed liveaboard tour operators. Visit www.tubbatahareef.org. A five-day, six-night dive tour costs from P75,500 (about US$1,500). Luxury liner SY Philippine Siren charges P158,000 for a six-day dive tour.

2 Batanes
Protected landscapes and seascapes
Go from March to May
Marlboro Hills, Batanes. By Oggie Ramos

The Philippines’ northernmost island province of Batanes, famous for its wild beauty, has grown in popularity as the ultimate rural escape. It’s a lost world of deserted, stunning beaches, volcanoes, jungle and simple native living. Batanes is made up of four major islands: Batan, Sabtang, Itbayat and Ivuhos. In 1994, the Batanes Protected Landscape and Seascape, or BIPLAS, was declared protected. A survey by the University of the Philippines revealed that there were at least five reptiles, 10 birds and two mammals endemic to the area, plus several threatened and near-threatened species including the black-faced spoonbill, Chinese egret and whistling green pigeon.
How to get there. Take a Skyjet flight from Manila to Basco, Batanes. Where to book. Batanes Travel and Tours, tel +632 400 6550. Price. Eco-Tours are at P5,550 per person for two people for a three-day tour that includes Batan and Sabtang Island.

3 Masbate
Beaches and Rodeo Masbateño Festival
Go in April
Halea Nature Park

Spend summer enjoying the beautiful, palm-fringed beaches of Masbate, 581km southeast of Manila. Matincal Beach in Aroroy, about an hour’s drive from Masbate’s main city center, is like Boracay, without the crowds. It has a long shoreline, covering three villages in Masbate. Another beach on our list is the main beach of Halea Nature Park in Monreal Village, Ticao Island. It’s about a kilometer of fine, icing sugar white sand, off shore coral reef, a backdrop of swaying palm trees, native beach huts and dense forest. Halea has a marine sanctuary not far from the beach where you can feed small fishes and baby sharks. A dive site near the island is famous for manta ray sightings. Buntod Reef Sandbar, just 15 minutes by boat from Masbate town proper, has fine white sand and clear blue waters. It’s located within a 250-hectare marine sanctuary. On a sunny day, the waters on one side of the sandbar is hot, and cold on the other. There is a thatched nipa hut in the middle of Buntod, with a dining table and basic cooking and grilling area, so you can pack a picnic and have lunch over the waters.

By Leo Gozum
Complete your Masbate stay with some bull action. Every summer, hundreds gather in Masbate for the two-week long Rodeo Masbateño Festival, a celebration of horsemanship and the area's cattle industry. Watch real life cowboys herding cattle, riding bulls and lassoing bulls on horseback.
How to get there. Book a Cebu Pacific Air flight from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. Albay is less than an hour’s flight from Manila. From Legazpi Airport, take a tricycle to the bus terminal, and hop on a van to Pilar. From Pilar port, take a Montenegro fastcraft to Masbate port. Tourists are advised to register at the tourism office by the port when they arrive in Masbate. Where to book. Masbate Tourism Office located at Masbate Port (tel +6352 482 0303). Price. Boat hire for 10 people costs P8,000 for a full day use.

4 Albay
A culinary tour
Go in April
Freshly harvested seagrapes in Pilar, Sorsogon

There are two reasons to go to Albay, one of six provinces that make up the Bicol region in the southeastern peninsula of Luzon. One, to see the perfect cone-shaped Mayon Volcano; and two, to sample the local cuisine. Tour operator Food Holidays, an affiliate of Jeepney Tours, regularly hosts Coco Spice Tours to Bicol, taking you around Albay and Sorsogon, sampling the areas' local delicacies and learning how to cook using native ingredients and following heirloom recipes. There will be stops in the provinces’ famous landmarks, including Camalig, Albay to learn how to cook pinangat, gabi (taro) leaves and spices cooked in rich coconut milk; Pilar in Sorsogon for sea urchin and sea grape harvesting; a taste of the local halo-halo milk and fruit iced dessert at the original DJC Halo-Halo branch in Tiwi, Albay.
If you'd rather go on a private tour of Bicol, contact Renato Jao from the Provincial Tourism Office for help in organizing the tour or for information on organized culinary tours in the area.
How to get there. Book a Cebu Pacific Air flight from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. Albay is less than an hour’s flight from Manila. From Legazpi Airport, take a jeepney or a tricycle to the Legazpi Grand Central Terminal, where there are jeepneys and aircon UV Express Service vans that ply to the different towns and cities in Albay like Tabaco. Where to book. Contact Food Holidays for their next Coco Spice Tour contact Renato Jao. Read A Journey Into Albay's Culinary Heart.

5 Palawan
The hidden El Nido
Go in May
Nacpan-Calitang Beach in El Nido. By Ferdz Decena

El Nido in northern Palawan, 646km southwest of Manila, is more than just Bacuit Bay, its five-star resorts, white sand beaches, lagoons and karst formations. Explore the Nacpan-Calitang area in the northwestern side, which is home to the rather unique twin beach, two white-sand beaches separated by a hill. Nacpan has five kilometers of white sandy beach with gin clear waters. Calitang is smaller, with gentler waves, close to a fishing village. On the eastern side, undeveloped Tapik Beach, about one-and-a-half hours' ride from Sibaltan, is a good spot for swimming and a jump off point for island hopping and snorkeling. Go to Imorigue Island, a karst island surrounded by snorkeling sites. Further out to the east is Maosonoan Island, a small fishing island with pristine white sand beaches and empty huts on the beach.
How to get there. Book an AirSwift flight from Manila, Cebu or Caticlan (Boracay) to El Nido. To get to Nacpan-Calitang, take a jeep from the El Nido town terminal. Jeeps ply once daily at about 10am. To get to the eastern side of El Nido, hop on a bus from the terminal in the main town of El Nido at around 11am and get off in Sibaltan.Travel time is about one-and-a-half to two hours, but can take up to four hours depending on the frequency and length of stops. It’s best to rent a motorcycle in El Nido town for about P800 for a whole day’s use. Where to book. Tapik Beach Park.  Price. From P3,500 per person

6 Palawan
Balabac Islands
Go in June
Onuk Island. Screengrabbed from @youroyalty

Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan, southwest of Manila, is not an easy trip to make but its islands and beaches are some of the most pristine in the whole archipelago. Of the 30 islands in Balabac, the one you should not miss is Onuk. It has crystal clear waters and wondrously milky white sand. It also offers excellent swimming and the chance to spot its resident sea turtles. Best of all, the beautiful beach is devoid of other tourists. A few cottages are available for those who want to spend the night in this tropical oasis.
How to get there. Book an Air Asia flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa. From the airport in Puerto Princesa, hire a tricycle to take you to San Jose Terminal, where you can get on a bus or van bound for Rio Tuba. There are departures from 4am to 9pm daily. Travel time is about five to six hours. In Rio Tuba, head to the Rio Tuba port as early as 6am to have your name registered on the passengers' boat list for Balabac. The boat usually leaves at about 10am and it takes about four to five hours to reach Balabac. From Balabac port, it's still an hour-long boat ride to Onuk Island. Where to book. Onuk Island is owned by Balabac mayor Shuaib Astami, so securing a permit from the owner prior to visiting the island is required. Contact Lorna Gapilango at +63917 553 2845. Also contact the Provincial Tourism Office of Palawan at +6348 434 9845 or +6348 433 2968.

7 Cavite
Farm hop in Silang
Go in June, although tours are from January to December
Gourmet Farms' plantation. By Daniel Soriano

For organic farm tours and a chance to sample and buy the freshest organic produce, from fresh salads to honey, go to Silang, Cavite, about a two-hour drive from Manila. Two of the exciting farms to visit in Silang are Gourmet Farms and Ilog Maria. Gourmet Farms, which sits on a 12-hectare estate in the outskirts of Cavite, has a café and restaurant and sells their own line of herbal teas, coffee, salad dressing, sauces and dips, and homegrown ground or raw coffee beans. Ilog Maria Honeybee Farm showcases the farm owners’ eco lifestyle and sells honey and honey byproducts like propolis, honey cider, toiletries, beeswax candle, among over 100 products the farm uses and sells in small scale. Only surplus bee honey is farmed and one bottle is sold per customer.
How to get there. From Manila, take the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), exit Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and drive all the way to Aguinaldo Highway, which traverses both Silang and Tagaytay. To commute to Tagaytay, there are vans and FX vehicles you can hop on at the EGI Mall near the LRT Gil Puyat Station. Where to book. Contact Gourmet Farms and Ilog Maria

8 Aklan
Kiteboard in Boracay Island
Go from July to December
By Che Mambong

Who says the weather has to be sunny and the waters calm to have fun on the beach? For six months beginning July, kiteboarders come to Boracay as the conditions are ideal for their sport. The northwest monsoon (Habagat) brings about stronger winds to the western side of Boracay Island, making the otherwise calm shores of White Beach wilder than usual. A combination of winds strong enough to propel kites, gradually sloping sandy seabed and a long shoreline at 4km are just perfect. July is also the start of the rainy season in the Philippines, which means the island is quieter, leaving you some space to enjoy the world-famous beach, named by Conde Nast Traveler’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards as the best in the world.
How to get there. Take a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila or an AirSwift flight from El Nido to Caticlan Airport, the jump off point to Boracay Island. From Caticlan, it’s a short tricycle ride to Caticlan Jetty, where you hop on a commuter boat for a 15-minute crossing to Boracay Island. At the island’s Cagban Jetty, take a multicab or tricycle to your resort. Where to book. For kiteboarding lessons, call Habagat Kite Village, tel +6336 288 5787, email [email protected] kiteboracay; or GreenYard Kiteboarding Center, tel +6336 288 3663.

9 Romblon
Beach hop
Go in August
Looc Bay Marine Refure and Sanctuary, Romblon. By George Tapan

If virgin beaches, still relatively off the tourist radar, is your thing, then Romblon province in the Visayas, 416km south of Manila, is the place for you. Romblon’s Carabao Island Beach in San Jose town has several white-sand beaches similar to Boracay’s powder-fine White Beach. There’s also Maracay-racay with powder-white sand, gin-clear waters, and the added benefit of being the jump off point to dive site Tacut Reef, a marine sanctuary, and Tiamban Beach, a 15-minute drive away from the main port of the island. Tiamban has creamy sand, clean, clear waters, and a 50m cove. From the beach, you get a great view of Tablas Island in the distance. Talipasak Beach is quite secluded, raw with clean clear waters and its main draw is its close proximity to a marine sanctuary, home to healthy, untouched reefs and diverse marine species. Cresta de Gallo in Sibuyan Island is a five-hectare kidney shaped island with a white sand beach and clear, turquoise water, best for swimming and snorkeling. Off Tablas Island, you will find Looc Bay Marine Refuge and Sanctuary, one of the best spots for snorkeling and fish feeding, and home to tropical reef fish, hard and soft corals, turtles, octopuses, eels, seabirds, and hundreds of continuously regenerating colorful giant clams. Read Romblon's top 6 beaches with wow factor.
How to get there. Take a bus from Manila to Batangas International Port, from where you can get tickets on board any of three shipping lines that ply the Batangas-Romblon sea route. 2Go Travel is the most comfortable way to travel. Where to book. Arrange with the Provincial Tourism Office of Romblon, tel +63920 629 5838.

10 Mountain Province
Catch the rice terraces at its greenest in Bontoc
Go from August to September
The sea of clouds, once subsides, reveals the green rice terraces of Maligcong in Bontoc. By Ferdz Decena

You haven’t been to the Philippines until you’ve seen the rice terraces of the Cordilleras. The terraces were carved by hand by the Philippines’ Ifugaos some 2000 years ago. Go to the sleepy town of Maligcong in Bontoc, Mountain Province, 412km north of Manila, from August to September when the rice terraces in this part of Mountain Province are at its greenest. Best to hike up Mt. Kupapey to get the best views. The trek, which takes about one to one-and-a-half hours, will take you on a scenic trail, fringed with pine trees. The temperature is about 18 degrees celsius. When you reach the summit, a blanket of clouds will cover your path and once it clears you’ll see the quaint villages down below and rice terraces comparable to those in Banaue. The place is still pretty much untouched by commercialism.
How to get there. Ride a Genesis bus from Pasay to Baguio, from where you can hop on a GL Lizardo bus bound for Bontoc. From there, Maligcong is only one jeepney ride away. Where to book. Book a basic room at Suzette’s Maligcong Homestay, +63915 546 3557.  Price. P300 per head, plus P120 for a meal.

11 Palawan
Explore Coron
Go from September to October
Sangat Island in Coron, Palawan

The Calamianes Islands in the northernmost part of Palawan, is one of the Philippines' last frontiers, offering some of the best beaches in the country, lagoons, hot springs, and some great snorkeling and diving. There are several islands under the Calamianes group, with Busuanga and Coron two of the more popular ones. Coron, despite the influx of tourism, is still quite pristine. Not-to-miss attractions in the area include Kayangan Lake, a volcanic lake within mountain walls, the Twin Lagoons separated by karst rocks, and Siete Pecados Marine Park, a protected park teeming with beautiful colorful corals and marine life, perfect for snorkeling. Coron has some of the best beaches — Malcapuya Island, Banana Island, and Bulog Dos Island. Malcapuya Island is regarded as home of the ultimate virgin white-sand beach in Coron. Banana Island, a fish and coral sanctuary, has a smaller beach compared to Malcapuya but its waters are just as clear. Five minutes away from Banana Island is Bulog Dos, close to the tailend of Malaroyroy Peninsula in the northern part of Bulalacao. Its main draw is its white sandy beach, beautiful corals, and unique rock formations jutting out from different corners of the beach. If you’re lucky and arrive at low tide, you’ll find Bulog Dos' sandbar that connects all the way to Malaroyroy. Just 2km from its shores is Sangat Island, home of the Tangat Gunboat ship wreck, and Coral Garden, a marine sanctuary with reefs and vertical drop offs and small caves.
How to get there. Take a Skyjet flight from Manila to Busuanga Airport, from where there are jeeps that can take you to Coron Town, where the jetty, jump off point to the islands, including island resorts, is situated. Where to book. Calamian Islands Travel & Tours or Blue Lagoon Adventure Travel & ToursPrice. Calamian Islands Travel & Tours offers the Coron Getaway Tour which costs P6,500 per person for two to three people, with a two-night stay at a local lodge or tourist inn in an airconditioned room with private bathroom and hot and cold shower, TV and free Wi-Fi at the Wi-Fi zone, airport transfer, daily breakfast with two delicacy snacks and one picnic lunch, and during tours, hotel pick up and drop off, guided tours using a licensed guide, entrance fees and use of kayaks.

12 Surigao del Norte
Ride the waves in Siargao
Go in October
Riding the waves of Cloud 9 in Siargao. By the Tourism and Promotions Board

The Southwest Monsoon season, which lasts for about six months beginning July, brings rain to most parts of the Philippines, but not in Siargao, an island off Surigao del Norte, about 800km southeast of Manila. Instead, the prevailing winds offshore turn the island into a marvelous playground for surfers, both for enthusiasts and professionals. The island’s Pacific-facing reefs are on the edge of the Philippine Trench, and deep offshore waters result in swells of significant power. This gives Siargao excellent surfing conditions, particularly during the southwest monsoon. Come in October, the peak of the surf season, when riders from all over the world converge in Cloud 9 for the annual Siargao Cloud 9 Surfing Cup. Those not into surfing have lots of reasons to go — Siargao’s powder white beaches and rock pools, mangrove swamps and inland forests, and waterfalls.
How to get there. Take a Skyjet flight from Manila to Sargao Island from where you can arrange pick up from your resort. Where to book. Ocean 101 is a favorite of surfers due to its proximity to Cloud 9 and it rents out surf and body boards too. Surfista Travels, founded by avid surfer Elaine Abonal, organizes regular surf camps in Siargao. Visit Surfistatravels.com to get updates.

13 Negros Occidental
Explore Danjugan Island Marine Reserve
Go from November to May

Danjugan Island, a 43-hectare island and marine sanctuary in the southeastern coast of Negros Occidental, 790km south of Manila is one the country’s hidden gems. It is surrounded by a fringing reef and has dense forest cover, making it home to several wildlife. It’s run by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, responsible for the island’s energetic conservation program. Danjugan used to be a threatened island, where lots of areas have fallen victim to over-fishing, but these days — thanks to the foundation — the area’s waters are teeming with marine life. Danjugan is 1.5 kilometers long, with five lagoons, lots of coral reefs and limestone forests, home to several wildlife species, including at least 72 bird species, at least 10 bat species, 22 butterfly species, at least 17 mangrove species, 572 fish species, 244 hard coral species, eight species of seagrass, and 74 species of macroalgea. Backpacker and Lost and Found producer Julian Rodriguez says you can find all sorts of species in Danjugan — bats, and underwater, giant corals, sea turtles, two feet wide giant clams, different species of sharks, and occasionally, dolphins. Visitors to the island not only enjoy exploring the wildlife, but also get to participate in conservation efforts, including learning how to plant mangroves. Tours are conducted by trained guides.
How to get there. Book a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Bacolod City, from where you can take a cab to the South Ceres Bus Terminal. Then take a Hinoba-an bound bus and tell the driver to drop you off at the Crossing Remollos-Quadro de King, where Danjugan’s boatmen will meet you. From the shore, it’s a 30-minute boat ride to Danjugan. Where to book. Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation FoundationPrice. P950 per person for the Eco-Tour. Overnight stays at the eco-cabanas with island transfers, meals and activities are at P2,950 per person per night.

14 Ilocos Norte
Kiteboard and get active
Go in November

Ilocos Norte is gaining quite a reputation as one of the best kiteboarding spots in the country. Spanish kiteboarder Jhon Palacios who frequents the North names the waters of Kingfisher Resort and Bangui Bay in Ilocos as his favorite kiteboarding sites. There’s a break point at about 280m from the sandy shore at Kingfisher Resort for advanced kitesurfers, while the lagoon between the break point and the shore can be enjoyed by beginners or the less advanced kiteboarders. Bangui Bay is best for beginners or for freestyle kiting involving high jumps and aerial tricks. Other recommended activities include exploring waterfalls, and stand-up paddle boarding.
How to get there. Take a Partas bus from Aurora Boulevard in Quezon City to Laoag’s bus terminal, from where you can hop on a bus to Pagudpud. It’s about 10 hours of land travel from Manila to Laoag. Or book your private car or van from Carfield, tel +632 986 7176. Negotiate for use of vehicle and driver only and pay for the gasoline and toll fees yourself so it's cheaper. Where to book. Kingfisher Resort has a watersports center, equipment rental, and can help arrange adventure tours. The resort also offers kiteboarding lessons.

15 Sorsogon
Watch fireflies on a Buhatan River cruise
Go in December
The calm before the spectacle at Buhatan River. By Christian Sangoyo

Go to Sorsogon City in the province of Sorsogon, 542km southeast of Manila, for one of the dreamiest tours in the country, a river cruise on a bamboo raft along Buhatan River. The draw? Glasslike waters, fresh air, the best seafood dinner, and the chance to see thousands of fireflies lighting up mangroves like Christmas trees. The bamboo raft for the cruise may be basic, but the ultimate luxe here is delivered by the unbeatable surroundings. The river is 3.9km long, home to kingfishers, bluebirds, and white herons, and along its fringes are healthy and established mangroves. The tour starts late afternoon, taking you to the mouth of the river, past mangroves and wildlife and then you get off the raft to hop on a floating restaurant for a seafood feast, all caught from the river — steamed mud crabs, grilled tilapia, steamed oysters, and shrimps. After dinner, it’s back to the raft just in time to see thousands of fireflies in various colors of the rainbow light up the mangroves and the night sky.
How to get there. Book a Cebu Pacific Air flight from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. Albay is less than an hour’s flight from Manila. From Legazpi Airport, take a tricycle to the Legazpi City Grand Bus Terminal, where there are vans that ply the various towns of Sorsogon. Where to book. Book with Buhatan River Eco-Adventures Service Cooperative. Book dinner a day in advance. Price. P2,500 for 10 people, including snacks onboard. Pay extra for oyster harvesting, for shrimp catching, and kayaking

Originally published in InFlight Traveller Volume 4 Issue 15. Updated May 2017