My five favorite islands in the Philippines . . . ever

David Dalton, author of the original Rough Guide to the Philippines, picks the places he remembers most from more than a decade spent living and travelling in the country

Photos by David Dalton, Parc Cruz, and Oggie Ramos

Popototan Island, Palawan

Popototan Island, Coron, Palawan. Photo by David Dalton

The first “desert island” I really fell in love with in the Philippines. I can’t remember how we came to hear of it – through a friend of a friend, perhaps – but we’ve spent many weeks there down the years, swinging in hammocks, snorkeling along the offshore reef and watching a patient heron stalk his lunch. Popototan is at the western end of Coron Bay, in northern Palawan. To the north is the island of Busuanga and to the west nothing but open ocean and then Vietnam. When we first visited there was a small resort on the island called Coral Bay. It was just a few huts, a bamboo dining area, and a resident dog called Macho whose main area of expertise was digging for crabs in the sand. There was no hot water, no aircon and limited electricity. The reef was – and I hope still is – the best I have known for snorkeling. I would spend hours floating along it, gawping at batfish, eagle rays and barracuda. On one memorable occasion I looked over my shoulder to find myself face-to-face with a grouper the size of a Labrador. I stared at him and he stared back.

After dinner, we'd head to the end of the pier to watch the resident lion fish. We once spotted seahorses. Hundreds of fish come to feed at night

Evening entertainment consisted largely of sitting at the end of the pier watching flame-orange lionfish hovering in the shallows, lying in wait for their prey. Ownership has changed, but the resort is still there, although with a little more development than in the early days.

Kalipayan Resort opened on Popototan island a few years ago and is one of the more upmarket resorts in the area. Photo by Parc Cruz

Essentials Coral Bay Beach and Dive Resort ( Tel: 63 (0)916 544-1843; E-mail: [email protected]. Rooms from P3000 a night for two including breakfast. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Busuanga. Transfers can be arranged with the resort.

Marinduque in southern Luzon 

An idyllic beach in Gaspar, Marinduque
When I was younger and more foolish I decided it seemed like a good idea to circumnavigate the island of Marinduque on foot. I landed at the little airport west of Boac – there were flights from Manila in those days – and set off in an anti-clockwise direction along a concrete coastal road that was buckled from the heat and, in some places, blocked by farmers drying coconuts and fish. A few miles in, the air filled with the sweet-sour scent of tamarind, which was being processed in roadside huts. I had no idea where I’d stay or eat. The first night, I found a small resort overlooking the Tres Reyes (Three Kings) islands of Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar. At a delightful small cove on Gaspar I spent the afternoon in the shade of a nipa hut drinking rum and cola with fishermen who had long since hauled in their nets for the day. I can’t remember much else. The next day, slightly hungover, I was back on the road, but by dusk found myself in a gathering panic about where I might spend the night. I wandered into Buenavista, on the southern tip of the island, and found a hardware store, some curious residents, and nothing else. I trekked inland through peaceful barrios, and found myself on the southern coast at Poctoy White Beach, where there were huts for rent from a lovely woman – her name has long since slipped from my memory – who prepared hot meals. Poctoy was a rural, local place, with few visitors, and not much to do except hang around and admire the views of the brooding Mount Malindig, the island’s highest peak, crowned by a circle of fluffy white cumulus. These days I’ve heard there’s an entrance fee to Poctoy and a few resorts.

Essentials There’s an airport at Gasan, but at the time of writing it was said to be under renovation and there were no flights. Dalahican Port in Lucena City, Quezon, reached by bus from Manila, is the main hub for ferries Marinduque. There are several departures a day, but no reliable timetable, so be prepared to wait.

Culion, Palawan

Few travellers to the area around Coron in northern Palawan find time for the side trip to Culion – it’s a hot and sometimes rough two-hour banca ride from Coron – but no island in the Philippines has left a more lasting impression on me since I first visited in 1992. Once the world’s largest leper colony, Culion today is a sedate, charming backwater where old folk sit in the shade of balete trees and many of the 20,000 residents eke out a living through trade, coconut farming and fishing. It’s the island’s sometimes sad history that hangs thick in the air. For an overview, head straight to the Culion Museum inside the hospital compound, housed in the former leprosy research lab built in 1930. The museum is one of the most intriguing in the Philippines, with a vast archive of original photographs and patient records that you can browse. The rooms where doctors worked have been maintained as they were and contain equipment the doctors used, much of it looking like instruments of torture. Culion was declared leprosy-free in 2006, but haunting monuments of the island’s past remain, as well as some totally untouched beaches you’ll have to yourself. While you’re in Culion treat yourself to some rice cake and a cup of traditional local coffee – prepared by roasting coffee beans and mixing them with brown sugar. Once everything has turned dark brown or black, the beans are spread on banana leaves to dry. 

Essentials To reach Culion you’ll need to fly to Busuanga: Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have flights. From the airport it’s a one-hour jeepney ride to Coron Town, from where bancas leave for Culion every morning. Tour operators in Coron Town can arrange day trips or in Culion there’s Kawil Tours, who also organize island walking tours guided by local residents. If you stay overnight try Hotel Maya, which used to be a convent dormitory. Email: [email protected]

Sabtang, Batanes 

The Chavayan gorge in Sabtang

Stone houses in Savidug in Sabtang

Travelling around Batanes with a five-year-old

The main island of Batan in Batanes – a wild and windy archipelago way off the Philippines’ northern coast – is beautiful, but don’t you dare go all that way and not spend a day or two on Sabtang, which has steamy mountains and deserted beaches that come straight from the pages of H.G. Wells. This little lost world of about 1,500 souls is reached by banca from Batan across a narrow strait that can be choppy and sometimes dangerous. The day we made the trip, clinging on to our small daughter, we were accompanied almost the whole way by a pod of dolphins, arching in our wake. The “ferry” was loaded with people, vegetables, chickens, two motorcycles and a pig. You’ll arrive on the island’s east coast, in the shadow of San Vicente Church, which began life as a small chapel under Spanish colonization in 1785. Not all the locals took to life under the cross. In 1791, the powerful chief Aman Dangat killed Spanish soldiers who arrived on the island to procure supplies.  There are stunning coves and crescent beaches of crushed coral everywhere on Sabtang. Hire a guide for the day and he’ll show you many of them, and also take you to isolated little communities where houses are built from stone and fishing is the only livelihood. If you’ve got time, and are feeling adventurous, strike out for the uninhabited islands of Vohas and Dequey, which lies near an active, underwater volcano. Back near the church, make time for a meal at Ate Ching's canteen, where coconut crab and blue marlin are usually on the menu. 

Essentials Philippine Airlines and Skyjet Airlines have flights from Manila to Basco, on Batan island. For tours try Batanes Travel and Tours. There are no hotels on Sabtang, but tour companies can arrange homestays.

Cuyo, Palawan 

In the middle of the Sulu Sea, east of mainland Palawan, the island of Cuyo is one of about 45 islands in the Cuyo archipelago. When I visited in early 1990s there was almost no tourist infrastructure on the island. I stayed in a bunk bed in a small guesthouse and ate at the local canteen on the Spanish plaza, where the friendly owners produced chicken stews and fish steaks. Sadly, I’ve never been back, but if you believe everything you read on the internet, Cuyo is now becoming something of a windsurfing and kiteboarding hotspot, and a few resorts have been built. The problem is getting there. When I made my trip there were scheduled flights two or three times a week from Puerto Princesa, but not any more (see Essentials below). There are ferries, but it’s a long trip, sometimes overnight. However, if you want authentic otherworldliness it’s worth it. There are so many islands, islets, coves and lagoons to explore that you won’t know where to begin. And you’ll probably not see another tourist throughout your stay. Memories of my time in Cuyo are fading, but I remember a couple of days I spent island-hopping with two local youths in a very small and precarious banca. We spent one afternoon on a tiny atoll where for lunch they set up a stove made from an old diesel can – Filipinos lead the world in the ingenuity of necessity – and cooked chicken that had been brought in an ice box. For dessert, there was a nimble shimmy up a palm tree (not by me) and a large, fresh coconut each.

Essentials Air Juan has occasional flights to Cuyo, but no online booking. Tel: 632 464-7700, 0916 2120936 or 0915 5016095. Email: [email protected]. Office: Unit 501, 5th Floor, C2 Building, Bonifacio High Street Central, Global City, Philippines 1634. Weekly ferries from Puerto Princesa with Montenegro Shipping Lines and Milagrosa Shipping Lines 

David Dalton' wrote the original Rough Guide to the Philippines available from See also for the latest Rough Guides to the Philippines edition.