By Jennifer Pelaez & Hillary Latos.
With more than 7000 islands, the Philippines is not only one of the world's largest archipelago nations, but also a destination that is culturally diverse and incredibly rich in biodiversity. From its emerald rice fields, lush forests, teeming mega-cities, smoldering volcanoes, and pristine beaches and azure waters, it's an explorer's dream. Situated in Southeast Asia in the Western Pacific Ocean, the Philippines offers a myriad of idyllic islands to discover that suit every taste, from its impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites and natural wonders, to sprawling islands like Luzon and Mindanao, to the smaller less inhabited islands like Coahagan Island. Although Boracay has become one of the most popular tourist destinations with its endless beaches of powdery-white sand, long happy hours, abundance of luxury hotels and vibrant party life, the less familiar islands like Palawan and Cebu, offer a more relaxed and equally beautiful setting with plenty of attractions, history, and an awe-inspiring natural grandness that will leave you wanting to explore more of this diverse country.
About an hour and a half from the capital of Manila, a short plane ride to Puerto Princesa, on the stunning island of Palawan makes the ideal first stop in the Philippines. The Palawan archipelago gets props for its sheer beauty – it's no wonder this hidden piece of paradise was recently awarded 'The Best Island In The World' in the Travel + Leisure World's Best Awards. Centrally located Puerto Princesa is the culinary capital and primary gateway to nearby rural and oceanfront tranquility. Spend a few days exploring the top attractions and enjoy snorkeling and island hopping in nearby Honda Bay. A stay at the Princesa Garden Island Resort and Spa is the perfect location from which to relax and take in the tropical air and amazing sunsets while also enjoying the resort's luxury amenities like their waterfront bungalows and impressive sand bar, where you can lounge and sunbathe while listening to the sounds of the ocean.
Next, drive to the other side of Palawan to Sabang Beach where you can explore one of the "New 7 Wonders of Nature" and a UNESCO site, the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which is a subterranean thrill with over five miles of navigable river underneath a tunnel surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. It is the world's longest subterranean river which can be explored with a guide on a paddle-powered outrigger while exploring the expansive caves filled with bats and interesting formations. A convenient nearby hotel, nestled between towering mountain ranges and the clear blue waters of the West Philippines Sea is the Sheridan Beach Resort & Spa. This tranquil and first-rate property set right on Sabang Beach, boasts fabulous views and an ideal setting to become one with nature in one of the country's most protected areas.
Be sure to allow enough time to fully explore the island since each part offers a completely different experience, and all worth discovering. From the world class beach resorts of El Nido in the north, to the mangroves and natural wonders on the western coast, Palawan is a true gem worth visiting.
Another island to explore is the island province of Cebu, which not only boasts incredible surrounding islets but also houses the country's oldest city, Cebu City, which was once the first capital of the Philippines. Here, you can appreciate the Philippine's rich history combining Asian, European, and American influences, most evident from the widespread spoken English, to the unique Spanish-Filipino colonial architecture and centuries-old stone churches. A tour of Cebu City can be organized by highly informative tour guides at Rajah Tours, that can customize an itinerary based upon your preferences. History buffs must visit Magellan's Cross, as well as the historical site of the Lapu Lapu Shrine where a majestic statue of the great Datu Lapu Lapu was erected to honor the native leader who killed Magellan. Also, Fort San Pedro, and just a short walk away, the oldest Roman Catholic Church – Santo Nino Church must not be missed. After all the sightseeing and walking, a drive back to the calm part of Cebu in Mactan is a perfect end to your day. One of the luxury hotels offering a haven of relaxation with their deluxe accommodations, impressive pool, and chic sea view loungers is the Crimson Mactan. With excellent dining options and stunning views, along with their full service spa, complete with jacuzzi and outdoor pool, you will think twice about leaving your resort.
If you happen to have a layover in Manila, take a tour of the historic capital of the Philippines or try your luck at the luxurious City of Dreams conveniently located only 10 minutes from the airport thanks to the new superhighway that was just completed in December. At the heart of this casino megaplex is the glamorous Nobu Manila- a zen oasis in the bustling capital. If you are staying in Manila the serene rooms evoke a contemporary Japanese décor designed by David Rockwell with sumptuous furnishings. Dine in style at Nobu and experience Chef Morimoto's world renowned Japanese cuisine open only for dinner with a breathtaking setting overlooking Manila Bay. For six star living, stay at the uber luxurious adjacent Crown Hotel with accommodations ranging from spacious suites to a two story duplex townhouse. Dine at the divine Crystal Dragon restaurant that serves delectable haute Cantonese cuisine in a striking contemporary setting that will delight the senses.
This January, Manila will be in the international spotlight as the host of the 65th Miss Universe pageant when Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach returns home to the Philippines to crown the next gorgeous successor.
Regardless of your itinerary and selected islands of interest, rest assured that no matter where you go in the Philippines, you will be surrounded by a plethora of amazing landscapes and opportunities for adventure, but what makes this destination even more appealing is the welcoming, warm and relentlessly upbeat locals that aim to please and make your stay an unforgettable one.philippinetourismusa.com