FOR SAVVY SHOPPERS
1 First stop in the Philippines should obviously be the capital, Manila, which will give you a chance to sample a little of everything.
If shopping is your thing, head to cosmopolitan Makati – one of 16 cities that make up Metro Manila. A major cultural and entertainment hub, it is also the financial fulcrum of the country and is choc-a-bloc with high-rises and high-end shopping avenues. The city has a vibe and energy that can rival any international metropolis.
Head to Mandaluyong for more shopping at the SM Mega Mall. With 474,000sqm of space, it is one of the largest malls in the world. After you’ve taken a big chunk off your wallet there, if you still have the energy and want to shake a leg, check out The City Of Dreams. A must-see in Paranaque City, it’s an integrated resort and casino that opened its doors just a little more than a year ago. Boasting three hotels and a plethora of restaurants serving just about every cuisine in the world, it also has – you guessed it – more leisure and lifestyle stores… you won’t ever feel like leaving the resort.
And just in case you want to do a bit of celeb-spotting, take a cab to Bonifacio Global City. Originally an army base, it was given a facelift a decade ago and today is the prime financial city district in Metro Manila. Look around – you might catch the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker at the high-end Aura mall.
Tired of shopping? Want to catch a whiff of fresh air? Stop by Rizal Park. Historically rich – it was here that Dr José Rizal, a nationalist who advocated political reforms for the colony under Spain and is considered one of the greatest heroes of the country, was executed in 1896 by the Spanish authorities – the park extends to over 60 hectares of open lawns, walks and wooded areas. Skirting the Roxas Boulevard and adjacent to the old walled city of Intramuros, it is one of the largest urban parks in Asia and a relaxing place to take a stroll in the early evenings.
Where to stay: The Peninsula Manila. In the heart of Makati city, the hotel is as much a favourite with visitors as with locals. The decor is timeless and elegant, with Filipino elements. Old Manila, the hotel’s signature restaurant, features modern European cuisines. The lobby also offers 24-hour dining so you can always grab a bite to eat at any time of the day or night.
The Peninsula Spa is a great place to revitalise, unwind and forget about the fast-paced life of Manila. Its award-winning treatments are offered in oriental, Ayurvedic or European methods. Visit manila.peninsula.com.
FOR CULTURE VULTURES
2 For the history lover, there’s a lot to see and experience in the picturesque city of Cebu. Considered the oldest city in the Philippines, Cebu is home to streets and structures that date back to Spanish colonial times of 1520s.
A not-to-be missed tour is the Cebu Heritage Walk. It starts with a visit to Casa Gorordo. Built in the 19th century and once the residence of the first Filipino Bishop of Cebu, it is now converted into a museum that features Spanish-era Philippine furniture and accessories.
Next stop is Fort San Pedro, a historical fort that protected the city from marauding pirates during the late 18th and 19th centuries. From here, you can take a calesa – a horse-drawn carriage – ride to Plaza Sugbu fronting the Cebu city hall.
Hop off the carriage and go on a guided walking tour of Old Cebu’s historic sites. Don’t miss the famous Magellan’s Cross, planted by the renowned explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. A short hop away is Cebu’s two famous churches, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. Continue on to the Museum of Sacred Treasures, before hopping back on a calesa for a ride to Plaza Parian. Clip-clop past elegant ancestral homes of Spanish and Chinese Filipinos, while admiring ancient walkways and quaint paths.
The tour culminates with a visit to the Cebu Taoist Temple. They’re quite a few steps to climb, but the panoramic views of the city from the summit are worth the trek.
FOR WHALE WATCHERS/SWIMMERS
3 About 10km from the town of Oslob in the province of Cebu is Tan-awan, where you can experience the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of whale-shark-watching. This tourist magnet began as late as 2011 but is already hugely popular with visitors from around the world who land up at Oslob to not just to watch but also feed them and snorkel and dive with them. I did it and I must say it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. At first sight they may look menacing – an adult whale shark can tip the scales at around 19,000kg – but fear not, there are filter feeders and the chances of getting hurt are slim… at least that’s what the local experts say! Whale shark diet consists mainly of shrimps, small bait fish and fish eggs. As you snorkel you can spot about 10 of the sea creatures swimming with twice as many humans. But there are strict rules – do not touch the gentle marine fish.
They take to humans without any hesitation, which often results in an awesome experience for swimmers as well as the not-so adventurous watchers.
FOR NATURE LOVERS
4 The Philippines is a nature lover’s paradise, but one of the best places to wholly immerse yourself in nature in all its beauty is in Cebu. Don’t miss the unique horseshoe waterfall in Oslob called Tumalog Falls.
If you want to feel the spray in your face, ask any of the motorcycle riders available on hire to ferry you down the steep slopes. A five-minute ride will give you a breathtaking view and an experience of one of the most fascinating natural wonders in Cebu.
The thin sheet of water slips down the cliff face hugging the moss-covered bedrock before falling mystically and gently into its own mini pool. Although the water is ice cold, scores of tourists can be seen happily bathing in it – and taking selfies.
Where to stay: Bluewater Maribago, with its thatch-roof building, tropical suites and bungalows, is the perfect place to stay in Cebu. Part of a Filipino-owned chain of resorts, it showcases the best of Filipino culture and traditions. The Allegro restaurant serves a variety of cuisines including several traditional dishes. I had a sumptuous breakfast of tapsilog – a combination of fried beef strips, fried rice and eggs sunny side up
The rooms are surrounded by spectacular gardens and if you’re lucky you’ll get to stay in a sea-view room. Wake up a little early, step outside and watch the sunrise on the beach. Indescribable. Visit www.bluewater.com.ph/
5 It’s not for nothing that Boracay, a small island in the Philippines barely seven-km long and described as a paradise, is rated the seventh-best beach in the world.
Conveniently divided into three ‘stations’, it offers a fabulous strip of spectacular sand just ideal to rest and relax in, with shopping and a club to jive barely a stone’s throw away. Station 1 is Boracay’s famous White Beach (think the Bounty ad); Station 2, the busiest area, boasts D’Mall, which is an assortment of shops. Station 3 offers a host of restaurants.
For those who like to party, Boracay is well known for its vibrant nightlife. There are plenty of clubs and restaurants where you can just sit back with the beverage of your choice or jive to some live music.
Located south of Boracay is Crocodile Island – a lovely place to snorkel. With shallow crystal-clear waters it’s easy to spot coral and reefs. Take along a few chunks of bread and you can have fish literally eating out of your hand.
Where to stay: Shangri-La – the hotel’s private speedboat will take you from Caticlan to the luxurious resort. With its two private beaches and soft white sand it’s perfect to float and let your worries drift away.
Shangri-La consists of 219 rooms and villas and they all have private verandas. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to dining here with four great restaurants to choose from – Sirena, which is for seafood lovers, Rima serving world cuisines, Vintana being al fresco and Cielo for all-day pool dining. Not to mention the breakfast buffet that offers a variety of choice to suit every palate. Visit www.shangri-la.com/boracay/.