Philippines: the world's best-kept secret

Palawan, Philippines
As soon as I’d spoken I wished I hadn’t. I’d phoned my sister Marites, all excited, to tell her that I’d soon be whizzing down an 800m zip line.
 I should have known full well news of this upcoming adventure would provoke a ‘safety first’ tirade. And 
her reaction was as instant as it 
was predictable.
“You can’t! Is it safe?” she shrieked, decibels rising with every syllable. “I can’t wait,” I said and quickly added,
“I’ll be fine! After all, it’s more fun in 
the Philippines!”
There it was. I’d said it. Like a true tourist I’d quoted the country’s popular tourism tagline. It seemed to put my sister’s mind at rest though. “Yes it is,” she laughed. “But I can’t believe you’re not visiting us.”
I was about to embark on a five-day trip, taking in three very different islands across the Philippines. But I wasn’t a tourist. I was born and raised in the Philippines, shuttling between my hometown of Guiuan and the big city of Manila, where my sister and other family members are. Now living in Dubai, my last visit was in January and I return at least twice a year to spend time with my loved ones.
So this visit was just for me. But in the same way Londoners never visit Buckingham Palace or residents of Dubai rarely go up the Burj Khalifa, I’d become blinkered to my country’s beauty and the tourist spots. Having been away for eight years, I wanted 
to see the country outside of my old hang-outs. I’d take in the natural wonders foreigners rave about and rediscover the sights and sounds that
 I had taken for granted, with fresh eyes.
Made up of 7,107 islands, each with its own unique draw: mountains, volcanoes, beaches, forests, wetlands, skyscrapers and even deserts, and each just minutes away from each other by boat or plane, the Philippines has a lot to offer.

This city-island mix inspired the crew of 2012’s 
The Bourne Legacy to film the movie’s climactic scenes there. Starting with the thrilling motorcycle chase scene in Manila, and in Palawan (the site of my zip line adventure), where pristine blue waters flanked by virgin islands set the backdrop for the
 movie’s closing scene. Acclaimed producer Frank Marshall described Palawan as the most beautiful place he’d ever visited.I planned a city escapade in Manila before island-hopping adventures in Cebu and Palawan. Armed with my camera and comfortable shoes, I was ready to explore.
Now, with budget airlines operating direct flights from the UAE, you certainly don’t need to be on a Hollywood pay package to visit. In fact, budget flights from Dubai to Manila with Cebu Pacific (around Dh1,600 return) have helped tourist numbers from the GCC jump by 15 per cent to 80,000 visitors last year, according to the Philippine Department of Tourism.
Settling into the nine-hour flight I allowed my mind to wander to the streets of Quiapo, Manila, where I used to haggle for camera accessories back in my college days when I was crazy about photography, and The Fort Santiago where I took most of my very first shots. Soon I’d be eating taho (fermented soya beans) and visit Jollibee, the popular Filipino version of McDonald’s – a guilty pleasure. 

On leaving, UAE temperatures had reached a searing
 43 degrees, so stepping
 off the plane at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 
I welcomed a more bearable (if a little humid) 33 degrees.
I hopped on to a minibus towards the five-star Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel, breezing along the South Luzon Expressway as cars, jeepneys and public buses buzzed and beeped in lanes alongside our vehicle. Most tourists find Manila frenetic, but I’m used to this pace and actually quite like it. I’m a city girl at heart.
Manila is the capital and second-largest city of the Philippines after neighbouring Quezon city. It is one of the 16 cities that, along with the municipality of Pateros, make up Metro Manila, the National Capital Region, with a population of around 12 million.
My hotel was located near Mall of Asia and Intramuros, Manila’s oldest district, which dates back to the
16th century. I usually stay in our family house in Quezon City – just a 30-minute drive from the hotel in Manila – so it felt like a real treat even 
if I did need to avoid relatives angry that I wasn’t going to be visiting them.
The hotel lobby was buzzing with, mainly, locals checking in. I loved the classy modern interiors with touches of Philippine design such as the capiz shell lampshades, and views of Manila Bay from my room.
Back downstairs after a quick freshen-up I stood facing the hotel buffet. Food is a big part of the Filipino culture, and I honed in on one dish – freshly fried danggit (deboned dried fish) – a delicacy normally served in Manila restaurants for 800 pesos (Dh67) per small serving, which is pretty pricey by local standards.
I heaped danggit on to my plate and savoured every delicious, crispy bite. And I wasn’t alone. A woman at the next table went back for second and third helpings. And as I left to join an afternoon city tour, she was on her fourth. It’s really that good!
The walking tour began in Intramuros district or ‘The Walled City’ as it is called by locals due to the 5km-or-so moss-covered stone wall surrounding it.The walls date back to when 
the Philippines was colonised under Spanish rule more than 400 years ago and envelop the city’s historic hotspots: Fort Santiago, the Manila Cathedral, Rizal Park and Casa Manila, a reconstruction of a 19th-century Spanish colonial home. I have visited these places before, but not for quite some time.
The architecture and design of the district maintains a heavy Spanish influence in its paved paths and sandy yellow houses with quaint balconies.
The walk finished at Barbara’s Restaurant, still within the Intramuros walls. It’s famous for its fusion of traditional Filipino and Spanish dishes. We dined on beef caldereta (similar to a beef stew with potatoes, carrots, tomato sauce and liver paste, it’s a popular Flilipino dish served on special occasions). Licking my lips I bid farewell to the group.
I was on a roll and wanted to pack in as much undisturbed exploration on my trip as
 possible. Wandering towards 
Fort Bonifacio, a district that was turned into a camp in 1902, then known as Fort William McKinley after the
 25th US president.
The Philippines gained its political independence from the US on July 4, 1946 and by 1957 Fort McKinley was made the permanent headquarters of the Philippine Army under the leadership of General Alfonso Arellano. It was renamed Fort Andres Bonifacio, after the Father of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, Andres Bonifacio, whose father, Santiago Bonifacio, was a native of Taguig, Rizal. It has since evolved into a sprawling business centre with chic cafés, restaurants and shops and an abundance of international brands such as Massimo Dutti, Zara, Gap and Lacoste. But coming from Dubai I wasn’t interested in shopping, so I headed
 back to my hotel.
The next day island life was calling me. Cebu, famed for its crystal-clear waters, powdery white sands, indigenous handicraft and production of fine guitars was my next destination. And after an hour-long flight to the north of the island I headed straight to the Avatar guitar factory in Lapu-Lapu City. After seeing a man string a classical guitar I decided to buy myself a ukulele for 900 pesos as a souvenir (I couldn’t justify buying a full-blown guitar).
On the way to my hotel the 
taxi passed by a Levi’s global factory – who knew my favourite jeans were made here!
I was staying at Maribago Bluewater Beach Resort in Lapu-Lapu City –
 a small beachside resort with spacious, modern rooms (beware – there’s no WiFi though) and arrived just in time 
for dinner. Being so close to the sea 
I plumped for baked oysters with melted butter and spicy crabs and shrimps at uber-casual The Lighthouse restaurant. It’s easy to go overboard on seafood in Cebu — the fare is fresh and prices cheap, particularly if you head to the local fish market of Pasil where a kilogram of shrimp costs around Dh17, while a kilo of crabs costs Dh15.
The next day I woke up and smiled as I looked out at my beachside view. A salty ocean breeze cooled my room through the open window as waves softly crashed on the velvety white shore just metres away.
There was no time to loll around in bed though. The resort offers quick access by boat to neighbouring islets off Cebu’s Mactan Island.
My island-hopping adventure was to begin at Caohagan Island, which is inhabited by just 600 people. I headed straight to the market. “Three-fifty [pesos] each,” said one fisherman, pointing towards a basin full of the exotic kamuntaha (sea mantis). They look like a cross between a shrimp and a lobster and it’s a rarity to see them on sale as they’re usually exported to countries such as Japan to be transformed into sushi. I snapped up two to be grilled at a nearby restaurant for lunch before an afternoon dipping in the crystal-clear waters from a pump boat just off Hilotongan Island.
It’s home to diverse marine life
 and live coral. Just a few metres off shore the water is so clear I could see the ocean floor and a riot of coloured fish – it looked like an underwater
 3D impressionist painting.

By sunset I was heading to Chateau de Busay for dinner, passing the Basilica Minore Del Santo Niño, which is considered the oldest church in the Philippines and is still under repair after last year’s major earthquake. With an incredible view of the city from the mountaintop restaurant I chose to stay out on the terrace to watch the sun dip behind the horizon while enjoying a delicious steak. The perfect end of my Cebu stay and a welcome break from all that seafood.
The next day, it was another early morning to make my way to Palawan Island, a 60-minute flight from Cebu. Ecotourism has really taken a leap forward here in the past few years, largely due to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which was named
 a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999 and was chosen as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2012.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
The underground river is all about the adrenaline rush. I headed to Sabang terminal where a pump boat took me to a dock where I boarded a canoe. As the boatman slowly paddled our canoe into the 8km-long subterranean waters, a sense of adventure surged through me; with the sound of bats overhead and dark, slippery rock formations adding to the thrill.
Keeping my adrenaline pumping, my guide, Lawrence, suggested we stop at a crocodile farm – the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center. It’s
 a huge tourist attraction and a research institute devoted to crocodiles. I have never seen so many live crocs in my entire life.
We didn’t stay for long (thankfully), heading to Iwahig, a penal facility where prisoners serving sentences for everything from murder to theft live in cells with open doors. It’s a first-of-its-kind correctional institute in the Philippines. There are no walls around the facility, save for a guarded entrance, but strangely enough, no escapees either. This could be due to the fact many of the inmates’ families choose to live at the prison too; giving up jobs and houses and moving the entire family to be near their loved one.
Inmates are encouraged to learn a trade while there, from farming to fishing and forestry and they work hard. Wearing blue prison uniforms, the inmates welcomed us by doing a dance (reminiscent of the well-known 2010 Michael Jackson tribute by prisoners in Cebu City) and later peddled the handicrafts they make and sell to raise funds the government then recoups to pay for their keep. Any money left over goes to the inmates and their families.
To show my support I bought some crocodile-shaped key chains as fitting souvenirs. Then, strangely enough, I ended up eating the crocodile version
 of the Filipino dish, sisig (pan-fried diced meat seasoned with spices) for dinner at Kinabuch’s Bar and Grill Restaurant. It was my first try of crocodile meat, which was delicious if a little fatty.
“Try this,” Lawrence urged, holding up a plate of Palawan speciality tamilok, or to you and me, extra-long woodworms! They are usually eaten raw after a quick dip in spiced vinegar. “They taste like oysters,” he added. But I shook my head. “I’ll take your word for it!” He laughed heartily, before dunking one in vinegar and gulping it back. 

Characteristic of island life, there aren’t any fancy eateries like those in Dubai. At lunch the next day at 
Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, we ate at KaLui, which is designed as a native hut with shiny bamboo flooring.
 You dine barefoot (it’s considered rude 
to bring your shoes into someone’s home) and I wiggled my toes with delight as I ate freshly grilled fish, water spinach with prawns, and seafood salad.
I still had so much to tick off my tourist check list. I managed to make a pit stop at a local pearl store to buy a set of mother-of-pearl earrings for myself. Pearl farming is common throughout the Philippines (the country is called the Pearl of the Orient Seas, after all), and in Palawan, enterprising locals sell them for export, but retain some for visitors to buy as souvenirs.
I was particularly excited about a night raft cruise I’d booked along the Iwahig River. It was so dark when we set out, I couldn’t see a thing. “Be as quiet as possible,” Lawrence whispered, rowing our little boat gently through mangroves. He stopped and suddenly hundreds of tiny, glowing dots exploded into the darkness. Fireflies! We watched in awed silence as they sparkled around us like a cloud of glitter dust.
I felt a light tap on my arm. “Look here,” Lawrence said, dipping his hand to stir the brackish waters. Plankton glowed, like in that scene from Life of Pi. I gingerly dipped in my hand to stir the water, which instantly turned a luminous blue.
Next, Lawrence directed my eyes upwards. “There, can you see Jupiter? And there’s Mars…” he said, pointing a laser beam pen at what looked like giant stars in the sky. I grinned at the reference to my nickname. My college friends called me Mars because they thought Ma (short for Maria) Felicidad was a mouthful. The name has stuck ever since.
Now for my final challenge. After my sensory explosion on the raft, the next day a boatman dropped me off the nearby Central Park Station Beach where I began what felt like an hour’s climb (the brochures say six minutes) through a forest trail to the Sabang Zipline jump site. When I reached
 the jump-off point for the zip line, 
I took in the amazing view of sparkling blue ocean surrounded by lush, green mountains.
Remembering my sister’s hesitations, I strapped on the harness, safety helmet and life vest securely. “Here I go!” I squealed, hopping off the platform. Next thing I was zooming
 800m at 150 feet above water before landing on a small island in the middle of the ocean.
I wanted to call my sister then and there to tell her she should try being a tourist in our home country. I can’t believe I’d forgotten its beauty, and had missed out on so many experiences. As 
I pulled off my safety gear I knew I’d been right all along – it’s definitely more fun in the Philippines.