New Frontiers: Philippines

Outside chooses the top vacation spots of 2013

A pontoon boat in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines.     Photo: Rich J. Matheson

Despite tens of thousands of talcum-sand beaches and wild jungles, the Philippines have had a tough time shedding a seedy image. And to be sure, grim things have happened over the past decade. Kidnappings. Bombings. Riots. But the country has 7,107 islands, and the handful of sketchy ones, like Jolo and Basilan, are easily avoided. The rest of the country is affordable, exceedingly spectacular, and largely empty. Only four million people visited last year, a fraction of the hordes arriving in Thailand every few months.

Where to aim? Start with Palawan province, in the archipelago’s far west, which stands out as one of the world’s best-kept tropical secrets—a 1,764-isle, karst and banyan fantasyland of black cliffs, mint-hued lagoons, and blindingly vibrant reefs. Eighty-one cultures call the area home, and to this day the Tagbanua people have kept much of their island, Coron, off-limits to tourists. The parts that are open are primordially pristine—“fantastic and legendary,” according to Unesco. Sailing, diving, climbing, hiking: it’s all here. Over the past few years, a string of small resorts have popped up elsewhere in the province. Huma Island, with its Tahitian-style water bungalows, is slated to open this year. In the palm-fanned Calamian, a new 18-guest enclave with private beach cottages called Ariara opened last year. Or you could just bring a tent. But be warned: pitching it won’t be easy. The people here are some of the friendliest you’ll encounter anywhere, and locals will almost certainly invite you to crash in their huts instead.

THE TRIP: Calamianes Expeditions, a small eco-outfitter on Coron, runs four-day, three-night trips around the island to soak in hot springs, snorkel sites like Calachuchi Coral Eden, and swim in Kayangan Lake, a turquoise lagoon surrounded by cliffs. From $330 per person.

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