The Philippines. A group of 7,000+ islands of paradise in the South Pacific, and also one of the places we looked forward to the most.
We started in the capital city of Manilla, which we mainly used it as a headquarters for launching our itinerary. When there are 7,000+ islands to choose from, your itinerary in the Philippines can be the biggest challenge. We decided to take the boats less traveled down the West side and thoroughly enjoyed it. While in Manilla, we stayed at the Boutique Hostel, which was simple but really well located, and enjoyed a fabulous food market at night.
This was our first stop in SE Asia proper so wow. $5 beach massages, all the fresh juices you could drink, and warm people who take hosting visitors very seriously.
We took a short flight south to the biggest city on the island of Palawan called Puerto Princesa. Besides being a great city full of awesome restaurants, it is the perfect hub to start off exploring the island. We started big.
A short drive from the city is a magnificent natural wonder of the world called Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. This name does NOT do it justice. Into a limestone mountain, there is a cave that stretches for 15 miles (!!!) with a river winding through it. And yes, you can take a boat into this massive cave. So yes, we did.
The National Park is extremely well done and preserving the cave’s natural structure is top priority. The only boats allowed are registered rowboats, so the fumes of an engine wouldn’t disrupt the air quality or sound waves of the cave. The boat tour has an exceptional audio guide, with headphones so as to not disrupt the cave’s natural environment. While the guide does have a light, it is used minimally during the 30-minute tour. All of these restrictions keep us from disturbing the cave or its living inhabitants.
Yes. Living. There are a whopping 9 different species of bats found in the cave, among other reptiles (Oh don’t worry—just some lizards and casual pythons) and birds found in the park. Luckily, as you glide through this cave, the massive structures and chambers distract you from all of that. The largest chamber is about 2.5 million square meters in volume. So crazy.
The next day we moved from Puerto Princesa to another highlight: A teensy island town called Port Barton. This is the place that SE Asia dreams are made of. We stayed for 3 nights, and operated on a strict schedule. Yoga. Brunch. Relax. Massage. Dinner. Sleep. Repeat.
Blakely had one of the best days of her life in Port Barton. In addition to the above, her first Huffington Post article was published while here. As if being published wasn’t enough, floods of congratulations and love came to us from across the world. Not too bad.
We also got out for a kayak trip to our very own island (something there are PLENTY of here!). So fun to get out on the water.
We moved on from Port Barton up to El Nido, which is one of the better known destinations in the Philippines. Instead of staying right in El Nido, we got the recommendation to stay a cove over at Corong Corong Beach. Very good call. This beach is charm in itself—somehow a community of French ex-pats have moved in and created a sub world for themselves. We ate delicious food, rented a sailboat from our new friend Thierry, and took an island-hopping excursion to find hidden beaches and private islands. All musts.
Next was another must: the small town of Coron on Busuanga Island.
To get there we took a very memorable ferry, of which we only have these two misleading pictures. It was 7 hours of the biggest waves we've ever seen. The compartment where the passengers sat was plastic chairs and benches. For most of the ride, the huge waves meant we were letting on water so they had to close the wooden slabs that should be opened to let air flow in. 7 hours of being locked in a wooden box, rocking and tumbling. It was awful.
On the plus side, we met two people who were on the shuttle the next day. Their same shuttle took on so much water that their boat had 3-feet of sitting water in their compartment. It's vital to check weather before taking these boats.
The main reason for going to Coron is a good one: Scuba diving World War II wrecks. It is listed by Forbes as one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world, and with good reason. The Japanese occupied the Philippines during the war, and a dozen sunken Japanese warships of all different depths and difficulty make a gorgeous backdrop for diving. We chose Neptune Dive Center and were thoroughly impressed (which is hard to do after our diving in Palau)—for a super reasonable rate, we got a private boat, guide, cook and boat driver. We love SE Asia.
Ryan’s grandfather served in the Navy during the war, so we were able to talk to him about the wrecks we dove and he looked back in his journal to compare where he was when they sank. It was fascinating and a bit bizarre to dive through war wrecks—a stark reminder that the violence of one generation can give way to peace in the next, or vice versa.
Neptune Dive Center took us to the Morazan Maru, Olympia Maru, and Teru Kaze Maru wrecks. You’re able to see where the blasts occurred, and admire gorgeous coral and fish surrounding the wreckage. All were absolutely amazing.
So ended our time in the Philippines. From mile-long-caves, to yoga on the beach, to underwater wrecks and as many massages as we could handle, it was a fantastic introduction into SE Asia.