In a country with more than 7,000 islands, there’s a little stretch of powdery white sand waiting for everyone in the Philippines. Somehow, many islands in the archipelago have mercifully remained clear of mainstream tourist paths, and even those that have been discovered still have a last-frontier feel about them.
Accommodation in the Philippines varies, with lots of simple and affordable options. For luxury-lovers, however, the breadth of five-star hotels and resorts is fantastic. We were lucky enough to discover two of the Philippines’ most legendary luxury hotels, Shangri-La’s Mactan Island Resort & Spa and its sister property situated on what is perhaps the most famous Filipino island, beautiful Boracay.
As the plane started its descent into Cebu, it was hard to believe that just over an hour ago we were in Manila, one of Asia’s most densely populated cities. Outside, we were looking down at a sea of velvet blue punctuated by emerald green islands. This was one of the things that appealed to us about the Philippines – intra-country travel is not only affordable, but travel times are generally ridiculously easy, ensuring a perfect mix of new discoveries and plenty of time to relax.
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Mactan Island, an easy 20-minute drive from Cebu, boasts gorgeous, gin-clear waters and extraordinary diving and snorkelling options. It seems that Korean newlyweds have caught on to the island’s endless charms, claiming it as a top honeymoon destination.
With extra flights from Sydney to Manila and easy connections onward, Australians are sure to follow suit. There’s an impressive range of high-end resorts and hotels, but the lovely Shangri-La’s Mactan Island Resort & Spa was our destination. Spread over 13 acres of tropical grounds and offering more than 500 rooms, two huge pools and the signature Chi Spa, there’s plenty to do and definitely room to breathe and unwind.
One of our first stops was the on-site marine sanctuary, a 12-acre, coral-filled project managed by the resort and a few key partners. While this part of the Philippines is renowned for its gorgeous coral reefs, Shangri-La recognised the need for ongoing coral regeneration and sunk two ships to form artificial reefs. Guests can participate in the endeavour by building an artificial fish house, contributing to the program and leaving more informed about the dangers our waters face.
A private white-sand beach that stretches out for 350 metres offers plenty of water activities, including windsurfing, parasailing, water skiing and snorkelling. Divers will love the myriad options on offer, such as diving in the marine sanctuary or at one of many other sites within a 30-minute boat ride of the resort.
Back on land, there’s a six-hole golf park and a miniature golf course, plus beach volleyball, yoga classes, group runs and the incredible Chi Spa Village. Situated in a private part of the resort’s expansive grounds, this is hands-down one of the best spas I have experienced. There are 15 private villas and a pool exclusively for spa guests, steam rooms, couples’ treatment rooms, and a comprehensive spa and wellness menu. Some of the treatments are inspired by the local culture, using many of the plants, herbs and botanical products found on the island.
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Four restaurants, several casual eateries and five bars will keep gourmands very happy. Cowrie Cove offers sweeping ocean views and modern seafood dishes complemented by a great wine list, there’s exceptional Cantonese cuisine at Tea of Spring, while Acqua serves up authentic Italian cuisine and another fabulous wine list. Tides is the quintessential buffet restaurant found at most large five-star hotels, offering a range of international cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Cebu City was the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines, so you should factor in a day to see the sites. One of the top tourist attractions is Magellan’s Cross, an important symbol for Cebu that was planted by the Spaniards in 1521 following the first christenings of Filipinos. Next door is the oldest church in the Philippines, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, established in 1565. Outside the city awaits one of the greatest adventures ever – swimming with whale sharks. We wish we could have ticked this off our list, but didn’t leave enough time. Next time…
Our time on Mactan Island came to an end far too quickly – the only consolation was the fact that our next stop was Boracay, another easy one-hour island hop. Arriving at Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa is an experience in itself. After landing at Caticlan, we were whisked away to a private lounge en route to the resort’s luxury speedboat. Before we knew it we were zooming across the turquoise waters, weaving amongst local outriggers known as bancas and spying glimpses of Boracay’s shoreline and the powder-white sand that it’s so famous for.
Paradise is an overused word, but honestly, this resort is paradise. Tucked away from the main part of town, Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa’s grounds are breathtaking, and within mere minutes of arriving I was wondering why on earth it had taken us so long to visit the Philippines – and especially Boracay.
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From our room, we looked out over lush, exotic gardens to an ocean with more shades of blue than I ever knew existed. There are two beaches here, Punta Bunga Beach and the private Banyugan Beach, where discreet staff stood by ready to administer drinks, and cushioned lounges helped us lose track of time. We soon got into a regular, delightful pattern, migrating from the fantastic breakfast buffet to the beach lounges, where we whiled away a few hours before indulging in lunch, and then heading to the stunning main pool to spend the afternoon in the sun. And then it was time to eat again.
The dining options here are fantastic. Be sure to watch the incredible sunset from Solana bar before heading up the stairs to Sirena, the resort’s signature seafood restaurant. Perched amongst the treetops, Rima is super romantic and a must for anyone on a couples’ getaway or honeymoon.
Knowing there’s much to see and do in Boracay, we jumped on one of the hotel’s courtesy buses late one afternoon, disembarking at the centre of the action: the famous White Beach (just one of the island’s 12 beaches). Known for its excellent nightlife and great restaurants, we wandered along the sand, stopping here and there for a cocktail, finding it hard to resist the obvious party scene. One sign still makes me laugh, as it summed up the carefree atmosphere perfectly: “Husband Daycare Centre. Need time for yourself? Need time to relax? Want to go shopping? Leave your husband with us – you only pay for his drinks.” Tempting as it was, this was meant to be a romantic getaway!
While at five kilometres long, White Beach is not huge, its azure waters and seemingly endless white sands lure tourists from all over the world. They’re there to snorkel, windsurf, dive, parasail and just chill. Not too far from here is Bulabog Beach, where the sands are lined with kitesurfing schools, bars and cheap accommodation.
From the beauty of the islands to the luxury resorts and, most of all, the Filipino people (who have hospitality down to a fine art), the Philippines far exceeded any of our expectations. We’re already planning our next trip, but with limited time the problem is narrowing it down to just one (okay, so maybe two) gorgeous destinations. El Nido, with its dramatic limestone cliffs? Or back to Cebu so we can finally swim with the whale sharks? Perhaps we’ll take inspiration from our younger years when adventure was the name of the game, and head to a less-developed island, or to Sabang Beach to finally learn to surf. Decisions, decisions – but one thing’s for sure, we will be back.
Need to know
Visas: Holders of Australian passports can stay in the Philippines for up to 30 days without a visa – any longer and you’ll need to organise one. For more information from the consulate in Australia, visit the Philippine Consulate’s website.