By Michelle Karaman-Jones
I was among the passengers when the largest airline in the Philippines, Cebu Pacific Air, took off on its very first direct flight from Sydney to Manila. Since then, the budget airline has increased its direct service to five flights a week most weeks, opening up for Australians many beautiful, untouched destinations at reasonable prices.
The increase is in response to statistics showing the number of Australian leisure travellers heading to the Philippines has more than doubled in the past nine years, with a 25 per cent growth in just the last two years.
Mixing with many of my Filipino friends in Australia, I was familiar with their customs and hospitality, but nothing beats the authentic feeling of actually being in the Philippines and realising it is a natural paradise.
The Philippines offers some of the world’s best beach destinations like Cebu, promoted as ‘the queen city of the south’, which has many small islands with white sandy beaches. It is famous for its delicious seafood, as well as the river cave in Puerto Princesa.
Diving, snorkelling, trekking and delicious food are all on offer at these idyllic beach destinations, which may be reached through Caticlan, Kalibo or Puerto Princesa.
Australian travellers may also choose to explore the exciting capital city Manila, or any of the 33 Philippine destinations Cebu Pacific flies to.
For flight bookings, visit www.cebupacificair.com.
Day 1. Manila
On the first of our five days in the Philippines, we explored the exciting capital city, Manila. It is the country’s second largest city with lots of modern hotels and shopping centres, massive luxury resorts, and casinos. It also has a rich history, going back to the 1500s.
Manila became the seat of the colonial government of Spain when it gained sovereignty over the Philippine Islands in 1565. Great Britain occupied the city for two years, 1762-64. During World War II, much of the city was destroyed, but was rebuilt in after the war. In 1975 the city claimed its independence. Historic places to discover are: Fort Santiago, San Agustin Church and Casa Manila.
Whether you’re staying for business or pleasure, you can expect to find accommodation that will suit your needs in Manila.
We stayed at Solaire Resort & Casino located at the heart of ‘Entertainment City’, with a view of Manila Bay. It is one of the premium hotels in Manila. We were able to explore the resort’s ‘first phase’, which includes 500 luxuriously appointed rooms, suites and bayside villas as well as resort-style pool facilities, bars and entertainment lounges. In addition, there is a state-of-the-art ballroom and meeting space, a fully-equipped fitness centre and spa, and a 18,500 square-metre that includes two levels of gaming space and an entertainment bar. I haven’t been to Las Vegas, but I was told Solaire Resort & Casino was a “Las Vegas replica”. The resort also features a world-class dining experience including Finestra Italian Restaurant. The ‘second phase’ is in progress and expected to open soon. Go to solaireresort.com.
Day 2. Cebu
Cebu City lives up to to its promise as ‘queen city of the south’. Explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s first step onto land in the Philippines happened in Cebu, which became the first Spanish settlement. This historical importance dominated our stay there.
First stop was Magellan’s Cross, the wooden cross Magellan erected to commemorate his success in converting the locals to Christianity. We then moved on to the Basilica del Santo Nino, home of a revered religious relic, a statue of Jesus as a child that dates back to 1521.
We also visited Fort San Pedro, known as the smallest former Spanish outpost in the Philippines, followed by Casa Gorordo and Yap Sandiego Ancestral House, both of which contain historical displays showing how residential life was lived in the Spanish era.
For a break from history, we checked out the showroom of noted Filipino furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue , and then we headed to the Sky Experience Adventure, at the top of the Crown Regency Hotel and Towers.
The Sky Experience Adventure offers a range of sky-high experiences. The most spectacular are Sky Walk Extreme, Edge Coaster and Tower Zip.
The Sky Walk Extreme allows you to walk on a translucent glass floor around the outside of the building’s 37th floor, attached to an overhead safety harness.
The Tower Zip is a zipline or flying fox cable between two buildings. You are attached to the cable in a safety harness and can ‘zip’ from one building to the roof of another building 76 metres away, at a height of 145 metres.
On the Edge Coaster, riders are locked into a platform that travels around the outside of the building’s 38th floor. A control lever allows you to tilt the platform 55 degrees to give you a thrilling view of Cebu City below.
In Cebu, we stayed at Be Mactan, part of the Be Resorts chain. Be Mactan, on Mactan Island, offers luxury accommodation from $A120 a night, plus resort facilities and a range of dining options. We enjoyed Boodle On The Beach, a traditional community dining experience. Seated on the floor, we ate Filipino favourites, including pork crispy pata, bangus (a local fish of Cebu), grilled chicken and rice, grilled pork belly and chicken, plus shrimp and eggplant.
Day 3. Island hopping in Cebu
We swam with the fish to start our day on Hilutungan Island. These are colourful tropical fish protected by the government in a sanctuary. As you snorkel, you can feed them bread. They are friendly and will swim beside you. Beautiful Hilutungan, one of the islands of the Olango Reef, is a 30-minute boat ride from Mactan. At low tide, with the water below knee level, it is possible to walk between five of the islands on the reef. Go to www.cebucruising.com/cebu-hilutungan-island-mactan.html. The cost of the island-hopping day trip is $A32 per person
Our next stop, Nalusuan Island Resort and Marine Sanctuary, is also a popular snorkelling and scuba diving spot. Kayaking, motorised water sports and a private beach are all available to guests. To stay at the resort and enjoyed a feast Check out www.nalusuanislandresort.com.
Day 4. Puerto Princesa
We flew from Mactan to Puerto Princesa, known as ‘the city in a forest’, and checked into our hotel, One Manalo Place, where accommodation starts at $A92 a night for a standard room, including breakfast.
Puerto Princesa is all about natural beauty — beaches, islands, caves, and the jewel in nature’s crown, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. The river is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature.
A boat tour of the river will take you under a mountain range, through the St Paul Underground River Cave, and out into the South China Sea. Although the river is 8.2km long, the entire journey through the cave system covers 24 kilometres.
Underground river tours are available from Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa from $44 per person, including transfers from Puerto Princesa.
While island-hopping by boat from Honda Bay is popular with tourists eager to swim, snorkel and picnic, many Puerto Princesa beaches are secluded and less commercial. These include Marufinas, Napsan and Nagtabon beaches, where the sunsets are amazing.
We visited idyllic Pandan Island for a picnic lunch in the peaceful tropical surroundings. We enjoyed mantis shrimp (sea mantis), jack fish, grouper and oysters. The Pandan Island Resort promotes itself as “a place where you are woken by the singing of colourful birds, where there is only a palm tree between you and the sea… where you may even meet a sea turtle before having breakfast.”
Next stop was Cowrie Island, where the resort encourages a fun beach-club atmosphere, with activities that include swimming, snorkelling, jet-skiing, kayaking, open-air massage and beach volleyball.
That night we ate at Puerto Princesa’s renowned Kalui restaurant, inside a native wooden house. As is the tradition, we left our footwear in lockers at the door, then tucked into a menu of fresh seafood and vegetables, including sashimi, tempura, shellfish soup and baked mussels, as well as local specialties such as sea grapes, lapu lapu in oyster sauce, and Spanish mackerel. Afterwards, we went firefly-watching as part of the $A32 dinner package.
Day 5. Home
We flew Cebu Pacific Air from Puerto Princesa to Manila, and then a second flight from Manila back to Sydney.
More facts about Cebu Pacific Air
•Operates five flights a week most weeks of the year from Sydney to Manila, plus an extensive domestic network in the Philippines.
•Operates flights to 62 destinations on 90 routes spanning Asia, Australia and the Middle East.
•Won the award for Asia-Pacific Low-Cost Carrier of the Year at the 2014 CAPA Aviation Awards for Excellence.