Top 5 Islands to Explore in the Philippines
Less Famous Islands to Explore other than the Celebrated Palawan or Boracay
In 2017, the Conde Nast Magazine Traveler Readers' Choice Awards named Boracay as, “the Best Island in the World,” while the Travel + Leisure’s 2017 Annual Awards voted Palawan as, “The World’s Most Beautiful Island.” What do these two famous islands have in common? Both are located in the Philippines dubbed as the ‘pearl of the orient seas.’
These two award-winning islands may now be famous the world over, but with over 7,000 islands, there is undoubtedly more to see in this country. This archipelagic nation is composed of at least 11 major inhabited islands, the largest being is Luzon where the busy and crowded capital, Metro Manila, is located. Let’s disregard the travel brochures. As of press time, more than 3,000 of the country’s over 7,000 islands (the exact number at any given moment depends on climate change and tidal whim) are still unnamed and unexplored.
My work allows me to explore as many isles in the country as I could. Surely, everyone has their own best islands but these entries are not merely personal choice. They have been identified as well by the local tourism industry as emerging travel destinations. I could vouch for each island with stunning photos I personally captured. Now, let’s venture beyond the more popular routes and take a look at some of the country’s less famous gems. I assure you it’s an exciting ride!
5. Caramoan, Camarines Sur
Located about 110 km east from the capital city of Naga and belongs to the province of Camarines Sur, Caramoan seems like a forgotten paradise. Given its distance from the city center where the nearest airport and central bus station are located, it is far and almost remote. From Manila, you can travel by plane (1 hour) if you’re on a rush or take the bus or van (8-10 hours) if you have plenty of time. Don’t worry, bus trip is not so bad as you’ll be rewarded by the countryside’s scenic view. Upon reaching San Jose or Naga City, you still have to take a van or bus to Sabang Port where you can catch a two-hour ferry boat that will take you to the island. Recently, the availability of a direct route from Naga to Guijalo Port of Caramoan for as quick as 40 minutes has been offered to travellers.
My cousins and I opted to travel by land then ferry to reach this faraway group of islands in the Bicol region. But rest assured you’ll forget all about the journey once you experience the glistening soft white-sand beach under a blue sky, crystal clear waters and gentle waves of Caramoan’s pristine beaches. It was worth all the troubles of the long trip!
TRIVIA: The island’s claim to fame is that it served as location shoot for several international series of Survivor Reality Show. As confirmed by the locals, it was the site of more than 7 Survivor International Editions--Survivor French, Bulgaria, Israel, Sweden, India, Denmark, Belgium, and 3 seasons of Survivor USA!
I’ve been to countless beaches around Asia, but Caramoan has the most beautiful unspoiled beach I've ever seen. The sand was so white that light bounced off its surface, tossing a sunlight gloss on anyone walking on it. Aside from its serene beaches, the group of islands are surrounded by limestone cliffs, astonishing rock formation, and mystic lagoons. The underdeveloped setting of the remote area certainly adds to its charm.
If you’re yearning for something raw, serene, and exquisite yet devoid of urban invaders, this island may just well satisfy your longings.
4. Bantayan Island, Cebu
I first set foot on the island of Bantayan a decade ago or so for research. From the buzzling metropolitan Cebu, we had to travel by bus to Hagnaya Wharf for 4 hours and took the 1-hour ferry to the municipality of Santa Fe. It took us forever to reach Bantayan, but upon arriving at the almost deserted port, I almost wept gazing at the beauty in front of me (probably from exhaustion too!). This far-flung island with its blue skies, aquamarine waters, miles of dazzling beach and golden sunshine was too much for a welcome respite.
I came back recently, but this time, for a holiday vacation. The modern changes are notable with several beachfront cottages and resorts, coffee shops, bistros and restaurants offering local and international cuisines, and souvenir stores compared to a few over a decade ago. Other than that, thankfully, the island retains its rustic landscape, white powdery sand beaches, crystal unpolluted waters and serene atmosphere to take pleasure in.
The island is huge surrounded by smaller spotless islands mostly visited for island-hopping and for snorkelling and diving spots. The Coral Garden at Silian Island is much admired as it is filled with a stretch of hard and soft colourful corals and small reef fishes in yellow, orange, and blue while Kinatarcan island is surrounded by angelfish, helmut shells, etc. The pumpboat drivers claimed other dive sites such as Jibitngil island where divers can see sharks and manta rays.
Bantayan island is composed of three municipalities: Santa Fe, Bantayan, and Madridejos. Most tourists stay in Sta. Fe where majority of the resorts, hostels, and restaurants are located though it’s easy to explore other areas from there. Multicab or tricycles regularly transport locals from one municipality to another. Motorbike is also a relaxing way of getting around the verdant island with its well-maintained roads.
The Saints Peter & Paul Parish in Bantayan near the town hall of the municipality is the oldest church in the Visayas and Mindanao as founded by Augustinian missionaries in 1580.
The Ogtong Cave Resort provides access to Ogtong Cave where guests can swim inside the cave’s fresh and cool water.
Walking along its streets lined with tall lush trees and taking a glimpse of the swarm of fireflies at night is such a delight. Likewise, it’s one of those rare moments when you let the calming sound of the ocean lull you to sleep as the cool breeze drives you underneath warm sheets.
Tourism development has changed the island for the benefit of the community. But some things haven't changed like its preserved environment, relaxed vibe and the people’s warmth. It’s still a patch of paradise where marine life thrives on this part of the world.
3. Camiguin Island
The pear-shaped volcanic island of Camiguin is the country’s second smallest province yet it is blessed with natural and manmade attractions and historical riches. Though small in size, it’s amazing that the island province is filled with waterfalls, lagoons, hot springs, cold springs, dive sites, pristine sand bars, century old trees, historic structures, and volcanoes!
Camiguin is known to be the “Island Born of Fire” as it was said to be formed by volcanic eruptions and land movements. It has over seven volcanoes including the still active Mt. Hibok-Hibok.
Hence, Camiguin has more volcanoes per square kilometre than any other island on the planet!
The island is likewise well-known for the Sunken Cemetery where a huge cross was installed to mark the community cemetery. It sunk during the 1871 earthquake which also wiped out the town of Catarman. The surrounding area also shows remains of the 16th century Guiob Church ruins.
White island is yet another must-see when in Camiguin. The sandbar is totally bare and its shape depends on the ocean current. We were told by our local guide that it can look like the letter G or L. It was C shape when we got there. You can also snorkel and easily encounter beautiful corals not too far off from the beach. On a clear day, you get a stunning view of the Mt. Hibok-Hibok. So, while the famous Boracay or Panglao island relaxes with pina coladas and reggae music, White island relaxes with silence and ocean waves.
The province is best explored by motorbike or hiring a multicab (if travelling as a group) as many of the attractions are located along a strip of a road that gets around the island. It’s a also a nice way of discovering the island-province’s history, culture, and lifestyle as you pass by preserved structures built several decades ago and well-paved and maintained roads. There are areas where it felt like time stood still. Isn’t that a lovely way of retreating from the hectic maze of city life?
On our 2nd spot is an island of undeniably endless wander. It’s the country’s tenth largest island and its vast land area comes with rolling and hilly terrain, tropical rainforests, mangroves, caves, adventure parks, spectacular diving spots, dolphin and whale watching, white sand beaches, ancient churches, and a sanctuary of the world’s smallest primate that is the gentle and wide-eyed tarsier! Name it, but you’ll never run out of activities to do in this archipelagic province.
It’s also home to the famous Chocolate Hills, boasting over 1,200 cone-shaped hills covered in green grass that turns brown during the dry season. Thus, they look like chocolate hills but are actually made of limestone.
No other place on earth has this kind of natural geological formation.
A couple of days may be inadequate to see all the exciting attractions Bohol can offer but it’s enough to see the highlights. The Chocolate Hills, the province’s most famed attraction is a must. To get the best spot, go to the Chocolate Hills Complex in the municipality of Carmen to enjoy the eccentric landscape of the inedible hills.
To experience it's signature local hospitality, you may visit the town of Loboc and take a cruise of the Loboc River where the internationally acclaimed Loboc Children Choir performs at the famous floating restaurants while guests feast on buffet Filipino food and enjoy the live band or watch Filipino folk dances being performed by the locals. The tour usually ends at Busay Falls and returns to its origin.
In 2013, a strong earthquake hit Bohol where centuries-old Spanish churches and thousands of houses were destroyed including the oldest stone church in the country. Tourism was greatly affected as one of the lifeblood industries of the local economy. Since then, the Boholanos showed their resilience and quickly buckled down to work for the province’s rehabilitation. These days, a lot of travel agencies offer package tours to the island. Local hotels and resorts also commonly offer guided tours to visitors.
The island of Panglao is connected to the capital city of Tagbilaran (where the transport hub of airport, seaport, bus terminals are located) by a concrete bridge. Panglao is known not only for snorkelling, diving and white powdery sand beaches but also for its quaint boutique hotels, seafood and specialty restaurants. Now that the newly constructed Panglao Airport is completed, the province is expecting an influx of tourists.
Despite the development and tourism boom, Bohol is able to preserve it's natural environment. It’s so refreshing to see and hear crowds of bats occupy trees and even electric posts on an evening stroll in the city. Tagbilaran is still surrounded by tall and huge trees which serve as natural habitat for these nocturnal creatures.
Bohol with its preserved heritage, in harmony with nature, rightfully earns its merit as the country’s next premier tourist destination.
Located in the northernmost tip of the Philippines, just a few miles from Taiwan, the island of Batanes is notoriously hard to get to. With a reputation for being the stormiest province in the entire archipelago, it has few flights that are prone to cancellations due to unpredictable weather condition. Save for stargazing, it hardly offers any nightlife. So, why was it on top of many travelers’ bucket list including my own?
How do you like the idea of traveling to an island with a natural landscape of seemingly endless green hills and rolling hills, open spaces as far as the eye can see, sparking beaches, stunning shoreline, dramatic cliffs and crashing waves, with smiling and warm people rich in culture and heritage?
The rolling hills of Naidi, Vayang and the Marlboro Country are part of natural wonders of the mainland Batan. These are the most photographed parts of the island with their vast, scenic grasslands.
One of the most interesting spots for me is the Alapad Rock Formation, on a very breezy location. Its two enormous jagged rocks looked like great guards welcoming everyone to a grand view of the Pacific Ocean and the rolling hills.
Another fascinating site is the Valugan Beach, besieged by various sizes of smooth boulders spewed by Mt. Iraya during its active time.
Not to be missed is the one of a kind Mt. Carmel Chapel, designed after a traditional Ivatan stonehouse, located on top of a hilltop at Sitio Tukon offering an overview of the town proper, the boulder beach and the majestic Mt. Iraya.
A quick visit to the Honesty Café, an unmanned store and souvenir shop, is popular as it exhibits the locals’ values.
Crossing the channel from Batan to Sabtang or Itbayat island entails nerve as you can feel the powerful currents of the deep sea at once. The neighboring island of Sabtang has a more rustic vibe than Batan. It has many centuries-old stonehouses made out of coral rocks and limestone with roofs made of cogon grass which have survived many typhoons.
A trip to the Morong Beach, with its astonishing natural rock formation, felt like living in one of the episodes of the Survivor. The area was deserted when we got there and we had the entire beach to ourselves!
Climbing to the peak of the hilltop, we were rewarded by a spectacular view of the whole of Batan, and even beyond. Time seems to stop when you gaze and wander at this calming view. Life on the island has a noticeably laid-back ambience. The locals don’t seem rushed not even during those deemed ‘rush hours’ in cities. It was surreal in a happy way. Everywhere we look seems postcard-worthy.
Some say Batanes is the country’s version of New Zealand with its unending grasslands. It may also be interesting to know that the country’s smallest province with one of the least dense population has also the lowest crime rate at less than 1%.
For a long time, Batanes was in my list of ultimate dream destinations and it surely exceeded my expectations. The island is a feast for the eyes. The streets are nearly carless. Everyone practically travels either on foot or by bike or motorbike. It’s one of the rare places I visited where house doors are wide open, bikes are left anywhere, valuables are left in unlocked vehicles without even taking the keys out! This is certainly a breeze from the urban jungle. It immediately won our hearts! My friends and I came away with a feeling that we must go back.
Among the thousand islands in the country, Batanes is on top of the list as it is, hands down, simply breathtakingly beautiful...
In the future, I wouldn’t be surprized if more Philippine islands would be in the list of international traveler choice awards. Filipinos are also one of the warmest and most welcoming people this side of the world. I invite you to come and let us share with you what we got. So, what are you waiting for?