Beyond the capital
Manila might ensure that the Philippines is more than just a beach holiday, but there is no doubt that the proximity and diversity of its islands, most a brief air hop away, are the key reason behind the tourism growth. The archipelago is blessed with spectacular natural beauty and diversity, including volcanoes and pristine waters rich with marine life, promising snorkeling and diving opportunities.
For decades a backpacker's and adventure seeker's dream destination, the tourism organization began courting the baby-boomer market with the arrival of the country's first deluxe properties more than 10 years ago.
The trail-blazing Amanpulo resort opened in 1993, part of the Aman collection of 31 resorts that originated in Thailand in 1988 and quickly spread abroad. Pampered Amanpulo guests reach the small, private island of Pamalican via a one-flight hop from Manila by private charter.
While upscale resorts continue to open in choice locations, areas no less beautiful but lacking five-and-less-star properties are natural draws for the more budget-sensitive millennial market. They flock to the famous Banaue Rice Terraces of Ifugao and the Cordillera Mountains, often called the Eighth Wonder of the World and recognized by Unesco in 1995.
Mud-and-stone-walled terraces were introduced to the Ifugao people some 2,000 years ago by the Chinese, and the mountainous area is still home to much of the tribal Ifugao culture, with a man-sculpted landscape that resembles "earth art" laced by breathtaking hiking trails.
The surfing capital of Siargao Island (one of the world's top 10 surf spots according to CNN.com) continues to grow more popular, and for much more than its waves: Lush landscapes widen its appeal.
The heart of Filipino biodiversity
As a first-time guest, I was most interested in the Visayas, the central island group of the Philippines. They are the heart of the country's biodiversity and a natural draw for much of its tourism, beginning with the island of Bohol and its peculiar Chocolate Hills, more than 1,000 unusual geological formations rolling over more than 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) that turns Hershey brown when the rainy season ends. Cebu has a major international airport, lots of historical and cultural sites and popular fiestas, beautiful beaches and a growing infrastructure that all serve to attract visitors. The Visaya islands is also where you'll find the most hyped beach destination of them all -- the uberpopular Boracay, a serious contender as Southeast Asia's party island and home of the much-photographed White Beach.
In the last many years, magazines such as Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler have regularly ranked Boracay and Cebu and neighboring Palawan as the trifecta of dream islands. In fact, on multiple lists of the world's finest, Boracay and Palawan regularly jostle for first and second place. Like so many of the islands in the Philippine constellation, Boracay and Palawan each offers a very different experience.
After an hour's flight from Manila to the Caticlan airport on Panay, followed by a brief boat transfer, I arrived in Boracay impressed by the abundance of island beauty jammed into less than four square miles of land. I followed the legions drawn to its coast and the aptly named White Beach, witnessing what young bloggers disparage as overloved and underwhelming.
A walk along its powdery shore to revel in one of the island's famous sunsets illustrates why it is so easy to love. But it is also easy enough to leave the crowds and thriving nightlife behind (although I admit I enjoyed the ad hoc volleyball games and strolling families taking in the magnificent salmon-and-purple-colored sky) if you are staying at the beachfront Lind Hotel, where all the hubbub feels a light-year away. A glorious oasis tucked away at the end of the fabled strand, it is still central but peaceful.
Opened in late 2015, the bright, contemporary and chic five-star Lind is a 119-room magnet for international, mostly Asian, guests who love the faultless attention to color and design. An infinity pool overlooks the beachside lounges below, and three restaurants and an exquisite spa encourage one to escape the water activities the island is known for and the nightlife that follows.
Shangri-La's Boracay Spa & Resort is even farther removed from the island buzz, built into a sheltered hillside that leads down to a quiet cove and two separate sandy beaches. There is something of Bali here, with indigenous design flourishes in the public area and villas, rich local woods, open, breezy architecture and pinch-me luxury (not unlike what Shangri-La buffs will find in a sister property on Cebu).
When it opened in 2009, it helped set a standard of island accommodation not only for Boracay, but for the island scene in general. New five-star neighbors of the Shangri-La sharing this exclusive corner of Boracay include the Crimson Resort & Spa and Movenpick Resort & Spa.
The magic of Palawan
A long sliver of an island that stretches for 270 miles all the way to the tip of Borneo, Palawan offers an entirely different vibe. It is sparsely populated, widely agricultural, home to various indigenous groups and prides itself on being the country's cleanest province.
Puerto Princesa, its provincial capital town and site of one of two island airports, feels far smaller than its burgeoning population. The area is interesting for its small museums, waterfront restaurants and its Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a World Heritage site and one of the world's longest navigable underground rivers and proudly promoted as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of Nature.
Experienced divers board liveaboards that head to the world-class Tubbataha Reefs, held by many (including CNN.com) to be among the world's finest dives.
Many take the one-hour flight from Manila to Palawan's northern tip, but we took a five- to six-hour private transfer from Puerto Princesa north on good but curvy roads through timeless landscapes of family-owned farms framed by volcanic mountains.
Our destination was the scrappy but burgeoning town of El Nido at the northern tip, and Palawan's showpiece that lies just offshore: the craggy, dramatic limestone outcroppings and breathtaking waters of the Bacuit Archipelago. Narrow, traditional outrigger boats called bangkas slip into hidden lagoons and empty, palm-lined beaches, reminiscent of (but less crowded than) Thailand's Krabi coast or Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. It is understandably one of Asia's great locations for island-hopping.
Development is visibly happening in and around El Nido town, but for the time being the trio of El Nido Resorts on three Bacuit islands a boat transfer away know no rivals.
Each idyllic, ecosensitive property boasts a pristine location and unique experience. Price categories, ambience and accommodation amenities vary, and each attracts different categories of guests, ranging from honeymoon couples to three-generation families, with budgets that range from moderate to blowout.
El Nido's Miniloc was the first to open some 30 years ago. It was purchased in 2012 and reimagined by El Nido Resorts, owned by the Ayala Corp., a family-run real estate firm based in Manila. Lively and located on its own sandy beach with snorkeling two steps from your lounge chair and minutes by kayak from gorgeous lagoons, it is the most attractively priced resort and the site where Americans are most visible, accounting for some 30% of its guests.
Lagen Resort is the middle-tiered sibling, a little more serene (albeit with TVs in every room) and marginally more expensive.
At the top tier is the exquisite Pangulasian, what I imagine to be Amanpulo's only true contender in the Philippines, though a good deal less expensive. It oozes easy barefoot luxury in a modern indoor/outdoor design, surrounded by an expanse of dazzling white sands and a palette of blue and turquoise that is almost too much to take in.
It is hard to reconcile this panoply of islands of immense natural beauty, populated by a smiling and friendly people, as part of the same country that prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory in 2016. The specific location of concern cited is in the Sulu Archipelago, in the southern half of the Mindanao islands. From an empty palm-fringed beach in Palawan, it can feel like the other side of the world. The troubles and concerns seemed to be on no one's minds or lips.
With the notion of "safety" these days being such a relative term, I must say I don't recall ever having felt more carefree and secure than in the genuine welcoming embrace of the Pinoy people.