The struggle was real. We had 10 days in The Philippines, and (technically) more than 7,000 islands to choose from. It had been almost five years since I last explored this part of Southeast Asia, and I'd been itching to get back. When I sat down late last year to plan a return trip, I found myself overwhelmed with options to fill my 10-day itinerary. I wanted to visit the sandbars of Balabac, Cebu's waterfalls, beaches on Malapascua, the lagoons surrounding Coron, everywhere on Siargao, dive Apo Island ... the list goes on. I would have needed three months to cover everything on my list. After weeks of research, I finally settled on three islands, and even that was tough to squeeze into 10 days! So here you go, my quick guide to all I was able to see in Bohol/Panglao, Siquijor and El Nido in less than two weeks.
Found the coolest rope swing in The Philippines on Siquijor Island.
BOHOL ISLAND & PANGLAO ISLAND
For anyone staying on Panglao, chances of visiting Alona Beach are pretty good. It's the heart of the island - a tourist hub home to dive shops, restaurants, tour agencies and hotels. It's also a completely gorgeous place to chill - sunbathing during the day in the calm turquoise waters, or soaking in the island vibes at night along the beach's main drag.
Ah, one of the prettiest dive sites in The Philippines. It's a 20 minute boat journey from Alona Beach to reach the offshore reefs of Balicasag, and most dive shops offer half-day dive trips for ridiculously cheap prices. I booked a two tank trip with Philippine Fun Divers - I chose them based on the positive reviews on TripAdvisor. The dive masters were rockstars, and the conditions were absolutely perfect - warm water, insane visibility, colorful coral and so much to see - blue starfish, green sea turtles, eels, clownfish, vibrant schools, trumpet fish, nudis, the list goes on.
While I loved diving the reefs, I'm not a fan of visiting the actual island. Balicasag is a very small, and its beaches have been completely overrun by tour companies that use the beaches as a lunch/snorkel stop for boat tours.
Bohol Beach Club Palm Grove
If you're able to get a day pass, this beach club is home to one of the prettiest palm groves on the island, several adorned with picture perfect white hammocks. It's a 15 minute drive from Alona Beach, but I suggest calling ahead of time. If the resort is fully booked they will not let outside guests on the property.
Bohol is home to more than 1,200 of these iconic geological wonders - cone shaped hills covered in green grass that turns brown in dry season (i.e. chocolate hills). The Chocolate Hills can be seen from several places around the island, but unfortunately it's the tourist complex in Carmen has some of the best views. The place is completely overrun with people, so I suggest visiting early to avoid the overwhelming crowds.
Not the most spectacular cave in the world, but worth a visit for anyone staying on Panglao, as it's easy and convenient. Parking is available right at the entrance, and then it's a short climb down into the large cavern filled with a beautiful blue lagoon, stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is dark, but sunlight does shine in through small cavern holes in the ceilings. We visited in the late afternoon and it wasn't busy at all - I was the only in the water and had the lagoon to myself.
This was the first stop on our daytrip to Bohol, and for us a complete waste of time. The waterfall pool was brown, and the place wasn't very scenic. We spent all of 10 minutes here and then left.
Early on I decided I wanted to stay within striking distance of Alona Beach while on Panglao. It really was the heart of the island, and when I came across Amorita Resort with its stunning views over Alona, I knew I'd found the perfect property. The resort was home to 98 rooms, restaurants, two infinity pools, a wellness spa and dive shop. My one bedroom suite was a completely spacious retreat that housed a living room, dining table, oversized bathroom and king bed in the master bedroom. The roomy bathroom wad almost as large as the bedroom with its his & her vanities, separate tub and shower and closet. But my favorite part of the resort was the spa where I had a standing appointment after dinner. I paid less than $40 USD for a two hour massage every evening, and the spa was literally a minute's walk from my suite at the resort. The perfect end to every day!
There are several transport options available on both Panglao and Bohol. Tourist can rent motorcycles and motor scooters - this is probably the cheapest and most flexible option. For short distances around Panglao, the motor taxis are cheap, plentiful and pretty efficient. And for longer daytrips, it's best to hire a private van and driver. Most of the tourist agencies on Alona Beach can arrange private transport, and the pricing is completely dependent on bargaining skills. We hired our driver through an agency and paid approximately $80 USD for 10 hours of driving, and that included a tip for the driver.
Fairytale vibes at my favorite spot in The Philippines - the Chocolate Hills!
Went searching for sandbars, but found starfish instead!
Always making four-legged friends when I travel.
Watching the prettiest sunset from the resort's infinity pool.
We rented a private boat for an afternoon of island hopping.
Bohol market stop.
Post pool ritual every afternoon at the Amorita Resort.
We visited Virgin Island at high tide to see the sandbar, but it was covered in water!
Island life on Panglao.
Loved my suite's oversized bathroom!
Little slice of palm tree heaven.
Found Nemo while diving Balicasag Island.
My favorite viewpoint at the Amorita Resort - love that the property overlooked Alona Beach.
From southern Siquijor, Cambugahay Falls was enroute to Saladoong Beach, so we visited both in one day. A few locals told us to visit in the early morning because the falls were a popular swimming hole for both locals and backpackers. We were there by 8 AM, and I felt like it still wasn't early enough. Similar to some of the other famous blue waterfalls in Southeast Asia, these falls were tiered creating several different pools. My favorite was the large main pool, as it seemed to have the prettiest water color, along with two bamboo rafts and rope swings.
Coral Cay Palm Tree Swing
Ah, my favorite spot on the island. The palm hammock and swing on the beach at Coral Cay is one of the coolest places I have visited ... and we had both to ourselves. For hours, in fact. If we'd been on Bali, there would have been a line of 100 people waiting for a photo opp with something this cool. To me, it was a clear sign that Siquijor remains relatively unspoiled by Instagram. And good thing we had it to ourselves! The swing was tough - it felt like we were on it for hours! The setting was prettiest middle of the day when the sun was high, and the waters blue ... and then at sunset when the skies turned orange and pink.
This beach is what put Siquijor on my radar. Located on the island's west coast, this stretch of paradise is an absolute dream with calm water that literally sparkles midday when the sun is up. But what makes Siquijor particularly special are a set cement platforms that locals have carved into the rock formations for cliff jumping into the ocean. Even for those that don't jump, it's fun to watch the local kids take the plunge, and worth a climb up just to see the water color from 20-35 feet above.
Coco Grove Beach Resort
Nothing on Siquijor is truly upscale, but Coco Grove Beach Resort is the best of the bunch. One of the bet reviewed hotels on the island, the property occupies a gorgeous stretch of beach on the Siquijor's southwest coast that is particularly lovely at sunset. Additionally, Salamandas Restaurant is the hotel's beachfront restaurant, and it's one of tastiest spots on the island for dinner.
A visit to Siquijor takes a bit more planning than other parts of The Philippines because there are no airports on the island. So while it's a little more difficult to access, it leaves Siquijor wonderfully untouched, less-touristed and off-the-beaten-path. It was actually my favorite place in The Philippines - I wish we'd had more time on the island.
The easiest way to get to Siquijor is to fly from Manila to the Dumaguete–Sibulan Airport (DGT) in southern Cebu, and then catch a one-hour ferry ride over to the island. We flew Cebu Air, part of Value Alliance, the world’s first low cost carriers alliance in Asia Pacific that allow travelers to connect easily and find affordable fares through their booking website. DGT is not a heavily trafficked airport, so it's important to check flight and ferry times to avoid an overnight in Dumaguete.
Ferngully haven at Cambugahay Falls.
Siquijor Island, home to the prettiest sunsets in The Philippines.
Saladoong Beach - my favorite beach on the island!
Beach time R&R at Coral Cay.
The Philippines has the warmest water!
So many beautiful waterfalls in The Philippines!
How epic is this water?
Sunsets at Coco Grove Beach Resort.
I don't have any specific recommendations for El Nido. We basically spent our two full days exploring the surrounding islands and sandbars by private boat. We bargained with a local tour agency, as we wanted to pay extra to avoid any group trips. We learned that for both private and group tours, the agencies are pretty firm on the four itineraries they offer - Tour A (Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Commando Beach and Secret Lagoon), Tour B (Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach and Cudugnon Cave), Tour C (Helicopter Island, Matinlon, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach and Star Beach) and Tour D (Ipil Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Paradise Beach, Pasandigan Beach and Bukal Beach). We tried to mix and match islands from different tours to get the best of everything in one day, but they would not let us.
We ended up going with Tour A and Tour D. Two of my favorite spots were Cadlao Lagoon and Pinagbuyutan Island. The perk of hiring a private boat was that we set the schedule. For example, when we arrived at the lagoon there were two other boats anchored. We pretty much just hung out, waiting until they finally left and then we had the entire lagoon to ourselves, and what a different that makes in The Philippines! Pinagbuyutan Island we also had to ourselves - this place was AMAZING! I could have spent an entire day on this small island - the calm, clear waters surrounded by limestone karsts and palms was absolute paradise.
Island hopping was the thing to do on El Nido.
Brunch feast at Happiness, the cutest cafe on El Nido - our ritual every morning.
This part of Palawan is so beautiful.
Soaking in the last bit of sunshine at our last stop in The Philippines.
The perfect set of palms.
Thank you to Value Alliance for sponsoring this post! xx
All honest opinions are my own.