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DESTINATION: THE PHILIPPINES

Shores Full of Surprises

Golden sands, isolated bays with coral reefs and magnificent inland terrain await a lifelong beachcomber in search of paradise--for the right price

May 14, 2000|JOHN HENDERSON | John Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

MANILA — Piecing together my first vacation in the Philippines was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without seeing any of the pieces. Of the country's 7,107 islands, 5,000 are uninhabited. That left me researching Web sites, books, Internet message boards and Manila travel bureaus for the right places to visit.

I admit, the Philippines may seem like an unusual choice for leisure travelers. I too have heard the horror stories about ferry accidents and, more recently, about kidnappings by insurgents seeking an independent Islamic state.

But that turmoil is confined to the far southern region of the country. I had heard of tiny islands farther north lined with limestone cliffs and palm trees, of verdant hillsides ringed with golden sand and coral reefs. The country intrigued me as an exotic yet affordable outpost where few Americans, military excluded, have ventured.

As a scuba diver and a lifelong beachcomber, I settled on four islands for a monthlong solo visit earlier this year: Panglao, a speck of land known as a prime year-round dive site; neighboring Bohol, home of the striking Chocolate Hills; Boracay, a rollicking party island with the pristine White Beach; and Palawan, where dozens of gorgeous islands are a short catamaran ride from shore.

The start of my journey, unfortunately, wasn't so idyllic. From San Francisco I flew to Singapore and then to Manila, landing an eye-blurring 36 hours later.

The beauty of island hopping here is that multiple carriers fly within the country. The ugly part of island hopping is that you must use Manila as a base. The capital is a crowded, steaming center of 12 million people living in pollution so thick that the growing skyline is a mere rumor when you look from the airport.

During holidays, many folks here do the sensible thing: They leave. And at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, the morning after my arrival, the airport looked like the fall of Saigon. Filipinos and thousands of expats jammed a departure gate the size of a school cafeteria. Thankfully, I had a reservation. My two-hour flight south to Bohol, my first destination, was packed.

After 2 1/2 days of travel, I finally found bliss. I arrived at the Bohol airport and took a short van ride to the airy wooden lobby of the Bohol Beach Club, which lies across a bridge on the tiny neighboring island of Panglao.

I checked into a large bamboo-thatched bungalow where a long string of palm trees swayed a few feet from my door. Just beyond, glistening water and fine white sand beckoned under a cloudless sky and 85-degree weather.

I rolled out my straw mat, looked around and saw I was the only person on the sand. It was the day before the most hyped New Year's in ages, and I was alone on what I consider one of the world's greatest beaches. All this for $80 a night.

I rang in the New Year at a beach feast and fireworks party. At about $11, the celebration was probably one of the least expensive on the planet, given the price-gouging that seemed prevalent elsewhere.

In the evenings to come, I grazed at the resort's huge buffets of Filipino cuisine: the national dishes of adobo (chicken or pork in soy, vinegar and garlic), lechon (suckling pig), fresh fish and pasta. I sipped $1 rum-and-Cokes made with the Philippines' excellent Tanduay rum. About $13 was enough to cover a fine meal.

For a little variety, I took a 20-minute trip down the beach to the village of Alona on the southern coast of Panglao, a popular outpost for whale watching and year-round scuba diving.

In the days that followed, I discovered the scenery on the islands isn't limited to the beaches. The Philippines has more than 10,000 species of trees, bushes and ferns, and the vegetation gets dense just a Frisbee throw from the ocean.

Two Canadian couples and I hired a driver for $18 to explore the land one day. With the Eagles playing on the tape deck, we cruised back over the bridge to Bohol and its geological oddity, the Chocolate Hills.

After an hour's drive through lush plantations and past shirtless boys playing basketball with netless hoops, we came across a vast plain and climbed a long, steep staircase. At the top, for as far as we could see, were huge, green mounds rising up to 350 feet. They were everywhere. The official count is 1,268.

The hills are so named for their brown appearance in the dry season (generally late November or December until May or June). No one is exactly sure how they developed, but some geologists believe Bohol was underwater during prehistoric times. Volcanic eruptions caused the bottom of the sea to rise, and water smoothed and rounded the formations.

The scene was all too bizarre. I needed a beach. In the Philippines, that's never more than a few minutes away.

If it's a beach you want, there's no better place than Boracay, my next stop. It's a sliver of sand in the middle of the country.

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