Island Hopping in The Philippines
How on earth do you plan to go island hopping in the Philippines when the island country comprises of over 7,000 individual and diverse islands? How do you narrow down your itinerary to suit your travel budget and timescale? These are the issues we faced while planning our first ever island-hopping trip to the Philippines. Join me and my backpacking husband on our fabulous adventure!
Further investigation, however, uncovered that the Philippines are divided into three main groups.
These main regional groups of islands are known as Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao.
But which to choose? I suppose, it all comes down to what you want to see and do in the Philippines.
The Backpacking Housewife Guide To Island Hopping In The Philippines
If you are looking for the excitement of city life then you might prefer to fly into the nation’s metropolitan capital and commercial centre, Manila, also the principal city. Or, for interesting history and culture, you might head for Iloilo City, known for historic landmarks and Spanish colonial churches.
Alternatively, Mindanao is the southernmost group of islands, and the main city is called Davao. Here you’ll find Mount Apo, Eden Mountain Resort, lakes, enchanted rivers, incredible waterfalls, and more durian fruit and coconuts than you could ever imagine!
We were looking for beautiful tropical white sand beaches, warm clear seas, and coral reefs!
The backpacking husband is an adventurous (and highly qualified) scuba diver and high on his bucket list was to dive in the Philippines, where he hoped to encounter white tip and hammerhead sharks and in particular, the magnificent thresher sharks, and for this reason we decided to stay on islands offering the best diving and hotel resorts offering excellent scuba diving facilities.
We already knew that island of Malapascua’s Monad Shoal in the central Philippines archipelago of the Visayas, is one of the best shark diving locations in the Philippines and known as the only place in the world where Thresher Sharks can be closely observed on a regular basis.
I’m not a scuba diver myself but I do enjoy islands and beaches and boats!
For this reason, we chose to do our island hopping in the Visayas staying at dive resorts – not that you need to be a diver to appreciate this island hopping guide however – as I’m not a scuba diver myself but I do enjoy islands and beaches and boats!
Our Island Hopping Itinerary:
Island Hopping Guide – The Visayas
Cebu is the main city of the Visayas, Philippines. We arrived on an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, in the late afternoon and took a taxi from the airport into Cebu City. To my amazement, the traffic was crazy busy, and a journey that by my estimation should have only taken us around 30 minutes, took many hours.
Luckily, as we’d eventually arrived at dusk, we’d booked to stay overnight in a small hotel in Cebu.
In planning our island hopping trip in Philippines, I had booked ahead with all our chosen hotels and resorts along our island hopping route – staying exclusively with various scuba diving resorts on this trip – but I hadn’t yet organised our inner-island or inter-connecting travel.
I had thought travel throughout the islands of the Philippines would be well organised. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The reason for this was that, having already travelled extensively throughout Thailand, including to many of the islands, where onward travel is easily arranged via large ferry boats, speedboats, or traditional longtail boats, I had thought travel throughout the islands of the Philippines would be similarly well organised. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Planning our Island Hopping in The Philippines
I soon found out that travelling from A to B on the islands might be simple enough, with scheduled buses and local Jeepney trucks and taxis readily available, but travel between one island and another was much harder to arrange and not always possible.
I had planned the first leg of our trip heading north to the island of Malapascua, where we planned to stay for a whole week, and from there to travel directly – by sea – to the island of Bohol for a few days, from where we would then continue south, once again by boat, to the island of Siquijor or ‘fire island’ as it is known because of the way it glows at night with fireflies. After which, we planned to travel back across the sea to Dauin to spend Christmas at El Dorado Resort on the island of Negros.
The backpacking husband was looking forward to all the scuba diving. I was looking forward to exploring the islands, the beaches, snorkelling on the reef and then working on my tan on a poolside lounger.
But, it was explained to us, that an onward journey by sea from Malapascua wasn’t actually possible due to sea conditions and the distance involved. We were told we’d have to retrace our steps instead, returning along the coastal road to Cebu in order to travel from the main port by boat over to the island of Bohol and then return to Cebu once again to travel by boat to Siquijor island.
I then realised that I’d made a rookie travel mistake. I’d anticipated our travel plan through assumption rather than fact finding and so the distances we actually needed to travel to complete our island hopping itinerary in the Visayas would be at least double what I’d first estimated.
And double the distance also meant double the cost and so our budget was completely blown!
A valuable lesson had been learned. Never again will I simply ‘imagine’ the direction of the trip and how we might get to where we planned to go just by looking at a Google map and seeing how a crow might fly or a boat might sail!
We consulted with the manager/owner of our hotel in Cebu with regard to taking a local bus north to the Port of Maya in the morning when it was possible to take a boat over to Malapascua island.
He told us the local bus would take 4-5 hours depending on stops. Another option would be to take a jeepney truck, but he warned us it would only actually leave Cebu when it was full of passengers.
Or, we could arrange private taxi with a non-stop journey time of around 3 hours to take us to the port. With his helpful assistance, a private taxi and a driver was quickly negotiated over and arranged and the next morning, in great excitement and anticipation for the day ahead, we met with our friendly driver and we headed out into the crazy and chaotic Cebu traffic.
Where we sat for an hour while inching our way along one steamy street, laced with thousands of low swinging and treacherous looking overhanging power cables, packed with cars and trucks lined bumper to bumper, many belching out black fumes that seeped into our car through holes in the floor and rattling air vents.
The only vehicles moving through the line were the continuously beeping scooters that seated whole families, that bravely weaved in and out of the crazy but colourful Cebu City congestion. Eventually, our driver saw an opportunistic gap in the traffic jam when a truck on the next lane had an engine stall.
With a tyre screech and an engine roar, we swerving into a side road, breaking free from the seemingly endless traffic jam and finally headed out onto the (perilously) winding coastal road instead.
Throughout the journey, I gazed out of the window at a cloudless blue sky and a sparkling blue sea, and I anticipated our long awaited and dreamed of arrival at Kokay’s Maldito Dive Resort on the tiny island of Malapascua.
After travelling along the coast road for another three hours, we arrived at the end of the road, literally, and there waiting for us was a traditional outrigger or ‘pump boat’ to take us over to Malapascua Island.
We spilled out of our taxi, grateful for the fresh sea air and to stretch our legs, and the crew were immediately helpful. They enthusiastically wrestled with the backpacking husband’s bulky dive gear and my own backpack, carrying them balanced across their shoulders and onto the boat.
The wind had whipped up here at the Port of Maya, which wasn’t actually a port as you might expect. There wasn’t a pier or any docking places – only large slippery looking rocks and a rolling tide beneath a precariously balanced gangplank leading to the undulating boat. The journey to Malapascua, over a rough sea, took about 40 minutes.
Our Lost Phone Story!
It was during this journey, and as the island and the resort came into view over the swell of the waves, that the backpacking husband suddenly realised that he’d left his phone on the back sea of our taxi that was now heading back to Cebu.
Panic set in. What would we do now? How would we manage?
This phone was to have been our technical lifeline while travelling because it had the local SIM in it that we’d bought at the airport, to provide internet access to our itinerary and bookings and the data and communication we needed for our banking and airline boarding passes.
My own phone was useless because it didn’t have a SIM in it at all as I’d taken it out so that I didn’t get stung with any huge international roaming fees. So, it was basically just a camera.
We both realised that realistically we were never likely to see that phone again.
After all, it might have slipped behind the seat and so disappeared forever.
Or it might be found by the next passenger who might claim it for themselves – and who could really blame them when returning it to us was likely impossible. The sinking feeling of disconnection we were suffering in that moment was however temporarily relieved by our new appreciation of the beautiful scene that awaited us on the beach.
The hotel staff in their colourful uniforms had assembled to greet us with a cold towel, beaded necklaces, and a welcome cocktail.
We might not have a phone but we had finally arrived in paradise!
And, as it turned out, we needn’t have worried or despaired because our trusty taxi driver had found the phone on his back seat, and he’d already sent a message to our hotel to say that he’d handed it to the boat crew, who were bringing it across to us on the next boat.
A little story about losing a phone but one that perhaps reminds us to always find faith in people.
Malapascua is a small island by any standards. Its length is 2.5 kilometres and it is only 1 kilometre wide. However, there are plenty of options for accommodation on the island and that includes budget, mid-range, and high-end hotel properties and resorts.
The island is famous with the scuba diving community as the only place in the world where you are guaranteed to see Thresher Sharks every morning. This is because the reef here is a cleaning station for the sharks and they come because it’s where the wrasse, a type of cleaner fish, congregate.
Malapascua diving is 100% eco-friendly and sustainable and diving rules are strictly enforced here to make sure it’s safe for everyone, including the sharks. Take note that diving to see the Thresher Sharks is open only to divers with at least an Advanced Open Water Diver certification.
Another notable diving spot from Malapascua is off Gato Island.
Gato Island is known as an underwater wonderland featuring coral and rock formations and underwater tunnels. My backpacking husband was planning to dive there too. I was keen to join him on the boat so I could enjoy snorkelling there.
On the boat, I kept well out of the way while all the divers and their dive buddies prepared the gear for their dive and while they entered the water. Then I put on my own fins and my full-face snorkel mask and jumped in too.
My Scary Sea Snake Story!
I swam over to the small island and spent some time floating around on the surface of the warm clear water looking down at the rocks on the sandy bottom and at all the snakes I saw there. The snakes were large and striped and I guessed, as we were in the Philippines, they were highly venomous. I was also very glad that those snakes were many meters below me on the bottom of the sea and not anywhere near me, as then I’d certainly not have been so fascinated or so curious about them.
I thought I heard someone shouting from the boat and so I lifted my head to see and indeed, one of the crew was waving his arms in my direction and shouting something. I took off my full-face snorkel mask and listened to him shouting ‘lady, lady, snake… snake!’
And then I realised I was closely surrounded by snakes on the surface of the water all around me.
I probably don’t need to tell you that I swam back to the boat and left the water in double-quick time. The crew, who had obviously been concerned when they warned me of the danger that I was in, were now laughing and joking at my expense and delighted in telling me that the Black Banded Sea Krait – which were the snakes in question – where the most venomous snakes in the whole world.
My backpacking scuba diving husband however assured me that they are incredibly docile creatures who need to come up to the surface for air and that they would only attack if they’d felt threatened.
I wondered if me thrashing about in the water, while attempting to swim as fast as a speed boat right through the lot of them, might have felt threatening to them?
I stayed on the boat after that and left exploring the marine sanctuary to the professionals.
Our stay on Malapascua island was all and more than we ever thought possible.
Our hotel – we had booked a premium room – was gorgeous. The view of the beach and the sunset from our balcony was fabulous. The weather was amazing at around 39 deg C. The food in the resort restaurant was wonderful and, as Christmas was just over a week away, the atmosphere was festive (in such a tropical place!) with a sparkling Christmas tree set up in the bar.
The dive centre and staff at Dive Society at Kokay’s Maldito Dive Resort were super friendly and wonderfully professional. Within days of our arrival on the island they became great friends. To this day, we have such fond memories of the special people we met on Malapascua island, and I’m happy that we all stay regularly in touch and keep up with each other’s lives from afar.
On our last night on Malapascua, our new friends surprised us with a farewell party.
On our last night on Malapascua, we decided to buy a bottle of rum in the local shop to take along to share at our farewell party and we headed over to the dive centre at the time we’d been asked to arrive – to find that our friends had strung up lights around the tikibar, that there was lively music blasting out from the outdoor speakers – and there was lots of chicken cooking on the barbeque.
Lots of drinking and dancing and eating and laughing took place that night. It was fabulous!
We didn’t feel quite so lively or fabulous the next day, however, when with horrible hangovers we had to get back on the outrigger to sail across the rolling sea and embark on a ten-hour onward journey over to the island of Bohol and Blue Star Dive Resort.
We planned to stay four nights on Bohol. We took a car across the island to our accommodation at Blue Star Dive Resort and really enjoyed our impromptu tour of the island along the coastal road to the village of Anda.
We passed local people busy shopping and chatting. School children walking or cycling to school in their smart uniforms. And, as we trundled slowly through their village, we had a privileged glimpse of their everyday routines – drying coconut and rice on sheets at the side of the road – living their everyday lives. Lives that from an outsider’s point of view seemed richly fascinatingly.
Bohol is a large island and it is famous not only for its 261 kilometres of coastline and beaches but for its ‘chocolate hills’ in the interior that are mounds that turn chocolate brown in the dry season. (November – May). Bohol is also famed for its indigenous and cute primate – one of the world’s smallest primates – the tarsiers.
I’m sure there are lots of epic things to do and see on Bohol – and there’s lots of information already out there on the internet on where to go and how to see it – but we were focussed primary on the diving (the backpacking husband) and relaxing and reading (me) while experiencing these beautiful islands in the region of the Visayas.
I didn’t plan on venturing out on the dive boat much myself here because most of the diving off Bohol is for experienced divers only rather than snorkelers. The fast currents of the Sulu Sea provide thrilling drift dives and the steep coral walls offer advanced divers interesting deep dives.
I have to say that I was seriously impressed with our amazing accommodation and with Blue Star Dive Resort.
There are only 10 rooms at the resort. Our Ocean View Deluxe room for the four nights here was a gorgeous palm thatched bungalow with a balcony that overhung the edge of the cliff and offered stunning views over Guindulman Bay.
The dive centre at Blue Star on Bohol is a 5 Star PADI Resort.
There is also a sun terrace with comfortable loungers and a swimming pool and a jacuzzi. The resort itself is perched on the edge of a cliff with fabulous views over the sea. We had arrived at night and the view offered to us from our room at daybreak when I opened our curtains the following morning was simply breath-taking.
So, from our private balcony each morning, I could have my coffee and wave off the backpacking husband as he left on the outrigger to go diving. In the daytime, I could relax and read and swim in the beautiful pool. And, in the evening, we could dine on the terrace together in the open-air restaurant and watch the sun going down on the sea. Absolute paradise!
After our adventurous (him) and totally relaxing (me) and laid-back time on the island of Bohol, it was time for us to leave and retrace our journey once again back to Cebu so that we could travel over to the island of Siquijor.
I was so excited to experience Siquijor… as it has a reputation for being ‘other worldly’.
The island is also known by Filipinos as ‘the fire island’ because it is famous lit at night by the glow of millions of fireflies.
The locals also talk of witchcraft being practiced on the island by its natural healers and spiritual shaman and so the island has both a magical and a bewitching appeal.
Again, we were there for the beautiful beaches and clear warm coral seas and the famous sunsets, and we were staying at Coco Grove Beach Resort for which I was in great anticipation. According to the website – and you must take a look – it offers the guest a long stretch of white beach surrounded by crystal blue sea with spectacular marine life, complete relaxation by the three swimming pools and rejuvenation in the tropical gardens, and unbelievably beautiful sunsets.
And, of course, for the backpacking house husband there is a scuba diving centre and the Tubod Marine Sanctuary directly in front of the resort that encompasses a vibrant coral reef with intermittent sandy areas and seagrass beds that are festooned with tropical fishes, octopus, and turtles.
Our stay on Siquijor island and at Coco Grove Beach resort was perfect and idyllic. I have the fondest forever memories of beautiful and delicious breakfasts served to us by the pool. Of relaxing and reading in a hammock between the palm trees on that amazing white sand beach. Of feeling the hot tropical sun on my skin as I sat at the swim up bar having an afternoon cocktail. Of watching the spectacular sunsets from our loungers by the pool while sipping sundowners. And enjoying romantic and fabulous seafood meals cooked simultaneously tableside and seaside by the resort’s expert chefs. It was all so incredible!
After our wonderful time on Siquijor came to an end, we were in anticipation of our final island hopping adventure in the Philippines and the Visayas. We were heading next to Dumaguete and Dauin on Negros Oriental Island, in the southern Philippines, where we planned to stay over Christmas.
We were staying at El Dorado Beach Resort – which like the dive centre we’d loved so much on Malapascua island – was owned by The Dive Society in the Philippines. The backpacking husband was particularly looking forward to lots of diving here where there are so many fabulous dive sites and particularly diving off Apo Island – a small volcanic island which is a protected marine sanctuary – and listed as one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
We had a wonderful few days at El Dorado Resort and a fabulous never-to-be-forgotten day out on the dive boat when I too once again braved the tropical waters for an amazing snorkelling experience amongst colourful corals and fabulous marine life.
Unfortunately, our plans for Christmas and for diving with Dive Society in the Philippines was abruptly cut short when the weather suddenly changed and all boats were tied up and the diving cancelled. A weather warning was issued and then soon heightened to a typhoon warning. Everyone at the resort began to prepare for the incoming storm by further securing the boats and battening down the hatches. It seemed that all diving would be cancelled.
We decided that as there was no more island hopping or scuba diving in our immediate future and that Christmas was likely to be a scaled down considerably in the Philippines – that we would take advantage of the last scheduled flight from Dumaguete back to Kuala Lumpur – and that we’d have our Christmas in Malaysia instead!
End Note: A while after our stay at El Dorado, we heard from our friends that sadly, the Dive Resort at Dauin on Negros Island had suffered a terrible fire and burned to the ground. Thankfully no one was hurt but the resort suffered a lot of damage. For this reason, I’ve not included a website reference to our stay here.
Christmas spent abroad and particularly Christmas in the tropics is pretty amazing, and having spent many previous winters and Christmases in Scotland, for us it’s also a bit of a novelty to spend Christmas in beach clothes and flipflops!
Have you ever island hopped the Philippines?
Is island hopping in the Philippines on your travel wish list?
Have you ever been scuba diving in the Philippines?
Have you ever spent Christmas in the tropics?