The Philippines is an archipelago in Southeast Asia, fringed by the waters of the Pacific Ocean and home to a staggering 7,642 islands. Often overlooked for destinations like Thailand and Vietnam, the Philippines is one of the most fantastic countries to visit – a land of emerald rice fields, westernised cities, volcanic landscape, the friendliest locals and diverse wildlife, like the water buffalo and wide-eyed tarsier. Its capital Manila is the most densely populated city in the world, and offers a high-octane experience of world-class museums, galleries, restaurants and Spanish colonial architecture. A world away from teaming Manila, the Philippines offers hidden lagoons, tropical islands, long sandy beaches and paradise holiday resorts like Boracay and Busuanga Island.
Why cruise Philippines
Spread over more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines was made for exploring by boat or shop, making it the perfect cruise destination. It offers something for every traveller, hooking in foodies with its killer Southeast Asian cuisine, history loves with its colonial and wartime past, city slickers with its teaming capital and beach bums with its thousands of kilometres of sandy coastline fringed by warm emerald waters. Many cruise lines sail to the Philippines, most stopping at Manila but others also offering stops at the likes of Boracay, Busuanga Island and Puerto Princesa. Cruise lines that sail to the Philippines include Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises P&O Cruises and Royal Caribbean, along with smaller, most luxury lines like Seabourn and Cunard. The best time to cruise to the Philippines is between November and April, when rainfall is at its lowest, as travel between July and September and you might end up being caught in a typhoon.
Best places to visit in the Philippines
Manila is the capital of the Philippines and the most densely populated city in the world. As a result, you can imagine its absolutely electric and pulsating with energy. Effortlessly combining the old and the new, Manilla’s skyline is shaped by skyscrapers and gleaming air-conditioned shopping malls and offices, which lie next to shanty towns and Spanish colonial buildings. See former US military jeeps now in use as taxis, wander the world-class Ayala Historical and the National museums, visit an amusement park (the Manila Ocean Park or DreamWorks DreamPlay) and seek tranquillity in the serene Rizal Park. The city is known as the Pearl of the Orient, thanks to its wealth of treasures, picturesque coastal location and chanting golden sunsets.
Manila is steeped in Spanish colonial history, formerly occupied by the Spanish, and one of the city’s top attractions is its 500-year-old Fort Santiago. The fort was built by a Spanish navigator in 1593, originally used as a prison by the Spanish Empire and following that the Japanese Army. Not only is the actual fort a beautiful sight to behold (all old-world Spanish), but visitors can also wander the garden-filled grounds that back onto the Pasig river and learn about Jose Rizal – a Philippine national hero who was imprisoned at the fort until his execution in 1896.
The island of Boracay is one of the Philippines’ most beautiful destinations, only seven kilometres in length and 500m in width at its narrowest point. Luckily for cruisers, it’s a cruise stop on a handful of lines like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises. The island offers overwhelming natural beauty, and travellers flock for its four kilometres of white sands which are fringed by hotels, boutique shops, restaurants and unspoilt lush vegetation. Visiting Boracay is all about unwinding and having a good time, and fire shows and live music keep visitors entertained well into the night. It’s also a hub for water sports, with travellers snorkelling and diving its coral reefs and shipwrecks – teaming with diverse marine life.
Busuanga is the largest island in the Calamian islands, one of the country’s best-kept secrets and a sublime paradise holiday destination. The region is known for its limestone formations, powder-soft white sands lapped by the warm waters of the South China Sea and myriad dive sites – also known for being an eight-hour ferry ride away from Manila. Luckily, Busuanga Island is also a cruise stop for a handful of small-ship cruise lines, offering cruisers the chance to spend the day splashing in gin-clear waters, hiking in luscious vegetation and diving. Wreck diving is the main attraction, with many Japanese ships lying below the waves ready for exploration. Keep a look out for fabled gigantic barracudas.
Puerto Princesa is a coastal city on the island of Palawan, a paradise destination in its own right (and the greenest city in the Philippines) but most famous as the gateway to the biodiverse Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. From the port, which is served by cruise lines like Silversea and Celebrity Cruises travellers can visit the national park and sail down the Unesco-listed Underground River through passages with low-hanging stalagmites and breath-taking underground caves. Closer to the city, there’s the Butterfly Garden, Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre and the Lady of the Immaculate Conception – a Spanish-colonial religious edifice in the old town.
Taal Volcano Lake
Those visiting Manila for a second time, or with time on their hands, should venture two hours out of the city to the magnificent Taal Volcano Lake. One of the most breath-taking sights in the Philippines, if not the whole of Asia, the freshwater Taal Volcano Lake sits in a large caldera in the Taal Volcano, formed 500,000 years ago. The volcano is the second-most active in the country, with 34 recorded historical eruptions, but you’d never think that looking at the serene tapestry of blue and green that make up the landscape. Those brave enough can take a dip in the crater lake, but it’s not recommended to stay in for long, as the water itself has a very diluted form of sulfuric acid. Other activities near the lake include hiking to the top of the volcano and horseback riding – a fantastic and fascinating day out.
Corregidor Island is an island in Manila Bay, located around 50km from the capital and reached only by private boat – so make sure to book a tour. The island is the site of one of the most infamous battles of World War II, providing the first line of defence for US and Filipino soldiers against invading Japanese forces. Nicknamed ‘the Rock’, the island is five square kilometres and visitors can explore barrack ruins and secret tunnels – one being the Malinta tunnel used as a bunker and then secret bomb-proof hospital. For history lovers, especially lovers of World War II, this is the place to visit.
Best things to do in the Philippines
Explore World War II history
The Philippines – back then the Commonwealth of the Philippines – suffered greatly in World War II and was attacked by the Empire of Japan in December 1941. Only liberated in 1944, the country is littered with war memorials, sites and museums, the most famous being Corregidor Island and Veterans Federation of the Philippines Museum in Taguig, and there are many dedicated private tours in the count.
The Philippines is a tapestry of white, golds, green and blues, of sandy beaches and jade waters but also dense forests, mountains and lakes. Get out and explore nature by enjoying a hike, with plenty of trails around the capital and walkable sites like the Taal Volcano Lake.
Visit a rice terrace
Those visiting the Philippines should try to make it to a rice terrace, even if that means extending their stay. The most famous rice terraces in the country and considered to be the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, are the Banaue Rice Terraces – carpets of emerald green carved into the mountains of Lfugao. It’s truly stunning, with the terraces still used by locals who plant vegetables and rice.
Go snorkelling or diving
The Philippines has some fantastic diving and snorkelling sites, especially in Busuanga and Boracay. Both of these ports offer reefs and eerie, yet exciting, shipwrecks to dive – most of them sunken Japanese ships. In Boracay there’s Camia, a retired fishing vessel, while in Busuanga divers should head to Coron home of Kogyo Maru – a navy auxiliary cargo ship sunk in 1944.
Eat, eat and eat again
As with most Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has absolutely delicious food, and travellers should make sure to step on shore hungry and ready to feast. In Manila, head to the Sabroso Street Food Garden Market for local delights and street food, and make sure to try lechón (whole roasted pig), longganisa (Philippine sausage), tapa (cured beef) and torta (omelette).
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