Visiting The Philippines: Manila and Boracay

The Philippines. A few people were quite surprised when I told them we were off on holiday to the Philippines, it obviously wasn’t a destination that they’d thought much about before. But as someone who loves to travel, there aren’t many places that aren’t on my list to see and after having seen so many amazing pictures of the country from other blogs, particularly Just One Way Ticket, it was clear that the Philippines is a very special place that demands to be seen!

A lot of people say to avoid Manila and go straight to the islands, but honestly, I love Asian cities and I’d read there were enough sights to fill a couple of days so I’m really glad we chose to explore a little of the capital city. Of course, when travelling with a toddler, spending a couple of nights after a long flight makes settling into the holiday rhythm that bit easier and all the more enjoyable.

We had chosen to stay in Intramuros, the historic walled city of Manila so we were in walking distance of most of the sights we wanted to visit, which turned out to be a great choice. We stayed in a boutique style hotel, The Bayleaf Intramuros which was excellent. It was clean and comfortable with a great location, great food and one of Manila’s best rooftop bars to boot. It really was the perfect choice.

And I’m so glad we didn’t bypass Manila! I mean, what an amazing city! It’s certainly a very complicated city, often described as a number of separate cities lumped together to create one giant super-city, but Lonely Planet refers to it as ‘one of Asia’s most underrated cities’ and I can see why. Just taking to the streets and having a wander about is an assault on the senses – there’s so much happening on every street corner, it’s really a pleasure to see all aspects of daily life taking place out on the streets!

Certainly in Intramuros, as well as there being plenty of historic sites to visit, it is also just so colourful! I found it all absolutely fascinating.

But on the subject of taking to the streets and walking around, I should mention that Manila is not known for being a safe city. I had read before we went to take caution when travelling by taxi as meters can be fixed and worse, car-jackings do occur. I was also told repeatedly by foreigners and locals alike to keep your valuables closely protected at all times.

On arrival at the airport, we took a pre-paid coupon taxi from the airport booth to our hotel (local taxis were too small for our baggage, but we also didn’t want to have to deal with the drama of a potentially fixed meter ripping us off) and did as the driver did, and locked our doors for safety. Even on the drive through the city it quickly became evident that safety is something that the locals themselves take very seriously – all around us on the roads were people with backpacks worn on their fronts or between their legs on motorbikes.

But with that said, it’s wise to use your common sense. Even locals wouldn’t walk around many areas at night, but during the day in Intramuros we certainly felt pretty safe.

One of the best ways to get around the old walled city and to see the numerous sights including Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, Casa Manila and the length of the wall itself is by traditional Kalesa, or Victorian horse-drawn carriage which will take you on a guided tour around the city. They’ll even take you beyond the walls to other parts of Manila if you’re brave enough to face the traffic!

Having travelled a fair bit in Asia previously, I was expecting something similar to Thailand, that perhaps Manila might be like Bangkok, but I was slightly surprised to see that this was not the case, Manila was much poorer and more basic than this.

Everywhere around the city the cables above the road form a chaotic mess! I can’t imagine how any electrical or telephonic issues ever get fixed, it must be impossible to find the right cable amongst the chaos! And that’s quite possibly the reality, that they don’t get fixed. It would certainly seem to be easier to add a new cable than to attempt to find the one causing the trouble!

We were also well placed to walk from Intramuros to Rizal Park, which as well as being a popular leisure spot on weekends and a great place for people watching, it’s also listed in the Lonely Planet as one of Manila’s best spots for kids, and is home to some interesting sights also. It’s one of the largest urban parks in Asia and is an important site in Philippine national history as the execution spot of national hero José Rizal, marked by the Rizal Monument.

The park is also home to the rather impressive Sentinel of the Statue of Freedom, a towering 12 metres tall (spot the people at the bottom of the statue in the picture below for perspective)!

Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom

It seems that Rizal Park is the place where everything goes on, and it’s interesting to take a walk around and enjoy the various different areas of the park as well as its history. You just never quite know what you might find…!

Not too far away is China Town, which also makes for an interesting place to have a poke about and see a slightly different side of the city.

One thing I wasn’t at all prepared for were the incredible purple-pink sunsets! I have seen some amazing sunsets in my time but the sunsets over Manila Bay have to be some of the best…

After our brief exploration of Manila, it was time to head back to the airport and fly on over to Boracay to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about…

We chose to stay in comfort at the Shangri-La Boracay at the top end of the island. Although it’s not on the famous White Beach strip, the hotel has the very beautiful Banyugan Beach as its own private beach, as well as a large stretch of the semi-private Punta Bunga Beach.

Banyugan Beach

Sadly for us, despite going at the best time of year for sunshine and the best weather (January), in a freak turn of events the weather wasn’t that good! Though even when the sun didn’t shine the weather was still warm and humid, and pleasant to sit on the beach in.

The biggest difference the sun made was to really bring out the beauty of the place!

I’d definitely recommend the Shangri-La Boracay for anyone considering a visit, but who likes their home comforts! The hotel had everything we needed and more, and since the weather wasn’t always that good, having access to the kids Adventure Zone indoors for rainy spells turned out to be a god send!

The sunsets on Boracay are also pretty famous and not too shabby…

If you’re looking for something a bit more rustic and more of an authentic stay in Boracay, then there’s plenty more to choose from and to suit all budgets.

I had heard that Boracay was very touristy and built up, but as with Manila, it was not what I’d been expecting. I found the main strip of Boracay to be far more underdeveloped than comparable popular beach locations in Thailand, which was a pleasant surprise.

It’s touristy in the sense that there are a lot of people around and that you can buy pretty much anything you might need, but there’s no sign of Boots or many global corporations yet which was a nice surprise, most of the shops still seem to be of the local and independent variety.

There definitely seemed to be a fair bit of construction going on around the island though, with more larger resorts in the process of being built, and even a modern indoor mall nearing construction so it’s anyone’s guess how long it will stay like this.

White Beach path

White Beach itself is beautiful, but perhaps a bit overhyped. It was certainly too crowded for my liking, at least around Station 2 anyway.

White Beach Station 2

I much preferred the area around Angol and Station 3, where the hippy vibe and spirit of ‘old Boracay’ lives on and the beach is much quieter.

Exploring Station 3, White Beach path

Everything felt more laid back around Station 3, and there were more of the smaller type of bars and restaurants that backed straight out from the path onto the beach – the type of places that you could easily while away your time happily with a beer, away from the music, the noise and the excess of Station 2.

The island is only tiny so it’s easy to get around, and it’s definitely worth exploring the other beaches and areas – there’s far more to the island than just White Beach, and if you do venture out, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful beaches, some you can even have all to yourself!

Bulabog Beach

Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island runs parallel to White Beach and is the place to be for wind-driven watersports – kite surfing, wind surfing and the like.

Diniwid Beach

Diniwid Beach is just north of Station 1 and is a small but much quieter, more relaxed beach, somewhat similar to the atmosphere found at Station 3.

Diniwid Beach

Diniwid Beach is quite rocky on one side, but if you venture around the rocks you’ll come across a narrow path carved out of the rocks themselves that leads down to White Beach.

Ilig-Iligan Beach

My personal favourite was the rarely visited Ilig-Iligan beach. Very quiet, very rustic and fabulous soft powdery sand but without any of the crowds!

Ilig-Iligan beach has an old closed down hotel that sits beside it. I’m told there wasn’t the trade to keep it open which seems a huge shame to me. There is other accommodation nearby, but you’d need transport to get to any of the beaches from there.

Puka Beach was another one that many people told me I should visit. It’s famous for the Puka shell and is the place to buy shell jewellery, there’s plenty of choice from stalls that line the road onto the beach.

Puka Beach

Again, I liked the relaxed and rustic feel of Puka Beach, though it wasn’t quite as quiet as Ilig-Iligan.

One of the most popular ways to get around Boracay is by motorised trike, although in the name of progress there are also more environmentally sound, modern electric trikes you can catch.

I’d have liked to have done some more exploring in the Philippines while we were there, but the problem is getting around. Since it’s made up of hundred of islands, you have to fly or go by boat between many of them. We spent two weeks in the Philippines, with 10 days on Boracay. It’s definitely possible to spend much less time on Boracay depending on what you interests are, but if you plan to travel around the Philippines it’s worth noting that you’ll need to allow a whole day to get anywhere as transport is notoriously unreliable with frequent last-minute timetable changes, delays and cancellations.

We flew from Manila to Boracay with Philippine Airlines and were subject to a one hour delay on our return trip, with the flight before us having been delayed by three hours.

It’s also worth noting that safety standards are not the same as travellers from Western countries may be used to – whilst we were told to buckle our seat belts for the internal flight from Manila to Boracay, there are no seat belts provided for infants. Cabin crew told us it’s policy only to provide infant seat belts on international flights…!

Tips for families travelling with kids:

  • Definitely leave the pushchairs at home for the Philippines, the city pavements are too uneven / narrow / filled with obstacles to use them and the islands are even less suited to wheels – even off-road style strollers
  • A baby / toddler carrier is much more practical, and it can also be worn on any internal flights in the place of the missing infant seatbelt
  • Fresh milk is widely available in the local stores, although we couldn’t find any that wasn’t UHT
  • Take your own nappies, especially if your baby is on the large size as all the nappies in shops seem to be the small sizes
  • Wet wipes and kid-friendly snacks are widely available and the range of fruit is fabulous and delicious (especially the mango!)
  • The Philippines is definitely a child-friendly country in the sense that most people seem to adore kids, and your children will be widely welcomed
  • Don’t try to cram too much into your Philippine trip – you’ll likely spend a lot of it in transit. If you want to explore multiple destinations, the more time you can spend in the country the better.

Sadly, because of the inclement weather we faced during our stay, we weren’t able to do any island hopping as the water was deemed too rough, so we decided to treat ourselves on our last day with a helicopter tour to see the island from above…

Bottom Line:

We had an amazing time in the Philippines, and whilst there are a lot more places within the country I’d like to see yet, I’m glad we didn’t try to cram more in on this trip. Visiting only Manila and Boracay allowed us to relax and enjoy ourselves without constantly travelling around and having to rush, leaving plenty of time for the toddler to splash about and build sandcastles to his hearts content 🙂

I’d definitely recommend visiting the country, even with small people in tow – the beauty of the place and the people can’t help but leave you bewitched.

  • We flew from Abu Dhabi to Manila with Etihad which is an eight-hour flight.
  • We flew with Philippine Airlines from Manila to Boracay (they’re an Etihad partner) which is around 45 minutes to an hour.

And last but absolutely not least, thank you so much to everyone who contacted me on my social media channels to share their safety tips, information on where to go, what to see and what specialties to eat! We had some excellent meals and experiences because of you all – and all that’s left is to plan our next trip to the country to see some of the other incredible places you recommended! Thank you all, you lovely, wonderful people, you!

If you want to see more of my photos from the trip, I’ll be uploading the ones I couldn’t fit into this post onto my Arabian Notes Facebook page Philippines photo album 🙂

Let me know your thoughts and comments here!