Stopping in the Philippines on the way to Australia or New Zealand is a great alternative to the big-city stopovers like Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. With its stunning beaches, crystal-clear turquoise sea and incredible snorkelling and diving spots, it’s the perfect stopover for anyone wanting a little more luxury and adventure en route.
As I travelled to Australia, I decided to add five days in the Philippines to break up my outbound journey and make the most of this stunning country. Here is my Palawan itinerary, from Puerto Princesa to El Nido.
Philippines Airlines fly direct to Manila from London, in just over 12 hours. Other airlines also offer flights with a short stop in Dubai or Hong Kong for example.
Once you arrive in Manila, you’ll need to be open to a little extra travelling, as many of the best places in the Philippines are off the mainland; but in my opinion, it is entirely worth the flights. Domestic flights into Palawan are easy and quick, they run multiple times per day, so it’s always easy to line them up with your international flights.
The best time to visit is December through March. I visited in March and it was perfect, although very hot! April, May and November are the shoulder seasons and the weather is pretty consistent, with low rainfall and hot sunny days. The wet season, from June to October does see significant rainfall but its 20C+ and you’ll still get a lot of sun.
All you really need is a day or so in Manila is to recover from flying. If you like shopping, the Mall of Asia is 20 minutes from the airport and has absolutely everything you would expect from a mega-mall. The capital city has all the amenities, with a surprisingly rich old town with 16th-century Spanish architecture.
Palawan is just a short hop from Manila and well worth a 5-night stop! For my layover, I spent one night in Manila before an early morning flight to Puerto Princesa.
As I haven’t travelled much on my own, I opted for a small-group, adventure-touring trip from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, with the hope that I might meet some lovely people en route (which I did!). With my days being quite busy, I decided to stay in some nice hotels as a treat.
On the first morning in Palawan, I joined a Honda Bay Tour, a stunning island-hopping day trip from the coast near Puerto Princesa. Despite having visited other “similar” island destinations in Thailand and the South Pacific, nothing could really prepare me for how truly beautiful the Philippines are.
Having only seen photos and a sneaky side glance as I flew over, this was my first experience of the crystal clear, and pleasantly warm, waters of the archipelago. Our first day of touring was all about the scenery, snorkelling over coral and jumping off diving boards into the lagoon. The lunch provided on the tour was a second highlight; I am a little bit weak for freshly caught fish on a barbecue!
We visited three islands. The first, Starfish Island, is famous for the hundreds of starfish living in the lagoon. This is also the best spot for snorkelling, with abundant coral and fish species. It’s a bit rocky, so I recommend wearing sea shoes.
The second island, Luli, is a fantastically bizarre islet which disappears at high tide. There’s a restaurant here on stilts and the hammock hut is set on floatation devices! This spot is great for families, with a secure swimming area, diving boards and lots of tiny fish.
The final island, Cowrie Island, is the biggest and offers a couple of bars serving frozen cocktails, which was extremely welcome. By the time we reached the island, it was very very hot, and the sand was scalding. This is a lovely island to spend a day on if you like the “extras”: there are a couple of restaurants, beach huts, water skiing and a large sound system.
The tour ended at about 5pm and we returned to our start point in Puerto Princesa. The town has a pretty big range of choices from local cuisines to western choices, and if you’re not up for a 10-20-minute wander, you can find a tuk-tuk every few metres.
On day two, I travelled from Puerto Princesa to El Nido and visited the Underground River on the way, a UNESCO World Heritage site and natural wonder. The cave system is audio-guided and lit only by torchlight, and the experience is spectacular. With everyone wearing headphones, the caves are almost silent, and the minimal lighting gives you a real sense of immersion.
The tour is by boat from a hidden lagoon and explores the natural cave system, inhabited with bats and rich in local legends and tales. It includes lunch at a local buffet, and we had an option to take an inter-island zipline nearby, which I was devastated to miss as I was heading straight on to El Nido!
The drive from the Underground River to El Nido is gorgeous: taking the old, winding roads through the island, and passing through the wilderness and agricultural lands. The drive takes about 4 hours, so although it’s beautiful, prepare for a long day and bring snacks.
On arriving in El Nido, I was thoroughly ready for a chilled evening and a good dinner, and the Seda Lio Hotel did not disappoint. The hotel is a little out of town, but the setting is unbeatable, with its almost-private beach, huge pool and relaxed-but-luxury vibe.
My last day in Palawan was spent with another island-hopping tour, which was a surprisingly different tour to the Puerto Princesa trip. We visited six coves, beaches and islands along the El Nido coastline.
After Puerto Princesa’s bare, white-sand beaches with a few mangroves, the imposing, cathedral cliffs around El Nido are strikingly different. In comparison, the island stops here are much more limited; a few have a ramshackle bar, serving cans of beer and pour-your-own rum coconuts (where the bartender will open a coconut and hand you a bottle of rum to top it up!). There are no restaurants and few bathrooms, which gives you a deserted-island feeling.
On this tour, you can choose from beach snorkelling and open-water diving, which is immense and truly breath-taking. I would really recommend taking both island-hopping tours, as they give you two very different experiences.
Big-hitting spots like Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok, are great for a city break and all have fantastic culture and big sights to see. However, they lack the white-sand beaches, natural beauty and adrenaline-inducing activities of the Philippines. The islands also offer a ‘Pacific-islands feel’ at a fraction of the cost compared to French Polynesia or similar! (Read our blog: "12 Unusual stopovers to Australia & New Zealand").
If, like me, you’d like to spend 5 days in the Philippines on your way to Australasia, or simply want to explore this stunning country on your next holidays, contact us to get some advice and start planning your trip. We are experts in round the world flights, multi-centre holidays and tailor-made trips. We can arrange any aspect of your trip, including multi-stop flights, hotels, airport transfers and tours, so just give me a call.