3 Philippine hotspots that aren't Boracay

Bored of Boracay? Head to Bohol, Siquijor and Dumaguete!

More than 7,000 islands make up the Philippines; yet most first-time visitors gravitate towards Boracay. This party island certainly boasts its fair share of picture-postcard white sand beaches and turquoise waters, but those after something more than just cocktails and sun-loungers are best served heading a little further south.

Chocolate hills and adventurous thrills
Two hundred miles southeast of Boracay, on the other side of the Visayas region, you will find Bohol island. Approach it by air and you’ll see thousands of grassy mounds, so perfectly rounded and identical that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the work of some over-reaching landscape gardener.

Actually, these geological formations – known locally as the Chocolate Hills because during the dry season they resemble giant Hershey’s Kisses – are weathered, leftover prehistoric coral reefs. Once you’re on the ground, the main viewing platforms for the hills attract large crowds, but if you hire a motorbike, you can explore other hills in the area and have the vistas all to yourself.

The island’s interior holds another natural wonder: the tarsier. These tiny, gremlin-like creatures (with huge eyes that are actually larger than their brains) are best visited at the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary near the town of Corella (www.tarsierfoundation.org).

If you’re looking for a place to bed down between the Chocolate Hills and the tarsier sanctuary, look no further than Loboc. Aside from its romantically crumbling, Spanish colonial-era San Pedro Church (the oldest on the island, it is at its most atmospheric on Friday nights when the local choir performs), the town’s adjacent river leads up to the Tontonan Falls.

Tacky mass river cruises dominate the water at lunchtime and during the night, but take a kayak out (available from Nuts Huts – see ‘Where to stay’ below) in the morning or afternoon, and you’ll enjoy a peaceful ride past locals hacking down green coconuts from trees on the riverbanks.

Bohol is not only about the jungle hinterland though. Panglao Island, a small islet less than a mile off Bohol’s southern coast, is a base for some of the country’s best diving spots and is also home to Bohol Bee Farm (www.boholbeefarm.com), a haven of organic produce, with a delicious restaurant and great sea views. Don’t miss the beehive tour and be sure to pick up some honey to take home.

How to get there One-way flights from Beijing via Manila to Bohol’s Tagbilaran Airport cost from 1,385RMB (including taxes and surcharges) with Cebu Pacific (www.cebupacificair.com).

Where to stay Amarela Resort (www.amarelaresort.com) on Panglao Island boasts a pool, beach access, a diving shop and complimentary use of snorkelling equipment, kayaks and bancas(outrigger boats native to the Philippines). Double rooms with air conditioning, cable TV, Wi-Fi and balconies from 880RMB.

Nuts Huts (+63 920 846 1559) has cabins on stilts on the side of Loboc river and a communal restaurant/hangout area with hammocks and hiking maps. Private huts with bathrooms from 110RMB.

Witch doctors, caves and butterflies
The fact that you can only get to Siquijor by boat makes it feel excitingly remote, even though, in reality, it’s only a short hop across the water from Bohol. A nascent tourism industry means it has a handful of independent, locally run resorts, but the beaches where they are located are charmingly unmanicured.

The interior has equally wild landscapes that are well worth exploring: take a dip in the natural pool below the three-tiered Cambugahay Falls, or strap on your headlamp and go caving at Cantabon (guides and headgear can be picked up at the Bandila-an Nature Centre which sits atop Siquijor’s highest peak).

Bandila-an is also home to a butterfly sanctuary run by local boy-turned-conservationist Dante Jumapit, whose passion for his little charges clearly shines through.

Like many of the Philippines’ far-flung corners, Siquijor presents a strange mix of Animist and Catholic traditions. The island’s hilly interior has many small towns harbouring communities of mambabarangs– witch doctors who use stones and potions to heal. If you have an ailment, or you’re simply curious, ask a multicab driver to take you to one.

How to get there Ocean Jet runs a daily ferry from Tagbiliran in Bohol to Siquijor. One-way costs 105RMB and takes two hours and 40 minutes.

Where to stay Coral Cay Resort (www.coralcayresort.com) has a swimming pool, a coconut-lined beach with a sea-facing bar and restaurant, and even a small gym. Doubles from 145RMB.

Just up the road, Coco Grove Beach Resort (+63 939 915 5123; www.cocogrovebeachresort.com) is a smarter affair and has an excellent dive shop. Doubles from 360RMB.

Wild university town, wilder natural beauty
A 45-minute ferry ride from Siquijor, the port of Dumaguete is the largest city in Negros Oriental. But, with a population of only 120,000, and students from the town’s four universities making up more than a quarter of the demographics, Dumaguete feels like a giant, green campus. Pristine lawns, crumbling Spanish colonial-era churches and belfries, and the long Rizal Boulevard, lined by clubs, restaurants, bars and ice-cream parlours on one side, and the sea on the other, make it the perfect place for ambling.

Dumaguete’s real draw, however, is the wild, undeveloped landscapes surrounding it. After checking out Silliman University’s collection of whale bones, head 25 miles north to Bais Bay to take a boat out to glimpse the mammal in the flesh.

Or, set off inland, 15 miles northwest to the Twin Lakes National Park where you can take a kayak out on the two great watery expanses or hike through virgin forest with rare orchids. Closer still, only four miles away, are the Casaroro Falls. Here you’ll go down 335 steps, through bursting foliage, then look back to see a narrow jet of water gushing from a height that is equivalent to an eight-storey building.

And, if you’ve had enough of dry land, Apo Island, accessible by boat from both Dumaguete and Siquijor, is a volcanic 12-hectare pinprick on the map of the Philippines. One of the country’s first marine sanctuaries, the waters surrounding this isle are a snorkeller’s and diver’s paradise, with more than 650 species of fish and 450 species of coral to admire.

How to get there Ocean Jet has a once-daily ferry from Siquijor (30RMB one-way) and twice-daily ferries from Tagbiliran in Bohol (70RMB one-way), which take an hour and 40 minutes.

Where to stay A few minutes walk from the port, the Coco Grande Hotel (www.cocograndehotel.com) has a certain old-world charm, thanks to its wicker chairs and chequered and parquet floors. Double rooms cost from 205RMB.

Harold’s Mansion (+63 35 225 8000; www.haroldsmansion.com [VPN required]) is the kind of hostel that backpackers dream of, with clean rooms and knowledgeable staff who suggest interesting trips and organise weekly rooftop barbecues. Doubles with private bathrooms from 120RMB; dorm beds from 40RMB.
  • 4 out of 5 stars