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A paradise of nature and history
Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa on Elefante Island at the southern tip of Marinduque Island. Picture: John Borthwick

The Philippine archipelago loops like a necklace of islands across the Sulu, South China and Philippine seas, and has more shores, jungles and cities than one might see in a lifetime.

Some 70,000 Australians a year visit the Philippines but my guide jokes that "unfortunately, we murdered our first tourist".

Don't worry - it was back in 1521 and the ill-fated European newcomer felled in battle near Cebu was explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Thanks to the following four centuries of oppressive Spanish rule, Lapu Lapu, the warrior who dispatched Magellan, is still hailed as a local hero.

Manila, the Philippine capital (just eight hours from the east coast of Australia), is, as big cities go, a heavy-hitter, with some 12 million-plus people and seemingly a zillion jeepneys, not to mention excellent shopping. However, after a good look around, we skip town and discover that the Philippines' real riches lie beyond the Big Envelope.

Banaue, a day's drive north of Manila, is famous as the home of The Stairway of the Gods - thousands of hand-hewn rice terraces notched into precipitous green slopes. Construction began about 3000 years ago and still continues on this, the longest Men at Work project in history.

Elderly Ifugao tribal folk decked in hornbill headdresses sometimes place themselves strategically in the middle of your vista for "10 pesos a picture" photo opportunities. One of them tells me: "If you placed all these terraces end-to-end, they would reach more than halfway around the world." No one who has seen Banaue could disagree.

Boracay, an island hop, jeepney step and plane jump from Manila, is the best known resort island in the Philippines, and its White Sand Beach is one of the most photographed in the Pacific. Scores of small hotels, restaurants and bars front its ocean, leading some to think this sublime shore is overdeveloped. However, its beauty and the languor that Boracay induces in travellers soon sideline these concerns. Or, you can stir yourself into action with options that include golf, whitewater rafting, hiking and mountain biking.

Baler is where you go if you love the smell of surf in the morning. This little-known town in Aurora province on the remote east coast of Luzon was invaded by Hollywood in 1975 when Francis Ford Coppola spent 11 months there, filming major scenes for Apocalypse Now.

It's a compact, house-proud city of about 35,000 people with a church that, during 1898-99, was the scene of the most famous military siege in Philippine history. For a year the Spanish soldiers holding out inside it refused to believe that ragtag Filipino rebels had succeeded in kicking Spain out of its Asian fiefdom. On Baler's long, volcanic Sabang Beach, Coppola's Apocalypse is long gone but the Pacific waves are still pumping and the locals are cool.

Donsol, near Sorsogon and Legazpi, well south of Manila, has the highest concentration of whale sharks anywhere in the world and they linger here for almost half the year.

El Nido Marine Reserve, the Philippines. Picture: John Borthwick

Swimming with whale sharks is well organised. From small boats out in the bay visitors slip into the water and snorkel beside these gentle giants, the biggest fish in the ocean. Moving majestically and accompanied by feeder fish, plus a few lucky snorkellers, the whale shark often cruises just below the surface, allowing you to swim eye-to- giant-eye with it. Whale shark season is from December to June, with December to January the peak period. Avoid the crowds during Christmas and Easter.

Marinduque, a short flight south of the capital, is a small, tranquil island of waterfalls, villages, jungles, a butterfly farm and old Spanish churches - in short, it is the authentic, regional Philippines, untrammelled by resorts, go-gos and bogans. At the southern tip, luxurious Bellarocca resort occupies its own private island where its whitewashed structures seem like an apparition transported from Aegean Greece to the blue Sibuan Sea.

Palawan, the long Philippine archipelago stretching south-west towards Indonesia, is rich in everything - uninhabited islands, unsullied nature and clear waters. Its stunning El Nido Marine Reserve offers a score of pristine dive sites and secret lagoons, plus spectacular limestone pinnacles and cliffs. With just a handful of excellent resorts - Miniloc, Lagen Island and Apulit Island (formerly Club Noah Isabelle) - this is, for me, the Philippine's most outstanding island destination. By good management and communal support El Nido has been preserved from the scourges of logging, dynamite fishing and cheapjack development.

Southern Palawan is less spectacular than El Nido, but so are most places on Earth. Its main claim to fame is the Underground River, the longest navigable cave in the world, which flows through limestone tunnels for 8km before exiting into the South China Sea.

Vigan looks like a slice of old Spain that the colonists left behind. One of my favourite places in the Philippines, this beautiful 16th-century city - now World Heritage-listed - is the capital of Ilocos Sur province in northern Luzon. Pony-drawn carriages still clatter along its cobbles, shaded by iron lace balconies and cathedral spires.

The Spanish built massive basilicas here and elsewhere in the fertile Ilocos region, usually with the huge stone belfry standing well apart from the main church. Should the belltower tumble during an earthquake, it will not crush the church. Not surprisingly, this architectural style is called Earthquake Baroque.

FACT FILE


There are no direct flights from Perth to the Philippines but it is possible to connect with Philippine Airlines' flights to Manila from Denpasar, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. philippineairlines.com. Malaysia Airlines has flights to Manila via KL, some of which operate under codeshare with Philippine Airlines. malaysiaairlines.com. Tiger Airways flies from Perth to Manila via Singapore. tigerairways.com. China Southern Airlines flies via Guangzhou to Manila from Perth. www.flychinasouthern.com

Season:
The Philippines is a year-round destination but seasonal variations are significant. March to June is the hottest time, June to July the wettest and November to December the coolest.

Visa:
Not required for up to 21 days.

John Borthwick was a guest of Philippines Tourism.