Guide to the Islands of Philippines

This blog post is contributed by Robert Rey Layson (@rrblayson). All photos were taken by him.

Looking for a one of a kind destination in Asia? You’ve most likely heard of all the popular and picturesque destinations of the continent: Thailand has Phuket, Indonesia has Bali, and Vietnam has the Hanoi Beaches. All are prime vacation spots but let’s be honest, these places can be overwhelming with tourists and expensive mainstream hotel chains. Modern times have taken away the charm of being in the Pacific Islands - walking straight from the room to the beach, coconuts fresh from palm trees, staying at a quaint and locally owned establishment.

After having said all that, where does one go to REALLY get that island vibe? My answer is the lesser-known country of the Philippines. It is only a few hours flight (2-3 hours) from its more famous Asian neighbors. This country is a bunch of islands, with three main islands Luzon (north), Visayas (middle), and Mindanao (south). The metropolitan cities are located in the bigger islands, but where you want to go are the southern smaller islands off of the outskirts of Mindanao.

You will most likely land in the capital of Manila (Luzon). From Manila, there are multiple flight services to Mindanao. Philippine Airlines is the flag carrier airline so you know you are getting a legit service, while Cebu Pacific is a low-cost carrier and has a “you get what you pay for” service. Make sure to explore both options.

There are two cities in Mindanao that I find convenient for the purpose of an authentic Philippines vacation. The first city is General Santos City (home of famous boxer Manny Pacquiao) and the second city is Davao City.

General Santos

Lemlunay Resort
The first time I came here was when my cousin took me back in 2011 and they still kept the authentic feel of the south. This is not a luxury resort but the views are worthy of a five star rating. This place sits on top of a cliff with views of the ocean and views of the other side of General Santos City. There is an infinity pool, a restaurant, and services like scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. They have huge modern rooms good for four to six people. In my opinion this is the place to stay at, because you are far enough from the city for you to enjoy the serenity of the ocean.

Fresh lumpia

Fresh lumpia

Watermelon shake

Watermelon shake

General Santos Fish Port Complex
If you want the cheapest and the freshest seafood in General Santos, then look no further than the city’s fish port. Every morning there are dozens of fishermen that come here to sell their day’s catch. Sometimes, you can even buy it straight from the fisherman while he’s unloading his catch from his boat. You can purchase all sorts of seafood here such as fish (all kinds!), crabs, oysters, and shrimps.

**General Santos is the tuna capital of Philippines and every year there is a Tuna Festival that happens during the month of September.

SM Mall of General Santos
If you need to pick up some extra clothes, want a stronger sunscreen (the sun is extremely strong!), or craving that Starbucks cup, you can head over to the SM Mall. This mall has western fast food chains such as KFC, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Pizza Hut. It also boasts local fast food chains such as Jollibee and Greenwich Pizza, along with various Asian and Filipino restaurants. This mall also has a movie theatre and you can watch a movie for $5 (including snacks).

Isla Jardin Resort
This little resort is tucked away on the edge of the other side of General Santos, and about 1 and ½ hours drive from the city center. The relaxing drive offers spectacular views of the ocean and mountains. Isla Jardin has huts that are steps away from the white sand beach and can accommodate up to five people. The one I’ve stayed at has A/C, a simple bathroom, and it fit my four friends and I cozily. The resort also has a restaurant, water activities, and equipment rentals.

**TIP: There is a walkway towards the opposite side of the restaurant and I highly suggest you walk it all the way to the end for a little surprise (not giving spoilers here).

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Davao

Hotel Accommodations
Davao is a much bigger city than General Santos but not as intimidating as Manila. The city has multiple luxury hotels with affordable prices. I think if you want to splurge a little on your trip, this is where you should spend it. I have stayed at The Marco Polo Davao multiple times and it has become one of my favorites. It is a great hotel with an ambiance that takes you back in time. Another great hotel is Park Inn by Radisson Davao that is more modern but still available at an affordable price.

Jack’s Ridge Restaurant
My cousin took me to Jack’s Ridge Restaurant from my vacation about three years ago. This place has great Filipino food and is on top of the mountains so you get a great view of Davao. We went for dinner and ate enjoying the city’s skyline. While it is also a resort that offers accommodation, I find it too far away from the city center and a hassle when you want to explore. The restaurant also has a park where you can take a stroll to walk off your dinner after or while waiting for your table (it gets packed!)

Island Resort Accommodations
Off of Davao are little islands that have locally owned resorts. These resorts are ideal if you would like to spend times away from the hustle and bustle of Davao City and are only 20-30 minutes away by boat. The one I’ve stayed at is Chema’s Beach Resort. It is one of the smaller island resorts but it’s very beautiful. The rooms are little cottages and the resort has a restaurant, a pool, and a small beach. Another popular island resort is Pearl Farm and it is considered to be the most deluxe one in Davao. I’ve personally never been there but I only heard amazing reviews about it and one day I do plan to go!

Samal Island Hopping
The island hopping here is interesting because instead of going from one island to another, you hop around different spots on this one island off of Davao. These spots are carefully selected to accommodate different activities. You can go scuba diving and snorkeling on one side of the island and then your boat can dock and you can explore the other side of the island. Some spots have caves and some have cliff diving.

When I took my friends to visit this past summer, I rented a boat from Samal Watersports and we had it to ourselves. It had a crew of four with one captain, one main scuba diver specialist, and two others for all around help. They cooked us lunch right on the boat and even got us fresh coconuts from a vendor. Since the boat was ours for the day, we could even stay at one spot longer if we wanted to.

Scuba diving spot in Samal Island

Scuba diving spot in Samal Island

Surigao & Siargao

Surigao is a small city that is a couple hours drive from Davao and Siargao is an island off of Surigao. Although I’ve only been to Siargao once in my life, my experience there has been one of my most memorable ones that this place deserves a spot in my top three places in Philippines. Siargao can only be described as “untouched.” There are no modern building and accommodations, some streets are not paved yet, everything is cheap, and the locals are the most welcoming.

Cherinicole Siargao Resort
Cherinicole strips everything down to it’s very basic and offers it with a beach view and Filipino charm. The rooms are simple and able to fit about six people. What I like about this particular place is that it’s filled with greenery so you enjoy that morning breeze when you’re having your breakfast or dinner at their restaurant. The resort also has a pool, and your island hopping boat can pick you up right at the resort’s beaches as well. For more information, check out their website.

Island Hopping
Island hopping can easily be arranged at the port where you dock coming from Surigao or whichever accommodation you choose. This is the traditional island hopping where you go on different islands. We went on multiple ones but the two stood out the most to me was Daku Island and Naked Island. Daku Island is where we stopped for food. This island is bigger than the rest and has services where they grill your food and serve it right on the beach! It also has little cottages situated along the beach. Naked Island can be visited depending on the season- hence the name. It’s called Naked Island because it’s literally just sand, no trees and nothing else. If it’s high tide the island disappears and when it’s low tide the island reappears. When we were there, the size of the island changed as the tide rose. It became as small as three basketball courts combined!

Daku Island

Daku Island

A delicious meal of grilled squid on Daku Island

A delicious meal of grilled squid on Daku Island

Guyam Island

Guyam Island

Cloud 9
When I went here, I met some Australians and French tourists that said they come all the time to surf. It’s a part of the island where the winds are extra strong making the waves ideal for this sport. There are competitions held here and they made an interesting wooden structure where spectators can watch and marvel at the surfers. If you enjoy surfing, make sure to check this out for world-class waves.

Suggested Routes:

  1. Fly from Manila to General Santos -> Drive from General Santos to Davao -> Drive from Davao to Surigao -> Boat from Surigao to Siargao
  2. Fly from Manila to General Santos City (General Santos only)
  3. Fly from Manila to Davao City (Davao City only)
  4. Fly from Manila to General Santos City -> Drive to Davao City
  5. Fly from Manila to Davao -> Drive from Davao to Surigao -> Boat from Surigao to Siargao
  6. Fly from Manila -> Siargao (Siargao only)

*roundtrip from the city you land in

So there you have it! I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading and get to visit Philippines. The drive from these cities will expose you to the captivating Filipino culture and you will leave your vacation with more than you ever expected - a new and profound way of appreciating the Earth and life itself.

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