Sixteen years after it first came onto my radar screen, I finally got the opportunity to visit and explore the Philippines with my family. They say good things are worth waiting for… And the Philippines is just that. With three weeks at our disposal, we could only select a handful of the most alluring islands and exotic attractions. Nonetheless, the Philippines dramatically exceeded our collective expectations and proved itself to be a country we certainly hope to return to in the years ahead to continue our island hopping adventures.
Our first stop was little Malapascua Island, eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu. Situated at the quieter end of Bounty Beach, Evolution (http://evolution.com.ph) was our home-away-from-home for the first week. Owner, Matt Reed was our friendly host, sharing his local knowledge of the island, surrounding dive sites and other must-see attractions in the Visayan Sea. Aside from the great accommodation, vibe and dive set up at Evolution, the three highlights of our time on Malapascua were diving spectacular Monad Shoal at dawn to see the iconic thresher sharks that visit the cleaning station at sunrise. In fact it was such a unique and enjoyable experience that I dived it three times during our stay! Highlight number two was the day boat trip to idyllic Calanggaman Island – a narrow strip of alluring sand surrounded by turquoise water and some decent wall diving. A final culinary high point was Angelina’s pizza and their real Italian gelato – a decadent dessert that left you wanting more!
From Malapascua, we retraced our steps south to Cebu City and onto a ferry to Tagbilaran city on low-key Bohol Island. We opted to stay at the Oasis Beach Resort (http://seaquestdivecenter.com/oasis/) on neighbouring Panglao island. Located on beautiful Alona beach, Oasis is just that: a. peaceful refuge at this popular beach destination. Apart from wiling away the days building sandcastles and swimming in the enchanting ocean, we took a day trip to explore Bohol. We spent the morning admiring the world-renowned Chocolate Hills – 1268 conical hills that are believed to be the product of coral and limestone deposits sculpted by erosion – before moving on to track down the endangered cousin of the lemur. The diminutive primates look uncannily similar to bush babies with their sloth like behaviour thankfully ensuring we got some great sighting of the little critters.
A spectacularly scenic flight then took us west to Busuanga Island: gateway to Coron and the Calamianes Island group. Wanting a Robinson Crusoe-like experience away from the crowds, we splurged on a week at the private Sangat Island. Craggy and imposing Sangat Island (http://sangat.com.ph) – with its beachfront cottages built on stilts – is the quintessential tropical island retreat. A 300 metre long white-sand beach, lapped by azure waters and hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs and jungle-clad peaks, creates a simply sublime setting and mesmerising scenery.
Sangat Island Dive Resort markets itself as a premier destination for eco-conscious paradise seekers and scuba divers: an apt description for this enchanting island retreat. The scuba diving focuses on eight nearby World War II Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Coron Bay in 1944. The most interesting and notable of the four I explored was the wreck of the Akitsushima (a sea plane tender with some impressive guns) lying at thirty metres close to Manglet Island. Above-water, circumnavigating Sangat in sea kayaks and a boat trip to the white-sand beach of Pass Island for a day of swimming and sandcastles with a picnic lunch were perfect excursions for the whole family.
The grand finale of our Philippine adventure was four days at friendly Mansion Buena Vista (https://mansionbuenavistaelnido.com/) in El Nido in northwest Palawan with daily boat cruises to admire the wonders of the Bancuit archipelago. The boat cruises are affordable, popular and consequently the best natural attractions, such as the (not so) secret beach and small lagoon (two personal favourites) can get busy, especially in the prime season of December. But there is good reason for their popularity: the ubiquitous towering limestone islands, their beaches and azure surrounding waters are jaw-dropping to say the least. To the north, Nacpan beach – rated the best beach in the Philippines – is wild, beautiful and the perfect complement to the tourist-trafficked island tours that run from El Nido.
But perhaps the greatest accolade that I can pay the Philippines – and specifically the country’s friendly people – is that of the 75 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to date, the Philippines undoubtedly rates as the most family-friendly place of them all. The Filipino people simply adore children and go out of their way to greet and assist the kids all the time.
An unexpected bonus for a young family that loves to travel like ours… And this in itself is reason enough to go back to this fantastic country.
The Northern Circuit – Ethiopia
After three weeks of sea, sunshine, snorkelling and sublime beaches in the Philippines, it was time to mix things up with some culture! Our flight routing between Tanzania and the Philippines took us via Addis Ababa, so we decided to spend ten days exploring Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia. It was a big ask for our little boys, but they adjusted really well despite being outside their comfort zone with unfamiliar food, questionable hygiene, cooler temperatures in the mountains, and visiting cultural and religious sites that often necessitated they be quiet and respectful.
In Lalibela, we stayed at the curiously-named Top Twelve Hotel (http://www.toptwelvehotel.com) with a convenient location that was within easy striking distance of the many rock-hewn churches for which the Lalibela region is known. With the on-going political strife in Ethiopia there were few tourists and we had the whole place almost to ourselves as we explored the impressive rock churches cut into the mountainside or chiselled from solid granite underground.
From Lalibela, we made our way to the ancient royal city of Gondar and Lodge de Chateau (http://www.lodgeduchateau.com). It was a clean and basic place to stay, but it had a wonderful upstairs restaurant and was located right up against the old city wall, meaning that it was within easy walking distance of the castles. Exploring the old castles and fortifications of Gondar was great fun and also afforded the boys the opportunity to run around and burn off some energy. But, by the end of the final castle tour, little Ollie (all of two years old) turned to his mom and politely said, “No more castles mom, OK?”
Aside from its diverse array of cultural and religious tourist experiences, Ethiopia is home to some unique wildlife, including a number of endemic species as well as prolific birdlife with 861 species recorded. So the final stop of our Northern Ethiopia exploration was the spectacular cliff-top Limalimo Lodge (http://limalimolodge.com) on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park (https://simienpark.org).
Situated 100 kilometres north of Gondar on the eastern side of the Axum road, the Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s largest mountain ranges sporting at least a dozen peaks above the 4,000m mark. Frequently referred to as the Grand Canyon of Africa, the Simien Mountains were deservedly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the area’s extreme natural beauty, jaw-dropping escarpment vistas, alpine meadows and unique indigenous wildlife. Hemmed in by villages and farms on every side, three endemic Ethiopian mammals survive within this highly pressured protected area: the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf.
Trekking in the Simien Mountains is spectacular with arresting views around every bend in the trail. The park is also home to Ras Dejen – the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the fourth-highest peak in Africa at 4,533 meters. With limited time and small children in tow, I chose to focus my mountain climbing attention on Ras Bwahit – the second highest massif in the Simien Mountains at 4,430m.
We left our vehicle at Chennek and initially found ourselves climbing through grasslands peppered with giant lobelia where large troops of Gelada monkeys were a common sight; we even glimpsed Ethiopian wolves out foraging at sunrise in this area. Later, the vegetation rapidly gave way to a more windswept alpine type landscape dominated by rock and ice, but the views and picnic on top were worth every lung-busting step to get there!
Whether on a short half-day hike, or multi-day trekking adventure, exploring the Simien Mountains is best done on foot. But be prepared for some energy sapping ascents, undulating plateaus traverses amidst groves of giant lobelias, and staggering escarpment views… Imagine sheer rocky cliffs, plunging waterfalls (such as the exquisite Jinbar waterfall) and rocky towers rising from the forested valleys below.
The stunning views and spectacular trails of the Simien Mountains, combined with the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, impressive castles of Gondar, otherworldly Danakil Depression, and a night-time odyssey to meet the hyena men of Harar should also feature high on the bucket list of every adventurous African explorer.