Like everyone everywhere, the people of the Philippines read the paper, watch TV, and consult their smartphones for information. But in this Southeast Asian nation, where society is bound by a complex web of familial relationships, if you really want to know something, you go and ask your relatives.
And so, on a recent visit to Manila to visit, yes, relatives, I pressed for recommendations as to the wonders of the country Traveler magazine recently named a Best of the World destination for 2016. I wanted something beyond the the world-famous El Nido in Palawan or the equally well-known Banaue Rice Terraces.
Here’s what my cousins, aunts, and uncles had to say.
Beach it in Siargao: According to my second cousin, Ernest Sy, who helps manage his family’s seafood business and knows a thing or two about the fishy depths, this jungly, reef-ringed, palm-fringed teardrop-shaped island off Mindanao is “known as a surfing destination, but it really is an escapist’s paradise of white sand and blue water.” There is a mix of accommodations, including the stunning Dedon Island Resort, with its chair swings suspended from trees. And, Sy notes, “locals speak English better than they do Tagalog,” the national language of the Philippines.
Time travel in Vigan: My aunt Becca Jose, who works for the country’s premier arts complex, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, loves the architecture of this city on the western coast of Luzon, north of Manila. “Neither the Japanese nor the Americans bombed it during World War II, so it’s like stepping back in time 150 years,” she says, of the UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the only remaining intact Spanish colonial towns in the Philippines. Visitors can stay in ancestral homes that have been transformed into inns, ride on horse-drawn carriages called kalesas on cobblestoned streets closed to cars, and sample the famous Vigan empanada, a meat-and-vegetable turnover. Jose cautions that the ten-hour drive from Manila, even on comfortable air-conditioned buses, can be arduous, with multiple stops and vendors getting on to sell their wares. Her advice: “Take the express night bus or hire a private car.”
Get lost in Batanes: Poch Robles, one of my father’s best friends and his chum from high school (which makes him like family), recommends these remote islands, the northernmost of the Philippine archipelago. “It’s rugged and hilly and green, and looks a little like the English countryside,” he says. In fact, English sailors did land in the 17th century and named some islands—“Orange,” “Grafton,” “Monmouth”—though they didn’t claim them for Britain, nor did the names stick. The islands retain traces of their prehistoric culture, and the indigenous people, the Ivatan, maintain their unique traditions and language. The place to stay is the Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge, a boutique inn crowning a hill with a grand view of the island and the sea. “Each room is adorned by artwork and the lodge supports the education of Ivatan youth,” reports Robles.
Check out the hip dining scene in Manila: “The city is fast becoming a mecca for dining concepts, with everything from international franchises [such as] Nobu to speakeasies—like the Bank Bar, with its secret entrance through a local bank,” says another second cousin, Jose Ramon Diokno Olives (though everyone calls him Monchet), a retired TV producer turned entrepreneur and sometime dining blogger. He suggests Grace Park, “a farm-to-table Filipino fusion restaurant using locally sourced ingredients headed up by much-lauded chef/owner Margarita Fores.” Olives also observes that Spain’s economic woes and longstanding colonial ties to the Philippines have led to some wonderful restaurateurs coming to Manila. “Try the tapas and a gin-and-tonic at Las Flores or Rambla, or—at the top of the Spanish food chain—Donosti; there is nothing like it for classic Northern Spanish cuisine.”
So, there you have it, advice from my kin. I wasn’t there long enough to do what was suggested here, but from where to get a facial (House of Obagi) to where to find cheap luggage (the flea market at Greenhills), they have never steered me wrong.
This article was first published on the National Geographic Travel site on February 4, 2016. Photo © Norie Quintos