There are few places in the world left that balance the thunderous call of modernity with hefty measures of primordial majesty in a natural world far beyond the grasp of time. The Philippines is just such a place, in so many senses a world that time forgot but doling out steady reminders of its hard-won race to modernization in cities that can go toe to toe with so many of the world’s important metropolises.
This friendly archipelago offers more than 7,000 tropical islands bridging the waters between Hong Kong and Malaysia. These are islands where pristine palm-fringed beaches team up with thriving coral reefs full of rare and fascinating wildlife. Hills undulate in carved rice terraces plowed by water buffalo, and colonial towns buzz with regional markets selling everything from celery stalks to snakes where local residents find any reason to throw a colorful celebration.
Still, for all its wonders and unquestionable charm, the Philippine Islands have remained hidden from the pulse of mainstream tourism, save for the most seasoned of travelers and serious of divers.
And that fact alone, can make the Philippines—truly a sleeper destination—into a fabulous sell. No longer a backwater between the Pacific and the South China Sea, the country is accessible with two daily flights from LAX on Philippine Airlines (as well as two others on varying days—making the 15-hour trip with a short stop in Guam). The airline also runs regular flights from Las Vegas via Vancouver; two daily flights from San Francisco; and three flights a week from Honolulu. Just recently, Hawaiian Airlinescommenced its own 10-hour-and-45-minute nonstop flight from Honolulu to Manila four times a week.
Some 477,000 Americans found their way to the Philippines last year. It’s bursting at the seams with resorts catering to all manner of visitors: diving addicts, sun seekers, backpackers, seekers of medical solutions and miracles, spa-goers, adventurers and business travelers, with accommodations ranging from Amanresorts and THE Peninsula, to luxury island hideaways and comfortable cottages right on the sea. Outside of the cities, resorts remain quiet and uncrowded—true treasures of a lush land that has yet to be discovered.
Modern Mayhem of Manila Manila is the first stop on any visit to the Philippines. It’s a bustling city of 12 million souls but between the jutting temples of commerce in magnificent steel and glass, and the congested winding ways serviced by festively painted “jeepneys” ferrying locals from place to place, clients will find waves of history wedged between buildings and streets, hidden and glorious surprises of the city’s notorious past.
Manila is riddled with history—from the Spanish invasion that started in 1542 and lasted 357 years, to the English who invaded the island in 1782 (and created what is now the world’s third-largest English-speaking nation after the United States and Great Britain), to the Americans who came after the Brits left in 1898 and stayed until the Japanese invaded in 1941.
General Douglas MacArthur returned, famously and finally, to liberate the country. On July 4, 1946, the Filipinos were at last granted independence.
For visitors to Manila, this means a delightful colonial old town area called Intramuros—literally translated to “between the walls”—where the Spanish settled a half a millennium ago. Much of this area is restored, including San Agustin Church—a stone edifice that is one of the four Philippine baroque churches inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Here, there’s a labyrinth of forts and dungeons, colonial houses and stone alleyways. The Spanish ruling class lived inside these walls, which are entered through seven gates. Although virtually leveled in the Battle of Manila at the end of the WWII, much of the walled fortification was since rebuilt for modern use, including turning the moat into a golf course. The area is eerily quiet most of the time, though, and your clients will have their choice of fancy carriages should they want to take a horse-drawn tour.
Detour to Corregidor It’s hard to find visitors from the United States that don’t have at least some connection to the war of our fathers: WWII. The Philippines was dead center in the theater with the Japanese. A wonderful side trip from Manila right into the heart of that war is a sojourn to Corregidor Island, less than an hour’s crossing from the ferry terminal in Manila. A $40 tour buys the roundtrip boat ride, several hours of exploration and a buffet lunch. If your clients do little else in Manila, this is the one thing they shouldn’t miss.