Though many flock to the Philippines for its beaches – from the white sands and lively nights of Borocay to the dramatic cliff-backed coves of Palawan – the wonders of the deep here are a big draw.

Into the blue

What lies beneath the waves is the world’s biggest fish, a shark that can reach 18 metres in length and feeds through its extra large mouth – so naturally I’m going swimming!

The whale shark, or butanding as it’s known here, is a filter-feeding shark – so not a whale at all. These grey giants travel huge distances, drawing 1,585 gallons of water an hour through their gills. 

Although their mouths can stretch to four feet wide, their teeth are so tiny that they can only eat small shrimp and plankton. These sloths of the deep travel at a stately speed of three miles per hour, so I shouldn’t have any trouble keeping up!

I’m in one of the world’s hottest spots for whale sharks – Donsol Bay in the Bicol region of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, where an eco-tourism project supported by the World Wildlife Fund has flourished since the late 1990s and focuses on swimming with wild whale sharks with minimal disturbance.

Each boat goes out with a butanding-spotter at the bow and swimmers are given snorkelling equipment. I’ve not even had time to get my fins on when our guy shouts: “Butanding!” and points frantically to the port side but, in my excitement, I tumble into the water anyway.

As I float, trying to tug the rubber fin over my foot, my eyes adjust to the murky scene and a huge mouth looms out of the gloom, heading straight for my foot. With cartoon-like timing the shoe finally glides on and I pull myself out of its path just in time, taking a breath from above before sinking down to swim alongside a fish so large I can’t see its tail, just its tiny little eye, and so close to mine it feels intimate.

Award-winning archipelago

Though many flock to the Philippines for its beaches – from the white sands and lively nights of Borocay to the dramatic cliff-backed coves of Palawan – the wonders of the deep here are a big draw.

This November the Philippines took home three World Travel Awards (Asia Edition), making it Asia‘s Leading Beach and leading Diving Destination. Scuba hotspots include Coron Bay in Palawan, famous for its World War Two shipwrecks, and Moalboal in Cebu, where divers can swim alongside and among thousands of sardines on their annual migration. 

Out of the sea, travellers can enjoy hiking across the islands, with notable destinations including the Chocolate Hills of Bohol where the world’s smallest primate – the tarsier – makes its home, or the cone-shaped Taal Volcano surrounded by a pristine lake. Other sports out of the sea include white- water rafting and exploring ancient caves.

The Philippines offer a wide range of vibrant cultures that are evident in everything from its art to its architecture. 

Predominantly Catholic, the country is home to many impressive churches built by the Spanish, but the main form of transport is the jeepney – buses introduced by Americans but painted in vibrant colours and kitsch art which is unmistakably Asian.

Even the cuisine represents the cultural diversity of the archipelago, from the crispy Spanish empanadas of Luzon to the spicy flavours of the Bicol Region whose inhabitants have Chinese, Arab and Spanish ancestry and make Bicol Express, a blend of pork and chillies cooked in coconut cream.

And the world’s second-largest archipelago is looking forward to welcoming back its UK visitors, who make up its largest market in Europe. PH Tourism Director Gerry Panga, said: “Although most Brits are looking at staycations and traveling within Europe in the short term, we are buoyed by their aspirations and demand for long-haul destinations, particularly sun and beach holidays during this winter season.

“We put a premium on our British travellers, who stay longer and explore non-traditional destinations in our country.”

Top experiences

Surf’s up: Siargao is best known as the Philippines’ top surfing spot and surfers from around the world flock visit the island’s famous break - Cloud Nine. But Siargao also features sparkling white sand islets, turquoise tide pools, and palm tree-laden lagoons.

The shark salon: Malapascua Island is one of the world’s best places to see the thresher shark. These stealthy silver predators with huge mercury eyes and long tails usually live in the darker depths but come closer to the surface here to be nibbled clean of parasites by striped cleaner wrasse fish. The island is also a haven for colourful mandarin fish and a good place to spot manta rays.

Back in time: The cobblestone streets and shuttered houses of UNESCO-recognised Vigan seem stuck in a time warp from the days of Spanish rule, and horse-drawn carriages still trundle through. Further inland are the Banaue Rice Terraces, a stunning layered patchwork of rice paddies and a feat of rural engineering created some 2,000 years ago.

Magical mystery tour: Siquijor Island is famous for its mountain-dwelling mangkukulam (or healers) who brew traditional ointments for modern ailments. The island also happens to have beautiful white-sand beaches, caves and waterfalls.

Beauty Queen: Palawan is undoubtedly the Philippine’s crown. Closer to Borneo in flora and fauna – and no wonder since this long, thin island stretches towards it – Palawan’s emerald waters, crystalline lagoons and hidden coves are backed by limestone cliffs hiding underground rivers and caves.

What's new?

COVID-19 update: The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has given the Philippines Department of Tourism a Safe Travels Stamp in recognition of its adoption of ‘health and hygiene global standardised protocols’ and the islands are ready to welcome British visitors as soon as the UK government opens a travel corridor.

The Philippines’ Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) has recently launched a new app, Travel Philippines. Designed to be a ‘go-to companion for travellers in the new normal’, it details local health and safety protocols and up-to-date information. The app is also a planning tool, with an itinerary maker which integrates with a catalogue of tourist attractions, local restaurants, and accommodations, and is a place for travellers to securely store digital copies of travel documents such as boarding passes, hotel reservations, and medical certificates. The app features six major tourist destinations at launch: Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, Baguio, Ilocos Norte, and Metro Manila.

Tours & packages: Bamboo Travel has added a new 13-night Natural Wonders of the Philippines trip which  includes a visit to the Subterranean River National Park, home to the blue-naped parrot and bear cat. The trip costs from £3875pp, which includes flights, all transportation and 13 nights’ B&B.

Where to book it?

G Adventures offers a 16-day Northern Philippines and Palawan Adventure from Manila to Puerto Princesa takes in highlights like Vigan, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the hanging coffins of Sagada and El Nido. Prices from £1,869pp.