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The Unsung Philippines

Big Rewards for Flexible Travelers

Not much is said in travel brochures about the rewards the Philippines have to offer. But for flexible, smile-inclined travelers, what awaits is an unusual collection of palm-clad islands, snow-white beaches, gin-clear seas, and laid-back people.

After spending 10 splendid but pricey days in Hong Kong, I was drawn by happy memories of the Philippines and set off on the short flight to Manila. It was just as I remembered it: a sprawling city of 10 million people living in a complex of communities, some of them untidy. This time my intention was just to let Manila’s agreeable frivolity wash over me for a few days days before going on to the less trammeled provinces–and I was curious to find out of it was as affordable as I remembered.

On arrival in Manila, I taxied–for a fare of about $2–to the Ermita-Malate part of town, an area rich with accommodations, restaurants, lively bistros, pubs, and easy access to the upscale attractions of Makati, the ancient walled city of Intramuros, and the throbbing Chinatown.

In Ermita I put up at the Royal Palm, a well-run place with all amenities, for $40 a day. In the same area at least a dozen other good hotels offer about the same rates. A top restaurant in the Makati area will cost $20 or more, but in the Ermita-Malate district you can eat seafood, Chinese, and local food for between $3 and $10. For getting around, there’s taxis, jeepneys, and trishaws. A short-haul taxi costs about $1.25.

After three days in Manila–which ran me about $90 a day–I was ready to search out something quieter among the 7,100 islands. I wanted a place where I could swim, dive, hike, eat seafood, or just do nothing. The choices were many: I could set out by sea on one of the inter-island passenger ship–fast, punctual, inexpensive vessels that offer either cabins or sit-up facilities. Or I could take domestic services in any direction–to the jungly island of Mindoro with its good beaches, to Bohol island with her curious chocolate hills, to the beach resorts on Cebu. I could revisit the scenes of my wartime experiences among the cordial inhabitants of the green and lovely islands of Samar and Leyte, or I could proceed to the little island of Siquijor which is noted for its beaches, waterfalls, and friendly villagers.

Street scene in Coron Bosoanca-Palawan.

I could even go all the way south-600 kilometers–to Mindanao, to the exotic town of Zamboanga.

In the end I chose the island of Busuanga, at the northern end of Palawan, about 300 kilometers south of Manila. A domestic flight delivered me to this place of beauty, where most people live by fishing and raising cashew nuts. A jeep from the Kalamayan Inn in the town of Coron bore me across this otherworldly island to my temporary home. This comfortable refuge sports a congenial bar which attracts equally congenial locals to its nightly happy hour and a small dining room serving good home-cooked Philippine and Western fare. My air-conditioned room was pleasant. My host apologized about recent rate increases, which had upped the cost to about $25 a day.

The town of Coron is right on the water, a leafy green community with a colorful market filled with the bounty of sea and shore. It has the necessary shops, a cinema, and scores of trishaws to provide transport to neighboring beaches and villages. Fares for a local run is much less than a dollar.

Palawan is famous for diving; fees are about $25 per dive, boat included. There I fell in with a the group of American divers who included me in their activities and with islanders who invited me along on their outrigger boat to visit villages and nearby islands.

Back in the rush and clamor of Hong Kong I reflected on the quiet beauty of these unsung islands where it is so easy to spend less than $100 a day for a glorious vacation.