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The Philippines' best beaches and islands

By Candice Lopez-Quimpo, for CNN
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
Hollywood loves El Nido. Scenes for the final installment of the "Bourne" series were shot here. The island was also the setting of a pit stop on "The Amazing Race." Hollywood loves El Nido. Scenes for the final installment of the "Bourne" series were shot here. The island was also the setting of a pit stop on "The Amazing Race."
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El Nido, Palawan
Samal, Davao
Siargao Islands, Surigao del Norte
Panglao, Bohol
Caramoan, Camarines Sur
Bantayan Island, Cebu
Boracay, Aklan
Palaui Island, Cagayan Valley
Pagudpud/Bangui, Ilocos Norte
Great Santa Cruz Island, Zamboanga
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philippines launches global campaign thanking the world for post-typhoon support
  • More than 7,000 islands edged by white sand buffer waters filled with some of the world's most diverse marine life
  • Mount Caglago is a pilgrimage site for some, thanks to its gigantic statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
  • With no resorts or hotels, Palaui Island has only one real option -- camping under the stars

(CNN) -- The Philippines has launched a global campaign to thank the world for its outpouring of help following last year's devastating typhoon that killed more than 8,000 people.

As part of the initiative, a series of electronic billboards were lit up with "Thank you" signs in some of the world's most famous locations, including New York's Times Square, Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing, London's Piccadilly Circus and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Filipinos are also sending out messages of thanks on Twitter with the hashtag #PHthankyou.

The campaign, kicked off by the Philippines Department of Tourism, launched on February 8 -- exactly three months after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit.

Given how gracious the nation is being, it's a fine time to revisit one of the Philippines best assets -- its 7,000 islands, edged by white sand buffering turquoise waters filled with some of the world's most diverse marine life.

And most of them are relatively unexplored.

Of course, not everyone will agree on which one is best but this is a good starting point.

Disagree with our picks? Share your favorite Filipino island or beach in the comments box below.

This is one pit stop you\'ll want to extend.
This is one pit stop you'll want to extend.

1. El Nido, Palawan

If Palawan is indeed "the last frontier" of the Philippines, as it's been dubbed, the coastal town of El Nido is the gateway to wild adventure.

Sure, it's got powder-fine beaches and gin-clear waters. But the views are what really sell the place.

Off the coast of El Nido are majestic karst limestone formations, empty lagoons, marble cliffs, prehistoric caves and waterfalls. All are easily explored.

What to do: El Nido is a popular base for divers. Surrounding waters contain more than 50 species of coral, and attract whales, whale sharks, sea cows, manta rays, dolphins and endangered turtles.

2. Boracay, Aklan

White Beach is the place most frequently associated with Boracay, the most popular holiday destination in the Philippines.

Its four-kilometer stretch welcomes everyone from beach bums to adventurers. At night, the beach comes alive with candle-lit sand castles, cozy restaurants and bars that stay open til dawn.

Away from White Beach are calmer resorts. There is a less boisterous side of Boracay and it still offers secluded strips of sand, coves, caves and cliffs.

What to do: During the early months of the year, Boracay attracts hundreds of kite-boarders and windsurfers who compete in the International Funboard Cup. The rough waves and strong winds make Boracay an ideal destination for water sports fanatics.

3. Palaui Island, Cagayan Valley

This isolated island is a natural secret -- only the brave and persevering bother to visit.

Glorious white sands surrounded by volcanic rocks on one side kiss blue-green waters on the other. Snorkeling and diving brings you face to face with coral gardens and a rich marine reserve.

Palaui is all about raw beauty. But it takes some work to get there.

MORE: Best of Manila

Treks should be blessed with clear blue skies, patient companions and trusted local guides.

Getting to the island's most prized stretch of beach requires battling thorny grass, muddy ground and a mangrove forest.

Uncharted Philippines offers a three-day Palaui Island Photography Tour for $240 that includes transportation, accomodation, food and guides.

What to do: With no resorts or hotels, Palaui has only one real option -- camping under the stars. Otherwise, visitors are left to explore homestay options.

4. Panglao, Bohol

Once a sleepy island, Panglao is being roused by travelers in search of gorgeous beaches.

It's a refuge for those who appreciate a diverse menu of aquatic attractions.

Options include dolphin watching, whale spotting, diving with barracudas, jackfish, sea snakes and brilliant coral formations.

Natural charms: In addition to its beaches, the island of Bohol is famous for its Chocolate Hills, an unusual rolling terrain of more than 1,000 dome-shaped hills. The hills are named for their brown color during dry season, when grass dries up.

The "world's smallest primate" -- the endangered Philippine tarsier -- also inhabits the island.

Random fact: Years ago, a number of foreigners came to Panglao on holiday and never bothered to leave. Locals picked up their languages to better converse with the tourists. In addition to English, in Panglao you have a good chance of meeting a local with a handy grasp of German, Swiss or Japanese.

Perfect mix of luxury and seclusion.
Perfect mix of luxury and seclusion.

5. Bantayan Island, Cebu

Bantayan has remained relatively untouched by modern life, save for a smattering of foreigners who have taken up residence, sucked in by the island's white sands, aqua-colored waters and red-gold sunsets.

Beers are cold and cheap, townsfolk are hospitable and the dreary troubles of the outside world are easily forgotten.

Holy crowds: If you're after peace and quiet, don't plan a stay during the Holy Week before Easter. The island is crowded with Filipino travelers during this period, with rooms and services booked months in advance.

What to do: Relax. Action-packed it ain't. There are no five-star hotels, no malls, no fashion-forward shopping centers.

MORE: 13 most overplayed Filipino cover band songs

6. Caramoan, Camarines Sur

Named after the local sea turtle, Caramoan is as scenic as it is secluded.

Stretches of white sand run between huge boulders and rock formations. Scuba divers, island hoppers and beach bums all converge here.

Complementing the beaches are caves, waterfalls, freshwater pools, underground streams and lagoons.

Adventure site: The "Survivor" reality show series and similar international programs have used Caramoan as a shooting location.

Despite the locale's popularity with TV production companies, there are enough beaches to go around for everyone.

What to do in the Philippines: Mountain climbers can trek to Mount Caglago's summit and take in a terrific view of the Caramoan islands and islets. The mountain is a pilgrimage site for some, thanks to its gigantic statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

7. Samal, Davao

A burgeoning tourist destination, Samal is on a mission to get the word out on its 118-kilometer coastline of white sandy beaches.

You know the highlights: pristine waters, lush greens, rock formations, mangrove and coconut palms. Numerous resorts provide a range of choices for visitors, from luxurious resorts to backpacker options.

The vanishing island: This curious moniker is the nickname of Shanipaan Shoal, a tiny island that literally disappears from sight during high tide. The only thing visible at high water is a single, elevated cottage poking out of the sea.

What to do in the Philippines: The vast Coral Garden Marine Park, a fish sanctuary filled with diverse marine life, makes Sambal a favorite among divers and snorkelers.

Even if you can\'t surf, Siargao is a beautiful beach getaway.
Even if you can't surf, Siargao is a beautiful beach getaway.

8. Siargao Islands, Surigao del Norte

Known as the top surfing island in the Philippines, Siargao is often overlooked as a beachcomber's paradise.

There are breaks for beginner surfers, moderate ones and even pros looking for three-meter-high waves. For those with zero surf skills -- and no desire to acquire any -- there are also pristine beaches with milder waves, perfect for sunning and swimming.

MORE: 36 hours on a Philippine bus

What to do in the Philippines: Ideal days for surfing are between mid-August and mid-December, when the swell is most consistent. Beginners should visit when waves are smaller, around April or May.

9. Great Santa Cruz Island, Zamboanga

On Great Santa Cruz Island, pulverized red coral washed up from the sea floor mixes with white sand to produce a pink-hued beach.

It's a different version of perfection: the powdery beach competes with the blue and green shades of the sea. Some parts of the beach are lovely in their undeveloped state. There are signs of civilization -- souvenirs, nipa huts and restrooms.

Beach visits are limited to day trips, so you have to squeeze everything into a few hours: swim, sunbathe, snorkel, dive, even fish for your lunch. Just don't mistake serenity for safety -- there's a deep drop in the sea just meters from shore.

What to do in the Philippines: The island is just a boat ride away from the city proper, but getting there requires extra precautions, due to local threats.

Only those with a tourist permit from the Department of Tourism in Zamboanga City can visit. The permit fee includes armed security escorts.

Why the need for security? According to the Department of Tourism's regional office, it's a preventative measure: "On the security situation in Zamboanga City, there are no militant or terroristic activities recently. Although there were reported shooting incidents, these were intended to specific victims due to personal grudges. The city is very vibrant and relatively peaceful."

As a precaution, check with your embassy for security threats before traveling.

10. Pagudpud/Bangui, Ilocos Norte

Along the northern tip of the island of Luzon sits the coastal town of Pagudpud. It's a quiet, sleepy and rural community, with little overt commercialism.

Perhaps because it takes time and effort to reach Pagudpud, the wide and inviting beaches are usually empty, making them ideal for those who enjoy mixing solitude with sun, sand and surf.

A row of windmills down the coast from Pagudpud in the town of Bangui makes for a picturesque if not unusual backdrop for a Filipino beach. (See above photo.)

MORE: 10 tips to fake being a Manila local

What to do in the Philippines: Parts of Pagudpud are exposed to winds that blow in from both the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, making the waves ideal for surfers, especially from July to October. Windsurfers and kiteboarders are starting to take notice of this northern getaway.

Getting there

General tip concerning all Filipino domestic airlines: if you're not in a hurry to book, watch out for promo fares on their websites as fares can drop considerably.

1. El Nido

Several airlines fly from Manila to El Nido, either through a commercial airline or via chartered plane. Flight time: approximately 75 minutes.

Domestic flights (El Nido-Manila)

- SEAIR

Chartered plane (El Nido-Manila)

- Island Transvoyager (charter airline of El Nido Resort; their guests get priority reservations.)

Depending on where you're headed, from the El Nido airport tricycles can take you to El Nido town.

Ferries sail from a nearby marina to the islands, or your resort can make arrangements to meet you at the airport.

Domestic flights (Puerto Princesa-Manila)

Alternatively, the following airlines fly to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan:

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific

- Air Philippines

- AirAsia

From the Puerto Princesa airport, you need to travel to El Nido by road. Take a multi-cab or jeep to the San Jose Terminal (20 minutes).

At the station, find the El Nido-bound buses. These are open-air, non-airconditioned buses. (Approximately eight hours, with stops at Taytay and Roxas Towns, about P300 ($6.60) for a one-way trip).

Best to book seats and check schedules in advance:

- Sweety Transport, +63 919 716 2210/+63 926 699 8700

- Win Eulen Joy Liner, +63 939 945 9888

The San Jose Terminal is also the departure point for shuttle vans. Prebook to reserve a seat:

- El Nido Boutique and Art Cafe

The following vans are air-conditioned and more comfortable than buses (approximately six hours, P600 ($13) each passenger/P7,000 ($155) for entire van):

- Fortwally Shuttle Company, +63 920 9815702/+63 917 276 2875

- Savior Shuttle Company, +63 929 622 5974

- Eulen Joy, +63 939 945 9888

2. Boracay

The most direct way to get to Boracay is to fly to Caticlan, Panay Island (either from Manila or Cebu City) .

Domestic flights (Caticlan-Manila)

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific

- Air Philippines

- SEAIR

Domestic flights (Caticlan-Cebu)

- Air Philippines

From the Caticlan airport, take a tricycle to the Caticlan jetty port.

Alternatively, fly to Kalibo first.

Domestic flights (Kalibo-Manila)

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific

- Air Philippines

- SEAIR

Domestic flights (Kalibo-Cebu)

- Air Philippines

Domestic flights (Kalibo-Clark, Pampanga)

- Air Philippines

- PAL Express

- SEAIR

- AirAsia

International flights to Kalibo

- Philippine Airlines also flies Hong Kong-Kalibo and Seoul-Kalibo.

- AirAsia flies to Kalibo from Incheon, Busan, Shanghai, and Taipei.

From Kalibo Airport, travel by road (about two hours). There are many vans outside the airport that go directly from the airport to the Jetty Port in Caticlan (approx P300 ($6)/passenger).

Buses are available as well at the airport. You can take your chance with what is at the terminal (P200 ($4.50)) or book ahead via travel agencies such as Sourthwest Tours, which can organize the entire journey to Boracay (P300-P450 ($6-10), including boat transfer).

From Caticlan Jetty Port, there will be many bankas (ferry boats) ready to take you to White Beach, Boracay, about 15 minutes away. Pay a terminal tax (P75 ($1.50)) and an environmental fee (P75 ($1.50)) at the port before boarding.

You'll need to wade in the water a bit so dress accordingly. For a small amount, boatmen will carry your luggage to shore.

Tricycles on the island will take you to your resort. Cost is roughly P20 ($.50)) /passenger, but may rise depending on the location of the resort.

3. Palaui

From Manila, board a bus headed to Santa Ana. (Approximately 14-16 hours):

- GV Florida Transport (only one with direct routes to Santa Ana from Manila and Tuguegarao) +63 2 7433809/+63 2 781 5894.

Otherwise, fly or take a bus to Tuguegarao City.

Bus to Tuguegarao

- Victory Liner (approximately 10 hours).

Domestic flights (Tuguegarao-Manila)

- Air Philippines

- Cebu Pacific

When you get to Tuguegarao, take a tricycle and tell the driver to take you to the van terminal bound for Santa Ana. The van trip will take about three hours.

At Santa Ana, buy supplies for your island trip then take a tricycle to the San Vicente Port. Register at the visitor's bureau.

Hire a boat (P600 ($13) and a guide (P400-P2,000 ($9-$44) to take you to Punta Verde, Palui Island. Ask for a return trip. Pay the port fee (P50($1.10)). Register again, this time in the community logbook.

4. Panglao

Hop on a plane to Tagbilaran City if you're coming from Manila.

Domestic flights (Tagbilaran-Manila)

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific

- Air Philippines

- AirAsia

Or, take an international flight to Cebu City (Mactan Cebu International Airport) then get on a fast ferry to Tagbilaran City (approximately hours). The ports are quite near the airport.

Ferry services (Cebu-Tagbilaran)

- Super Cat

- Oceanjet

Upon arriving in Tagbilaran City, a cab or a "habal-habal" (motorcycle with driver) can take you to Panglao.

5. Bantayan

Fly to Cebu City on either a domestic or international flight.

International flights to Cebu

- Cebu Pacific (via Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Japan)

- Silk Air (via Singapore)

- Malaysia Airlines (via Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu)

- Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong)

- Asiana Airlines (via Korea)

- Korean Air (via Korea)

- Qatar Airways (via Qatar)

Domestic flights to Cebu are available from most cities in the Philippines as well.

Upon arrival at the airport in Cebu City, take a taxi and head for the North Bus Terminal. Make sure you get a metered taxi -- and that the driver starts the meter. Get out of the cab if the driver won't comply.

Safety tip: hang on to your luggage while getting out of the cab. If your bags are in the trunk, don't let the driver open it until you're ready to grab them. And don't let insistent baggage handlers take your items if you don't need them.

At the North Bus Terminal, take a bus or shuttle to Hagnaya (approximately three hours). The CERES bus is recommended -- look for the buses that are white and yellow with a sign saying "Air Conditioned" in front, and another sign saying "Hagnaya" on the side.

Make sure you take a bus that is scheduled to leave no later than 2 p.m. to give you enough time to catch the ferry to Bantayan.

Do not let your luggage out of your sight while on the bus.

Alternatively, you can pay extra for a taxi to take you all the way to Hagnaya (you can haggle but it should cost approx. P2,000 ($44); driver covers fuel costs).

At Hagnaya, the last ferry leaves at 5:30 p.m. for Santa Fe, Bantayan Island (approximately 45-90 minutes, depending on seacraft).

Ferry Services (Hagnaya-Bantayan)

- Super Shuttle Ferry

6. Caramoan

Take a bus or a domestic flight to Naga City. Head to Sabang Port by road, then take a passenger boat to your chosen island.

Buses to Naga

- Penafancia Tours, +63 54 811 8595 / 472 3615

- Philtranco, +63 52 851 8078/+63 52 851 8079, info.philtranco@gmail.com

- Victory Liner

- Isarog Bus Lines +63 52 913 3551

Domestic Flights (Manila-Naga)

- PAL Express

- Air Philippines

- Cebu Pacific

- AirAsia

From Naga Airport, take a P10 ($.20) tricycle ride to Naga Public Terminal. At the terminal, you can rent a van for Sabang Port or take a bus to Goa (approximately two hours, P80 ($1.70)). (At Goa, ask around for the jeepney that goes to Sabang Port.)

From Sabang Port, take a boat bound for Guijalo Port (approximately two hours, P120 ($2.65)/person). The last boat leaves at 2 p.m. Get ready to wade (or be carried) to reach land area.

Once there, take a tricycle to the town proper (10 minutes away).

The best, easiest and most convenient way to enjoy the trip is to let your resort or the Camarines Sur Tourism Office coordinate your transfers (+63 54 477 3344, +63 54 477 3347).

7. Samal

Fly to Davao City on either a domestic or international flight.

International flights to Davao

- Cebu Pacific Airlines (via Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Japan)

- Silk Air (via Singapore)

Domestic Flights to Davao from several cities in the Philippines

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

- Air Philippines

- PAL Express

Take a short cab ride to one of three entry points to Samal Island, depending on where you're headed to: Sta. Ana Wharf, SASA Km 11 Wharf or IGACOS Ferry Terminal (ask your resort for advice on this one).

8. Siargao

There are direct flights to Siargao Island. Siargao airport is 45 minutes away from General Luna, the location of the popular Cloud 9 beach. Tricycles or motorbikes are available; the trip would cost around P150 ($3.30).

Or, if you can spot a tricycle line, board a tricycle waiting to be filled with passengers for P30 ($.60)/passenger.

Domestic flights (Manila-Siargao Island)

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

- AirAsia

Domestic flight (Cebu-Siargao Island)

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

9. Great Santa Cruz Island

First, fly to Zamboanga City.

Domestic flight (Manila-Zamboanga City)

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

- Air Philippines

Domestic flight (Cebu-Zamboanga City)

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

Domestic flight (Davao-Zamboanga City)

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

- Air Philippines

In Zamboanga City, book your day trip to Great Santa Cruz through the regional tourism office at Lantaka Hotel By The Sea, NS Valderama Street, near city hall. Call +63 62 992 6242 or email dotr9@yahoo.com.

10. Pagudpud

From Manila, take a domestic flight to Laoag (approximately 45 minutes).

Domestic flights (Laoag-Manila)

- PAL Express

- Cebu Pacific Airlines

At Laoag, a free shuttle runs from the airport to city proper. Or hop on a bus from Manila to Laoag.

- Autobus Transport, +63 2 735 8098

- Farinas Transit Company, +63 2 731 4507/+63 2 731 4375

- Franco Frederico Lines, +63 2 7314473/+63 2 731 2584

- Maria de Leon Transit, +63 2 731 4907

- Partas Transportation, +63 2 725 1740

- Philippine Rabbit, +63 2 456 7667

In Laoag's bus station, ask for the bus that is bound for Claveria Cagayan. Ask the conductor to drop you off at Pugudpud's Baduang Market (approximately one hour).

Buses from Manila direct to Pagudpud are also available, though the travel time may take 10 to 12 hours.

- GV Florida Transport +63 2 743 3809/+63 2 781 5894

- RCJ Bus Lines +63 2 741 2994/+63 2 792 4939

This article was first published in 2012, updated 2014

Candice Lopez-Quimpo is a lifestyle writer based in the Philippines.

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