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Visit the Visayas

The Visayas, Phillipines

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There is a great deal more to the Philippines than the frenetic capital city of Manila and wherever you go in the islands you can be sure of a warm welcome from locals eager to introduce you to their country.

The Visayas archipelago is a cluster of thousands of tiny islands - it seems no-one has bothered to count! What's for sure is that wherever you turn you'll find another coral reef, or tropical beach awaiting you, usually with a ferry or banca (outrigger motorboat) to transport you there. It's only ever a short journey from air-conditioned glamour and glitz to unspoilt rural beauty. Most of the islands still seem to be lost in their own little world.

Bohol Island is the essence of the Philippines: superb diving, beautiful beaches, old Gothic churches and the unique Chocolate hills - how could you resist? Although the island has a bloody past - Muslim marauders from Mindanao and Catholic colonists from Spain out for the blood of the locals - today it's an attractive, dozy place where life is lived on Filipino time. Even the water buffalo seem to chew slowly! But there’s plenty of energetic activity on the beaches of nearby Panglao Island where the scuba divers congregate. It's the Chocolate Hills you really have to see: some geologists believe that they were formed from coral and limestone, eroded over the centuries, but the locals will tell you that they are the calcified tears of a giant whose heart was broken by a mortal lover. One or two dissenters with no romance in their souls prefer the idea that they are the leavings of a giant water buffalo with an upset stomach! The time to see the hills at their cocoa best is in dry season when the sparse vegetation is baked brown, at twilight or just after sunrise when the soft yellow light really makes them look like endless rows of cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles.

Siquijidor Island is laidback and very welcoming. It was named 'island of fire' for the eerie glow generated by the swarms of fireflies in the trees and a sense of mystery still clings to the island today. A Conference of Sorcerers and Healers is staged in the mountain village of San Antonio every year, but you can ignore the shamans and enjoy the beaches, the tranquility, the excellent diving and some good hiking in the interior.

The secret's out: Boracay Island is just about the best beach island in the world. It's a bijou paradise with some thirty beaches and coves from which to marvel at the sunsets. White Beach is the most famous - it has the kind of sand like confectioner's sugar that you thought only existed in the Bacardi advertisements! If simply chilling out, maybe having a massage from one of the roaming beach masseuses doesn't seem active enough you can go horse-riding, rent bikes or kayaks or dive from one of the island's twenty-four sites.

Tiny Pescador Island is even smaller but this lump of limestone is just the top of a submarine mountain. The plunging underwater cliffs, ledges, overhangs and an impressive funnel of rock are a diver's adventure playground. People come from all over the world to dive here; the sea is clear and the reef teems with wildlife: reef sharks, hammerheads, Moorish idols, sweet lips and the like.

Malapascua Island is being promoted as the next Boracay - because of the beauty of Bounty Beach - but the diving is even better. There are a number of extreme diving sites that will really get the adrenalin pumping. See manta rays, thresher sharks and dive on a shipwreck that's home to scorpion fish, flamefish and stingrays. Take as many day trips as you like to find your own personal Robinson Crusoe destination!

There's much more to the Visayas than beaches. Seek out the fabulous churches built by the Spanish colonists. There are old orange sandstone churches, but also fantastic Gothic creations of coral and surreal coral and brick combos. Very different from the old world monuments you're used to admiring dutifully. If you're feeling intrepid, head for the lakes, waterfalls and mountains of the interior. Mount Kanlaon, on Negros Island, is the tallest mountain in the central Philippines and still a fairly active volcano. Trekking in the surrounding dense forest will give you a taste of real jungle. The locals reckon the mountain and its slopes are home to many spirits - perhaps they sheltered President Quezon when he took refuge from the invading Japanese in World War II – and the Leyte Mountain Trail, a full thirty miles of beautiful but grueling jungle, traversing the island via lakes, waterfalls and mountains.

You could spend years exploring these charming islands and even then you'd barely have scratched the surface. Take your cue from General MacArthur's famous example when he first set food in the Visayas and promise 'I will return'.

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