Travel: Having great fun in the Philippine archipelago

The Huma Island resort and spa
The Huma Island resort and spa

Stand-up paddle boarding in a tropical rainstorm and searching for a creature said to have inspired Yoda in Star Wars. A holiday in the Philippines is anything but run-of-the-mill

Such is my introduction to Bohol, ‘The Island of Friendship’, in the Philippines.

The Philippines is an archipelago of approximately 7,000 isles to the south and east of mainland Asia. It’s known for its white sand beaches, clear water and dive sites, but Bohol also has heritage and culture.

The island and its tiny neighbour, Panglao (the two are linked by a bridge), are in the central Visayas region, just over an hour’s flight from the capital, Manila, in the north. You can sunbathe, sightsee - and even stand-up paddle board.

As the sky clears, my instructor, Troy, and I paddle through dripping rainforest to the small Busay Falls. Clearings reveal patterned huts, woven from banana leaves. A man, fishing for tilapia, drops a line from a bamboo pontoon. There’s the smell of meat cooking on hot coals.

Suddenly a coconut plops into the water; I jump and joke about crocs.

“There aren’t crocodiles but there are iguana,” Troy says, sounding excited. He tells me they taste like chicken but are tricky to catch.

But it’s another form of wildlife for which Bohol is known; it’s the Philippine tarsier, said to have inspired Yoda in Star Wars.

The nocturnal, fist-sized creature is among the smallest primates in the world. Its eyes cover three quarters of its head and it has an exceptionally long ‘middle finger’ (tarsus bone), hence its name.

I creep through a forest protected by the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary near Corella. Amazingly, I’m in luck; clinging with its sucker-tipped hands to a narrow branch, I spot a shy fellow snoozing. It opens its goggle eyes and almost seems to smile.

Later, I meet sanctuary founder “Tarsier Man” Carlito Pizarras, who tells me the animals’ habitat is being destroyed by agriculture and development and that they commit suicide by holding their breath if they’re kept in captivity.

From Corella, I head to Carmen, in the centre of the island, for something equally as odd - Bohol’s Chocolate Hills. There are about 1,000 of these conical, 40m mounds, named because they resemble giant chocolate drops when vegetation dies back from November to April.

Geologists believe the landscape was formed from marine coral deposits, sculpted over the centuries by erosion. Locals prefer legends. One focuses on a giant who fell in love with a mortal, and in grabbing her from her lover on her wedding day, squashed and killed her in his palm. The hills are his calcified tears.

On my way back to Panglao, where I’m staying, I stop at Baclayon Catholic church, built by Spanish missionaries in 1595. (The Philippines was a Spanish colony for three centuries.)

Luckily, it’s time for something cheery. A local worshipper, Gigie Javier, shows me the church’s prized possession - a cabinet containing statues of the Holy Family. The glass front has a large hole from a Japanese bomb blast in WWII.

Gigie asks me why I think the statues weren’t damaged - it’s clear they should have been.

“They weren’t touched because that’s how miracles work!” she proclaims.

I stay at Alona beach on Panglao’s south-west coast, where bars and seafood shacks hug the shore. Bangka (outrigger canoes) with tarpaulins straddle the sea like giant water boatmen. I wake up early and go for a dip; the water’s ridiculously warm.

The Philippines is hot, humid and tropical, and even in the wet season, torrential downpours don’t clear the air. I enjoy island-hopping but sightseeing is a sweaty business, especially in Manila.

The capital’s traffic is notorious; roads are regularly gridlocked. But the super-polished, chrome jeepneys, packed with passengers and daubed with slogans, are a travel highlight. It costs just 8 pesos (approx 11p) for a 4km journey.

Jeepneys are former US army jeeps, left behind after WWII. Locals converted them into buses and decorated them with spiritual slogans and graffiti-style art.

‘God is the answer’, one vehicle claims. ‘In God’s speed’, declares another. But my favourite is, Thou shalt not kill’ - always worth remembering when you hit the road.