Postcard from the Philippines: why this island nation should be on your radar

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There’s a phrase you’ll often hear out here in the Philippines: “takaw mata”. It translates, literally, as “hungry eyes”: that feeling when you clap eyes on something irresistible. But it doesn’t have to involve food. Eyes can be hungry for anything, from appetising art and architecture to mouth-watering mountains and beaches. 

And, I’m pleased to report, there’s oodles for hungry eyes to sink their teeth into in this Southeast Asian island nation.

I’m writing this from the grand, cathedral-like lobby of the palatial Peninsula Hotel in Makati City, the central business district of the capital, Manila. After a week in the Philippines, I have to say, I’ve been blown away by the extraordinary beauty and ridiculously warm welcome I’ve encountered at every turn.

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The country is now ready for its moment in the sun

After two years of pandemic-driven isolation, the country only reopened its borders to tourism in February – and it’s now very much ready for its moment in the international sun. 

My own trip has had plenty in common with Flash Pack’s epic ‘Escapism in the Philippines’ trip, with both beginning and ending in Manila, the magnificent, moody mega city, and taking in some castaway-style beach time in Palawan – the archipelagic province drifting serenely on the country’s western fringe.

The Philippines consists of more than 7,600 islands, but most of the best are in Palawan, where you’ll find pristine atolls covered in lush jungle, fringed by dazzling white beaches and surrounded by warm aquamarine ocean. Picture The Beach meets Return to the Blue Lagoon – but not just one island like that, but hundreds of them, all quietly waiting to be explored.

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I spent days exploring buttery-soft beaches and cornflower-blue seas

My stay involved just one of them: Pamalican Island, at the northern end of the chain. Here, I spent a fantastic few days exploring the jungle interior, relaxing on the island’s buttery-soft beaches and diving into its cornflower-blue waters, teeming with sea turtles, clownfish and parrotfish. 

Go with Flash Pack, and island-hopping between a handful is thrown in – including a night of remote glamping on private Ginto Island and a fun-filled stay at the lively beach town of El Nido.

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But that’s not all – Filipino food is worth the journey alone…

But it’s not just the natural world that’s a feast for hungry eyes out here: Filipino food is worth the journey alone, from halabós na hipon (local prawns cooked in garlic and chilli oil) to pork sinigang (a time-honoured spicy stew) and, of course adobo – the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, which involves chicken and/or pork deliciously marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, then browned in oil and served with jasmine rice. 

Room for dessert? I don’t blame you, with halo-halo, the fruity crushed ice – nicknamed “Asia’s best legal high”, thanks to its intense sugar hit – on many menus. All told, the country lays on the kind of dining options that make return visits not only a wistful possibility, but an absolute necessity (even bananas in the Philippines are the most delicious you’ll ever taste, with an amazing diversity in flavours and colours). 

The people of Palawan, too, are some of the most ridiculously friendly I’ve ever encountered, with almost everyone speaking perfect English (learning the language is compulsory in Filipino schools from age five), and willing to chat, share stories and help at every opportunity. This, of course, makes it a prime destination for solo travellers like me – and equally good fun to get around as a group. 

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My only regret is not staying long enough

The only regret I have as I sit in the (incidentally, ridiculously affordable) Peninsula, waiting for my flight home, is that a week here is not nearly long enough. There’s so much more I want to see and explore, from Intramuros – the remarkably well-preserved colonial city at the heart of Manila – to the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol and Breakfast at Antonio’s, the legendary restaurant in the shadow of the world’s smallest volcano, outside Tagaytay town on Luzon island. 

Yes, there is now a new government in charge, under Ferdinand Marcos Jr – son of the late dictator and his infamous shoe-hoarding spouse. But that will alter little about the magnetism of this remarkable country in the post-coronavirus adventure rush. 

Put simply, if you have an appetite for travel and you’re looking for a destination that ticks every box in style, turn your hungry eyes to the Philippines. Wishing you were here…

Award-winning writer, Jonathan Thompson, is a regular SOLO columnist. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

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