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Discovering the Philippines

Like a freshly polished blade, the gigantic grey fin shimmered with streams of silver light, then sliced a sharp line through the indigo depths. I dived in and headed for the advancing, expansive dark shadow. Swimming feverishly towards a protruding dorsal fin wasn’t something I’d imagined myself ever doing, but when the fin belongs to one of the beautiful, benign giants of the sea – a huge but harmless whale shark – there’s no need to panic.

That’s not to say my heart didn’t skip a few beats. Almost an arm’s length below me, the gargantuan squarish head – wider than I am tall – slid past, with the rest of the whale shark’s bus–sized body taking some time to glide by. Up close and personal, whale sharks look every inch of their 18-odd metres, have skin resembling blue-grey crushed velvet and waltz through the water with a ballerina’s grace.

Ordinarily, I’d baulk at jumping into the deep blue and approaching a mouth the size of a doorway and a tail so high and powerful-looking that it probably could have flung me back to shore with one flick if it had been so inclined. But this is one of those experiences where fear plays second fiddle to sheer exhilaration.

It was the prospect of enjoying this most extraordinary aquatic experience that initially drew me to the Philippines – but the element of surprise sharpened the delights I discovered. Friendly, fun-loving people, an engaging Latin-esque culture, vividly gorgeous scenery and fantastic shopping – all this and more awaits the visitor to this island nation and yet the biggest surprise was how few people seem tuned-in to the treats on offer there.

 

Facing up to fear

Whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish, pose absolutely no threat to swimming human beings and yet, with each glimpse of its enormous dorsal fin, I went completely still. Each time I dived into the tropical water to swim with these magnificent creatures, the experience became a stronger metaphor for facing fears and tackling obstacles lodged deep within.

Fear can be a healthy reflex to a threatening situation, but it can also be corrosive, stifling and locking us into patterns that diminish us, drain us of energy and optimism and derail our desires. Left unchecked, fear can rob us of magical experiences. We all have fears, and some of the simplest, most deeply personal barriers we erect can prove the most insidious and damaging because they’re not actually responses to genuine, tangible threats, but patterns shaped by our experiences and expectations.

But fears don’t have to keep us stagnant and paralysed. Acknowledging a fear and its origins, evaluating whether it’s an appropriate, helpful response or, as is so often the case, a hang-up that now hinders, takes courage and determination. No wonder denial is such a common coping strategy.

Conversely, facing fear is an enlivening and empowering act that helps you relearn and reset the program that tells you how you deal with perceived threats and obstacles. It’s a path to building inner strength, resilience and flexibility, and choosing what you really want. So it was that the more I overcame my hesitation of the giant dorsal fins and slipped into the deep blue, the closer I came to realising how exhilarating it could be to dispense with fear. By the time we had arrived back on land, I felt I could take on anything.

 

Swimming with giants

Eagle-eyed, athletic and resplendent in his “playboy” pants, our guide, Jesus, looked every inch a man who’d lead us to miracles. And indeed he did. Entrusting my fate to Jesus, I followed him through milky, plankton-rich water – its opacity enhancing the air of mystery and anticipation.

The sense of suspended time, the resounding silence and stillness, the turquoise depths, the vast number, scale and proximity of the whale sharks in the water with us, the fact that Manila was only a few hours away: it all seemed surreal. Our initial immersion was remarkable for the particularly huge sharks we encountered. By lunchtime that first day, we’d swum with about a dozen of the marine monsters and I felt as if I’d been initiated into a mythical blue realm.

The next day, we had well over 15 encounters. Whale sharks are solitary but sometimes we’d swim with different sharks in quick succession. Whale sharks have individual markings and after several swims, personalities started to reveal themselves: some were confident (almost cocky), some seemed to revel in our company, others were shy and elusive, disappearing into the blue with a dismissive flick of their tails like magical apparitions.

Between whale shark swims, I’d stretch out on the springy bamboo outriggers of our boat, but rarely for long. Fins and snorkel, it soon became clear, had to be kept perpetually poised for impromptu plunges.

So unique is each interaction with a whale shark and so addictive is the ensuing high, that it’s almost essential to linger for at least a few days to make the most of these magical encounters.

Whale sharks aside, there’s plenty of reasons to pause in picturesque Bicol province at the southern end of Luzon Island, like the languid village vibe, postcard rural scenes and markets brimming with stylish handicrafts, just for starters.

Donsol is a charming bougainvillea-splashed town (population 40,000 – well short of Manila’s 10 million) of timber houses, bamboo picket fences and friendly locals strumming guitars under mango trees, all set against a backdrop of fringing volcanoes. Plus, there’s dazzling nightlife, like the “firefly boat trip” (BYO wine to raise the romance factor) and a social leveller almost on a par with swimming with whale sharks: video-kee.

The thought of bursting into an impromptu outpouring of Dancing Queen, in harmony with a terrifyingly talented local crooner who looked and sounded uncannily like Julio Iglesias, in front of an inexplicably appreciative audience, proved vastly scarier than splashing about with the giant sea creatures. But what the heck! When the warm–hearted, fun-loving Filipinos implore you to party, it’s hard to decline. Besides, the camaraderie and laughter always exceeds any strain on the comfort zone.

 

Island fantasy

Buoyed by my unexpected success as a performer, an eagerness for new challenges set in. Given that the Philippines consists of more than 7000 islands, it was no easy task deciding where to delve further into the mysteries of the deep and, if need be, face further fears that presented themselves. There’s the island province of Bohol, famed for its profusion and variety of underwater life, and Coron, where you can snorkel over wrecks.

But it was Palawan, the long skinny island famed for its ecology, which captured my imagination. Puerto Princesa, the capital city, has a hearty, frontier-town atmosphere and, after purchasing more pearls than a woman of modest means could ordinarily aspire to, I explored the intense turquoise and sandy beaches of Honda Bay and the limestone wonders of the 8-kilometre-long Subterranean River, which flows out into the South China Sea 50 kilometres north of the capital.

For gobsmacking beauty and an intense island experience, however, nothing quite compares to El Nido, the outrageously gorgeous municipality tucked into Palawan’s northeast corner. Part oriental watercolour, part tropical wonderland, part marine marvel, this most stunning of seascapes is studded with hundreds of limestone islands.

As our small plane veered down towering limestone peaks, then swooped towards a shimmering Sulu Sea, stretched tight over the horizon like a giant satin sheet, it was almost impossible not to lose my cool, such is the visual drama of approaching El Nido. No sooner had we arrived than we were afloat in the scenery, aboard a traditional timber sailing boat – bamboo outriggers outstretched like insect legs – and skimming past countless sculptured islands, each one looking like it’d been fashioned by a sun-sated Gaudi.

Our home for the next few days was the delightfully laid-back Miniloc Resort, which we reached just as shafts of amber sunlight pierced the clouds and backlit the lush jungle gully embracing the thatch and timber bungalows. Miniloc and its sister resort, Lagen, are two of only a handful of accommodation options there and adhere to strict environmental guidelines, ensuring that this pristine paradise remains untrammeled.

El Nido is part of a marine park, with over 20 dive sites. Each island and lagoon is distinctly different, meaning that an extraordinary array of marine environments would unfurl every time we’d jump in the water. The larger islands surrounding Miniloc are mountainous, with lush jungles loud with the songs of hornbills and kingfishers. Folded curtains of rock cascade into depths lassoed by ribbons of neon-bright reef that deliver dive experiences bordering on the psychedelic. Other islands are surreal, chiseled arrangements that segue into sand and sprout bulbous coral outcrops that resemble massive mushrooms.

Most enigmatic and pristine of all are the jack-knifing limestone pinnacles. Here the underwater palette turns muted and mysterious: swirling brushstrokes of velvety pink, plum and olive soft corals, crenellated caves and tunnels, and schools of fish that dart through inky depths with startling speed and synchronicity, forming blurry silver-blue streamers which, when they catch the light, dazzle like moonstones.

A homely, deeply relaxing “whatever, whenever” philosophy prevails at Miniloc and guests are encouraged to pursue their whims and take their fill of this breathtaking region. Fancy an empty island all to yourself for the day? It’s as easy as wandering down to the jetty and hopping on a boat. Maybe a private meal on a secluded sliver of sand is more your style? Again, the friendly staff will happily oblige, enthusiastically sharing their favourite spots.

One afternoon Javin, our Palawan guide, pulled our boat up next to a rock wall and pointed to a narrow fissure. One swift stroke of his paddle later, a microcosm of almost alien beauty encircled us: a Jurassic amphitheatre of towering rock walls enveloping a space that virtually resonated in the silence, where pale, bug-eyed, prehistoric-looking fish peeked from caves and the buzz of insects ricocheted from wall to wall. What a secret we’d been let in on!

It wasn’t long before a dreamy, decadent rhythm set in: morning coffees sipped in splendid isolation on our own beach or a bamboo raft moored in a lagoon, followed by blissful immersion amid technicolour coral gardens and flashy fish, then breakfast in the breezy eatery from a buffet laden with tantalising tropical fare or, if the mood took us, on another island or raft. Post-digestion, more delightful diversions filled in the rest of the day: island-hopping; sailing; diving or snorkelling; kayaking to nearby islands, beaches or the lake-like lagoons wrapped by sheer limestone faces; a jungle walk; or, the simplest of pleasures, sun-lounging.

On mornings when we lapsed into languor, we’d sip coffee on the jetty steps, then jump in and mingle with giant jackfish – battleship grey monsters whose mere presence effortlessly kept their frilly, flamboyant counterparts scurrying for hideouts.

At the ends of our days, the ocean would glow like molten gold, as craggy islands danced in silhouette against a burnt orange sky. It was time to take supper, a sublime, barefoot-in-the-sand, candles-and-white-table-cloth affair on an empty island, and time to toast the joys of delving into the unknown.

Melissa Rimac is a freelance photojournalist based at Whale Beach, Sydney.

Travel Tips

In a nutshell

The Philippines is very affordable, friendly and accessible. Apart from outstanding natural beauty – think jungles, volcanoes, rural scenes and tropical wonders – and cosmopolitan, historic towns, the island natio006E is distinctive for its fascinating fusion of tribal, Asian and European culture. Not to mention seascapes that are the stuff of fantasy. The fact that the Philippines has, in recent times, been bypassed by tourism is, in many ways, a blessing; many of its loveliest attractions are uncrowded and locals often treat visitors like welcome guests.

 

Swimming with sharks

Donsol, a delightfully dozy fishing village on Luzon Island, is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks because there are so many of them there. The best time to go is between November and April, when plankton pours from the nearby river and the bay becomes a playground for these loveable marine creatures. It’s authentic, accessible and affordable – spotter planes aren’t used, you go out in traditional timber fishing boats, and it costs about A$60 for a whole morning. The program is run in conjunction with the WWF so strict environmental guidelines apply.

 

Urban delights

Manila’s charms aren’t immediately apparent, which makes unearthing this lively city’s hidden gems doubly rewarding. Scratch the surface and you’ll discover energetic, distinctly Latin-inspired nightlife (ask a local for the latest hot-spots), a cool cafe scene and quirky market districts like Quiapo where, as well as bagging bargains, you can find solace from fortune-tellers, wishing candles, lucky charms and professional spell-casters.

Though the Spanish influence is most keenly felt in Cebu, the oldest city in the Philippines, Manila offers a tempting entrée with its imposing Gothic churches and Intramouros, a 16th Century Spanish garrison, as well as the nearby Spanish Heritage towns of Pampanga and Batangus.

Filipinos are sophisticated, stylish and love life’s pleasures: live it up with them at the Greenbelt and Gloriettas shopping complexes, home to stylish eateries and cafes. Throughout the Philippines, the shopping is simply sensational: fashions, jewellery and beautifully crafted homewares created from natural materials. For irresistible bargains, check out Manila’s Greenhills complex, with its heady jewellery market.

 

Getting there

  • Philippine Airlines flies from Sydney/Melbourne to Manila three times a week, with regular regional connections. Packages that include airfares and five nights accommodation start at $1500pp. Contact JW Asean Travel Specialist. T: (02) 9868 5188.
  • No visas are required to visit the Philippines and English is widely spoken.

 

Room with a mood

  • On Luzon Island, the aptly named Amore Cottages in Donsol are the last word in atmosphere: cute bamboo cottages amidst tropical gardens. Donsol is fast becoming popular so be sure to book, especially in peak times (December-April). Contact: www.royalquesttours.com
  • The recently revamped Peninsula Manila is as noteworthy for its classy atmosphere, excellent service and people-watching as for its friendly, comfortable accommodation. Visit www.peninsula.com
  • On Palawan, the bamboo and thatch bungalows at Miniloc Resort in El Nido, 420 km south-west of Manila, provide a welcoming, relaxed base. In exultant defiance of the constraints of nuevo cuisine, delicious gourmet buffets are included in the room rate, as are activities and, best of all, a boat and guide. Visit www.elnidoresorts.com
  • At Puerto Princesa, the Legend Hotel has warm, welcoming staff and a great place to book tours to other parts of Palawan. Visit www.palawan.com

 

For more inspiration

  • Philippines Tourism. T: (02) 9283 0711, www.wowphilippines.com
  • Lonely Planet’s Philippines: Snorkeling and Diving guide (2002).

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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