In every family, there’s always an odd one out—and in the clan of Asia-Pacific nations, that member would be the Philippines. This nation of 7,107 islands (about 2,000 inhabited) began as a loose grouping of Indo-Malay tribes, which endured nearly 400 years of Spanish rule, then 48 years as a U.S. territory. Today the Philippines is a mix of tribal pride, Catholic fervor, American pop-culture savvy, and tropical affability.
Most visitors don’t linger in the muggy, traffic-clogged capital, Manila, but you should explore at least one of the Spanish churches in the old, walled center of Intramuros and stroll around Manila Bay at sunset.
Then head to some of the thousands of beaches, from the pink sands of Great Santa Cruz Island to the black sands of Albay. Divers off Palawan, Apo, and Siargao islands delight in hundreds of coral and fish species. On the southern isle of Mindanao, more than 1,300 land species—including the endangered Philippine eagle—reside in Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, which recently joined northern Luzon’s rice terraces as a World Heritage site.
If the Philippines is that quirky member of the family, it also is the one that always invites you over for dinner, a uniquely Filipino fusion experience that intermingles salty, sour, and savory flavors. —Erik R. Trinidad
When to Go: November to February (during dry season)
How to Get Around: Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila is the main international gateway. From a separate terminal, Philippine Airlines provides connections to popular tourist destinations such as Bohol, Boracay, and Cebu. The main modes of ground transportation are "jeepneys" (shared, open-air shuttles built from vintage U.S. Army jeeps), motorized tricycles, multicabs (shared minivans), and buses. The most convenient way to island hop is by ferry; Super Cat, a high-speed catamaran; or bancas, traditional outrigger boats.
Where to Stay: Play and stay in, on, and above the water at Apulit Island, one of four El Nido Resort properties in northern Palawan. Guests arrive by boat and stay in traditional Filipino cottages (50 total) set on stilts above the water. Optional activities include reef snorkeling, cave diving, kayaking, and rappelling.
What to Eat or Drink: Manila's Midnight Mercato Centrale is a Filipino foodie's dream. Every Friday and Saturday night (6 p.m. to 3 a.m.) in the BGC (Bonifacio Global City), market vendors prepare a dizzying array of street foods. Try the Filipino-style bagnet (pork belly) strips, lengua (beef tongue) burritos, and lechon liempo (slow-roasted pork belly).
What to Buy: The Igorot ethnic groups, or Cordillerans, of northern Luzon are known for their carving, brass and iron metalwork, and weaving. In the mountain resort town of Baguio, you can find carved bulul (rice gods) and woven rattan baskets and pasiking (native backpacks) in the Baguio City Public Market.
What to Read Before You Go: When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe (Penguin Books; reissue edition, 2003) is a simple, moving novel set in Japanese-occupied Manila near the end of World War II. It's infused with Filipino traditions, legends, and history.
Cultural Tip: The equivalent of "How are you?" in Filipino culture is "Kumain ka na ba?" (Tagalog for "Have you eaten?")
Fun Fact: With its green meadows and steep cliffs towering over the sea, Racuh a Payaman on Batan Island appears to have been plucked from the Scottish Highlands and plunked in the northernmost province of the Philippines. The lush grasses are communal pastureland where horses, cattle, and water buffalo roam. This home-on-the-range setting is why Racuh a Payaman often is referred to as "Marlboro country" or "the Marlboro hills."