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Different flavors of Philippine beaches

Sigh! I'm missing Philippine beaches right now. Thought I'd write a little review on the beach destinations I've been to. There's about 7K islands in the Philippines. With the country being located right by the equator, the water is always nice. It's always a hard decision to pick an island because each person has different preferences & each island has a different personality. And a lot of reviews out there always have the same generic sugarcoated thing to say. Hm.

Highlights: Personal review on the different beach destinations around the Philippines. Hopefully this helps you decide on which place to visit. It'll sure help me remember which beaches to avoid, hehe.
Cast of Characters: n/a
Logistics/ Links:  n/a
When: Best time to experience the beaches in the country is from the months of Dec-May. Although this has become less reliable because of global warming. I was in the Philippines in March (supposed to be hot already) and it was raining! It never used to rain in March before!
Location: Luzon & Visayas, Philippines
1) Boracay
2) Bantayan Island, Cebu
3) El Nido, Palawan
4) San Antonio, Zambales
5) Coron, Palawan
6) Donsol, Sorsogon
Cost: Traveling around the country will probably cost you around $35-40/ day without international airfare.
Trip Report: See below. I'll be adding more as I visit other places. I've developed a little criteria to help with assessment.

1) Boracay. Ohohoho! Lets start with the grand daddy of Philippine beaches. This place is so easy to pick on. Boracay is a small island off of Panay. There's a stretch of white sand beach perfect for strolling or people watching. This is the party island.
Flight to Boracay
Getting around: You can get around the white beach area by walking. The most popular tourist destinations have this very important quality.
Last visit: Nov, 2011. 
Swimmable: Definitely! The water is very calm, shallow. No current. Perfect swimming pool beach.
Fine white sand: Yes. They do a pretty good job with keeping the beach sand clean. Its powdery, fine, white sand.
Water quality: The water is great, except for the parts where the sewage seeps out onto the beach. See photo below. I don't know if its dirt or if it's some kind of bacteria, but the water discoloration looks nasty. I'm hearing about over capacity problems they're having at Boracay. Hope they work it out.  

Good sunset: They have beautiful sunsets in Boracay. Just be prepared to enjoy it with a zillion other people. 
what is that?! water discoloration at Boracay beach
How's the crowd: Very diverse. A lot of Filipinos on vacation, a lot of Chinese & Korean tourists, some Europeans also. There's a lot of families, couples, group of friends. This place is pretty much for everybody. Excellent nightlife crowd for everybody also. There's plenty of entertainment. The beach 'boulevard' definitely looks better at night.
Infrastructure: Too much its awful. I would only go back to enjoy Boracay if a tsunami swept through & flushed out all the crappy over development. Boracay has all the comforts & conveniences though. There's hotels everywhere. You can just go there independently & have no problem finding accommodation. There's a lot of expensive restaurants everywhere too. Seafood buffets? Yes please.
Activities: They have everything you can think of. Be prepared to be offered 10 activities every 5 steps you take as you walk along the beach. "Helmet diving? Parasailing? Banana boat?..." Aaarrggghhhh!!! Get me out of here!

Boracay sunset
Summary Review: Over developed in a bad way. Too many people. Too many touts trying to sell you tours. I like places to be a little more quiet. You have to stay over at Station 1 area to have a bit of peace. Station 2 & 3 is just chaos. The water & fine sand is still great, probably the closest thing to a perfect beach that I have seen. But I really dislike all the chaos, I might not come back here again.
Recommended for: Beach bums, families, couples, group of friends, everyone
Not for: People who prefer a bit more peace & relaxation right on the beach. You don't ever get peace because of all the people trying to sell you stuff. I don't know how I would feel exploring the place as a solo traveler. I think its always more fun with company, this place will definitely highlight that.

2) Bantayan Island, Cebu. It feels like the country forgot Bantayan Island. Giant corporations do not promote the place, somebody told me why but I wasn't paying attention, hehe.
Ocoy beach at Bantayan island
Getting around: Bicycle to explore Sta Fe area. To explore the whole island, you'll need a scooter or something.
Last visit: Nov, 2011.
Swimmable: Yes
Fine white sand: Yep, there's some parts of the island with fine white sand just like Boracay's or even better
Water quality: The current washes up seaweed & stuff to the shore. Don't know if its a seasonal thing or that is the case year round. So it will look a bit like this image below. I don't think the water is necessarily dirty, but this is how the water looked like at most of the Santa Fe area. I was expecting crystal clear turquoise waters. Its still only knee deep to where the turquoise section is. The water is warm, calm & beautiful. You get the whole beach to yourself. I got to chat with this local lady making jewelry on the beach. Some little kids (who don't speak tagalog) took me to this spot at Ocoy beach. They offer boat rides to "Virgin beach" the island out in the picture, but its exorbitantly pricey.
Good sunset: I don't remember if I went out to see the sunset. Hm.
How's the crowd: The island is really, really quiet. There's hardly any tourists. There are a lot of expats though. They are mostly retired Caucasian men with young Filipina wives or girlfriends.
Nice bike ride at Bantayan island
Infrastructure: I was only staying at Sta Fe area, but I heard at the northern part of the island its a lot more developed. Sta Fe area has mostly beach resorts & very small towns. Not too much development or facilities.
Activities: Bicycling around town. Swimming. Rent a boat to get to Virgin island if you have the money.   
Summary Review: Bantayan paints a pretty good picture of a quiet idyllic, island life in the Philippines. As I was biking around, I saw a lot of folks just lying around or singing karaoke at 10am in the morning. Its very stress free & quiet. I kinda like it. There's coconut trees everywhere, water buffalos, nipa huts, little kids walking happily walking along the little streets. It just felt a bit weird how the only other 'tourists' in the island are old expats with young looking wives.
Recommended for: Retired expats looking for young wives, folks who like super quiet beaches
Not for: Folks looking for good nightlife

3) El Nido, Palawan. Definitely my favorite so far. El Nido is located at the northern part of Palawan where malaria is not a big problem. It's a bit of a pain to get to, but if that helps keep its character- that's fine with me. The seascape is littered with karst limestone mountains that creates these hidden lagoons, secret beaches, caves etc. Awesome.
Hidden beaches at El Nido
Getting around: Easy enough to get around El Nido by walking. To get the pretty islands you have to join the boat tours or something.
Last visit: Explored the pretty islands in early Dec, 2011.
Swimmable: Yes. The waves can sometime be a bit rough, but not too bad. The boat tours give you enough time to go swimming at the beaches visited.
Fine white sand: At El Nido town its fine sand but not white. If you go out to the islands they do have some nice fine white beaches
Water quality: Good. Pretty clean
Good sunset: About 20mins away from El Nido town, you can catch a tricycle to Corong2x. You can relax at one of the restaurants that will have some great sunset views. Don't think there's good sunsets at El Nido town. The boat tours usually get back before dark so you won't really catch the sunset out in the ocean. 
How's the crowd: I love the crowd. It seems like the place attracts more folks in their 20's, 30's, 40's. Mostly backpackers from North America & Europe. I met a lot of American tourists who teach in Taiwan, visit the Philippines, to renew their visas in Taiwan. I only met 1 Filipino tourist. Not too many local tourists. There's pretty good nightlife too. You can just go out to the bars, catch some live music then head out to the only club in town (everybody's gonna be there). I swear if you stay in El Nido for at least 5 days, the whole town is going to know you. I got daily reports about the clubbing activities (from my local boat guide) about the Czech friends I made. It was so weird & funny. Filipinos love to gossip.
Infrastructure: Not developed. The landscape makes it hard for development to explode. There's only a tiny bit of land for beach side construction. The town has a lot of hotels & restaurants, aside from that not much else. No banks, no atms, maybe a small clinic. Erratic electricity despite whatever power schedule they tell you.

Activities: Diving, island hopping, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking. There's a bunch. The corals here are all dead though. There's a lot of fishies because people keep feeding them.
Summary Review: I really enjoyed El Nido. I felt like it had just the right amount of development. I stayed at a hostel so it was nice to meet some new people too. The locals are super, duper nice & friendly. It's a very laid back, small town with amazing surreal sea scape. I haven't been to Thailand but I can't wait to be able to compare.
Recommended for: Backpackers, couples, group of friends, families, solo travelers
Not for: Older folks with mobility problems. Getting in/out the banka can be tricky. I imagine it can also be a bit tricky for very young kids because some of the attractions of the islands you visit- you have to swim to (sometimes against strong current).

4)  San Antonio, Zambales. I only found out about this place when I took up diving (its a crappy dive spot). There's a couple of islands that are nice for a little day trip though.
Islands off of San Antonio, Zambales
Getting around: The beach at San Antonio itself is not really a great swimming spot for tourists. Its more of a dock for fishermens boats. If you were a local and you wanted to swim for a daily morning exercise its fine. You have to rent a boat to get out to the nicer beaches.
Last visit: I went there early 2006.
Swimmable: Yes. Nice temperate waters. The beaches at some parts are a bit rocky. 
Fine white sand: At some islands they do have some fine sand. Not as fine or white as Boracays but still very nice.  
Water quality: Good. The beaches are a bit rocky. Wear water sandals.

Good sunset: We did not catch the sunset so I'm not really sure.
Zambales mountains
How's the crowd: There's nobody there. There's very few vacationers out here in the middle of nowhere. Its kinda nice to have a little picnic on your own little island. Make sure you pack food for your boatmen too. 
Infrastructure: Hah. None. No development out at the smaller islands you visit during your daytrip. We went here around 2006 & there was 1 shed for loud karaoke singing at night, that was it. There's maybe 1 or 2 hotels close to the beach. 
Activities: Just island hopping & swimming or (poor) snorkeling at the islands. Its nice to pack some food & have a picnic out on the beach.
Summary Review: I like this place. Its a nice vacation spot for a family. Just spend the day exploring the islands. Its not popular so you'll have nice deserted beaches for yourself. 
Recommended for: Families, couples
Not for: solo travelers, divers, people who want some nightlife.

5) Coron, Palawan. I love Coron's islands! Its not exactly the same as El Nido's. The underwater life is definitely 10x better for one. The town at Coron kinda sucks (sewage town) but the islands you visit on the tours are great.
Make sure you get there early! Kayangan lake, Coron
Getting around: You have to take a boat to see the nice parts of Coron. The town is small & walkable.
Last visit: Dec, 2011
Swimmable: Not in town. There's no beach in town. Just a little man made retaining wall shore. I did tour A & we went to visit some islands with a bit of a beach but nothing compared to El Nido's nice beaches. I got stung by a jellyfish out at Twin lagoons. Beware. Bring vinegar. There's swimmable beaches though on some of the other island hopping trips (not tour A).
Fine white sand: Meh. As mentioned above, doing tour A there's not really as many nice beaches. You might have to do the custom trips to see the nice beaches. I only had 1 day at Coron so I just did the most popular tours. I'm sure there's some fine beaches but you'll need more time to see them.
Water quality: The water right by town is nasty. The water by the islands is fine...pretty cold.
Kayangan lake, Coron
Good sunset: My drooling probably has stronger water pressure than the showers at Seadive resort. I was too busy waiting for a decent shower I missed the sunset.
How's the crowd: A good mix. There's a lot of divers. Pretty diverse. There's some Europeans, local Filipinos, east Asian tourists etc. The place has some decent nightlife (I overspent at El Nido night life so did not sample it here) saw a couple of bars and stuff.
Underwater life, Coron
Infrastructure: The town is pretty developed & growing. Philippines being a poor country, aesthetics is a luxury. So its not really that pretty. They have lots of hotels, restaurants, airport, medical facilities, atm, decompression chambers.
Activities: Shipwreck diving, diving and more diving. For non-divers, there's a lot of snorkeling.
Summary Review: I thought the islands are very pretty. Its beautiful above & underwater. They do a very good job at keeping the place pristine (hello Halong Bay!). The lakes are just gorgeous. I love those little wooden walkways.
Recommended for: Diving & snorkeling fans
Not for: I would have to say this place is not for beach bums. I went on tour A & there was a lot of snorkeling but not too many nice beaches unlike at El Nido where there's a nice beach at almost every island we visited. I also don't recommend the place if you have mobility problems. Just like at El Nido, your boat doesn't necessarily land on a beach to experience the islands attractions. Sometimes your boat just stops in the middle of the ocean & you just jump out & start snorkeling around.

6) Donsol, Sorsogon. People pretty much just go to Donsol for the whale shark interaction. There's a lot of beach resorts close to the whale shark office. There's also some accommodation around town. Donsol is a small city, there's few tourists. Pretty quiet.

Getting around: If you're staying right at the beach, you can just walk to the whale shark office. If you're staying in town or want to explore the area, you'll need a tricycle. Don't know if you can rent bikes.
Last visit: March, 2012. I went during the whale shark peak season (I did not see any). I heard its rare to see them after it rains.
Swimmable: You jump in & try to catch up with the whales- if you see them. If you don't, the boatmen just bring you to a little area where there's some corals for snorkeling. If you don't see whale sharks that means water visibility is prolly poor to begin with, so good luck with snorkeling.
Fine white sand: No
Water quality: Its fine. Normal.
Good sunset: No
How's the crowd: Not too many tourists around here. There's a few backpackers. There's a lot of local tourists- families & group of friends.
Infrastructure: Its a rural setting. Quiet town, not too developed. Its nice to just wander around & see what routine is like for locals
Activities: Whale shark encounter
Summary Review: Not for beach bumming. Don't go out here just for whale sharks or you'll be sorely disappointed like us. If you're going, it might be nice to include some other places along the way. Like Camsur water complex or Caramoan islands or something. Legazpi is fine also. Dammit! Why didn't we see any whale sharks! Arrggghh!!!
Recommended for: Everyone who wants to swim with whale sharks
Not for: Folks who want to relax on a nice beach. 

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