Updated: 02/05/2012 14:16 | By pa.press.net

Fun in the Philippines

Stretched out on the upper deck of my two-storey tree-top villa, watching the sun set over the turquoise sea, lazing about in the sun has never been so much fun.


Punta Bunga Beach, Philippines.

Punta Bunga Beach, Philippines.

Stretched out on the upper deck of my two-storey tree-top villa, watching the sun set over the turquoise sea, lazing about in the sun has never been so much fun.

It's an idyllic end to an afternoon of pure indulgence and relaxation - and the perfect start to an evening under the stars.

Set amid palm trees on a lush hillside within an eco-resort, Shangri-La's Boracay Resort and Spa excels in luxury.

From the moment we were greeted with a cooling cocktail at the tiny island's Caticlan airport, to the second we left to continue our travels, friendly and attentive staff left us in no doubt that their aim was for us to put our feet up and leave any troubles behind.

After a speedboat transfer to the hotel's jetty, the only way to reach the resort, waiting golf buggies whisked us up the climbing roads to my private villa and Suzette, who would be my butler while I was on the island.

I've been lucky enough to stay in some luxurious five-star hotels, but the Shangri-La at Boracay was something else. To say it was exceptional would be failing to do it justice.

Handing me a mobile phone to use in the resort so that Suzette would never be more than a simple phone call away, she showed me the villa's spacious ground floor then left me to explore on my own.

With floor-to-ceiling windows, the breathtaking views of the beach and ocean could be seen without even getting out of bed, and would prove to be a pleasure to wake up to.

But the real gem lay on the upper floor where the living area, complete with the villa's second flat-screen television, iPod dock and writing desk, led to the private decking area outside.

Lying down on one of the outdoor beds next to the jacuzzi with an awe-inspiring view of the ocean, the white sand of the resort's private Punta Bunga beach stretched out below, while the birds sang in the trees overhead.

Ideal for couples on a romantic break, the secluded villas perched on the hillside also offered some practical home comforts - a UK plug socket by the side of the bed, broadband internet access and everything I needed to make a cup of tea.

After settling in, an appointment in the hotel's Chi spa provided the perfect antidote to any jetlag from the 13-hour flight to this haven in the heart of the Philippines.

Over two hours, a combination of local indigenous flora, including lemon grass and morin, were made into a balm and rubbed into my skin in a deep pressure massage, helping to relieve any lingering aches and pains.

Large heated banana leaves were then wrapped around my limbs as I drifted into the relaxing world of this beautiful nature reserve.

Sipping spicy ginger tea after the treatment, and chatting with friends in hushed tones, the option of ever leaving Boracay seemed utterly redundant.

But our tour of the Philippines, situated east of Vietnam between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, would not have been complete without seeing the altogether livelier, bustling and oft-chaotic capital, Manila, 200 miles north on the main island.

More a collection of towns than one central city, Manila is home to 1.7 million people, one of the most densely populated areas of the world, and still growing at a rate of two per cent each year as each couple has an average of six children.

Our guide, Tess, explains that as a Spanish colony for 300 years before it was taken over by the US for more than 30 years in the early 20th century, influences from both countries remain strong - both in the English language used in schools and its Catholicism.

As I wander through the market stalls selling fresh fish, flowers and a myriad of potions on the streets of Quiapo, one of the capital's districts, hundreds of locals and tourists alike are praying in the church.

In a bid to ease congestion, the city uses a system where vehicles with registration plates ending with the numbers one or two are not allowed on the streets on Mondays (while three and four are banned on Tuesdays, five and six on Wednesdays, and seven and eight on Thursdays).

But the brightly-coloured jeepneys, hand-painted trucks which can be flagged down, have navigated the shambles to become the most popular form of public transport.

Most drivers carry a horse shoe for good luck, Tess says - or six, for even more luck.

From Manila's historic centre at Intramuros, the city's oldest district, we head to the Makati Shangri-La where Japanese chef Watara Hikawa serves up seven courses of delicious sushi and sashimi, along with mouth-watering US wagyu beef in miso sauce, that exceeds all expectations.

It is in Manila too, alongside the lavish air-conditioned mausoleums of the Chinese cemetery, that I see the sharp contrast with the huts used as homes by many of the city's current-day residents.

But despite the poverty that affects much of the nation, where some 35% of the population are squatters known as "informal settlers", Filipinos are some of the most cheerful, energetic and welcoming people I have met.

If the beauty of Boracay and the madness of Manila represent two extremes in the Philippines, then the perfect balance is struck on the island of Cebu, south of the capital and one of the country's most popular islands for tourists.

After a day island-hopping on one of the traditional banca pump boats, snorkelling among the fish, and enjoying a barbecue lunch on the sandy Nalusuan island, our guide took us to see some of the island of Bohol's natural attractions.

As I looked out from the summit of our climb, more than 1,000 dome-shaped mounds, known as the chocolate hills, spread out before me.

Covered in green grass, which turns brown in the dry season, the hills were created - according to guides and legend - by two feuding giants who hurled rocks, boulders, and sand at each other.

All this, in this country of contrasts, just a short distance from the home of the tarsiers, one of the world's smallest - and quite possibly cutest - primates.

Bohol's sanctuary is steadily succeeding in helping these shy nocturnal creatures, with their distinctive large eyes, restore some of their numbers - and the tarsiers grab the branches of its trees with their spindly limbs as if their lives depended on it.

Back in Cebu, the island's lively nightlife drew us to one of the local sutukil restaurants.

After deciding whether I wanted my fish grilled (sugba), stewed (tula) or raw (kilaw) - su-tu-kil - I sat overlooking the water as the sun went down on a varied but fantastic day.

Relatively few British tourists travel to the Philippines, but its character, natural wonders and welcoming embrace ensured I'll have no doubts about going back.

Key facts - Philippines

:: Best for: Couples wanting a romantic break to relax in the sun should head to Boracay. For a livelier holiday, partygoers should head to Cebu or Manila.

:: Time to go: Any time is good, but January-May tends to bring best weather and fewer typhoons.

:: Don't miss: Master sushi chef Watara Hikawa's Inagiku restaurant at Makati Shangri-La Hotel in Manila.

:: Don't forget: Plenty of sun-tan lotion and mosquito spray.

:: Need to know: Give local "dinuguan" a wide berth in restaurants - it's offal, often intestines, cooked in pigs' blood and vinegar.

Travel facts

Wesley Johnson visited the Philippines as a guest of Kuoni Travel and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

Kuoni offers a seven-night visit, incl three nights at Shangri-La's Mactan Resort & Spa in Cebu in superior garden view room, two nights at Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa in deluxe room and two nights at Makati Shangri-La Manila in a deluxe room, all B&B, and Cathay Pacific return flights, from £2357 during 2012, incl return flights ex-Heathrow, private transfers and domestic flights in resort and flights from Glasgow to London.

For the above holiday, with Business Class with Cathay Pacific (long-haul journey), prices start at £4,912.

For the above holiday, with flights from Manchester, prices start at £2,287, business class from £4,902.

Kuoni reservations: 01306 747008 and www.kuoni.co.uk

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