Monthly Archives: July 2016

Philippines island for travelling


The journey to Siargao should have taken an hour, but we’d already been in the air that long when an enormous cloud tore across the sky and chased us twice around the island.

When we finally touched down I realised that the runway we’d been circumnavigating was little more than a finger swipe through custard, a patch of scrubland disappearing into the jungle around it.

After hauling my bag from the prop plane, baffled at the lack of security checks, I climbed into a waiting jeepney, the ubiquitous and colourfully adapted American army jeeps used as public transport in the Philippines.

Bouncing along the dirt track was like stepping back in time. The only life in the dense palm jungle was around basic stilt huts clinging to the road edge. Bamboo frames held up corrugated iron roofs which acted as petrol stations. One litre of gas in a Coca Cola bottle would set you back 20p. Carabao grazed lazily in lush rice paddies; the smell of slow-cooked Lechon pig hung in the hot air.

Siargao (pronounced Shar-gow) is one of over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. Perched 448km (278 miles) off the coast of cacophonic Cebu, the teardrop-shaped isle is relatively unknown, except to the surfing community, for whom it is a mecca.

Compared to neighbouring Boracay (an island with a 5-star Shangri-La resort, full moon parties and a busy airport), Siargao is a sleepy sibling. There are no direct international flights and volatile weather makes current airline timetables chaotic.

But all this will change from 2015 as more than £400,000 is set to be spent on improving and extending Siargao’s Sayak Airport over the next three years.

I was in Siargao to visit the legendary surf at Cloud 9, a break on the east coast made famous by the World Surf League in 2011. I also had a profound urge to set foot on one of the world’s last remaining undeveloped spots.

Whilst on the island I stayed at Buddha’s, a hippie collection of thatched bungalows and hammocks just metres from the beach. I’d rise each morning at 6am and make my way through palm fronds to the sand. I’d heave my board onto a waiting bangkang (a traditional wooden outrigger used to fish) that transported surfers beyond the reef.

By the time we’d reach the swell, the sun would be high and the heat intense. There were only ever a handful of other surfers to compete with, so I’d spend two blissful hours carving watery tracks before heading back for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and fresh calamansi juice. By 6pm I’d sit and watch another sunset, convinced I’d found a personal heaven, my own Cloud 9.

This feeling resonated with many of the expatriates I met on the island, including Gerry Degan, the owner of Sagana, a resort with direct access to the Cloud 9 surf spot.

Gerry and his Filipino wife moved here from Australia in 1995, when the tourism industry was non-existent. With the help of a local, Gerry bought a plot of land and opened the resort. The airport extension makes him anxious, but he’s pragmatic.

“It’s a catch-22,” he says. “We would all like to keep the charm of the undiscovered tropical paradise, but as word leaks out of course more people will come. As a business owner it makes things much easier, but as a surfer my concern is that the waves will become overcrowded and I came here to surf a quiet break.”

How Wonderful of Greece Island

When I was told I’d be visiting Skopelos, the Greek island on which the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was set, I was more than a little bit excited. I know what you’re thinking, but what’s wrong with a 23-year-old male enjoying a musical based on the hit songs of Abba? Besides it’s the fastest selling DVD of all time in the UK, so chances are, whether you choose to publicly admit it or not, you probably love it too.

In my mind, striding (or crawling as I’d later find out) up the steps to the hilltop white chapel in front of which Meryl Streep sings The Winner Takes It All to a clearly uncomfortable Pierce Brosnan, would be a personal travel highlight, deeming previous trips to landmarks like the Eiffel Tower insignificant in comparison.
The island of Skopelos, home of the Mamma Mia church, was the last stop on my whirlwind tour of the Sporades, a lesser-known 24-island archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Greece. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have been in less of a hurry to skip right to the end of the trip.

Cheese pies

It was early morning and the sun was just beginning to prickle at the back of my neck as we meandered through the narrow streets of Alonissos’s Old Town. Even though I knew my heart lay in Skopelos, I had to admit that Alonissos struck an impressive first impression. Built into the remnants of a giant hilltop castle that once protected the island from roaming pirates, the Old Town appeared to me as the embodiment of traditional Greece, with tables from white-walled and orange-roofed restaurants spilling out into the winding streets, unoccupied mostly, except for the occasional local smoking a roll up black liquorish cigarette with a stray cat lounging at their feet.
We followed one of the weaving castle paths to a small courtyard with a collection of simple wicker tables overlooking the sea. This was Hayiati, a bar boasting the most scenic beer garden I’d ever seen.

Upon taking a seat we were greeted by a woman with wide hips and a huge smile, the owner, who insisted immediately that we try a home-made cheese pie. Before visiting the Sporades I had no idea that Greece was famous for cheese pie, but after being fed over a dozen of them during my short trip, I’m certainly well aware now. However, out of all the cheese pies I sampled, Hayiati’s was the best. A simple recipe: home-made dough topped with feta and spinach. I seized a few large slices and leisurely took in the view.

Surf is the intersting one if you travelling on beach

So this is it: the long-thought Gate of Hell; once the very edge of the known world, now the threshold to a very new one. As a turnstile to an eternal inferno, it’s not what I had envisioned.

Sure, the heat blisters. The sun, as a pre-curser to the Gate opening, is doing its blazing best as a warm up act. Yawning from a night shift, my watch is stretching its hands out at 0915, and already I’m in shorts.

Perhaps I expected something more apocalyptic than a rum-dark South China Sea; maybe someone more prophetic than the ocean goddess, Mazu, who busily kneads six foot waves into the soft, butter-blonde sands of Riyue Bay.

Whatever I’d conceived, it didn’t include a beret-bearing, oak-skinned Californian surfer called Brendan and an all but abandoned paradisiacal beach. Yet at Hainan Island, the most southerly point of China, that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Brendan has been shacked up here for around seven years. His Riyue Bay Surf Club on the southeast of the island has all the indicia of a self-shaped surf spot: the hand painted driftwood signs (“No Sharks”, “No Limitations”); an acoustic guitar; a bar made from a surfboard, serving imported beer; year-round waves.

For centuries, Hainan was the end of China’s civilised world. The island was a real-life Diyu (Chinese purgatory), where banished Dynasty dissents were left abandoned between the fruits of the Forbidden City and an imminently impending afterlife.

In the 800s, Tang Dynasty prime minister and aspirant poet, Li Deyu, coloured Hainan as the “Gate of Hell”, but as a consequence of China’s ever-quickening evolution, it’s an island still finding its identity. It swirls together the synchronised chaos of classic China (neon lights, noisy bikes and exotic street food) whilst alluding towards a future of homogeneous modernity (deluxe hotel chains, beach weddings and Western menus). Its lost coves, rainforest-rimmed mountains and deserted volcanic villages await rediscovery.

As my surf lesson with Brendan progresses from practising in the sand to lolloping upon grumbling tides, a school of local children ride waves further up the coast. They’re in the water wearing wetsuits and wilting straw hats. Face-kinis are also a regular sight on the beach.

“The locals don’t like to tan,” Brendan explains. “If they’re tanned, it means they work outside and people will think they’re poor. That’s why beaches are often empty in the day and get busier around five.”

Lets see sharks in Utila

Samantha Wilson heads to Útila in Honduras in search of Old Tom, the legendary barnacle-encrusted whale shark who has plied the waters for decades.

“Put your faces in the water, sharks don’t fly!”

Bobbing among the dark, slapping waves off of the Honduran coast I hear the shout of our captain over the gentle hum of the dive boat engine. My heavy, nervous breaths through my snorkel make it harder still.

I heed his holler, though, and dip beneath the glistening surface. Finally I get a glimpse of what I have been searching for: a whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean.

At 9m (30 ft) long, it glides effortlessly beneath my fins, sashaying gracefully with every swish of its enormous, pointed tail. I swim breathlessly alongside, keeping up with it for several minutes until it dives and its blue and white spotted body disappears into the depths of the Caribbean Sea.

They tend to frequent warm, tropical seas and Utila’s plankton-rich waters are a major stopping point on their great migrations along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

Tilting their powerful bodies vertically, they open their wide mouths to gorge, creating a feeding frenzy which encourages small tuna to join in the feast. Known as boils, the tuna writhe in the water, their splashes alerting trained eyes to the presence of a whale shark just below the surface.

Local fishermen call them Old Tom after a legendary, barnacle-encrusted whale shark that plied Utila’s waters for decades. Back on the shore, in doorways of the stilted, pastel-coloured houses that make up the Honduras’ Bay Islands, they still tell rum-heartened tales about the great beast, which they say reached 18m (60ft) in length.

Whale sharks skim the north shore here throughout the year, but the best sightings are in March and April at the height of their little-understood migrations. Scientists have long been left baffled by their 5,000 mile-long (8,045 km) trips, and individual sharks have been tracked as far as the mid-Atlantic en route to South Africa after leaving the Belizean Reef. The mystery of where they give birth remains unanswered too, but that just adds to their magnetism.

Ulita was the island where unruly English pirates used to come in search of Spain’s golden treasures but now it lures in wannabe scuba divers with promises of PADI courses, a paradisiacal coastline and rustic eateries. The biggest prize on offer though, is a chance to see Old Tom saunter past.

Five best places to see whale sharks in the world

1) Santz Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
With a wealth of underwater life and reams of unafraid animal species, it is little wonder whale sharks can also be spotted at the Galapagos Islands. Your best chance of greeting the gracious giant is between June and November.

2) South Ari Atoll, Maldives
As a Marine Protected Area, the South Ari Atoll in the Maldives is limited to the number of human disturbances allowed to take place in its waters, which makes year-round whale shark spotting even more precious here.

3) Cabo San Sebastian, Mozambique
Cabo San Sebastian and the nearby Tofo Beach are popular whale shark dive spots for a reason: the wealth of plankton attracts the biggest number of whale sharks in Africa.

4) Donsol, Philippines
Not only does Donsol have some of the clearest depths in the Philippines, authorities only allow snorkelling in the area which reduces sea life disturbances. Ethical and magical, this is the spot where whale sharks were first recorded.

5) Anse Capucins, Mahé, Seychelles
If you happen to honeymoon in October and November, the dives around Anse Capucins to the south of Mahé in the Seychelles, are ideal for falling in love with something other than your partner: whale sharks. The fish are protected here and with warm emerald waters and regular sightings, you won’t want to leave.