Picture this: a cluster of islands boasting infinite turquoise seas, cloudless skies, powdery white sands, crystal clear lagoons, virtually no phone signal, and barely any other humans around. It’s the paradisiacal stuff of Photoshopped postcards. An almost impossible real-life phenomenon in this day and age, right?
But such hidden geographical gems still exist. Tucked away in the Philippines, in the heart of the Visayan Sea, thrives one such off-the-grid paradise. Its name? Islas de Gigantes (Giant Islands). Originally named Sabuluag after a tree species found on the islands, and later renamed by Spanish colonisers after a local legend which spoke of gigantic human bones within the island’s caves, the islands are eye-wateringly beautiful.
I undertake a 10-hour, multi-vehicle journey from Boracay, to Roxas, to Carles, to Estancia, to Gigantes, just so I can bury my toes in those virgin sands. Just so I can lay my eyes on those sparkling seas. Just so I can breathe in a deep lungful of fresh salty air on a pristine white sandbar in the ocean in the middle of nowhere.
And you know what? Every cramped, sticky, ferociously hot van ride spent with my knees to my face and sweat plastered to my body that I endure alongside the 3-hour motorboat journey from Estancia Port to the blessed islands is completely, utterly worth it. No shadow of a doubt.
The best things in life are a pain in the bloody arse to find.
Half an hour into the boat ride to Islas de Gigantes, my cellphone signal disappears. It’s both scary and wonderful, being unreachable in the middle of the sea, with no distractions other than the sound of our bangka (a bamboo sailboat) slapping the waves; nothing but the roar of the motor speeding across navy blue waters.
Hours later, lulled into a natural high by the serenity of the boat ride, Gigantes Norte blossoms before our eyes, and we bank unobtrusively onto the seashell-strewn shore.
An islander guide named Toto meets us on a habal-habal (motorbike) and zooms us through the island’s narrow pathways to Gigantes Hideaway Tourist Inn, our accommodation of choice after reading a handful of blissed-out reviews online. Steaming cups of instant Nescafé 3-in-1 coffee on bamboo tables greet us on arrival and we are shown to our bungalows, in which electricity turns on only for several hours in the evenings.
The bungalows are modest, each with a hammock on the veranda for lazing around on. Our first meal is gloriously generous, setting the tone for all other meals during our stay: steaming heaps of fresh seafood alongside sautéed chicken, vegetables, and rice. Some of the dishes include fresh mussels and oysters, buttered angel wing clams, squid-ink shrimp gambas, sweet and sour fish, fried milkfish, octopus, barbecue, fried chicken, and fresh crabs. Oh, and more rice.
And our surroundings – ah, the surroundings! Unbelievable. The picture-perfect beauty that Islas de Gigantes offers on its sands is borderline unreal. Each island is scenically perfect, which locals are very aware of (and adamant about) keeping that way.
On our first afternoon, to work up an appetite before another hugely generous fresh seafood dinner, we are taken up to the 19th century Spanish-colonial lighthouse at the tip of Gigantes Norte.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of instant coffee, sunny side-up eggs, corned beef hash, dried bangus (milkfish) and rice, we head out for a day of island hopping beneath the sun.
From Gigantes Norte (Asluman), our island guide, Joseph, takes us on a private bangka tour around the islands, which includes a seafood banquet at Cabugao Gamay Island, sunbathing on Bantigue Sandbar, snorkelling with tropical fish in Antonia Island, and jumping off rocks at Tangke Saltwater Lagoon.
The day ends with a two-hour hike around Pawikan Cave before zipping back to the resort and slumping, happily exhausted and full of endorphins, onto the hammocks on our verandas.
Visiting the Gigantes Norte Lighthouse
We zoom up to the century-old Spanish lighthouse on a habal-habal during sunset. As golden light diffuses across the flora and the rustic ruins, we stand marvelling at the panoramic vistas of the vivid blue Visayan Sea, visible for miles and miles around us.
I feel absolutely shattered, but golden hour makes it all better.
At the (ridiculously gorgeous) Cabugao Gamay Island
Cabugao, a little uninhabited islet in the Gigantes archipelago, is our next stop; my favourite stop. How could it not be?
Cabugao is the most photographed part of the islands – you know, the one riddling every Google Image top hit and Instagram tag whenever “Gigantes” is typed into a search bar.
Climbing the top of a rocky mound gives us a postcard-perfect view of tropical paradise.
We hop off our boat onto powdery white sands. After exploring beneath the baking heat, we seek shelter beneath a cluster of swaying coconut trees, admiring the picturesque cairns – human-made stacks of stones which signal hikers – sitting on the shore.
Safety first. Enjoy my neon shorts.
Touristy jumpshots at Bantigue Sandbar
I squeal in childish delight as we approach the long, elegant stretch of white sand snaking across the middle of the ocean, offering up a beautiful view of small, verdant mountains.
My very first sandbar. Happy tears.
“When the tide comes in, the sandbar, which is usually an S-shape becomes submerged, and then only a little piece of the island is visible, like a C-shape,” Joseph tells us cheerfully, picking up a huge piece of gleaming white coral which has washed up on shore.
After our mini ocean-education session, Joseph smoothly removes my SLR from my hands and instructs us to jump in the air between two mountains with the confidence of Mario Testino directing Kate Moss.
(I think he’s done this before.)
Snorkelling at Isla Antonia
As we pull up to Antonia Island, the water gets even clearer and brighter than on the previous islands.
Snorkellers in reflective orange life-jackets are floating facedown here and there, a little way away from the shore, enraptured by life beneath the surface. Actually, they look like alarmingly corpse-like, but we’re comforted by the snorkel pipes sticking out of the water.
We jump into the water to do some snorkelling of our own. Soon, we work out that the more we stay still, the more fish swim up to us, curious.
After an exhilirating snorkelling session, it is time to dine. Crabs, scallops, and freshly grilled fish await. Fine dining on a fine island. All meals should be like this, I think. Freshly cooked, no cutlery, and by the sea. Food tastes so much better when you eat with your hands.
Tangke Saltwater Lagoon
This enchantingly green lagoon, concealed by a craggy ring of towering rocks, is a serene natural saltwater pool created by the perpetual spill of high tide from the open ocean.
Our young boatman deftly navigates our bangka through the rocks and anchors us near the lagoon entrance, nestled between two small limestone cliffs. It’s beautiful. We spend almost an hour jumping from the rocks into the glimmering green waters.
When we eventually make our way back to the boat, clambering over a precarious makeshift bamboo walkway wedged between the rocks, I accidentally fling my pants into the ocean. The boatman stifles his laughter, then kindly fishes them out of the water with a pole.
Who likes wearing pants, anyway?
Exploring Pawikan Cave
“Pawikan means sea turtle,” says Toto, the young local lad guiding us up the mountain. He leaps from rock to rock like an Olympic acrobat. “The cave used to have rocks shaped like turtle eggs. That’s why we call it Pawikan Cave. There was gold here, too.”
The climb is steep, surrounded by forest. Every so often, we see glimpses of the ocean through branches and bracken. The higher we climb, the sweatier we get. We’re around 200 feet above sea level, under the sweltering sun, when we reach the cave mouth.
In the entrance chamber, dazzling limestone rock formations loom above our heads, with atriums in the cave ceiling flooding the dark chambers with beaming sunlight.
Apart from a few naughty words graffitied by local youths on the cave walls, the Pawikan Cave feels otherworldly.
Or it’s just the heatstroke beginning to set in.
Parting thoughts on Islas de Gigantes in the Visayas
I did have some reservations about the experience feeling too contained. The shepherding from island to island felt somewhat inauthentic. However, the natural beauty of Islas de Gigantes is a rapidly disappearing rarity, and controlling tourist patterns throughout the islands is necessary – nay, vital for maintaining the serenity, the charm, the cleanliness of Islas de Gigantes.
Lonely Planet visited the islands in 2015, which of course means tourism is set to boom. It’s incredible that the island community have already established regular routes and activities for tourists, which will prevent their beautiful homes getting wrecked by ignorance, commercialisation, litter, and unprecedented footfall.
In fact, neighbouring islands such as Boracay (my thoughts on which you can read about in my post Paradise Lost: Falling Out of Love with Boracay), and similar islands in other countries would do well to take a leaf out of Gigantes’ books, and to put a respect for nature and earth above all else (namely: financial gain).
The Islas de Gigantes folks are doing exceptionally well to preserve the integrity, cleanliness, and beauty of their islands, and balance out their livelihoods with controlled tourism. I’m simply happy that I had a chance to experience Gigantes, still so vastly virginal and full of potential, following the destruction left in Typhoon Haiyan’s wake.
If you’re headed to the Philippines, or indeed, to the Visayan region, consider carving out two days to sail off the grid and experience some of the most beautiful islands that South East Asia has to offer. Although it’s coming up fast in the Philippines, Islas de Gigantes remains hugely unknown, even to many locals around the country. Remaining unknown – especially in this age of oversharing, information, and travel accessibility – is something of a miracle.