On the island of Siargao in Mindanao, on the far southeastern rim of the Philippines, the daily ritual goes something like this: surfers in vests and board shorts rise in the pre-dawn light, jumping onto motorbikes customised to carry low-riding racks fitted for longboards. Later, they are seen nursing cold beers at surf resorts, bronze-faced and dripping like wet dogs after playing all day at Cloud 9, the island’s star Pacific reef break. Doesn’t this recapture the way Southeast Asia used to feel?
Typically, two things put people off travelling to the far-flung Philippines. The 7,000-odd islands to choose from, then the complicated pain of flight and ferry timings and schedules. It’s a worry to work out where to start, let alone stay, when you simply want to live your best life. But the good news is the extra effort in getting to Siargao means the teardrop- shaped island remains blissfully crowd-free, unlike the rest of the country. There is the same sun, soul- stirring sand and sea as over-touristy Boracay or Panglao, but here it feels a world apart. The hub municipalities of General Luna or Pilar display none of the beach mania you’ll find on White Beach or Alona Beach.
This island idyll won’t stay low-key for long, however. Twelve flights a day now land at Siargao’s tiny airport, up from what was once two per week, and, in tandem, new names continue to appear, from eco-entrepreneurs to a slow glug of independent hotels and small artisan businesses. Less than a tenth of the size of Bali, the island feels the way the Indonesian hotspot did three decades ago. All of which means now is the time to come. Key to Siargao’s appeal is the open community of white-pouring surf and bendy palms of the southeast coast around Cloud 9. Surfers and island lovers have a natural propensity for hyperbole, embellishing beach tales with claims of world-beating waves and sunsets no matter the conditions, but here the legend rings true.
“Word of mouth has made this the best seasonal surf destination in Southeast Asia,” says Yorkshireman Ashley Charles, owner of Buddhas Resort, one of the first surf camps to cement its place on the beach strip. “When people come, they have little else on their mind – so when the swell hits, that’s all that matters.” A sign of the way things now are is that Buddhas branched out into a yoga and meditation studio a few years ago and during the Covid pandemic the resort pivoted to better harness the land. The result? Organic produce from its farm is now a staple at its onsite Thai restaurant.
Elsewhere in Cloud 9, Nay Palad Hideaway brings a touch of Beverly Hills chic to the coast, with its wraparound pool and barefoot luxury vibe, while Siargao Bleu Resort and Spa and Harana Surf Resort have made an art form out of open-plan design, beachfront decks and villa living. But Siargao’s new-found tourism dividend is also about food, drink and partying. In the old days, everyone would head to Octopus Beach Bar, a place better seen in a soft-focus haze after midnight than in daylight. Now, travellers flock to funky restaurants and bars framed by jungle groves.
Among these The Spotted Pig has brought veganism to the pork-loving islanders and Filipino rock bands drop in to Loose Keys, a motorbike culture café. For grassroots community activism and beach clean-ups, Shaka Cafe is worthy of time and support. Also in the same spirit, if located on the island’s north side in Burgos, is Lokal Lab, an NGO that creates sustainable projects and runs a farmers’ market. If Siargao has emerged as the trendiest destination in the Philippines, it helps that it packs the whole of the country into one island. For a scooter road trip through coconut palms, take the road north to Pilar and the Tayangban Cave Pool, where an almost submarine inlet leads to a cenote cradling a translucent rock pool. Likewise, Pilar is home to Magpupungko Beach, where low tide reveals an astonishing natural swimming pool bathed in a cascade of golden light.
The island’s climax, however, is the soul-soaring options for island-hopping. Three tropical islands framed by blue seas lie offshore for yacht cruises and the trio of Naked Island, Daku Island and Guyam Island rival any elsewhere in the Philippines for sheer spectacle. Land around sunset, when the day trips have gone home, and the glorious bone-white sands and swaying palms are yours alone. Maybe, then, it’s time to say to hell with the schedule and stay for longer.
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