Holidaying on a budget needn't be a bad thing. For rich experiences, thriftiness can often pay off, writes Anna Sarjeant.
In December last year I found myself booking a last-minute two-week trip to the Philippines. It wasn't even mildly planned. Within all of three minutes my partner and I had gone from discussing Christmas ham to euphorically punching our card details into an airline website.
Seconds later, looking at each other wide-eyed and mildly panicked, our bank balance was considerably diminished. We had no prearranged accommodation, no transport arrangements, and other than arriving at Cebu Airport in less than 48 hours - two days before Christmas - with no concrete plans. We were by all accounts, backpackers again. And not young, nimble ones, but the kind that are on the wrong side of Contiki's recommended age range.
It was however, a trip that turned out to be a lifetime best. Full of the glorious unknowns of backpacking and mixed with unpredictable adventures bought on a pocket-money budget. No we didn't have all the luxuries and conveniences that money can buy, but our limited funds did end up providing us with some incredibly rich experiences.
Here's how to see the best of the Philippines, without spending a fortune.
CATCH THE FERRY
Ferries offer an easy and affordable method of hopping between islands close to Cebu. Albeit slower than flying, you're rewarded with an authentic taste of local travel. Many ferries depart at dusk so if you choose economy you'll be seated outdoors and can enjoy phenomenal sunsets splintering across the sky.
The check-in process is much like an airport: buy your ticket from the ferry terminal in advance (you'll need ID for this) and return two hours before departure to swap it for a boarding pass. Have some cash ready to pay the terminal fee and luggage handling. But don't be deterred if this entire process is slow and chaotic, it's incredibly disorganised but the entire fanfare has a certain magic about it.
SNORKEL THE SARDINE RUN
But first, start with the island of Cebu.
Less than 20m from Moalboal's shoreline on the west coast, the reef falls away to reveal a deep blue abyss. It's here where the Philippines' sardine run exists, but unlike its better-known South African cousin, the Philippine version can be witnessed year-round.
Beneath the water, in an eerily dark neighbourhood, a mammoth metropolis of sardines congregate. Moving as one enormous entity, they form shapes so dense they appear like city walls. But one flick of your hand and the facade shatters. Everything is an optical illusion down here. Your eyes might see huge silver sheets accelerating through the water, but when — without warning — the sardines scatter, the floor instantly drops from beneath you. Not dissimilar to the sudden plummet of a roller coaster, you're left looking straight down into a jet-black hole.
It's an exhilarating underwater world that you'll be reluctant to leave, but wrinkled hands and rumbling stomachs usually entice water-lovers back to shore.
GREET GIANT SEA TURTLES
When returning to the beach from Moalboal's sardine run, you'll find giant sea turtles grazing on shallow reef. With the water less than 1m deep, you'll pass one another much like pedestrians in the street. It almost warrants a nod of the head and a silent hello, but these fellows are charmingly nonchalant, so hover for a while before wading on. You'll see them again.
GO KAWASAN CANYONING
It takes a hardened stomach to throw yourself off a 10m ledge, but as it's the last of 14 leaps, what difference does one more make?
Kawasan canyoning is a favourite among visitors to Cebu Island; a lazy river that snakes around boulders, caves and waterfalls with there are various nature-made diving boards spilling into turquoise pools. It's a playground made in paradise.
Jumps range from 2m to 12m with a guide, safety gear and protective footwear all provided. All ages can partake, with alternative routes for those who lose face. It's an adrenaline-infused four hours of fun, culminating in the dazzling Kawasan Waterfall. By which point you'll be well versed in the art of canyoning: pinch your nose, close your eyes and swear profusely.
EAT AT TACO BAR
Executing "shabby-chic" in a way city bars could only dream about, Taco Bar is equal parts beat up and beautiful. A hidden treasure just outside the main babble of Moalboal, this simple roadside shack is nothing more than rattan walls and bamboo stools. But the fridge glistens with frosted drinks (and 8 per cent Red Horse beers for the accomplished beer drinker among us) and the tacos cost next to nothing. They're made fresh, by hand, and because the ocean is just a few strides away, the fish tacos, in particular, offer finger-licking perfection.
STAY AT NUTS HUTS IN BOHOL
Bohol Island is just two hours by ferry from Cebu. Sitting in the basin of a rainforest in Loboc, and enveloped by towering mountainside, this no frills Shangri-La boasts a simple scattering of wooden huts flanking the riverbank. Descend a steep staircase to an open-air deck jutting across the treetops and bag a spot on one of the daybeds. Sit, read and absorb the rainforest. For the price of a Pepsi you'll be lulled into a state of relaxation usually found at the end of $120 massage.
From the deck it's "just" another 100 steps down to the river's edge. Take the plunge and swim 800m to a nearby waterfall. Aside from a couple of locals playing ukuleles and drinking rum, the entire river is deserted. All this for a hostel price tag.
Native to the Philippines, tarsiers are instantly recognisable due to their huge cartoon eyes. These tiny, endangered animals can be observed in their natural habitat at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary on Bohol Island. Guides escort guests for a 20-minute tiptoe around a small section of a much larger rescue centre, and although it might be disconcerting to know tarsiers are prone to committing suicide when startled, library-silence ensures visitors aren't a threat.
It takes time to spot primates no larger than your fist, but when your wide-eyed gazes finally meet, it takes every ounce of restraint not to reach out and pop one in your pocket … But this sanctuary's fighting for tarsier survival, so best to stick with a keyring from the gift shop.
MOPED TO THE BEACH
Siquijor Island, infamous for its voodoo history, is a 1.5-hour ferry hop from Bohol and renowned for idyllic beaches. Whether you're into the occult or a cocktail, there's no denying Salagdoong Beach is a magical place. Arrival by moped is advised and cheap to rent from hotels and hostels (but it does come with a stay-safe warning).
If you're lucky enough to be the passenger, soak up the sea breeze, the palms and grinning children waving from the roadside. At Salagdoong, you will have to pay a small entrance fee and the sand is far from powder-fine, but the warm tropical water makes up for pussyfooting across pebbles to the shoreline. After a dip you can slurp on mango smoothies at the beachside cafe.
Philippine Airlines flies three times a week direct from Auckland to Manila, with connections to Cebu.