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Come again to Camiguin

A Philippine island paradisein the midst of Mindanao's martial law

White Island. Photo: Alamy
White Island. Photo: Alamy

Just off the coast of northern Mindanao in the Philippines is the volcanic island of Camiguin, covered in thick tropical jungle and waterfalls, and surrounded by turquoise waters and rainbow reefs. In a country of 7,107 tropical islands, Camiguin is firmly off the well-trodden South-East Asian beach circuit. However, the short hour-long ferry ride from mainland Mindanao doesn’t reflect its relative remoteness.

Martial law was declared across Mindanao in May by Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte in response to an attack on Marawi city by the Islamic State-affiliated Maute group. Marawi city was besieged till October, and several hundreds were killed, mainly members of the Maute group.

Jeepneys provide local transport on the island. Photo: Alamy

Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippine archipelago (after Luzon), and the biggest in the south. Most of its territory is free from unrest, although numerous countries, including the US, Australia and Canada, warn against travel to the whole of Mindanao. Hardly a place for a tropical beach getaway. Or is it?

On my first day on Camiguin, I was woken just before dawn by the rumbling of thunder and the tapping of rain on the thatched roof of my luxury hut. Not a promising start to a day that was to be spent on the beach. Fortunately, it cleared up while I was enjoying a poolside breakfast of tropical fruit like the juicy local lanzones.

A seaside resort lit up at night. Photo: iStockphoto

A highlight of Camiguin is a visit to White Island, a small sand-strip several hundred metres off shore. It’s not really an island, as there is no vegetation. But it is an idyllic place to paddle in the sea or bask under an umbrella. The water is shallow and warm, and because of the bright white sand, the surrounding sea is a pale glassy turquoise. White Island is reached via six-seater motorized outrigger boats. It’s important to go as early as possible, as boats stop at 10am.

After a couple of early-morning hours on White Island, a colourfully painted outrigger picked me up and made the half-hour journey through choppy seas, parallel to the forested coast of Camiguin. I arrived drenched in spray, salt stinging my eyes, but it didn’t matter—I was about to get wetter.

Ferries bring travellers over from mainland Mindanao. Photo: iStockphoto

Camiguin’s Old Vulcan Daan, an active volcano, erupted in 1871, altering the coastline and submerging a church and cemetery. Nowadays, a large cross marks the spot of the sunken cemetery, just offshore from Bonbon. The remains lie beneath the water, but as the eruption was a century and a half ago, very little can be seen. Coral and plant life have grown over it, and it makes for an excellent snorkelling spot.

The water is shallow until way past the cross, and the coral is healthy. Darting within it are dazzling orange clownfish, yellow sunfish, purple starfish and what look like iridescent floating petals. The highlight are the giant—giant!—clams, fringed in neon, just past the cross. The biggest is 18 years old and more than a metre across, and is surrounded by smaller relatives. It would be exciting to see it clamp something in its enormous wavy jaws (a small fish, of course, not a swimmer’s foot). These giant clams are protected, as they would make a tasty meal. Snorkelling guides can be hired and equipment rented at the beach. Guides can help find the clams, but you can also snorkel alone.

A cross marks the location of the sunken cemetery. Photo: Alamy

Camiguin is a microcosm of the best of the Philippines, a nation of lavish natural beauty. Most of its 80,000 inhabitants farm rice or coconuts, and the island’s cuisine centres around fresh seafood. The crime rate is low—some (such as my tour guide) even claim that crime is non-existent. Camiguin comprises seven volcanoes, two of which are active. The island’s Mount Hibok-Hibok erupted in the middle of the last century, but there hasn’t been a major eruption since 1871, when the cemetery “sank". As well as coastal activities, there are inland waterfalls and hot and cold springs to explore.

My guide’s favourite refrain was that I would want to “come again to Camiguin". I certainly would, but it seems like a bigger challenge would be to get tourists to visit the first time. The imposition of martial law in Mindanao inevitably affected tourism. Even before 2017’s emergency, practically all the tourists who came to Mindanao—around 90%—were Filipinos. However, if you want a beach destination that offers enough tourism infrastructure for your comfort but without the over-the-top commercialization and crowds of other parts of South-East Asia, you can’t beat Camiguin.

Plan a trip

How to reach: Camiguin is about 3 hours’ drive from Laguindingan Airport, and 8 hours from Davao, Mindanao’s major city. From mainland Mindanao, ferries make the crossing to Benoni on Camiguin every hour. There is also a small airport on the island at Mambajao.

Where to stay: There are home-stays around the island. For a three-star resort experience with a pool, restaurant and thatched huts, stay at the Bahay-Bakasyunan Sa Camiguin.

When to visit: The best time to visit is during the annual Lanzones festival, which is usually around late October. The rainy season in Camiguin lasts from mid-December to late March.

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