Philippines Musts: Island Hopping & Karaoke

Sister is Coming!

For months, my sister adamantly stated she would not come to the Philippines. Luckily for me, Kacey wanted to come, and soon after, Allison was on board. I was beside myself with excitement for so many reasons:

  1. We hadn’t traveled together since Ireland.
  2. They were going to see the place I called home for the past year. (Well, the nicer parts of it anyway.)
  3. They were going to meet Elliot and Sarah – I love it when worlds collide!

I mean it. As an expat, you’re always straddling two separate worlds, dwelling in this little liminal border cut out for you that never quite overlaps. I come home and tell my friends about my new friends, knowing their paths will probably never cross.

Unless I ever get married, which would be pretty epic.

Sarah and I were sitting down to breakfast on the 19th when Annie popped out of the kitchen.

“They’re here!” she told us.

“Who?” was my first response. I’d tossed and turned all night in excitement and had gotten up at 6am to track their flight – I’m becoming my dad – and that was my response.

They all looked pretty knackered from the flight and their night out before, but it was spectacular to see them. I had to tone down my excitement as we sat down to breakfast, judging by their jet lagged / hungover expressions.

We ended up spending their first day in the Philippines lounging poolside while they napped. That evening, they impressively shoved jet lag aside to join us on a river cruise through mangrove trees to spot fireflies.

Everyone told me that this is a must-do in Donsol. You board a boat at night and sail along, glimpsing the occasional tree that’s glittering with fireflies. I expected the trees to be twinkling like party lights, but it was more subtle. Still, it was cool, though the guides probably could’ve done without beating the branches with a stick to stir up the lightning bugs.

Island Hopping in Donsol: San Miguel, and some others. And jellyfish.

The following morning, we met downstairs at 7am to board a larger bangka to take us two hours away for some island hopping. Three times we were asked if we wanted to rent snorkel masks, but we weren’t sure why this was necessary. Always skeptical of people trying to sell me something, I refused each time.

Our first “island” was more of a deep lagoon of perfectly clear water that was, apparently, superb for snorkeling. Sarah brought her own mask and very kindly passed it around to the 6 of us.

As we floated in the waves, I realized that I could tread water for much longer than I thought I could. That’s exciting.

Kacey was having a less exciting experience, badly needing the bathroom. We debated swimming to the actual island, but there wasn’t much privacy there. Our guides informed us that the next stop was at a resort that had once flourished, but was now in disrepair after a typhoon.

Perhaps their bathroom was still functional, we hoped.

We landed on the island to find a number of bamboo huts occupied by chickens, cats, and a slew of flying insects. Our boat guides got cozy in a separate hut, and we explored the fabulous blue water.

“Why don’t you find a place here and go?” I asked Kacey.

“Uh…have you seen the guy on the hill with the binoculars?”

“What?” I thought she was joking.

“Nope. Seriously. Look.”

I followed her gaze up to a hill overlooking the resort. You could slightly make out a figure, standing atop the hill under cover of another decrepit hut, holding a pair of binoculars.


We noted a rocky outcrop that jutted out into the water. I borrowed Sarah’s snorkel mask and floated around for a while, spotting fluorescent blue and yellow fish, pastel rainbow fish, starfish, corals, and the occasional massive hunk of plastic bag. It became a sort of game: behemoth jellyfish or plastic bag? (Guess how many times it was the latter? Always.)

Sarah and Kacey joined me, and we decided to make the swim around the rock outcrop so Kacey could find some privacy. We’d seen some jellyfish at the last place, so I put on the mask and swam alongside them, scanning for jellyfish. The coast was clear, though I noticed a few tiny clear ones as we approached the beach.

Kacey found some privacy and Sarah and I waited in the ocean. I was still in awe of the beauty of where we were – sea-wise, not so much on land – and was stoked to keep snorkeling. Sarah wore the mask on the way back, though she didn’t need to tell us about the jellyfish.

As soon as we started swimming – against the current this time – I felt the stings. Everywhere. Kacey began shouting as well.

“Are there jellyfish?” she asked Sarah, though we knew the answer.

“Yeah…there’s a lot. And we’re swimming through them.”

I tried not to imagine dozens of goopy sea creatures stinging me or getting stuck in my hair or my mouth, and instead swam as hard as I could to shore.

“There weren’t any before!” I protested, as we got out of the water. The entire area by the shore was congested with them. It was like an APB had gone out to all the jellyfish that fresh fleshy human legs were available for stinging and they’d all dropped whatever it was they were doing to attack us.

Back on shore, Allison, Sarah, and I stood around our hut watching the chickens and talking.

“Oh my God,” Allison said suddenly, pointing. “When did that happen?”

At our feet, a chicken lay crumpled and dead. We all gawked at it for a minute until it suddenly sprang to life and wobbled around, dazed, like an avian version of the Mountain from Game of Thrones.

We decided it was time to leave.


Abandoned resort


Clear water…filled with clear jellyfish


Our ride for the day

Our next island was a slice of beach jutting up against stacks of rocks and crags that looked desperate to be climbed. We ate lunch there and obliged, climbing the rock stacks and snorkeling in the clear water. There wasn’t much to see, but it’s always a joy to breathe underwater.

The final stop was up against a waterfall that was usually raging, but now was a bit trickly. Still, it’s not often you get to jump into the sea and look up at a waterfall pouring down on your head. I’ll take it.

Everyone else seemed to enjoy it as well. Jaclyn took in everything with such excitement that, if you weren’t excited for some reason before getting off the boat, you were now. She was also bold and carried her Samsung around in a plastic case, treading water and removing it to take photos.

The boat journey back was rough. To the west, we could see a massive cloud of rain. The waves were choppy and white-capped, and Kacey was concerned because the wooden planks on the front of the boat were shifting each time we crashed down over the waves. We were all drenched by salt spray and had to put our bags under a tarp. I’m not normally nervous on boats, but Kacey is, in my mind, a boating expert, so if she’s nervous, I’m nervous.

Once back on land, I felt more grateful than I’d anticipated.

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Adventures in Videoke

If you visit the Philippines, you have to do karaoke. Basketball may be the sport of the country, but karaoke is the pastime. And you can find it anywhere.

Sarah had cycled through a barangay outside of Manila early one Sunday morning and found a small village singing karaoke. 8:30 in the morning.

When Judson and I had scootered around Panglao, we passed through a cluster of huts and sari-saris and one man singing karaoke at a machine that was set on a table on the side of the road.

You have to do it. Just don’t sing “My Way.”

Donsol town offers little in the way of nightlife. We had a better chance of a wild night in our own hotel restaurant than we did in Donsol. But I knew in my heart they would have a place to do karaoke.

Our restaurant manager, Marlon, who had dealt with our drink requests for 3 nights now, was quick to affirm my beliefs.

“There is karaoke. It closes at 10.”

It was 9:15.

Sarah, Allison, and Jaclyn were undeterred by this. Sarah and I asked about transportation. I wasn’t going to drive the beast into town. I wanted a local adventure. (In my mind, this also included halo-halo, but Marlon seemed skeptical we’d find it. One thing at a time, I suppose.)

Annie was gone, so we couldn’t order trikes. Instead, Marlon phoned up two guys with motorcycles. I think they were associated with the hotel.

Sarah and I piled onto one, while Jaclyn and Allison got on the other. Jaclyn had mentioned the night before, as we rode our trikes to the river tour, that she’s terrified of motorcycles. I love that her desire to try new things overpowered that fear. As we sputtered along down the road on the bikes, I felt pretty badass.


Karaoke is so freaking exciting!

The karaoke joint – I have no better word – was a short ride past the bridge we’d stopped on yesterday for the firefly tour. The motorcycles pulled up in front of a bamboo fence with an open gate, and we walked through. Dirt floor, open air, 2-3 tables, a refrigerator stocked with Red Horse, a table of locals, and a few guys playing pool.

As soon as we entered, one guy grabbed the mic and started singing a Filipino song. Allison and Sarah grabbed the song book while Jaclyn and I ordered some Red Horse. (By ordered, I mean plucked from the fridge.)

We had 25 minutes of song time, which was hard when we were scrambling to find songs to sing. This always happens at karaoke: you go there excited, and then realize you have no idea what songs you want to sing.

Your first answer should always be The Spice Girls.

By the end of “Don’t Stop Believin'”, the locals at the table were shouting along. Or shouting at us to stop. I’m not sure which, but it seemed encouraging in the moment. We’d banked on being so much fun that they would stay open after 10, but Julia, the owner, promptly shut us down and told us to come back tomorrow.

I bet if we had, they’d have barred the gates.

Back on the motorcycles, back to Vitton Resort, where we all sat in that weird buzz at the start of a crazy night out. One of the motorcycle drivers invited us to come hang out with them, so Jaclyn, Allison, and I joined them. I’d been wary, but when they took us to a table on the hotel premises, where I could actually see my room, I felt fine.

I also texted Sarah, who’d gone to bed, in case she needed to come rescue us.

Really, it was humorously awkward. Only one of the guys, whose name might have been Jake, spoke English. Kudos to Jaclyn for keeping the conversation up. Everyone else gathered around and stared. I tried to ask them about dwendes but I think they interpreted my questions as being disbelieving rather than curious.

Allison eventually went to bed, leaving Jaclyn and I there. I bet if we had playing cards it would’ve been a wild night. Instead, it ended with us finishing our drinks and going to bed.

But hey. For ladies who’d been up since 7am island hopping, swimming against currents, getting stung by jellyfish, and belting out karaoke until 10pm, I think we did pretty well.


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