A few months ago my sister-in-law asked me if I might be interested in a trip to the Philippines. Being an adventurer, it took me about 2 seconds (maybe less) to decide that a trip to the Philippines is something that I would definitely be interested in. I thought I should probably check it out with my husband first before confirming. Luckily he knows about my itchy feet and that I need to see new places on a regular basis and agreed that it would be an amazing experience. We also felt it would be a great learning experience for our son, so I brought him along with me. We did things that are great for adults, for kids, and for anyone looking for a bit of fun!
We were there for 2 weeks and we did SO much that my original blog post was getting obscenely long. I decided to break it up into parts to make it more manageable. Part 1 is going to cover Manila, Subic Bay, Olongapo & Tagaytay as well as getting around the Philippines (which is up first!). Part 2 will cover our time in Baguio and Food and Markets. It was a ton of fun and we loved every minute! Let’s get started!
Traveling with Kids in the Philippines
My husband and I decided that taking our son out of school for 2 weeks since he would be attending the “school of life” was worth it and his teachers agreed. We collected all of the work he was required to do and he kept a journal of his time which helped practice his handwriting and reminded him of his adventures for the presentation he had to give to his class when we returned.
This trip wasn’t all about the beach. The main focus of our trip was meeting my sister-in-law’s family. Her mom is originally from the Philippines and her whole family still lives there. I felt so honored to be invited, yet a bit nervous. Nervous to meet the family (this was completely unfounded though and I feel like I am family now). Nervous for our safety (the Philippines doesn’t have the safest track record and several of the islands are on the US Embassy’s “do not travel to” list due to kidnapping for ransom situations). Nervous about traveling with my son and without my husband. As a woman, I feel like I can take care of myself while traveling. I have done enough of it and I have handled some tough and scary situations. Throw my kid into the mix and I get nervous about everything, especially due to his love of hiding and jumping out at you. The way we traveled really made me feel safe though.
The beauty of the Philippines is that the majority of the people are absolutely wonderful (there are a few bad eggs, but show me a place where that doesn’t exist!). There is a show of respect across age groups. Family units are tightly woven networks. The people watch out for each other, especially children, even if they are not their’s. I saw examples of this with our family and I saw it with strangers (allowing the young kids to use the bathroom first, letting children get food first, letting women with children go first, cars actually slowing so children could get across the road which they don’t do for adults). We did keep a close eye on my guy though. Unless we felt really comfortable at a place he did not have the same freedoms of wandering around as he does at home. But this is something we do whenever we travel. We stick together.
Traffic is a way of life in the Philippines, but especially in Manila. It is heavy and drive times can fluctuate greatly depending on the time of day you are trying to get around. One of the safest by far is having a private driver. We were really lucky because our Uncle has a transport business and he drove us nearly everywhere. Some of my other uncles travel to the Philippines every year on a diving trip (and also for business) and they always hire a private driver similar to our Uncle. This is the safest way to go here because they will keep you out of dangerous situations and can help in many other ways. Plus they often have A/C, which means you can keep windows closed and some of the exhaust out. If there are a few people traveling together, this is a great way to go too because of shared cost. The cars are well maintained and the drivers are very reliable.
Other than private car, my son saw several modes of transport. Two were so different than what we have in America. They have two really unique modes special to the Philippines: the Jeepney and the Tricycle.
The Tricycle is a small motorcycle with a side car. There are lots of them buzzing all over town and they take you door to door. These are handy for getting into some tighter parts of town where other modes of transport can’t go but are a bit more expensive than a Jeepney. Tricycles can also be privately owned, so if it says “private” it isn’t for hire. Many cities have them color-coded so you know they are available to transport you. In some places, this is the only mode of transport. The Tricycle was a definite favorite of my son’s and he would take any tricycle ride he was offered (by family)!
The Jeepney is similar to a bus for us, but is much smaller and the style of the bus is specific to the Philippines. People get on and off at certain points in town, and in Olongapo for instance, they are color-coded based on the routes they drive (all of the cities we visited had them, but we only noticed the color-coding in Olongapo). The trip cost is based on where you are going and the driver will make change (money is handed up and then handed back by other riders). Sometimes you see driver’s hands wrapped in money he is collecting and changing out! During Rush Hour people hang off the back and sitting up front with the drivers if there isn’t enough room inside. They can get really packed. This is a very common way for people to get around.
Buses are a very common way for people to get from city to city. In Manila we saw city buses packed to the gills, and I don’t feel like we would have done very well on them. The trips between cities are owned by different companies that are specific to these routes. Like our Greyhounds for example, which I would have felt more comfortable on, especially traveling with my son. I am told they are a very nice way to get around, although much slower than the car ride. Our extended family took the bus to Baguio to meet us and said the trip was very comfortable, but t took them around 6 hours. Our drive was around 4. The buses often have wi-fi now and A/C so that helps with the longer trips, especially on their hot days!
Activities with Kids
We were super lucky because some of our family in the Philippines have kids that are close in age to my son, and they made some great suggestions of things to do with him.
Kidzania Manila is an amazing place where the entire world is scaled down to “kid-size” and run by kids (sort of!). The whole place is sponsored by real world businesses where kids can go in and “work” for 20 minutes and earn Kidz Bucks (which they can later use to buy souvenirs at one of the stores). We went on our second day in Manila so we were familiar with some of the different businesses we saw. As we traveled around, we were able to point out the different locations and knew what to look for – like a pharmacy for instance after spending time at Kidzania. Like the real world, it has a working transportation and currency system and kids get to pick where they want to “work”. They go into the “business” and the trainers put them in uniforms and explain what they get to do. Jobs range from fire fighters and paramedics to making hamburgers at McDonalds, being a flight attendant or pilot to working at a Holiday Inn, from farming and baking cookies and bread to working at grocery stores. Parents are not allowed in to the trainings – the kids have to go in on their own and do everything themselves, which I really loved. It created a huge sense of pride and empowerment, which was felt all over Kidzania. My son did check me into my room for the night at the Holiday Inn though, so there are times where they get to try their new skills out with mom or dad. Kids are given scripts to read to make their “job” a little easier too. I have to say, it looked like way too much fun to be involved in and I was wishing I could do it too. At the end of our session (there are 2 sessions each day), all of the trainers sang and lead a parade that brought the kids to the exit and they waved good bye and even remembered some of the kids names. It was an incredible experience. One of the coolest things for us was that nearly the entire experience was done in English. Starting in the first grade, all classes in the Philippines (except Tagalog) are taught in English which means the population of the Philippines are excellent English speakers. Many of the kids at Kidzania were there on school field trips. That made the experience extra special for our guy because he understood everything and was able to hang out with local kids. There are several locations world wide, and we will look for them in countries where we decide to travel to in the future. This was something our guy talked about for the rest of the trip and it is great for kids aged 4-14!
Fort Santiago and the Old Spanish Walls (Manila)
Manila has a long, rich, and turbulent history. You can see that in between all of the new development and the shanty towns around the city. There is a particularly old part of the city where you can view the old Spanish fort and the walls that surrounded the the whole of the city of Manila before it expanded. Fort Santiago has beautiful gardens and tall brick walls, water ways and dungeons. This is an important historic location for so many reasons, not only important during the Spanish Occupation, but during the American Occupation and WWII, many people lived their last days here. The most famous being the Philippine’s National Hero, Jose Rizal. There is a museum/shrine in the Fort, devoted to the man who was a doctor, poet, naturalist, world explorer and nationalist who was accused by the Spanish Ruled government of starting the revolution in 1896. He never actually helped with the planning or fighting, but his writings encouraged change in the way the Philippines was being ruled and ultimately he paid the price despite a hard fight to stay alive. He went to trial and was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1896. He was held prisoner at the Fort during his trial and his footsteps, replicated in bronze, have been placed through the Fort, along the path he walked to his death. This was a very humbling place to visit and gave us a better sense of the history of the Philippines, Manila, and the Fort.
A few other historic places nearby include the Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Church (the oldest church in Manila), and Barbara’s which gave us an amazing lunch (in an old converted Spanish home). We were even serenaded while we ate there. It was incredible!
Ocean Adventure (Subic Bay)
We needed a good ‘kid day’ and there are some great options involving animals near Subic Bay/Olongapo. The kid in all of us decided a trip to Ocean Adventure was something we needed to do. The park is on a smaller scale compared to our American parks, but it feels like and appears animals are well cared for and loved, and the park is very welcoming to everyone. There are various shows with a strong message of conservation and learning about the animals that share the world with us. Every show taught the audience so much about the various animals that were in the park’s care, from blind sea lions to dolphins who were rehabbing due to various injuries. There were even shows with people performing acrobatic acts and you could enjoy some time in the Fish Spa. My favorite show was the Rain-forest Animals Show which highlighted many of the animals that could be found in the Philippines. I wasn’t a huge fan of their snake joke (I am not very comfortable with snakes…trying to over come that!), but the show was really well done and so informative.We were there with several school groups and all shows were done in English, which was fantastic for all of us.
None of us had spent time swimming with a dolphin, so this is something we decided we would experience here. Ocean Adventure offers a “Swimming with Dolphins”session which we found to be really enjoyable and educational. This was my son’s favorite thing we did on the trip. We were a group of 5 and spent 30 minutes with one of the dolphin trainers and our new friend Enzo, learning all about dolphins, their anatomy, facts about their skin (they shed a layer of skin every 2 hours!), and about their social habits. We got time to touch Enzo, see many of his special tricks and he took each of us for 2 rides. After our time with Enzo and our new trainer friend, they took us to some showers so we could get cleaned up before enjoying the rest of our day at the park.
One last thing, the cafe at the park is amazing when it comes to food. It isn’t like America with burgers and such (although there is grilled cheese). They do family style Filipino meals that are delicious and feel so much healthier than our usual fare. Definitely check them out!
Beach Time (Subic Bay and Candelaria)!
The Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands, so there is really so much to see and a lot of beaches to visit. Each island is different, has it’s own personality, and has special traits or points of interest you will want to check out. Even though beach time is one of the main reasons many people come to the the Philippines for, we only went a few times.
You will see various “banana boats” on beaches that can be rented and a “captain” will take you where you like to go. In Subic we took a boat out to Isla de Guilio for some swimming in clear waters. It was beautiful and warm. There was a small fee for us to come and enjoy the area, but it helps the care takers take care of the island. Make sure you bring some beach shoes that can get wet to protect feet. We saw some broken glass and some very sharp rocks, so shoes that can get wet and sandy are important to keep the fun going! From there we went to an island called White Castle. There is a small, white castle on a tiny island. It used to be bigger, but storms have had their way with it. Here we had to be careful in the water because there were lots of spiny urchins and we didn’t want to step on them but it made for some amazing photo ops!
In Candelaria we took a banana boat out to a small but well known island called Potipot Island (also pictured at the top of this section). Many of the beaches on Luzon Island have dark or black sand beaches, but Potipot has white sand which was very soft and lovely. They call it the “Little Boracay” so if you are like us and are not able to get to the real Boracay, this is a great solution! This is a favorite location for folks up on a long weekend from Manila. The island can get packed, but the day we were there, we felt like the only ones on the island. There is a small fee to use the island also, which include the use of some little huts and tables for food. The island has big trees for lovely shade, and people selling delicious ice cream. My son took out his snorkeling gear and saw several fish swimming around. He loved just being able to float around in the calm, clear, warm waters. If we hadn’t called him in, he would have stayed there all day. Also, on the drive there, we stopped at one of the fruit stands and got some fresh mangas (aka mangoes). They have completely ruined me, and I will never enjoy another I buy in the US! They proved to be the most amazing ‘after swimming snack’. Plus, they are just that delicious! My son ate 1.5 of them and was looking for more. Not to be missed!
Tagaytay City is about a 2 hour drive from Manila, up in the mountains, and it one of the most scenic places you can visit. This is a big tourist destination and a lot of people from Manila go here on holiday or for the weekend to get out of the city. This is a remarkable place because Tagaytay boasts Taal Lake, which is special. There is a lake, inside a volcano, inside a lake (Taal), inside a volcano! You read that right! You can see the evidence of this on clear days and the volcano is still active. The town itself has seen a lot of development with the influx of people coming from Manila, so there are lots of new buildings going up. It is at a higher altitude and cooler than the city, which is very appealing, plus the natural beauty will lure anyone!
We spent some time enjoying a coffee with a view at the Starbucks in Tagaytay. They were very friendly, spelled your name right and took great pride in the fact that is the largest Starbucks in the Philippines. It was a little hazy the day we were there, but on clear days you can see for miles!
After we re-caffeinated we headed down to a beautiful hotel called the Taal Vista Hotel. We parked and walked around for a while, enjoying the views and learning about the landscape. My son was especially interested in the Sky Fun Amusement Park next door. Maybe next time we will have a chance to check it out. We explored a bit of town, and then headed to this out of the way, blink and you miss it restaurant called Antonios.
Our friends found the recommendation and after driving down tight little roads, past farms and stray dogs we found the gate and were let in. It was an amazing set of grounds and the building looked as though it was an old converted Spanish home. We learned Antonio built the place from scratch, using old materials to give it the elegant old Spanish feel. Lunch was a 5 course affair for adults (3 for kids), and we came away with such happy, full bellies. It was really delicious. After lunch we decided to take some time to walk the grounds before getting back in the car. It is such a peaceful location and you feel like you have been transported to another world. The lunch is probably the most expensive meal we had in the Philippines, but the food and experience of it is one we will remember for a life time.
Up next is Part 2: Baguio and Food! Stay tuned!