The Philippines is, first and foremost, my beautiful home: I feel so lucky to have roots in an archipelago of more than 7000 islands with crystalline beaches, chaotic megacities, lush forests and tropical provinces. My last proper homecoming was in 2019, before lockdowns kept me from my grandparents, baby cousins, aunts and uncles for three years.
This forced time apart happened in my early twenties, when I realised how much I missed being around my family and culture; one that’s joyful and spirited and deeply family-oriented, a little (or very) overwhelming at times but always full of chaotic love. My little cousins were growing up, and I wanted to make simple but beautiful memories with them – the same ones I had as a child, like getting merienda (afternoon tea) after school and playing with my grandma’s makeup together. I’ve been to the Philippines plenty of times before, and there are so many new countries I'm yet to visit – but they’ll always be around, while my family will inevitably grow and change.
After dedicating my first post-Covid trips to two months in Mexico and six weeks in southern Europe, I knew it was time to come home.
Where did you go?
I went to Manila (the gritty capital city where my family’s from) and Coron (one of the Philippines’ many gorgeous islands), and spent a long weekend in Hong Kong (specifically the peaceful fishing village of Sai Kung).
Are you a big planner?
Absolutely! But I think I’d describe myself better as "prepared" instead of "planned". I don’t plan things to the minute, e.g. at 3pm we go shopping then at 5.15pm we eat dinner at X restaurant, but I will always have a list of eateries, activities and places ready to go when I need them. Then I’ll make more concrete decisions depending on what I feel like doing on the day.
What is your ethos around travel?
I believe it’s important to remember that, despite having the privilege to pay for luxuries and experiences abroad, I’m still a guest in the country I’m visiting – so I should act accordingly. This means making an effort to use the language, research respectful etiquette before arriving, and put in the effort to ensure I’m supporting my hosts – the locals – as much as possible. In the Philippines, this could involve researching and prioritising locally-owned accommodation and restaurants, buying from sari-sari stores (small, local merchants) instead of large chain convenience stores, and tipping well.
You've travelled to the Philippines before. What was different this time around?
As I’m originally from the Philippines and still have extended family there, I usually visit with my parents – which means still taking on the role of a child and following their (often strict) itinerary and budget. Every trip before this one felt like it was taken in my childhood, where I was still navigating the duality of my Filipino and Australian self. I never thought to visit the Philippines myself; that was always a ‘family trip’, one that I wasn’t interested in planning or researching on my own.
This time, I came with a stronger, more mature sense of cultural and familial pride, taking full responsibility for everything: choosing to prioritise family time in Manila over island hopping, taking my grandparents on a remote island holiday, learning Filipino recipes, and bonding with my cousins as the big adult Ate Cheyenne they only ever see through Facebook video chat.
Where did you stay? Do you have a favourite hotel or property?
In Coron, we stayed at Rock Island Eres Bella, a tiny private island owned by a local Coronian. My grandparents and I had the whole island to ourselves in all its rustic splendour: sparkling blue waters, a coral reef perfect for snorkelling right by the shore, sugary white sand, and gentle waves that lulled us to sleep every evening. It was around $400 AUD per night, with extra but reasonable fees for meals and add-on services (like getting a massage therapist to come to the island). I’d recommend it in a heartbeat for any families or groups wanting the experience of having their own private island without breaking the bank. They literally have everything you need; from kayaks and snorkelling gear to a karaoke machine and a local tattoo artist who they can bring to the island.
Rock Island is also completely serviced by the friendliest team of staff, including the talented Chef Bryant who made us delicious Filipino dishes using local ingredients. We became close friends – he kindly gave me cooking classes every evening upon request, and I learned traditional recipes such as ensaladang talong (a zesty grilled eggplant salad with tomatoes and onions), sinigang (tamarind and pork soup) and lumpia (Filipino-style spring rolls).
When in Manila, I stay at my grandparents’ house (which is also my childhood home) in Quezon City. But if I had to choose a hotel, I’d go to The Peninsula Manila. It has an amazing buffet restaurant called Escolta, where you can try elevated Filipino fare and international classics, and a spa where you can get a traditional Filipino hilot massage using warmed banana leaves and coconut and lemongrass oils.
Is there a song or album that soundtracked your trip?
I am very sentimental, so my homecomings are always soundtracked by OPM (Original Pinoy Music) – which initially referred to Filipino pop ballads from the 70s-80s, but now encompasses any music created and performed by Filipino artists. It hits differently when I listen to it at home! My favourites include Pasilyo by SunKissed Lola, Dalagang Pilipina by Conscious & The Goodness and Awitin Mo, Isasayaw Ko by VST & Company.
When I wasn’t listening to OPM, I had Orquídeas, the new Kali Uchis album on repeat. There’s something about listening to lush, sensual ballads that lean into Uchis’ heritage while exploring my own in my home country.
What was the best thing you ate?
We had an incredible seafood spread during one of our nights at Rock Island, with the biggest, juiciest steamed crabs caught just a few hours before we ate them. They were dipped in melted calamansi butter, kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) with raw tuna cured in vinegar and calamansi with chillies, onions and tomatoes, grilled tuna steaks, and rice. I’ve never had seafood so fresh – a local fisherman would come to the island every morning and show us his catch of the day, and the island chef would invite me to pick out what we’d like for lunch and dinner.
What’s your perfect travel outfit?
I only do carry-on for all my overseas trips, which are often to warm destinations, so my perfect travel outfit is comfortable, breathable and versatile in different environments. I love a long midi dress; I like to pair an early GANNI Puff Sleeve style with a classic sneaker like black adidas Gazelles and the ubiquitous Uniqlo Nylon Cross Body Bag to store my essentials. I can switch to heels or sandals to dress it up, or even add leggings and a singlet underneath if I want to layer for cooler weather. Finally, I try to make up for the simple outfit with lots of accessories, like my collection of silver rings, bracelets and layers of earrings.
Did you take any books with you? What were they?
I’ve been converted to a Kindle reader. It’s an essential for me as I only bring carry-on luggage. I read I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, and I also nurtured my 13-year-old self and read the Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. My inner child was very happy and my adult ego came out unscathed, as it was a genuinely well-written and captivating book.
What three things will you always have in your bag when you travel?
A big bottle of water – I don’t know how people go without one, my film camera, and duct tape to hold my camera together when it occasionally breaks apart (I really need to buy a new one…)
What are your travel beauty essentials?
My beauty essentials are simple but very skin-focused, as travelling can often stress the skin (new humidity levels, increased sun exposure, changing water quality, dry air on the plane, etc).
My bag will always have Frezyderm’s Velvet Sunscreen (it’s waterproof and feels like a light, smooth primer rather than thick sunscreen), the Mesoestetic Hydra-Vital Factor K moisturiser (a must for dry skin), Cetaphil cleanser and oil blotting papers.
My makeup staples are Fenty Beauty Gloss Bomb in Hot Chocolit, Brow Guru by Mecca Max, and K-Palette’s Eyebrow Tint Pen. You can buy a lot of simple, natural makeup products from southeast Asian and Korean brands in the Philippines, so I always check them out at pharmacies like Watsons when I visit.
Do you have any advice for people looking to visit the Philippines?
Yes – almost too many to write out here! I’ll focus on locations, logistics, food and etiquette.
The initial Google search will suggest so many amazing places that it will be overwhelming to choose where to go. A lot of sources immediately suggest the classic Boracay, but it’s also become quite touristy and expensive. I’d suggest looking at other places like Bohol and Siquijor (for lush forests and pristine beaches), Coron (for snorkelling and diving), Balabac Island (for off-the-beaten track beaches and untouched waters), Siargao (for surfing and partying), Vigan and Iloilo (for historical and cultural cityscapes), and Banaue (for emerald rice terraces).
When planning your itinerary, don’t underestimate the time it takes to go from one island to the other. The Philippines often runs on "island time": ferries and flights can have inconsistent delays, so be flexible and agile in arranging trips, always factor in a day for transit, and try to book your transport early as the limited options quickly fill up. As for finances, cash is essential – ATMs and card machines aren’t always easily available on islands, especially with small convenience stores, merchants and transport services.
Don’t leave without trying a traditional Boodle fight or ‘kamayan’ feast, a communal meal of rice, seafood, vegetables, meat and fruit artfully arranged on a long banana leaf – you eat with your hands and share it with other diners. To find one near you, just Google the nearest eatery offering boodle fights – or ask a local!
When speaking to locals and older Filipinos, adding ‘po’ at the end of basic greetings and sentences is an appreciated sign of respect. For example, saying ‘hello po’, ‘yes po’, ‘no po’, ‘salamat po’ (thank you) and ‘magandang hapon po’ (good afternoon). It’s a simple but meaningful way to respectfully engage with Filipinos, who are renowned for being welcoming and friendly to tourists.
What spot is next on your radar?
I’ve been dreaming about Brazil for a few years now. It seems so beautiful, vibrant and diverse, with everything I want from a tropical summer (jungles, beaches and city). I also find Brazilian cuisine interesting as it’s influenced by Indigenous, Portuguese, African, Asian and South American flavours, and would love to immerse myself in Brazil’s gastronomy.