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Serenity on the sand

Island-hopping in the Philippines offers experiences as varied as wondrous Panglao, rollicking Baracay and secluded Palawan and as breathtaking as the white sand beaches of all three.

The tiny catamaran plugged along through the South China Sea as I saw a 10-foot wave heading toward us. Our diminutive boatman skillfully slowed, letting the wave crash harmlessly in front of our bow. Those headlines of hundreds dying in ferry disasters in these waters disappeared for another few minutes.

Funny how safe you feel when your catamaran, a bankga in the Philippines, lands on a tiny uninhabited island lined with limestone cliffs and palm trees and ringed with golden sand and coral reefs. Yet from the news coming out of this beautiful seafaring nation of 7,000 islands, it appears moving from island to island is like moving through a shark tank.

"Every time there's publicity about the Philippines, it's negative," said Resty Adams, a bar owner on the needle-shaped island of Palawan. "Ferry disasters, the economy going down, the mountain of garbage in Manila."

I had read of the latest ferry sinking while at home in Denver about a year ago, packing for a monthlong island-hopping excursion. Turns out, there was no need to worry. What you need is patience. Piecing together a first-time Philippines vacation is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without seeing any of the pieces.

Of its 7,000 islands, about 5,000 are uninhabitable. That leaves you weaving through Web sites, guide books, Internet message boards and Manila travel bureaus searching for three or four islands suiting your needs.

As a scuba diver and a lifelong beachcomber, I settled on three: Panglao, a speck of a beach-ringed island attached by bridge to Bohol in the south; Boracay, a rollicking party island with the world-famous 5-mile White Sand Beach; and Palawan, where dozens of uninhabited, gorgeous islands that have starred on many a travel poster are a short catamaran ride from shore.

The Philippine Islands are not easy to reach from the United States. Northwest is the only American carrier flying into Manila, and Philippine Airlines is the only other airline flying direct from the United States.

Using Singapore Airlines, I flew from San Francisco to Singapore to Manila, landing at 8 p.m., an eye-blurring 36 hours (including layovers) later. Forget rest. I had a flight to Bohol at 5:30 a.m.

But the beauty of island-hopping in the Philippines is the country has four competitive domestic carriers plus the international Philippines Airlines. Reservations are only needed during holidays, and, even then, changes can be made without charge up to the day before the flight.

The ugly part of island hopping is you must use Manila as a base. The capital is a crowded, steaming American imitation of 12-million people living in pollution so thick the growing skyline is a mere rumor when seen from the airport.

The U.S. military had a presence in the Philippines for nearly 50 years, finally leaving in 1992. They left a lot behind. I went to bed with my ears ringing from Achy Breaky Heart played by an outdoor band down the street and the pre-New Year's rockets, which I learned later would cause 30 deaths in the Manila area.

Welcome to the Philippines.

I arrived at Manila's domestic airport with a reservation, thankfully. During holidays, folks in Manila do the sensible thing. They get out of Manila. And at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1999, Filipinos and some of the thousands of expatriates jammed a departure area the size of a high school cafeteria.

However, after my two-hour, $129, round-trip flight, a short van ride got me to the airy wooden lobby of the Bohol Beach Club. Finally, after 2{ days of travel, I had found bliss.

I checked into a large bamboo-thatched bungalow where a long string of palm trees swayed just a few feet from my door. Just beyond, a glistening ocean lined with fine white sand beckoned under a cloudless sky and 85-degree weather.

I rolled out my straw mat, looked around and saw that I was the only person on the beach. It was the day before the end of the most hyped New Year's in 1,000 years, and I was the only person on one of the world's greatest beaches. All this for only $80 a night.

In the evenings, I grazed at huge buffets of Filipino cuisine, ranging from the national dishes of adabo (chicken or pork ladled in soy, vinegar and garlic) and lechon (suckling pig) to fresh fish with various sauces and pasta.

Rum and Cokes made from the Philippines' excellent Tanduay rum sell for $1, and about $13 will give you a meal at a four-star resort that would cost a night's lodging in the Caribbean.

I took a 20-minute trip down the beach to the village of Alona via the Philippine islands' chief mode of transportation: the tricycle. It's basically a 100CC motorcycle attached to a small one- or two-seat cab with a tin roof so low you'll bend over as if in prayer every time you sit down.

But it is only $4 round trip, and I quickly learned that I was sleeping in the Philippines' high-rent district. Alona guesthouses with porches just a few yards from the lapping surf ranged from $20-$30. I had a meal of pork, rice, fruit salad and a fresh banana milk shake for $6. Dinner and a long evening at the Safety Stop, one of the many diving hangouts on the beach, cost me all of about $10.

Two Canadian couples and I hired a driver for $18 and, with the Eagles playing on the tape deck, we cruised through southern Bohol to one of the planet's true geological oddities. After an hour's drive through lush plantations and past shirtless boys playing basketball with netless hoops, we came across a vast plain. There we climbed a long, steep staircase and took in a panoramic view: As far as we could see were huge, green mounds rising up to 150 feet.

The official count is 1,268, making the island look as if it had the world's worst case of geological acne.

These are the Chocolate Hills, so named for the brown mound appearance they get in the dry summer. Some geologists believe that Bohol was underwater during prehistoric times and that volcanic eruptions caused the bottom of the sea to rise. Water eventually smoothed and rounded the formations.

It was all too bizarre. I needed a beach. In the Philippines, that's never more than a few minutes away.

Boracay is a sliver of sand a short swim away from Panay, a square island smack dab in the middle of the Philippines. My stopover in Manila was mercifully brief, and an hour flight brought me to a beach where a young, well-groomed man with a Willy's Beach Club T-shirt greeted me and put me on Willy's exclusive catamaran.

Dangerous? A hassle? So far, traveling in the Philippines had been an inexpensive door-to-door delight. A public boat will travel the 30-minute ride from Panay to Boracay for about 50 cents.

My catamaran cruised up the length of Boracay, home of what must be the world's longest palm tree-lined beach. From the southern tip to the northern tip, fine white sand and palm trees snaked up the coast nearly unbroken. A comely Filipina woman in native garb greeted me with fresh mango juice as I left the boat.

I checked into another economic marvel of the Third World. My spacious room at Willy's had a king-sized bed, refrigerator, TV with HBO and a balcony overlooking palm trees, the beach and some of the best sunsets in Asia for only $70 a night.

It gets cheaper. Much cheaper. Guest houses on the beach run as low as $10. And nothing is cheaper than what seems to fuel this country: Tanduay rum. It's cheaper than soft drinks, cheaper than fruit juice. After a while, it seems cheaper than air. All over Boracay, it's $1 a glass, and two-for-one happy hours last from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Indeed, that's a major reason why Boracay attracts 180,000 tourists a year. The island is one long bar crawl. White Sand Beach stretches five miles with nearly wall-to-wall bars, resorts, souvenir shops, restaurants, discos and dive shops. However, the palm trees give it a definite island flavor and hide the commercialism from the superb water.

It is the bright turquoise I saw in Tahiti, the kind that seems transparent. Coral reefs packed with tropical fish no more than 100 yards offshore ring the island, and during the summer months, visibility for scuba diving and snorkeling is up to 100 feet. Workers sweep pebbles off the beach every morning.

I spent many a happy hour at Charls, a bamboo-thatched hut on the beach where people swill rum and where ex-pats with their Filipina wives or girlfriends hold hands in plastic chairs while watching the sun set on the Tablas Strait.

After dark, the crawl continues to Moondog's. Want a souvenir T-shirt? No problem. Just sidle up to the bar and drink (get this) 15 different shots. That earns you one T-shirt and a notch on Moondog's international scoreboard of debauchery on one wall.

On one quiet, hot afternoon, I sat with Moondog's owner John Munro. His story is like those of many of the ex-pats living in the Philippines. The former Vancouver, British Columbia, stockbroker was in Bali on an around-the-world trip in 1986 and heard the sunsets were even better in the Philippines. He arrived, met a woman and never left.

Now 35, tall, husky and happy, he does not miss Canada.

I asked about Boracay's growth, and he said that when he arrived, the island had only 5,000 people _ a third of today's total _ and it had no electricity. Everything was run by generators.

"It was quite beautiful," said Munro, sipping a fruit juice. "There were lamps at night all over the beach. It was very romantic."

According to Willy's general manager Bebot Gadon, 60 percent of the businesses are foreign-owned.

Boracay "grew too fast," said Gadon, a native. "People didn't adjust."

Palawan, about 300 miles long and just a short jog wide, may be the jewel of the Philippines' long necklace of islands: colorful native tribes in the south, a fascinating underground river in the central and those Siren-like offshore islands in the north.

Upon landing from Manila, a van drove six of us through lush mango plantations and jungle to the beach village of Sabang, where we embarked on the eeriest boat ride I've ever taken.

A long, narrow rowboat quietly slipped inside a cave and kept going. And going. And going.

Called St. Paul Cave, it snakes through limestone cliffs for more than five miles. Powerful lamps illuminated mysterious life-like wall formations and stalactites resembling everything from lion heads to angels. What was real-life were bats, thousands of them, hanging from the roof above us.

They weren't the only wildlife. Afterward, we sat around a clearing near the beach awaiting lunch when out of the jungle came a 6-foot monitor lizard, looking green and scaly and very much like something out of Jurassic Park. They are harmless to humans, however, and are used to picnickers here. They seemed to even pose for pictures.

Palawan is so much better in the sunlight. A half-hour, $37 flight from the island capital of Puerto Princessa carried me to El Nido, an idyllic village of dirt roads, lush farmlands and neat houses, surrounded by limestone cliffs covered in palm trees. Two laid-back beach bars attract everyone from backpackers to yachtsmen.

Enrico Sulayao, our tiny 38-year-old boatsman who insisted on being called "Boy," charged all of 800 pesos for the day.

Motoring from island to island, exploring isolated bays and secluded coves, I traveled with a Danish couple, a Filipino actor and his Australian wife, also an actor, and a Dutchman. On Matinloc Island, we swam through a tiny opening in the limestone to find a crystal clear pool surrounded by black cliffs and palm trees. On Tapuitan Island, two spotless, golden-sand beaches were separated by a 30-foot path where two cats patrolled, living off fish scraps from boatsmen.

As we snorkeled around huge schools of fish, including barracuda and squid, Boy took a crude homemade spear and dove into the clear blue water. Thirty minutes later, he came ashore carrying six fish, one for each of his passengers. Few scenes define the glory of Third World travel more than eating freshly cooked fish and the world's best mangos at a beautiful beach on an uninhabited island under cloudless skies.

Then again, maybe it's this: I flew home with more than just a deep tan. I also flew home with nearly half my money left.

If you go

Domestic airlines Air Philippines, Asian Spirit, Cebu Pacific and SeAir, plus the international Philippine Airlines, fly to 36 destinations around the country. Charter companies fly to specific resorts.

If one plane has too few passengers, you'll be bumped to a later flight with more. Schedules change frequently, but a vacation can be organized from home on a travel agency's Web site.

Boats are an even cheaper way to travel. The Philippines' greatest secret is its fleet of classy, high-speed hydrofoils at a slightly more expensive price than the overcrowded ferry boats.

Super Ferry, one of four high-speed boat companies, takes 18 hours to travel from Manila to Cebu, about 400 miles away, and costs between 350 and 1,500 pesos one way, depending on the type of seat. The slow-moving ferries take 24 hours.

Do not take the slow ferries. The dangers are not exaggerated. Filipinos told me they often walk off when they see boats get overcrowded.

But the boat that carried me precariously to those quaint islands off Palawan in my final days in the country carried all of eight people.

Writer John Henderson lives in Denver.