David Whitley finds Lake Taal in the Philippines far more appealing once he tackles things his own way


The wooden slat on the boat creaks as I step on it. This is not an altogether encouraging sign. It’s not a lake I’m particularly keen on falling into, for a start. The unfortunate Filipino penchant for treating the world as one giant bin sees all manner of discarded goodies lapping up on the shore, with a few dead fish thrown in for good measure.


This, of course, would suggest that Lake Taal is a repulsive grotfest. It is not. Gloss over the water quality – you don’t come here to swim anyway – and it has an extraordinary beauty. A couple of hours drive south of Manila, the lake lies inside a large volcanic crater. It was once attached to the sea by a small channel, but volcanic activity over the last 200 to 300 years has seen the channel close and the lake slowly turn from saltwater to freshwater. Inside it are scores of little islets, the main one of which is a volcano in itself. So that’s a volcano within a lake within a volcano. And it’s our target.


The only way to the island is on a bangka, which is essentially a motorised version of an outrigger canoe. They have bizarre high ends that look make the bangkas look a little like upturned Mandarin moustaches, and they’re what the local fishermen ply their trade in. But when they’re not fishing, these chaps will happily ferry tourists across to the island for the requisite number of pesos. It’s a surprisingly choppy half hour voyage, but there’s no shortage of people at the other end willing to greet the hardy sailors.


For the small community that lives on the island, forever in danger of being made homeless if the volcano starts getting too feisty again, income sources are few. Hence the queue of guides wanting to escort visitors to the main crater and the sad-looking horses that trundle up and down there.  I want to walk it, but I don’t know where the track is or how long it will take. “It’s a long way,” I’m told. “It will take too long.”


I’m eventually cajoled into taking the horse and guide. It’s not that I object to paying to visit; I just want to pay and do it my own way; in relative peace. As it happens, the walk would have taken 45 minutes to a hour – just right as far as I’m concerned, even if it does involve getting a bit sweaty as I lumber up the hill. Instead, I find myself on top of a poor beast that’s probably too small to happily carry me. What should be a joyful experience is a saddening, shame-inducing one.


At the top, men with golf clubs are offering visitors the chance to hit a golf ball into the crater lake. Yep, that’s right, there’s a lake inside a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano. And there’s another island in the middle of that (albeit not a volcano). It’s all very Russian dolls. But it is absolutely gorgeous. From the crater rim, the view extends for miles around; the crumpled green landscape of south-west Luzon Island has seductive dips and curves, filled with palm trees and pineapple plants, studded around the edges by yet more soaring volcanoes.


I say goodbye to the horse for the walk back down. It’s much easier to take everything in and see how the island is essentially in the centre of a grand natural arena. I slow down to absorb it as horses and riders hurry past. It’s a pretty special part of the world; well worth running the bangka gauntlet for.


10 things to do


Wander around the main sights of Tokyo or Kyoto and it’s obvious that Japan is a major tourist destination for millions of visitors from around the world. Yet venture beyond these two cities and you can easily travel for several days without meeting another foreigner. With so many itineraries just focussing on places in and areas Tokyo and Kyoto it’s very easy to lose the crowds and enjoy some of Japan’s best experiences pretty much to yourself. Here are 10 ideas for seeing some of Japan’s best places:


1. See one of Japan’s three most scenic spots 
A short hop by ferry from Hiroshima, Miyajima is home to the Itsukushima Shrine and its famous O-Torii gate which appears to be floating on the sea at high tide. It is very popular with Japanese day-trippers but you can soon lose the crowds by hiking to the top of Mount Misen, the island’s peak. There is a vending machine at the summit. 


2. Stare into a volcanic crater
Around three hours north of Tokyo, this winter ski resort becomes a sleepy spa town in the summer months and is a great base for hiking in the surrounding hills. Take the ropeway (cable car) to the top and head for the emerald green Okama volcanic crater lake.  The open air baths above the town are a perfect treat after a day on the hilltops.


3. Enjoy a traditional British afternoon tea
Hakodate became a hugely important city in the mid-19th century when it developed as an international trading port soon after Japan abandoned its policy of isolation from the rest of the world. Now you can wander around the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal churches remaining from that period, while the old British consulate serves cream teas and stocks a range of Paddington Bear toys and highly authentic Union Jack memorabilia. 


4. See bears and whales on a single boat trip
It’s a long slog to get up to the Shiretoko Peninsula on the north-east of Hokkaido but it’s an effort that’s richly rewarded with some stunning scenery. There are many walking trails and you can take a boat trip where within a couple of hours (if you’re lucky) you’ll spot black bears and sperm whales. 


5. Visit a Japanese castle
There are plenty to choose from and they offer a completely different experience from the traditional European stone fortress. Most of Japan’s castles were damaged by war or fire with only a handful of originals still standing. One of the finest reconstructions is Kumamoto Castle in Kyushu, boasting great views from its tower and one of the most impressive castle interiors in the country. 


6. Soak in a hot spring
Japanese people take their onsen (hot spring baths) very seriously. There are over a thousand around the country and many traditional guest houses will have a pool for their guests’ private use. No swimming costumes are allowed in an onsen and you need to wash thoroughly before coming anywhere near the communal pool. One of the finest traditional bathhouses is found at Dogo Onsen near Matsuyama. 


7. Get buried in hot sand
Another take on the onsen, this time you dress in a gown and lie on the hot sand before eager staff shovel generous piles of hot sand onto you. The most popular place to try this unusual treatment is at Ibusuki, near the southern city of Kagoshima. You need a good shower after you emerge from the sand to avoid an uncomfortable trip back to town on the train. 


8. See some of the world’s biggest whirlpools
Twice a day near Naruto the tide sends water rushing through the narrow strait that separates the Inland Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Giant whirlpools are formed around the base of the suspension bridge that crosses the straits. Head onto the bridge and stare through the glass floor at the whirlpools below. You’ll need to check peak viewing times before you go as for much of the day there is nothing to see.


9. Visit a Ninja temple
Head over to the north coast of Honshu and the city of Kanazawa, famous for having one of Japan’s finest gardens. It is also home to Myoryu-ji, better known as the ‘Ninja Dera’ temple. Visits are only by guided tour and you will find secret trap doors, false walls, hidden staircases and even a room with no exit (the suicide room). 


10. See Japan’s largest Buddha

While in Kyoto take a day trip to nearby Nara, the ancient Japanese capital. Here you’ll find temples galore, including Todai-ji which holds Japan’s largest Buddha figure. It’s one of the few temples where you can take pictures inside, although you’re not allowed to use the tripod required to get a decent shot of the dimly lit Buddha.