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holiday hotspots: Fish & dips is just dive-ine; TAKE THE PLUNGE AND HAVE A SCUBA TIME IN THE PHILIPPINES.

Byline: By CHRISTINA PULLAM

WHEN asked if I wanted to go on a diving holiday to the Philippines, I didn't expect it to start in a classroom in central London.

But I soon realised this trip involved more preparation than just the usual shopping for bikinis and suntan lotion.

Diving is serious stuff and I was going to be up close and personal with all types of fish life, including some rather scary and unpredictable sharks.

So before even setting foot on a plane, I spent two days being trained in everything from how to jump in the water to how to avoid decompression sickness - or the bends.

The British Sub Aqua Club theory course left me excited and nervous, and by the time I'd boarded the 15-hour flight to Manila, I was desperate to take the plunge.

After arriving in the beautiful Philippines we were taken to the Sofitel Hotel - a stunning 609-room hotel set on historic Manila Bay.

Manila itself is a place of extremes with shanty towns sitting side-by-side with the affluent districts of Ermita and Malate and colourful street markets just a mile from the third largest shopping mall in the world.

The city also boasts a lot of culture, showing its mixed heritage.

The Philippines' 7,000 islands were once a Spanish colony. They achieved a short-lived independence in 1898, only to be colonised by the US. Total independence was finally gained in 1948.

We got a taste of its historic past on a guided tour, of which the highlight was a visit to Intramuros, a walled city from the Spanish Era filled with beautiful churches and parks.

The next day we set off on the final leg of our journey, a hairy two-hour drive followed by a blissful boat ride to the Atlantis Dive Resort at Sabang Beach on Mindoro island.

The island is the size of Scotland but it's easy to forget this when you're in a private diving paradise with no McDonald's or Starbucks for hundreds of miles.

After checking into our rooms, wewere given all the equipment we'd need. We then had some safety checks before getting on the boat. Before I knew it, I'd taken a backwards roll into the warm, clear water.

At first I was nervous and unsteady - earning me the nickname Puppet On A String.

But with the help of instructor Andrea, I made it to the sea bed for the first of our practical lessons towards the qualification of ocean diver.

Over the next few days, we visited some of the 30 dive sites near Sabang beach such as Dungan Wall and Wreck and Monkey Beach.

Each was home to amazing coral and beautiful fish such as Frogfish, Nudibranchs, Porcupine Pufferfish, Blue Ribbon Eel and Thornback Cowfish.

I shuddered as one of our group spotted the shadow of a Whitetip Reef shark - but the species are harmless and it quickly darted into the depths.

Back on dry land the resort's staff couldn't do enough for us.

They looked after our diving equipment and even carried it to and from the boat.

The food was excellent and the chefs catered for every dietary requirement. To top off the luxury, there was a spa where you can have an hourlong massage for a bargain pounds 8.

Food and drink outside the resort were also cheap and I paid just 65p for a litre of rum to bring home.

If you want a break from the diving, there are many other parts of the island to explore.

Local "jeepney" buses - originally made from US military Jeeps - took us to rainforests and other nearby beaches such as Panaguman for just a few pence.

You can also travel cheaply on water taxis and boats.

On the last day our group took a boat ride to the heavenly Haligi beach.

The white, sandy stretch looked like something out of a movie set and was perfect for swimming and snorkelling.

Lying there on the sand I felt 2,000 leagues away from the drab classroom in London and a million times more relaxed.

Despite my initial nerves I'd been bitten by the diving bug. And as I flew home I couldn't wait to take the plunge again on my next holiday.

FACTFILE: Christina flew to the Philippines, via Kuala Lumpar, with Malaysian Airlines for pounds 500 plus taxes. Call www.malaysiaairlines.com

Prices at the Atlantis Dive Resorts start at pounds 1,018 for 12 nights' on a full-board basis plus 40 dives. Visit www.atlantishotel.com

TOP TIPS

FOR a great introduction to diving check out the BSAC Try Dive Week where you can dive with qualified instructors for pounds 10. Details via www.bsac.com

MAKE sure you do your diving theory before you go otherwise it takes up valuable holiday time. Scuba Hut run regular courses. Call 0845 094 1035.

VISIT the Sudlon National Park, a stunning 696 hectares of woods, with picnic areas and swimming pools.

CAPTION(S):

IN DEEP: A fully kitted-out Christina takes her first dive; COLOUR-PHIL: The beach at Panaguman (main pic) the stunning Atlantis Dive Resort (top), a packed jeepney picks up locals (middle) and a Mandarin fish
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Jul 22, 2007
Words:863
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