When the sun categorically refused to shine here in England back in March*, I decided to take the weather into my own hands and fly away to the tropical Philippines.
While it may not be on your travelling list yet, it definitely should be. Thousands flock to the white sands of Thailand, but the Philippines has just as much to offer, with 7,107 islands to visit.
With that many islands, however, you need to pick a specific area to visit or you’ll forever be travelling. While you can travel to the Manila area and visit places such as Boracay, we picked Cebu and didn’t look back. It’s on countless lists for the world’s best place for beaches and diving – it was an easy decision.
From buzzing Mactan Island to stunning Malapascua, we scuba dived, snorkelled, explored and trekked our way to an incredible holiday. Luckily, this means all the hard work is done and you don’t have to research places to visit – all you have to do is book a flight.
After a long 15+ hour journey, you’ll be forgiven for not wanting to travel far from Cebu-Mactan International Airport to rest your head (horizontally, far from an airplane seat). We booked a night at the Costabella Tropical Beach Hotel for that very reason.
Right next to the beach, it was the ideal place to ease into that sunny, relaxed, holiday way-of-life. The hotel staff were beyond helpful (after my first day, my very English sunburn prompted a waiter to provide an icepack for my arm) and the open-air restaurant’s food was delicious. Add that to beach cocktails on bean bags and two pools to choose from, this very affordable hotel feels more expensive than it is.
A two-and-a-half-hour ferry from Mactan, Bohol is a tropical island covered in swaying palm trees, verdant mountains and impossibly stunning beaches. Plus, there’s a wealth of things to see and do besides sunbathing. As we were only in Bohol for two nights, we had an impossibly short amount of time to see the tenth largest island in the Philippines. While we ended up staying in Alona Beach, the nicer, less touristy place to set up camp is Anda Beach. So depending on your preference, decide before you get to Bohol’s port.
After an evening of San Miguel on Alona Beach, we decided to go on a countryside tour the first day, and an island tour the next. Contact Bohol Buddy Tours – not only do they give you the cheapest rates around, their guide went above and beyond to make sure we got the best experience.
Countryside Tour: Our guide made us laugh throughout the day, drove us around in a private car, impressed us with a vast knowledge of history and bought us a fresh coconut on the side of road when we admitted to not trying one yet. And all for the bargain price of 1,000 Philippine pesos (that’s £21 to you – with a river cruise lunch included!).
For eight hours, we were taken around to see the likes of the Chocolate Mountains, the Tarsier Enclosure (make sure you save time to see these tiny little critters – they’re the national animal of the Philippines. If you think they look familiar, it’s Mort from Madagascar), an alarmingly large python (apparently the largest in the country), a man-made forest, Baclayon Church, and to top it all off, a cruise on Lomboc river.
Island Tour: Our island tour started bright and early at 5am but that alarm was worth it as our boat was surrounded by 30 or so dolphins jumping through the air at sunrise. Next up was Balicasag Island. While crystal clear water is all par for the course in the Philippines, it’s the amount of fish along the wall which has won the island all its attention.
After diving below the water to hang around with countless kinds of fish, we got back on the boat and headed over to the other side of the island for another attraction – the sea turtles! There were so many to see we barely came up for air.
When we anchored down at the Virgin Islands near Panglao, we were met with a blindingly white sand bar and waters so clear it looked like a pool – it’s an easy swim around the entire island when the tide is in. While it’s very remote and there isn’t anything to do except paddle and relax, you can be content for a surprising amount of time just floating around. And the pictures are something else.
Oslob is world-renowned for its whale sharks and that’s exactly what drew us to its shores. From Bohol we had to get the ferry back to Cebu and get a taxi to the south bus terminal. Opt for a Ceres bus liner and try and get onto an air-conditioned vehicle – it makes the three-hour journey much less hot and sticky. Just as a warning, at peak times getting on the bus can sometimes feel like a death-defying stunt so get ready to be very un-British and stand your ground – orderly queues don’t exist at rush hour.
Once in Oslob, we made a beeline for the Malonzo Pension House, which has been awarded many TripAdvisor Awards of Excellence, and for good reason. Walk into the open pavilion and there’s a trickling fountain, cold drinks in the fridge and cupboards packed for food. It’s all based on a honesty policy where you write down everything you take on a pad of paper labelled with your room number.
Rooms are spacious, pristine and you even have a TV with English-speaking channels if you’re so inclined. But really it’s the people which has made it a home-from-home. Owned by a married couple, they worked for 23 years in the Coca Cola factory in Manila and saved to buy the place. They go above and beyond for every guest. When leaving the next morning, the owner even walked us to the bus stop and waited until it arrived so we got on the correct one and the bus driver understood where we wanted to go. Since opening, they’ve received so much attention they’re fully booked until next year.
For the main event we caught a 15-minute bus down to the beach (just ask the driver to drop you off for the whale sharks – they’ll know what you’re talking about) and paid our 1,000 pesos for a half-hour snorkel with the gentle giants of the sea (they’re the biggest fish you’ll ever see in the ocean).
After an orientation on what you can and cannot do while swimming with the whale sharks (i.e. don’t think of touching them), we hopped into the boat and went out about five minutes from shore where these majestic creatures were waiting. Cue an incredible half hour (and more than a couple of questionable underwater pictures) and we had ticked off a must-do life experience.
Afterwards, we did a day trip to the breathtaking Sumilon Island. With a coral sanctuary, we snorkelled the day away and got lunch and full use of the five-star resort’s facilities, including their infinity pool. And all for the small price of £20.
After a four-hour bus journey from Oslob, we were dropped off at Moalboal’s bus station. You have the choice between White Beach and Panagsama Beach when deciding on where to stay. We picked the latter as it’s known for its diving and restaurants. On arrival, our tricycle driver (essentially a tuk-tuk with a moped attached) dropped us off at our accommodation and then helped us find a good company to go diving with.
For 1,800 Philippine pesos (£26), I was taken for my first Discovery Scuba experience to see the sardine run. After a quick run through of the equipment and learning how to breathe underwater, the instructor took me down to see countless creatures in the corals. The overall effect came down to this: I never wished to be a mermaid more, and that’s including my childhood love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
From camouflaged sandfish to techni-coloured marine life, I watched sea life go past as the sardine shoal moved in synchronised motions above my head. When my oxygen tank grew low after an hour, it’s safe to say I was dragged against my will (not really – it was all incredibly safe and professional and you’d be crazy not to try it).
At about seven to eight hours away from Moalboal, our trip to the idyllic island of Malapascua was by far the longest. But it was, without any doubt, worth the wait. To get there you need to head back to Cebu and make your way to the north bus terminal. Take the five-hour bus journey to Maya and then catch a 40-minute ferry to the island. Make sure to check when the last ferry goes over (at around 4.30pm, depending on how many people they can get on the boat).
The remote island of Malapascua is world-renowned for its diving opportunities with thresher and hammerhead sharks sightings almost guaranteed. If you’re looking to dive around these areas, you need your PADI license (which you can get on the island or many other places in the Philippines). You’ll have to go around 30 metres deep so be prepared for a lot of equalising as you go down to hidden depths.
As neither of us had a PADI license we stuck to snorkelling which was just as amazing (in our opinion at least). We were taken on a boat trip around the island to the best viewing spots. Countless of fish swam past our goggled eyes and we even got to explore a hidden shipwreck – you can’t get that on a weekend trip to Blackpool.
We also hopped on a boat to see the incredible Kalanggaman Island. After all our travelling around it was nice to float around in crystal clear seas or lounge on powder white sands for the day (and the Philippines has those in abundance).
The rest of our time was spent just as you’d expect on a remote, tropical island – amazing massages on the beach (for around £3), plenty of rum (for about 20p a glass), and spending our time meeting the many locals and diving enthusiasts. We couldn’t have picked a better way to end the trip.
The holiday blues, in case you’re wondering, were horrendous.
*Despite the fact the camera dates it to be January, we actually travelled in April, one of the best months to visit the Philippines weather-wise.