If you’re planning a getaway to Cebu this Holy Week break and you are looking to spend your time in prayer, visiting the Guadalupe Parish Church, the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral and the life-sized Stations of the Cross at the Celestial Gardens in Banawa are probably top on your list.
If you’re looking to mix prayer with some fun, sun and pork devotion, your best bet would be Bantayan Island, which is a three-hour ride up north to Hagnaya Port followed by an hour-and-a-half ferry ride. What awaits you there are daily parades of carrozas with tableaux of life-size statues depicting the Passion of Christ—and there you can also guiltlessly feast on lechon.
Since it’s a predominantly fishing village, the fishermen’s Lenten sacrifice is to let the sea rest by refraining from fishing for seven days. In return for this, they were granted permission by the Pope to eat meat and pork instead, which is more of a rarity on the island. Eating, drinking and being merry are not causes for reprimand this time of year, but are rather the norm.
And if paying homage to marine life is your call of duty this year, Cebu has just the right underwater places of worship. Serious divers should go straight to Malapascua Island, a three-hour drive from Cebu City and a 30-40-minute pumpboat ride away. It is said to be the only place in the world where there are thresher shark sightings daily.
Diving or snorkeling off Mactan Island can be a wonderful experience for a minimal fee.
Talima Marine Sanctuary in Olango Island is the closest to Mactan, about a 10-minute boat ride away. Known for a small shipwreck about 18 meters below, Olango has a wide variety of marine life that includes frogfish and sweet lips.
On the other side of the island lies the Olango Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the largest concentration of migratory birds in the Philippines. The best time to visit is two hours before peak high tide. Note that it’s best experienced with a local guide in the sanctuary office, who will take you on an hourlong walk and point out the birds.
Southwest of Olango Island is Hilutungan Marine Sanctuary, a 30-35-minute banca ride away from Mactan. It has lots of marine life, being one of the oldest and one of the highest fish populations in the area, including schools of jack and large batfish. It also offers very good visibility.
Just past Hilutungan is the Nalusuan Marine Sanctuary, a beautiful showcase of the diverse marine life Cebu has to offer. Shallow coral gardens are great for beginners and a wall dive and steep slope are loved by more experienced divers, with blue spotted sting rays usually serving as the highlight of this sanctuary.
One of the best things about Cebu, aside from its laid-back lifestyle, is the relatively close proximity of exquisite neighboring islands that can truly be called paradise.
The journey to paradise is often just as glorious as the destination itself, if you take Fun and Sun Dive Travel. (Private pier is right next to Be Resort in Mactan, call 032-3433410; visit www.funsundivetravel.com.)
Aside from organizing dive safaris in Mactan, Bohol and Southern Leyte, and running a dive shop in Malapascua Island, Fun and Sun has six bancas that are cleverly named after women’s moods—Maldita, Malandi, Mahinhin, Malikot, Malambing, and their newest boat, Masuwerte, which is a pimped-out ride with two lounge beds, one on the front end of the boat and another toward the back. Its cushion can be folded up when it’s time for lunch so it becomes a table.
Be sure to get the food package from them as well because their grilled chicken, squid and pork barbecue, puso (wrapped rice) and fresh fruit plates are delicious and the perfect beach meal.
Another option is Islands Banca Cruises (pier is between Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort and Movenpick Resort, call 032-5161903; visit www.islandsbanca.com). Owned and managed by The Islands Group, the mother company of Islands Souvenirs T-shirts, the value-chic Islands Stay Hotels and the one-stop shop Islands Pasalubong Center, Islands Banca boats are attractive in crisp white with pops of their signature orange color.
A banca ride will get you to the picturesque Pandanon Island, which is technically part of Bohol already, in less than an hour.
The western side of the island is home to a community of about 350 families and 2,000 residents. Cover charge for the island is P150 per person, and goes toward the community residing there.
A two-hectare stretch of white coral sand is the perfect place to enjoy the sun and sea. You can rent a hut to put your things in and get some shade, or you can do it the locals’ way and have your boat docked on the sandbar side of the island, have lunch on the boat, and have the boat boys bring down your cooler of beer and bubbly into the water and find fulfillment in having your own little private enclave of water away from everyone else.
For a zero-population island, set off a bit farther to the North Sandbar, which is roughly 1.5 hours away from Mactan, with nothing on it but a kilometer stretch of sand and a watchtower, with serenity and bliss thrown in for good measure.
Alternatively, you can head in the opposite direction of Pandanon and the North Sandbar toward what locals refer to as the South Sandbar (or Bagonbanwa to the boatmen and fishermen who know better). This small slice of paradise, which has only been on our radar for the last year or so, is a skinny strip of sand that seems to have mysteriously risen right in the middle of the ocean.
When you’re on the South Sandbar, there’s not much in sight but water on all sides of you and maybe a flock of seagulls if you’re as lucky as we were on our first visit there.
Lesser known than its counterpart in the north (for the time being at least), the South Sandbar is probably the closest you will get to fulfilling that Robinson Crusoe fantasy of being marooned on a deserted island—but chances of survival will be slim with not a coconut tree or any form of shade to take cover under. This one is for the faithful sun worshippers, while the less devout can always choose to hang out on the boat that’s yours for the day.
This sandbar is relatively tiny, so rest easy knowing that the boat will always be nearby. We prefer to leave the shaded confines of the boat, bring an oversized hat, some sunnies, and layer on the SPF to fully enjoy the soft sand and bluer-than-blue water.
Being in the South Sandbar, you feel like you not only have a beach but also an entire ocean to yourself. That’s not a stretch—not many have ventured to this sandbar yet. On second thought, maybe we should have kept this to ourselves.
Travel writers are prone to waxing poetic about Cebu’s islands (and who can blame them?), but our mountains, which don’t get the same attention, are equally praise-worthy. If you’re in the mood for some altitude, we suggest taking the gorgeous, scenic ride along the Transcentral Highway.
Along the way, turn off the A/C, roll down the windows, breathe in the cool mountain air and take in a sweeping view of Cebu’s fog-covered mountains. It’s easy to forget that you’re in the tropics up here. Don’t forget to stop by the roadside stall that sells freshly boiled sweet corn as you continue your drive up to Balamban.
The thrill seekers might want to head up to West 35 Eco Mountain Resort (Gaas, Balamban, call 032-5202633) for some zip lining, while those who can do without the adrenaline rush can wait at Haven Café, the mountain resort’s hilltop restaurant.
And if you find that you’re not ready to take that drive back to the city just yet, spend the night in one of the mountain resort’s villas to prolong your mountain retreat just a bit longer.
As you make the inevitable drive back to the city, those who want to give zip lining another go can check out K33 (Gaas, Balamban, call 032-5112158). At more than 300 meters one way and 220 meters on the return, it’s supposed to be the longest zip line in Cebu. It should satisfy your adventure lust and hold you off until your next trip.
On the drive down to Cebu City, you might want to stop by the requisite tourist destination, Tops (Barang Malubog, Busay, call 032-3407838), if you haven’t been there already. It’s an observation deck that sits at over 2,000 feet above sea level, so you’re guaranteed a panoramic view of Cebu City and Mactan Island.
Try to make it there in time for the sunset and witness the city lights go up as the sun goes down. Think of it as your last hurrah before you head back to the daily hustle and bustle, so grab a beer, maybe some grilled meat on sticks, and as you enjoy a bird’s eye view of Cebu, start plotting where in our beautiful island you will be heading to next.