Throughout the Philippines the slogan “It’s more fun in the Philippines” appears everywhere. If your idea of fun includes tropical weather, turquoise blue waters, palm trees swaying in the wind on remote paradise islands, and endless water and cultural activities at an affordable price…then indeed the slogan will ring true.
I had been in Manila, Philippines for a week at the TBEX travel blogger conference and met up with a few other bloggers for the Negros Y Cebu FAM (familiarization) trip, which provided us with a taste of all that the Philippines has to offer. Our adventure included transportation by air, road and sea to places like Dumaguete, Siquijor and Cebu. We departed Manila very early one morning, and in no time, landed at the small Dumaguete airport where we boarded a private tour bus that took us to Sans Rival Restaurant for breakfast. The seaside restaurant not only offers some fantastic ocean views, but also authentic local Filipino food.
After satisfying our appetites, we drove south a bit and boarded an outrigger style boat that took us to a small island village off the coast known as Apo Island. This island is well known as being a top dive site in the world. The crossing took about 45 minutes to reach the western side of Apo Island, where we docked at the Apo Island Beach Resort. From there we walked along a beach and up a flight of rock carved steps to slot in the island. This cracked opening was so neat to walk through, especially when you get to the end and around a soft bend where an alcove beach reveals itself. On the other side of this alcove we needed to skirt a cliff face and the ocean water for a moment until the beach opened up and displayed the village where the local islanders live and where we were able to do a bit of snorkeling. This part of the island has an abundance of giant sea turtles, over 400 species of coral and 650 documented species of fish. While the snorkeling wasn’t that great on this day, there were plenty of sea turtles to admire—this was the first time I had ever swam with them, so I was thrilled!
After some fun in the sun we walked back to the Apo Island Beach Resort for lunch on the beach. The resort is nested in a private cove within unique rock formations on a beautiful white beach. After we ate and while the others sat and talked, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to launch my drone. I was able to capture some great photos and footage (as seen in the video below).
The afternoon was winding down so we boarded our outrigger. I thought we were heading back to the mainland of Dumaguete, but instead we motored to a spot just off the island where we had a chance to do some additional snorkeling. I think I must have been the first one in. I am a water sign through and through and swimming in the warm clear blue waters was like heaven. While the fish were beautiful, they were not as abundant as I have seen in other part of the world, but what really struck me was the shapes and colors of the coral…it was stunning.
Soon we were all back on board and sailing across the sea toward the mainland of Negros, where we drove a short distance to our accommodations for the night at Atmosphere Resort. It has been a long day and we were all ready to relax a bit. The Atmosphere Resort was just what we needed, a beautiful setting right on the water with lush grounds full of palm trees, tropical plants and a series of two-story bungalows. It was a paradise setting. We had just a couple hours to enjoy the grounds and freshen up before dinner.
We had dinner at a very popular place called, Hayahay Treehouse Bar and Viewdeck. We had an exceptional table overlooking the water. We were served a variety of fresh seafood items and some curry and Filipino dishes. It was nothing short of a feast.
The next day we departed for Dumaguete City where we took a short tour of the area. We walked the boardwalk, stopped by a farmers market and visited a nearby Cathedral. The St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, which is part of Dumaguete’s rich fascinating history that jumbles intercontinental influences with indigenous tradition. Dumaguete is unique in both its aesthetic and cultural feel. It comes across as a calm, peaceful sanctuary that offers time for reflection. But at the same time, the city is alive with culture and the people here, while gentle, are inspiringly enthusiastic about being life, it’s part of the reason for its nicknamed The City of Gentle People.
We then went by NOAH (Negros Oriental Arts and Heritage), which is a factory and gift store of sorts where they handcraft a variety of products like clocks and jewelry boxes
Early that afternoon we boarded a ferry en route to the island of Siquijor. When we disembarked we were quite surprised by the welcome, not only did a private tour guide holding a welcome sign greet us, but it seemed the entire police force of the island and small military brigade were also on hand. Even in Manila, wherever the bloggers events took place, we had a security force in tow. At first, the other bloggers and I were wondering if we were being protected from something, but later ascertained from tourism officials that the locals just wanted to make us feel special and welcomed to the country. What took place in Siquijor however, was a bit overboard as I will describe in a moment.
From the ferry dock we boarded a traditional Filipino Jeepney. If you’re not familiar with the Jeepney, they are basically makeshift buses made out of parts that are scavenged from other vehicles. They all have a similar look, but each are distinct based on the creativity and budget of its owner. Some are pretty rudimentary, while others can be quite elaborate with laser lights, disco balls and intense music systems for tourists and group events. Our Jeepney was quite nice with air conditioning (many do not have A/C). In the front of our Jeepney were a couple of motorcycle cops with a police vehicle or two. Following behind, was our mini military brigade. There must have been two personnel for each blogger and handler on the Jeepney. The military folks were fully armed. Baring a ballistic missile, nothing nefarious was going to happen to us. We were sure of it!
As we left the ferry terminal parking lot, the police lights and sirens were turned on. As we drove down the road to our next destination it seemed every single local villager had come out of their homes and businesses to see what all the commotion was about. I’m not kidding, the streets were lined with people wondering what the heck was going on, so we just started waving as we passed by. After a while, it became apparent that too much attention was being drawn toward us, so I asked one of our handlers if they could ask officials to do without the lights and sirens. They kindly obliged.
After about a half an hour we neared our first stop on Siquijor, and with all the power the Jeepney could muster, we climbed one of the steepest hills on the island, to one of the highest spots, the Infinity Heights Resort. As we exited the Jeepney and headed toward the resort, it became apparent how the property got its name. The views were simply stunning and the swimming pool looked like it ran right off the cliff into the ocean, even though we must have been over a 1000′ feet above sea level. After taking in the views, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the open-air restaurant overlooking the resort grounds.
After our lunch we changed clothes into swimming trunks and boarded the Jeepney once again. We drove inland, up and into the jungles where we hiked down to Cambugahay Falls, an extraordinary series of turquoise blue waterfalls and swimming holes. Our fully armed military brigade surrounded our crew as we made our way down to the falls. As we spread out, it appeared each of us had two guards who followed our every move. There was a rope swing on which we could swing off a 10-12′ ledge and letting go in the middle of the swimming hole. The water was warm, but still so refreshing from the tropical heat. Some of us walked to the top of one of the falls where some locals directed us to an area where we could dive/or jump off without fear of hitting rocks or a shallow area below. The scene with all the palm trees, tropical foliage and a terrace of waterfalls was something straight out of a movie. Large inner tubes were available, so some of us floated in them while paddling our way under the waterfalls. It was one of just many highlights on this trip.
It was now late afternoon and we still had one more stop before heading to our hotel and having dinner. As we came down the hill from the jungle we stopped briefly to check out the Lasi Church and Convent, a historic monument and oldest church on the island, built in the late 1800s. Our final stop before the hotel was a public fish spa. You may have heard of this on the news, it’s all the rage at some Asian spas in the U.S. where people take off their shoes and socks and dip their feet into a tank full of flesh eating fish. I’m one of those people willing to try anything once, and twice if I like it. This particular area is an outdoor spa, which is actually a large natural-looking pool with thousands of fish. Those interested can sit on the edge of the pool and let their legs hang over the edge in wait, as a soon a school of fish will begin nibbling on your feet. I have to say, it was one of the strangest sensations I had ever experienced. It didn’t hurt at all, it was more like an unfamiliar tickle. Another oddity to the experience was that most of the fish were small, but ever once in a while a large one would take a nibble and it was an entirely different sensation. Also located at this fish spa is a 400-plus year-old balete tree, which has one odd looking root system. Many people stop by the spa just to take a picture in front of the odd shaped tree.
It was now dark and getting late so we drove just a bit before reaching our accommodations for the evening at the CoCo Grove Resort. The grounds were right on the beach and quite expansive, so much so that we needed to take a vehicle to the beach front dinner and entertainment at the other end of the property. I found it was a lovely walk along the beach coming back from dinner, no vehicle required. We didn’t have much time to get freshened up and ready for dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant we were pleasantly surprised to have a table right on the beach near the entertainment, where the rest of the guests were above on a bulkhead. Dining al fresco on the beach was such a fantastic experience. The table was lined with banana leaves and the food was brought out and placed directly on the leaves, no plates or utensils were provided. We ate with our hands while enjoying some locals perform traditional music, which was followed by some fire performers who dazzled the crowd. It would have been an outstanding ending to the evening, but my night had one more pleasantry.
I parted ways from the group and strolled through the resort grounds before reaching my room. I thought about retiring for the evening, but didn’t want to miss one moment of this extraordinary setting, so I decided I would go for a walk along the beach. Just as I was leaving my room Archana Singh of TravelSeeWrite.com, one of the travel bloggers on this trip with me, was heading toward my room. I said, “Hey, what’s up?” She replied, “I was just coming to see what you were doing?” I told her I was heading to the beach to take a stroll and asked if she would like to join me? “Absolutely!” She said.
It was a lovely evening with a light breeze coming off the water. There was a nearly full moon casting a long shadow over the water as if it were a white beam of light slicing the ocean in half. The tide was in, so there was not much beach real estate for us to walk, so we decided to take a seat on a bamboo chaise. Every so often a wave would make its way up to our bare feet which were comfortably dug into the sand. The water was warm, and except for the sounds of the ocean, it was very quiet. Once in a while we would see a random coconut floating in the water and watch as a wave would move it toward us. This scene made me think of the Tom Hanks movie Castaway for some reason. It doesn’t happen very often that I meet someone with whom I feel a strong connection. Archana is a very intelligent woman with a contagious zeal for life. She has the most amazing energy and a thirst for living life to its fullest. We really hit it off and had an enjoyable and stimulating conversation that evening.
After breakfast the next morning we headed back to the ferry dock, but rather than taking the ferry, we had other transportation arranged. As we waited for a dingy to take us to a yacht, we hung out by the beach where I noticed a family of fishermen stringing together some fishing nets. It was a fascinating sight and photo op. It looked like these guys had a rats nest on their hands, but they clearly knew what they were doing.
As our dingy arrived we boarded and it took us into the harbor where a yacht waited to take us toward the island of Cebu. The sailing from Siquijor to our next destination must have taken us well over two hours. Before reaching Cebu, we disembarked not far from her shores on the island of Sumilon, where we had lunch and did some kayaking and snorkeling at the Bluewater Sumilon Island resort. This area is a well known spot for swimming with whale sharks. Unfortunately the tours only go out once a day and we had just missed it. I was so disappointed as I have seen videos of this experience and it looks extraordinary. Click here to see for yourself by checking out AMae.TV’s video.
By mid-afternoon we boarded an outrigger and sailed a short distance to the southern tip of of the island of Cebu. From there we boarded a bus and headed north toward the small town of Argao. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, but we did get to tour the San Miguel Archangel Parish Church, which was another interesting historic structure, this one dating back to the early 18th Century. The church is located in a large square and is the focal point of the community. We were greeted by local representatives who offered us some local treats to tide us over until dinner.
We continued north toward Cebu City, which is located at the northern end of the island. It’s a big island and it took at least four hours for us to make it from one end to the other. By the time we made it to our hotel we were all exhausted and famished. It was so late that we didn’t even have a chance to go to our rooms to freshen up, we went straight to the restaurant for dinner. It had been such a long day and we were all so tired that I don’t think we initially realized what an amazing property we were at. We were in the midst of the five-star Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa in Cebu City. It is a stunning property that I would discover the following day.
Our luggage was handled for us, and once we received our room keys, we boarded a transportation vehicle that took us to the other side of the property where we dined at Cowrie Cove. As soon as we walked in I was certain that our late meal would be worth the wait. Since there was a large group of us, they prepared a fixed menu to speed things up.
- For our first course we had Tuna Tataki with Paprika puree, eggplant caviar garnished with kalamata and capers. This was a sensational dish with a complex flavor profile, but without being heavy.
- Next course was a sweet corn variation soup with seared sea scallop, which had a playful garnish accent of popped corn.
- The entree was a perfectly prepared roasted beef filet with poached onion and foie gras sauce.
- For dessert we had a chocolate garden variation. A glass bowl had a bed of chocolate beads (like chocolate chips but round) with chunks of fresh fruit. On top and slid to the side was a large wafer of pure chocolate with a dollop of chocolate ice cream. It was a wonderfully presented dish and the perfect conclusion to such an exquisite meal.
The dinner was a gastronomic surf & turf and was by far the best meal I had during my visit to the Philippines. With my belly comfortably satisfied, it was time to make my way to the accommodations. The room was nothing short of five-star, spacious with fine materials, a view of the ocean and a spa-like bathroom. It was so nice to finally shower and relax for the rest of the evening.
I had been scheduled to fly from Cebu to Manila, Philippines then to LAX the next day at noon. However, I discovered there was a non-stop flight from Cebu to LAX that left that evening. It took a bit of doing, but I was able to get my flight changed, which provided me with an entire day in paradise at the Shangri-La. I was so excited that I would have 8 hours less travel, and more time for fun that it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
The rest of my group had an island excursion planned, but since I was originally scheduled to leave early, I had missed the boat. While I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able explore another island in the Philippines, I had no doubt I would enjoy my time at the resort. I can’t recall exactly what transpired next, but somehow Archana and I were texting back and forth. I was surprised that I had heard from her because I assumed she was on the boat with the others. Come to find out, her luggage had been lost the night before. The hotel staff had mistakenly delivered her luggage to the wrong room and no one had reported it. During the time that I was trying to re-book my flight, Archana was working with the hotel staff to track down her luggage. After looking at surveillance footage, the hotel was able to identify which room the luggage had been delivered to and was able to recover it. Now we both had a weight lifted from our shoulders with a day on our own.
I told Archana to meet me at the restaurant and we’d grab a quick bite to eat and then I had a surprise for her. After a quick breakfast, I grabbed her hand and said, “Come on, we’re going to have some fun!” She tried to find out where we were going, but I did not let her in on it until we got to the beach. I finally told her that we were going to go out on a jet ski. Exuberance overcame her. For the next 30 minutes we zipped up and down the coast with me in the drivers seat and her on the back hanging on. I came to a stop in the middle of the water and said, “Okay, it’s your turn!” In her cute little Indian accent she said, “Oh no, I’ve never driven one, I have no idea what to do.” I finally convinced her to switch positions with me and then showed her how to navigate the vessel. In no time she was hitting top speeds as we occasionally flew through the air after hitting a wave. I was often hanging on for dear life and began questioning the daredevil monster I had unleashed.
We soon returned the jet ski and hung out in the water and did a bit of snorkeling. We then headed to the spa where we both had massage treatments. I’ve had my fair share of spa experiences at 4/5 star resorts around the world. This was one of the best overall experiences I’ve ever had. For starters, the spa setting is sensational. The walk toward the spa entrance is like walking on a floating bridge with water on both sides with a large koi pond. When you enter the lobby of the spa it’s a round dome with very high ceilings. It’s a very zen-like space. As we were greeted, we were provided a soothing warm drink while we waited for our therapists. We were then guided through an outdoor labyrinth of private spa treatment rooms. Each structure has its own bathroom/changing area, walled off outdoor area with tubs/shower and other venues for particular treatments, such as a mud bath I assumed. The massage room was very comfortable and relaxing, and the treatment itself was heavenly.
After our massages, Archana and I had a bite to eat for lunch and then she had to get ready to leave for her flight. I was able to get a very late check-out and took my time getting packed and to the airport. Sadly, my time in the Philippines had come to an end.
This trip was a wonderful taste of the Philippines, so much so that I would return in a heartbeat. If you’ve ever been to the Philippians, please leave a comment and share your experience and/or favorite cities or islands.