Philippines – Cebu
Cebu, located near the heart of the Philippines, offers visiting yachts an interesting cultural tour, as well as the chance to spot plenty of large sea life and do some of the world’s greatest scuba spots
Economical, but effective. That describes much of what you find in the Philippines, particularly in Cebu. It’s also the way that locals and guests tend to have fun as well. Cebu is actually one of the main cultural centres of the Philippines, with its own dialect (Cebuan), distinct from the main language of Tagalog, as well as a very long tradition of ship building and trade. As if to underscore that, Australian firm Austal, builder of fast catamarans favoured by the Hong Kong-Macau ferry operators, has opted to open a new ship building centre in Cebu City to support its plans for Asian expansion.
But more importantly for yachtsmen, Cebu City is the centre of a huge swathe of the Philippines known as the Visayas that offer world-class cruising and sights that are unique to this island nation. Cebu City is in fact much older than the capital city of Manila, and was the original heart of the country. On land and underwater, there is much to see and do. Supporting visiting yachts is the Cebu Yacht Club, a very relaxed place run by Emilio (Milo) Osmena. Milo is a well-known personality in the region and is also knowledgable about all things fun and luxurious. He is also an invaluable source of information for everything from private helicopter services to the best nearby islands to visit. The Cebu Yacht Club is a relatively simple affair, yet it has berthed a number of repeat superyacht visitors, including the 61-metre White Rabbit Charlie and the 40-metre Sinbad. Cebu City is more of a base of operations, but not far away are some great places to view marine life that are probably unrivalled. Along the south coast of Cebu Island, we found a spot where whale sharks gather to feed just a few dozen metres offshore. Local fisherman, spotting an opportunity, have taken to feeding the big beauties with krill. This keeps the whale sharks coming back for more, but it also gives guests the chance to snorkel amid the sharks. As you watch one whale shark gulping down the krill-water mixture, another will pass directly underneath you, so close you may even have trouble not touching the shark, which is bad for the creatures. While tourists are continually catching on to the marine wonders that are to be found in the Visayas, a yacht offers owner and guests the chance to find new places to explore, and once you get off the beaten track in the Visayas, there are many unique delights.
As personalised as the colourful jeepneys that proliferate on Philippine roads are the Banca boats that ply the passages between the many islands and shores around Cebu. Banca boats are hand-made boats with a thin, central hull and two bamboo-pole outriggers. No trip to the Philippines is complete without some time aboard a Banca boat, and the best service available is Island Bancas – noted for their orange and white designs. Island Bancas is the brainchild of Cebuan entrepreneur Jay Aldeguer, who took the simple concept of the Banca and maxed it out for comfy island-hopping around the Cebu Strait. Guests can stretch out on widened bridge decks, with white bean bag chairs, continual beverage service from attentive staff, music from their iPods and even enjoy their laptops, as each banca comes equipped with a transmitter that allows a connection. None of these modern amenities detracts from the homegrown feel of the banca, at heart a simple boat held together by tradition. But the Banca boat is a great way to get close to the water as you skirt from around islands that grow and recede dramatically with the tide.
Banca boats are seen at virtually all the major beaches. Yacht owners can escape the crowds easily, but getting out on a Banca boat for a day can also give a dose of Philippine sea-faring skill.
Mactan Island sits just offshore from Cebu City proper, and while it may not be the specific reason you come to enjoy Cebu Strait, there is a growing list of luxury resorts that cater to higher net worth client. Foremost among them is Crimson, a newish spot that boasts a purpose-made beach with a private pontoon. The waters nearby have schools of curious fish stopping by to add to the atmosphere, while the beachside bar has been cleverly laid out to resemble a drinking auditorium. The developer of Crimson is reportedly looking into building a 200-berth marina nearby. On a much smaller, more boutique scale, is Abaca, which features six villas and three rooms only. Here, one finds a kind of urban sanctuary, with lovely views, exquisitely done rooms and privacy aplenty. The spa treatment has already garnered plenty of raves from those in the know. A tour of the Cebu strait can easily be arranged, with a Banca boat picking up you and your guests from the pier of any of the Mactan resorts, with day trips to fantastic seafood restaurants a speciality. Opposite Mactan Island is Olango Island, and here there are some marine protection zones as well as a bird sanctuary in the middle of the island. Just offshore from the Olango Island, there are a series of seafood restaurants unlike anything I’ve seen. Built on stilts just offshore, the restaurants are simple, open-air affairs. But the difference is in the freshness. The restaurants keep large netted areas to keep their live fish, and this space allows the fish to move about as they would naturally, meaning seafood that is just one step from actually being caught at sea. Sitting in comfort and surrounded by the brilliant colours of the Philippines, this restaurants deserve multilple visits.
Sadly, there were continued instances of destructive fishing practices still going on. Dynamite fishing was being practiced during one excursion out to Olango Island. This is not the work of large-scale fishermen, but individuals who are struggling to make ends meet. The benefit of marine sanctuaries is that fishing communities can earn something from tourism rather than trying to scrape by on the fish remaining to them.
A visit to Cebu is incomplete without an onshore excursion to Bohol. Here, you find several sights worthy of the trip, but it’s best arranged by private vehicle, and best explored on your own. There are some stops worth making – the Chocolate Hills; the Tarsus Monkey conservation area – but these are momentary diversions. More interesting is just driving around and through the villages. By road, one can find blacksmiths and forges, alongside tradesmen who still build rope in the same way they might have once done for the visiting Spanish galleons. Bohol also offers a look at the many colonial residences built by the Spanish, some dating back centuries. Built of wood with intricate carvings, many remain in use to this day. Around Cebu and Bohol in particular, one finds very old examples of Spanish colonization, a process that began in earnest with an avenging expedition sent out after Magellan was killed on Mactan Island. This expedition, led by Miguel Legazpi, landed in 1565 after having set out from Mexico. Legazpi established the first Spanish colony in Cebu at San Miguel. The Spanish, having recently defeated the last remaining Moors in Granada, saw the establishment of the Catholic Church as the key element of control of their new colony, and set to it with vigour. Throughout the Philippines, one finds churches of soaring ambition. The area around Cebu has the oldest, with the Church of Baclayon, dating to the early 1600s, on the nearby island of Bohol a great example. Built entirely of coral stone, the church is still active, though much of it is preserved a museum. Evening time sees plenty of local vendors and merchants hawking their wares, or just people gathering to socialize in the open squares near the large old churches. Religion remains a hugely important social force in the Philippines, and besides the many old limestone churches, one also sees a kaleidoscope of small churches honouring various saints and spirits. A journey up the Loboc River is a must, as it was once a place for native Filipinos to live and was later used as a local power centre by the Spanish, who wanted to fend off the Muslims of Mindanao, a struggle that resonates to this day. Though now blighted by touristic restaurant boats, yachtsmen can easily find their own way to venture up the river to get the best look at river’s edge. The principal area where tourists stay is an even smaller island off Bohol called Panglao, separated by just a small channel and bridged in two places. Panglao offers hotels and resorts of varying quality and price, with the best being near Alona Beach.
The Visayas Vista
Throughout the Bohol Sea and the Cebu Strait, visitors onboard their yachts can find plenty of examples of sea life, and the Philippines does offer some the finest cruising around. Venture further to the east and one finds Malapascua Island, home to a number of Thresher Sharks,
South of Cebu and nearing the open Sulu Sea, there is Apo Island, a volcanic rock that juts out of the sea. A marine reserve around Apo, which has been relatively well protected, gives visitors an opportunity to dive with sea turtles and numerous other attractions. Beyond, yachts can head over to the island of Palawan for even more adventurous cruising. There are numerous small airports covering most of the major destinations, letting owners and guests get to their yachts with ease.
The Philippines, and the Visayas in particular, open up large cruising areas. Then, there are the Filipinos themselves. Eager for music and dance, friendly and kind-hearted, the Philippines’ greatest resource may well be its people. Combine that with the beautiful seascapes that seem to be endless, and you have a magical cruising destination.