For seven months, we carried our snorkeling gear around Southeast Asia. Prescription masks, favorite snorkels, and our special short fins took up precious space in our backpacks. We used them in Bali at the beginning of the trip and in Thailand in the middle. But by the last weeks of the trip, we were longing to snorkel and swim and relax, so we set our sights on the central Philippines.
The Philippines is a country of more than 7,000 islands, many with distinctly different characters. We visited three in the central region known as the Visayas: large Cebu and Negros Islands and little Siquijor Island. In between flying in to Cebu City and out of Bacolod, Negros, we got around—slowly and often bumpily—by bus, ferry boat, and tuk-tuk (a taxi consisting of a covered metal carriage attached to a motorcycle).
In rough chronological order: here’s where we went:
Moalboal, Cebu Island
This peninsula midway down the western side of long, narrow Cebu Island is well known for snorkeling and scuba diving. We couldn’t decide which of two hotels in our price range to stay at, so we opted to try both: the Asian-Belgian Dive Resort in Saavedra, near White Beach, and the Quo Vadis Dive Resort by Panagsama Beach. Every place that caters to tourists here is called a resort, even of it only consists of some bare-bones cabins and a small strip of shore.
The Asian-Belgian resort was the quieter of the two lodgings: a handful of rooms and a little restaurant set on a small rocky cove good for kayaking and snorkeling. Between there and nearby White Beach was a fabulous reef just 30 to 50 meters offshore. We saw terrifically diverse, healthy coral.
There were not as many fish as we’ve seen in other countries, but we spotted a few species that were new to us, including coral shrimp fish that hang vertically like ribbons, a dense ball of juvenile striped eel catfish, a snowflake moray eel, a yellow boxfish, and schools of little black-and-white-striped humbug damselfish. (You can see some of those in the “Under the Waves” photo gallery.)
White Beach was a wonderful place to spend the day and get a feel for local life. It was full of Filipinos picnicking, playing on the sand and in the water, and just hanging out enjoying a day at the beach. After bring surrounded by foreign tourists, it’s always a nice change to spend time in a nontourist setting.
Quo Vadis Dive Resort was a bigger, fancier place, with nicer rooms and a pool, located at the quiet end of Panagsama Beach. Panagsama is less a beach than a wall-to-wall strip of rental cottages, dive shops, restaurants, bars, and souvenir stands. It felt crowded and touristy and not especially Filipino—it could have been on any warm coast anywhere. If you want to be close to the bustle and nightlife of Panagsama but still have some breathing space and a pretty sea view, Quo Vadis is a good bet.
This small island (pronounced “sicky-hor”) at the southern ends of Cebu and Negros Islands was a study in contrasts for us. Once again, we opted to stay in two places: Infinity Heights Resort high in the hills in the interior of the island and Flora’s Dive and Resort on the shore near the town of Larena.
Infinity Heights was a fabulous taste of luxury, but we weren’t sure we were going to make it there. The tuk-tuk motorcycle taxi we hired at the ferry dock strained and skidded on the steep, twisty road up to the resort, loaded down with two large American women and two big backpacks. Just when we thought we were going to have to get out and walk—and let the backpacks ride the rest of the way up—we turned a corner and there we were. (We gave the driver an extra large tip in case he needed to repair his engine.)
Infinity Heights sits by itself on a hilltop, and without transportation, we couldn’t really go anywhere. But happily, we didn’t need to. The resort has beautiful cottages with modern designs straight out of a travel magazine. There’s also a big infinity swimming pool with panoramic views of the ocean and the forested hillsides. All that for less than $100 a night (a splurge for us but a bargain for Western vacationers).
The resort’s restaurant sets out small tables on the lawn, and in the evening, the couple who run the place often join the guests to talk or serenade them with guitar music and singing. The atmosphere is warm, easy going, and convivial. At night, the stars are glorious. Infinity Heights is a popular place for weddings, and it’s easy to see why.
Flora’s Dive and Resort, back down on the coast, was the kind of small, family-owned accommodation we usually seek out. It proved disappointing, however, and we left early. Besides a basic cabin, the “resort” amenities consisted of two hammocks, a bit of shoreline, and family members who cooked a small selection of mediocre meals to order with a grudging attitude.
Shops and other restaurants were a long walk away. In general, getting around on foot was difficult because things were spread out—geared more toward motorbikes than pedestrians. Sometimes it feels tough to be seemingly the only people in Asia who don’t know how to drive a motorbike.
The sea off Flora’s shore was shallow and grassy and not good for swimming. Local people often fished there on foot with small nets for their dinners, so there was very little marine life to be seen (other than spiny black urchins, of which there were many). But what Flora’s beach lacked in good swimming or snorkeling, it made up for in beautiful sunsets.
This coastal city of about 130,000 people is the capital of southeastern Negros. We stayed there twice when coming and going to Siquijor Island (in the Hotel Palwa, a moderately priced, refreshingly modern small hotel about four blocks from the waterfront).
Dumaguete boasts a long seaside esplanade that is great for strolling and people watching. It also serves as a local recreation area, where kids play in the water and young men have spirited games of beach volleyball. One evening when we were there, the waterfront was full of people in exercise clothes taking an outdoor aerobics class to music on a boombox—a real slice of local life.
The city is famous throughout the Philippines for a couple of desserts: sans rival (French for “without peer”) cakes made from thin layers of meringue, buttercream, and cashews; and silvanas, frozen cookies made from the same ingredients and coated in cookie crumbs. We sampled both at a renowned bakery and cafe called Sans Rival, just off the waterfront, and found them to be tasty but very sweet.
Dumaguete is getting a reputation as a good, inexpensive place for foreigners to retire. That may be why we saw a lot of older Western-looking white men hanging out in the city with much younger Filipino women.
This small island off the southern coast of Negros has been a marine sanctuary since the 1980s. We took a daytrip there by boat from Dumaguete with Gary’s Aqua Ventura dive company and snorkeled on Apo’s reefs. Although we spent much of the day within about 50 meters of the shore, we never set foot on the island.
The visibility was wonderful the day we snorkeled. Many of the pictures in the “Under the Waves ” gallery were taken on Apo’s reefs. The coral was healthy and diverse, and there were an amazing number of sea turtles. Usually when we snorkel we’re lucky to spot one or two turtles. But at Apo Island we saw at least a dozen, swimming languidly and munching sea grass in the protected waters just off shore. They were a treat to watch in such a beautiful natural habitat.
Sipalay, midway up the western side of Negros, is testament to how far we’ll go for a good beach. Getting there from Dumaguete took five hours on a series of three buses (not counting the time spent sitting on each sweltering bus at the station waiting for the bus to fill up with more people than you would believe could possibly fit). Then it was a tuk-tuk ride from the town of Sipalay to the waterfront and a short ride in a small boat along the coast to our destination: Bermuda Beach Resort on Sugar Beach.
Sugar Beach may be the best pure swimming beach we’ve ever seen. It’s a long, wide swathe of powdery soft sand, without the hazards that beaches often hold for bare feet, such as rocks, urchins, sea grass, or driftwood. The ground slopes away steadily from the shore, so even at low tide it’s easy to get into chin-deep water to swim. When we visited, in April, the water was usually calm.
Brilliant as Sugar Beach was by day, it held an added attraction at night. When we went out for a night-time swim—reveling in the fact that the beach was clear and clean enough to walk across in the dark—we plunged into the warm water and got a beautiful surprise. Bioluminescent plankton in the water turned every movement of our arms and legs into a shower of tiny underwater stars!
Sugar Beach has a handful of simple resorts, all sharing the same amazing stretch of sand. Ours, Bermuda Beach Resort, boasted pleasant air-conditioned rooms and a better-than-average restaurant. But one policy of the resort sent us scrambling during our last days in the Philippines.
We didn’t notice until a couple of days before checkout that the resort didn’t accept credit cards. We didn’t have enough cash to pay our bill, and it turned out that Sipalay didn’t have an ATM. The nearest cash machine was a four-hour bus ride away roundtrip. After a lot of headache, we finally managed to send ourselves cash via Western Union—from our credit card, not our bank account (which would have taken much longer to clear)—and picked up our money at the Western Union office in Sipalay, which was only a short boat and tuk-tuk ride away.
Thanks to that semi-modern technology, we were able to spend our last nontravel day in the Philippines doing what we’d come so far to do: relaxing on the beach and swimming in the tropical blue water.