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Travel & Holiday

Nature's best in Bohol

This Philippine island is rich in nature, including beautiful beaches, clear waters and fascinating hill formations
The Straits Times - June 21, 2011
By: Eddino Abdul Hadi
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Nature's best in Bohol Snorkel in the waters surrounding the eco-friendly Bohol Bee Farm in Panglao Island ib Bohol. -- ST PHOTOS: EDDINO ABDUL HADI

If a resident of Bohol hands you a piece of yam, be very careful with it.

The root vegetable, known to the locals of the island province located smack in the middle of the Philippines as 'ube' (pronounced oo-beh), is treated with the highest respect. It is a precious crop, and if you drop it, gently pick it up and kiss it as a sign of atonement.

This, as I found out on a recent visit there, is just one of the examples of the deep respect the Boholanos, as the residents are called, have for the bounties that Mother Nature has bestowed upon the island, which is the 10th largest in the Philippines.

Bohol is an ecological wonder, with pristine beaches, breathtaking snorkelling and diving sites, and panoramic geological formations, such as a series of more than 1,200 hill formations known as the Chocolate Hills.

The green grass covering these formations turns brown during the dry seasons, hence its monicker. These hills also have the distinction of being designated by the Philippine government as one of the country's protected national geological monuments.

More than just possessing natural wonders, Bohol also has a rich heritage, with plenty of churches and buildings that date back to the 1800s.

Most prominent among these is one of the oldest churches in the country, The Church Of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in the town of Baclayon, which was erected in 1727 and made from coral stones from the sea.

Tourism is definitely a growing industry for its 1.1 million residents as more local, regional and international tourists have started to discover Bohol and its satellite islands.

But visitors, take note: The local government is serious about sustainable tourism, as the governor, Mr Edgar Migrino Chatto, told Life! over dinner. While the island prepares for an increase in tourist arrivals with new hotels and resorts, policies on environmental protection are strictly enforced, he emphasised.

Island paradises

For example, sea sports such as diving are highly regulated and allowed only in designated areas to protect the coral reefs.

And you will understand why when you visit Bohol's outlying islands. They are tropical paradises with pristine, white sand and clear waters in various shades of blue, green and turquoise.

The most popular among these is Panglao island, a few minutes' drive from the main Bohol island over two bridges.

With a land size of 5,537ha, the island has both budget accommodation and high-end resorts, such as the Amorita Resort ( and Amarela ( - both nestled on a beachside cliff. The family-run Amarela is particularly cosy and homely, and the place is decorated with artworks and handiworks by local artists.

Getting up early to catch the sunrise at 5.20am is well worth it from the resort's open dining hall that looks out onto the sea.

If you want to do more than just lie on the beach, head to Dumaluan Beach Resort ( ) to check out its sea-sports offerings.

Run by the former mayor of Panglao, the resort has activities such as fly-fishing and underwater sea walks, where you literally take a walk on the sea bed while wearing a specially designed helmet that allows you to breathe underwater.

One of the island's biggest proponents of eco- tourism is Mrs Victoria Wallace, a former nurse and current owner of Bohol Bee Farm ( ) in Panglao.

It is more than just a bee farm. Visitors can choose to stay at any one of its accommodation options, which include bungalows, suites and, for the more adventurous, a villa anchored on the side of the cliff that looks out onto the sea.

Not much is wasted here - a lot of the furniture is made from recycled wood and coconut shells are used to decorate the walls and footpaths.

Mrs Wallace also employs the locals who weave raffia into fabric, which is then made by hand into handicraft.

All the restaurants within the resort serve food from ingredients mostly sourced from the organic farms onsite, which produce vegetables such as cassava, squash and, of course, yam.

The delicious dinner that I had there opened my eyes to the myriad ways that one can prepare the humble cassava. My travel mates and I were treated to cassava pizza, cassava chips and red rice mixed with cassava.

Honey products are available as well, but the most interesting dessert I had on the island has to be the farm's ginger ice cream - sharp, slightly pungent but refreshing.

Off the coast of Panglao island, a 40-minute boat ride away, is yet another little island known for its snorkelling and diving spots - Balicasag Island.

This peaceful, sleepy place is only 25ha large and the only sign of civilisation on it is the Balicasag Island Dive Resort ( html), which offers chalets for those who wish to spend the night.

Touted as one of the best dive spots in the Philippines, the resort's facilities are basic but the solitary nature of the island makes it the perfect getaway spot.

Divers who go in the months of December and January may spot whale sharks and hammerhead sharks, aside from schools of mackerels and barracudas.

Given Bohol's potential as a popular holiday destination, its governor let on that the province may get its own airport in the next four to five years.

So if you are keen on a beach holiday that is slightly off the beaten track for now, do yourself a favour and head to Bohol before everyone else does.

The trip to Bohol and Cebu was sponsored by the Philippine Department of Tourism and Cebu Pacific Air.

Cebu Pacific Air flies to Cebu once daily from $292.18 return.

Other airlines that fly the same route are SilkAir, which has daily flights starting from $336 return, and Airphil Express, from $256 return.

These flights take approximately three hours and 40 minutes.

From the Cebu Ferry Terminal, take a ferry to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol, situated on the main island.

Tickets for the fast ferries, which take about 90 minutes, cost from $23 onwards (one way), while those for the regular ferries, which take four hours, cost from $5 onwards (one way).

1 Dress decently and avoid wearing sleeveless tops or shorts when visiting the ancient churches. These are still houses of worship, so be respectful, refrain from talking loudly and, if in doubt, always ask the tourist guides or staff if photography is allowed.

2 Start your day early. The sun rises about 1/2 hours earlier than in Singapore, so set your alarm to 5.15am or so. The view of the sunrise is worth it.

3 Take at least one ride in one of the 'holy tricycles' in Bohol's capital, Tagbilaran. Each of these converted motorcycle taxis has biblical verses emblazoned on it, a legal requirement set by the local government to remind drivers to be on their best behaviour while navigating traffic.

4 Be prepared to eat a lot of fresh mangoes in Cebu as the province is said to have some of the sweetest mangoes in the country. Dried mango is also a speciality and a popular snack among locals and tourists.

5 Have lunch on one of the floating boat-restaurants that cruise along Loboc River in Bohol or on one of Cebu's island-hopping boat rides, such as the Cebu Island Buffet.

4 don'ts

1 Diving, snorkelling and other water sports such as piloting water crafts are allowed only in designated areas to minimise the impact on the marine life surrounding the islands, so do not venture beyond these boundaries.

2 If you want to avoid crowds and peak period charges, do not visit Bohol and Cebu in April or May. These are peak seasons for domestic tourists as it is the school holidays in the Philippines and accommodation usually costs more.

3 Do not forget to tip the service staff. The usual rate is 10 per cent. This is optional for establishments that impose a 10 per cent service charge.

4 Do not litter or dirty the beaches and tourist areas in Bohol. The Bohol Tourist Police Unit conducts regular patrols.



Crystal-clear in Cebu