Cebu: a haven for history buffs and beach lovers

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Of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines, I've just touched down in Cebu, the tourist gateway to the central and southern parts of the country. I'm here with Emirates to put the region, which last year attracted more than 3.5 million visitors, to the test. Cebu is more accessible to travellers now. A fortnight ago, Emirates launched a daily circular service from Dubai to Cebu/Clark, which offers tourists and the 900,000 or so Filipino workers based in the UAE more fare choices and a shorter return journey home.

Cebu is in the Central Visayas region and one of the country’s 81 provinces, which itself is made up of 167 islands and islets. Cebu City is its capital and continues to evolve as a key hub for furniture-­making, business-­processing and heavy industry. Cebu is a long, narrow island stretching 225 kilometres from north to south, renowned for its beaches, dive sites and impressive history.

As we make our way from ­Mactan-Cebu International Airport to the Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort & Spa, our base for the next few days, the streets are bustling. It’s 5.30pm, which means peak-hour traffic on the roads. After nine hours of travel, you’d think we’d be spent, but the half-hour bus ride provides a welcome taste of Cebu before we immerse ourselves in it the next day.

There are motorbikes and Jeepneys – the stretch people-­carriers that came to life at the end of the Second World War when the Americans moved out – zigging and zagging through the streets. We pass by road stalls and “Vote 1 Manny Pacquiao” posters, one sign of the upcoming elections in which the champion boxer and the country’s favourite son is contesting a senate seat.

As we drive into the resort, we’re stopped by security, the bus is scanned and a sniffer dog put to good use, something we’ll get used to during our stay. Once we get the green light, it’s time to ­enjoy a relaxed evening of Filipino hospitality and a performance by a man we’re told is something of a legend in these parts – “the Michael Jackson of the Philippines” – Gary Valenciano.

The next morning we wake to a clear summer’s day, and after a hearty breakfast it’s time to delve into Cebu’s history. Cebu City is an hour’s bus ride from the resort, and we need to cross the Mactan Channel and make our way through the neighbouring Port area to get there.

There are many reasons people come to Cebu and its Spanish colonial past is one of them. The Basilica Minore del Santo Niño church, Magellan’s Cross and Fort San Pedro are all in the city centre, as is the country’s oldest street, Colon Street, named after Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon).

“The Cebu province is divided into municipalities and cities. Mactan Island [where we’re staying] is divided into two – Lapu-Lapu and the municipality of Cordova,” says Neri Patalinghug, our Cebuano guide, as he helps landmark us geographically.

He says that secondary to where we are and where we are going, it is important we ­understand the locals. “One of the traits of the people is that they are very hospitable, and in fact, with regard to the kids running in the streets, if they see foreigners they are very open and will say: ‘Hey, Joe.’ That is the generic term,” he adds with a smile, as a couple of women in a nearby Jeepney wave at us, proving his point.

It was back in 1521 that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the island of Homonhon. It is said he established friendly relations with some of the local leaders, especially Rajah Humabon (the ruler of Cebu at the time), and converted some of them to Roman Catholicism. The group explored many islands until Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan in April 1521. During our tour, I learn that Spanish colonisation began when Miguel López de Legazpi landed here on February 13, 1565. It was he who established the first permanent settlement right here in Cebu.

It’s worth noting that after 333 years of rule, Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Philippines became a colony of the United States. The country wasn’t granted ­Commonwealth status until 1935, and subsequent plans for independence over the next decade were interrupted by the Second World War when the Japanese Empire invaded.

Fort San Pedro, the country’s oldest and smallest fort, is our first stop. Initially built of wood, it served as a military defence base under Legazpi’s rule. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that a stone fort was built. The fort has served as an army structure, a rebel stronghold and a zoo. It is triangular with two sides facing the sea and a third facing land.

After a short walk around, we jump into tartanilla – horse-drawn carriages that were common modes of transport during the Spanish occupation – and head to Magellan’s Cross. It was planted by Portuguese and Spanish explorers on the orders of Magellan. Apparently, the crucifix contains a few splinters from the actual cross Magellan planted back in 1521. “In five more years this structure will be 500 years old,” our heritage tour guide Cebuano Rory Bacolod says, as we take it all in. “The paintings on the ceiling were added in 1965.”

As we walk into the small chapel it’s housed in, I can’t help but be impressed. While not quite on the same scale, it is almost like being in Rome’s Sistine Chapel. Half the dome shows the ­baptism of Humabon, while the other shows the erection of a wooden cross on Cebu’s shores. These events marked the seeds of Christianity, and three centuries of Spanish colonisation. The cross is next to the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño – the country’s oldest Roman Catholic church, built on the spot where the image of Santo Niño de Cebú – a statue depicting the infant child Jesus – was found by Legazpi in 1565. The church was burnt to the ground three times, only to be rebuilt in its current form in 1737. And in 2013, when the Bohol earthquake hit, the church’s belfry toppled and the cross was cracked, but neither is noticeable today.

While the historical centre of Cebu is certainly interesting, if history is not your idea of a fun island holiday you’re not alone: there are plenty of tourists who come here solely for the beaches, diving and snorkelling.

The Philippines is part of the “coral triangle” and has more species of fish and corals than any other marine environment on the planet. In Oslob, a three-hour drive down the coast, it’s possible to swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, and while I’m disappointed it’s not on our schedule, it should be on yours.

“Definitely go and see the whale sharks,” both our guides say, when I ask them what they consider is the one must-do Cebuano experience for visitors.

As we board our motorised banca the next morning, it’s a brilliant blue-sky day and, ­although humid, the ocean breeze and clear waters are refreshing, and it’s nice to be out on the open ­water. Shortly after setting off, we anchor near Gilutungan Island to feed the fish, which we do off the side of the boat. After about 20 minutes we forge on to Nalusuan Island, a popular swimming and snorkelling spot. Incredibly, of the 500 coral species in the world, the waters here are said to have 488 of them. Combine this with the thousands of species of marine life and you’re certain to see hundreds of different fish, and even sea turtles, just as we did.

We swim among the fish for a couple of hours, enjoying the amazing corals beneath us before heading back aboard for a barbecue lunch. We’re urged to dig in using our hands, just as the Filipinos do. There are fresh crabs, grilled king prawns, squid and local fish (anduhaw), salads and my favourite, mango – the country’s national fruit – for dessert.

On the way back to shore, I think back to the other things this island has to offer, things I didn’t know before I came: Guitar-making is a thriving industry here. The popular instruments are made by hand from locally sourced wood in workshops in and around Cebu. South Sea island pearls are a precious commodity here and can be worth a small fortune. The material of the men’s national dress shirt is made from pineapple leaves and is see-through, which meant that back in the day the authorities were able to spot if a man was armed. And a “Yoda” chair, designed by famous Filipino furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue and sat in by the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at last year’s Apec summit, recently fetched Dh246,000 at auction.

As I sit on the Emirates airplane as we make our way to Clark, where we’ll make a short stop on the way back to Dubai, I close my eyes and think to ­myself, Cebu could well be a cheaper alternative to the Maldives. At times it felt like you could be anywhere in the world: the Maldives, the Seychelles, Fiji or the Cook Islands. As for what the upcoming elections might do to change that, we’ll have to wait and see.