Island adventures in the Philippines: Exploring coastal treasures along Cebu and Palawan

Whale sharks, underground rivers and coral islands await in two of the archipelago nation’s most scenic provinces

El Nido in Palawan is a vibrant base for reef scuba dives and day cruises. Photo: Jules Bss / Unsplash
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Attempting to swim gracefully when face-to-face with a feeding whale shark is no easy task – and the effort certainly etches into the memory.

It’s not long after dawn has begun colouring the horizon on the southern coast of Cebu when the ocean surface, and the composure of our fellow adventurers, is suddenly disrupted. The briny rock stars of this popular province in the Philippines have arrived, and we are asked to exit the boat, into the water.

Hungry yet passive whale sharks, and their daily dining ritual, is the primary reason most folk travel to Oslob on the southern tip of Cebu. And today, scores of tourists have risen before the sun for an experience that keeps both locals and the friendly constellation nourished.

We are swift to debate the exploitative nature of the set-up, but a chat with one of the operators establishes that these free-roaming creatures have prospered in number following human interaction. Certainly it is a popular and, at $10 per person, bankable gig – and the relationship symbiotic.

A whole industry thrives courtesy of it, from sales of whale shark fridge magnets and waterproof phone wallets, to local cafes plying yawning tourists with breakfast.

A much-touted trip to nearby Sumilon Island – a small 24-hectare coral island lauded for its snorkelling and diving – proves less thrilling and comparably expensive, especially if you pay $30 extra to access the resort there with its walks and caves.

We instead grab a sandy spot, from which to casually witness more visitors land, many giving extra pesos to snorkel to nearby coral. Perhaps the experience is different if you go beneath the big blue.

Having brought us from our hotel, cheery motor-tricycle owner Gomar identifies a diner for a tasty lunch of local sausages and rice before we head off to the gateway of Tumalog waterfall.

With a steep 3km climb to the public entrance of this natural wonder, we instead pay the equivalent of $1 for a speedy motorbike ride to the top. The same fee gets us into a forested area where a refreshing wade in Tumalog’s pools beckons beneath tumbling water.

An enclave of macaques also lures visitors to Oslob, where an omnipresent chorus of cockerels in the main town competes at weekends with impromptu karaoke sessions in homes and cafes. Sea-facing grounds beside the impressive Cuartel Ruins and Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church draw both visitors and local families.

From here, a four-hour drive on the main coastal road leads to the contrasting comfort of Dusit Thani Mactan Cebu – not without a stop at the famed Mama Mary of Lindogon shrine at the Monastery of the Holy Eucharist, popularly known as the Simala Shrine and a treasured pilgrimage for many Roman Catholics.

Nature’s architecture dominates the peninsula setting of the Dusit Thani, where a stranded cargo ship beside the luxury resort is a surreal reminder of the 2021 typhoon that battered Cebu, including the hotel’s showpiece lobby.

The restored bar there, a vast pool and the balcony of our comfortable deluxe seaview room, all deliver vantage points to Cebu’s main island across a broad channel dotted with fishing boats.

“An incredible infinity pool facing the ocean with sunset views, and a combination of Filipino and Thai hospitality,” is how this resort stands out, says general manager and former Dubai hotelier Michael Kempf.

Leisure guests typically stay four nights and include a mix of young couples, families and mature clients travelling with siblings, explains Kempf, and it’s easy to see how it would be easy to settle in for a longer stay.

However, a short flight from the nearby international airport has us in Palawan province for contrasting adventures.

Ninety minutes drive onwards and upwards from Puerto Princesa is the Atremaru Jungle Retreat, a small and pocket-friendly resort atop rich greenery, overlooking more epic coastline.

Generous chalets provide dreamy views, while calf-testing walks along tree-lined paths lead to a beach that is deserted, except for occasional fishermen. Guests can hire a motor scooter from the hotel to reach the area’s most famous and protected attraction – the Subterranean River National Park.

While heavy rain and churning waves enliven our boat approach to the cave entrance to board a smaller vessel, the downpour doesn’t distract from the drama of the vast and popular underground river complex – one of the world’s most impressive cave systems.

A minibus ride gets us north to El Nido, a Palawan coastal municipality famed for its lagoons, rocky islets and glassy waters. The main town here buzzes with boutiques, music-filled bars and a mix of cheap eats and high-end dining, plus a street market that is ideal to pick up souvenirs.

El Nido is also a vibrant base for reef scuba dives and day cruises on adapted Bangka fishing boats into Bacuit archipelago.

The distinctive oceanic landscape is populated with jagged islands, some such as Shimizu and Miniloc yielding discreet bays or lagoons on closer inspection.

While these trips can be tranquil or rowdy, depending on the passenger mix that day, the scenery trumps everything, easily matching Vietnam’s Halong Bay for awe and the palm-fringed beaches of Thailand’s Krabi province for natural beauty. Boat crews are canny at getting us to spend more, yet amiable as they proudly discuss their homeland over delicious lunches of grilled fish and fresh salads.

Back in El Nido, we end the day sharing iPhone snaps with new boat friends over classic Pinoy dishes at a bargain beachfront restaurant, where there are no rules about dining without shoes.

Updated: July 20, 2023, 1:27 PM