Photos by: Philip Pilapil & Anna Oposa
If you search “Cebu” in Google Images, you will be introduced to a world of palm trees, white sand beaches, and bluer-than-blue waters. I am proud to say that I was born in this slice of paradise. We moved to Manila when I was only three months old, but we go back to Cebu every summer. Manila and Cebu are often compared to each other because they’re both busy, vibrant, and charged with energy. But Cebu is like Manila’s younger sibling—it has its own charm, spunk, and eclecticism. Your Cebu itinerary will be filled with activities and attractions different from a Manila trip. It carries its own language, culture, and cuisine. Every time I fly back to Manila, I get separation anxiety attacks. There’s always that twinge of sadness when I board the plane.
East meets West
Cebu is only an hour away from Manila by plane. Because it has its own international airport, the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, you can choose to fly straight to Cebu from Singapore, Hong Kong, or Korea, among others. You will touchdown in the same place that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set foot on back in 1521, making Cebu the very first Spanish settlement in the Philippines. He reportedly planted a cross when he arrived. That treasured Cebuano landmark is located on Magallanes Street, a twenty-minute cab ride away from the airport without heavy traffic. The original Magellan’s Cross is encased in wood to prevent visitors from bring home bits and pieces of the relic. Just a hop and skip away is the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño (Church of the Holy Child), the first Catholic Church in the country. It also houses the oldest Santo Niño statue in the Philippines. Magellan handed that very statue to King Humabon, chieftain of Cebu, and Queen Juana, his wife, during their Catholic baptism on the same year he arrived.
Cebu City is more metropolitan than other provinces, so the best and most convenient way to go around is by taxi. A ten-minute drive from Magallanes Street will lead you to Fort San Pedro, another goldmine in Philippine history. The entrance fee of PhP 21 (±USD .42) allows you to explore the smallest and oldest walled city in our archipelago. This citadel served as the home base of the earliest Spanish settlers, barracks and classrooms during the American regime, and a fort for the Japanese soldiers. It now has a National Museum that displays a shipwreck. There are no tour guides in the Fort, but there are pathways for you to retrace the steps of its former inhabitants.
Up high, down low
One of the best things about Cebu is how everything in the city is fifteen to twenty minutes away. For Manila-based people like me, anything below thirty minutes is a luxury! If you want cool weather and a bird’s eye view of the entire city and its neighboring islands, Tops is only fifteen minutes away from the city’s Lahug area. It is a view deck in Busay Hills 2,000 feet above sea level! If you don’t have a friend from Cebu to bring you there, you can either rent a car or hire a taxi to bring you there and back. Our cab fare was PhP 700 (±USD 14) to and from the city. The entrance fee to Tops is PhP 100 (±USD 2). The best time to go is late afternoon, so you get to see the metro and neighboring islands Mactan and Olango in its entirety during the day and watch the sun set. By early evening, the city links will sparkle and wink at you. There are no restaurants inside Tops, but there’s a row of cottages for picnics where you can hold barbeques and small gatherings. There is a bell in Tops that you must ring three times for true love. (I was once there with my then-boyfriend. We broke up but have remained very good friends, so there must be a bit of truth into that superstition.)
For a beach trip like no other, avail yourselves of Islands Banca Cruises. Their boats can accommodate up to thirty-five people. Islands Banca offers a variety of packages: island hopping (there are five islands to choose from), dolphin watching, snorkeling, or scuba diving. You can couple it with a dinner by the sunset, lunch, and/or massage! The best part is, you can email your ideal plan and itinerary to Islands Banca and they’ll email you back with how much it will cost per person. My two friends and I headed to Mactan (yep, you guessed it, twenty minutes away from the city!) and boarded a boat that was equipped with an iPod dock, Wi-Fi (not that you’d want to bother with Facebook in the middle of the sea), and comfy white beanbags that we dragged to the sunbathing deck. We went snorkeling at the Gilutungan Marine Sanctuary (and yes, we found Nemo) and had lunch on a deserted sandbar. It was the best PhP 1,900 (±USD 38) we spent each.
There is one thing you must know about Cebuanos. They take a lot of pride in their language. The best expressions to learn is, “Lami kaayo,” which means “very delicious!” in English. With the buffet of dishes that Cebu has to offer, you’ll be saying this a lot.
Every visitor must try Cebu lechon. Lechon is a roasted pig usually served in special occasions. I am a lechon snob; unless it’s Cebu lechon, I won’t eat it. In fact, Cebu lechon is the reason why I don’t think I could ever be vegetarian. Even host/writer/chef Anthony Bourdain thinks lechon is the best way to consume roasted pork! Unlike other lechon in the Philippines, you do not eat Cebu lechon with sauce. The well loved brands are Rico’s Lechon, found in barangay Talamban, and Zubuchon, located at the Banilad Town Center and the pre-departure area of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. One lechon can satiate about twenty-five to forty people and costs about PhP 2,000 to 4,000 (±USD 40-80). It is best paired with puso, which is rice cooked inside woven coconut leaves. Puso is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. If stress is on the first syllable, it means heart in Filipino! It costs about PhP 2-5 (±USD 0.04-0.10).
For another uniquely Filipino dish, go to Alejandro’s Filipino Resto on Don Jose Avila St., Capitol Site, and try their crispy pata (fried pork thigh). It’s so good I highly suggest you have the Cebu lechon before taking a bite of this—
imagine the deep-fried golden brown skin that’s so delicate and crisp that it cracks with a slight tap of a spoon to unveil the fluffly light fat and the sweet pink pork. Like most Filipinos, I am a condiment addict (you will notice most dishes are served with a variety of condiments or the dish itself has it’s own sauce, sometimes it has both!), but the pork was so tasty I didn’t even bother! It is so sinfully delicious that you’ll burst into Lady Gaga’s hit: “Don’t call my name, don’t call my name, Alejandro!”
Cebu is brimming with hole-in-the-wall gastronomical gems. Handuraw Pizza is a pizza place like no other. The branch on Gordoro Avenue, near University of the Philippines-Cebu, is inside an ancestral home where artworks by local artists are displayed. The Handuraw Special, their bestseller, is loaded with toppings such as ham, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, and bell peppers. Pizza Cebuana offers unique blend of chorizo de Cebu, white cheese, and mozzarella cheese. All the mouth-watering pizzas are PhP 300-340 only (±USD 6-6.80).
Also on Gordoro Avenue is Turtle's Nest. It is an artist’s haven, with a small gallery, library, and café. It’s owned by a graffiti/mural artist, which explains why the walls are covered with graffiti art. It’s the perfect place to meet visual artists, musicians, and writers. It’s a place to unwind, have a cup of coffee, or share a few bottles of beer.
At the entrance of Paradise Village in Banilad (across the Banilad Town Center) is 30 Kitchen + Bar. It’s a miniscule restaurant that’s easy to miss because it can only hold about fifteen people at one time. But the small capacity keeps the spot cozy, and the intimate ambiance fits perfectly with the home-cooked dishes. During the day, do try Constantine (the panini stuffed with Angus beef, lettuce, and barbeque sauce), the chicken skin, and chorizo. At night, order the deadly drink called Yen’s Confusion. After one too many drinks, you may find out why Yen was so confused.
Get this party started
If there’s one thing Cebuanos know how to do and do well, it’s partying. Every third Sunday of the January, the entire Cebu celebrates the Sinulog Festival to pay homage to Holy Child. People from all over the Philippines travel to Cebu just to party with the Cebuanos. It’s best to buy your plane tickets at least three months ahead. As the date nears, the ticket prices soar up to twice the price! The name comes from the dance performed during the event, which mirrors the movement of the current, or the sulog. Everyone goes out in the streets to dance, drink, and watch the parade. For club-hoppers, head to Crossroads in Banilad, which has a strip of clubs and bars. VUDU is arguably the most popular club. It offers something different every night. A lot of the country’s best singers hail from Cebu, which is why it’s no surprise that there’s VUDUeoke Tuesdays. Guests are free to sing with a live band to unleash their inner rock star. The ladies are treated like queens on Wednesdays Femme. Déjà VUDU Thirstdays are dedicated hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s and rock bands that play songs from U2, Dave Matthews, and Coldplay songs live. And of course, weekends are for the hardcore party animals.
Dreaming of Cebu
If Meg Ryan was sleepless in Seattle, you will be sleeping soundly in Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort and Spa. It’s a thirteen-hectare property that provides a commanding view of the Visayan seas, dubbed as the “center of marine biodiversity on Earth.” White sand and blue waters are literally in your backyard. Inside Shangri-La is Cowrie Cove, a cozy restaurant set by the sea. With the sea and stars as your setting, Cowrie Cove is the perfect place to wine and dine with your partner. Set aside about PhP 1500 (±USD 30) per person per meal.
And when you finally get to close your eyes, you will still see the many splendid sights of Cebu: the historical Fort, the delicious lechon, the glittering sea… And when you do get to sleep, you’ll be dreaming of your next vacation in the very same slice of Philippine paradise.
At a glance
Shangri-la Mactan Resort and Spa
Punta Engano Road, Lapu-lapu, Cebu
(63 32) 231 0288
Alejandro’s Filipino Resto
Along Don Jose Avila St., Capitol Site, Cebu City (behind Cebu Doctors Hospital, near Cebu Vacation Hotel
(63 32) 253 7921
Islands Banca Cruises
(63 32) 516 1903
(63 917) 630 0736
(63 917) 710 0300
Distance – Approximately 351.2 kilometers from Manila
Travel Time – Approximately 45 minutes away via plane
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