Esther de la Cruz unwinds on the shores of Beautiful Bohol
On the sun-kissed island of Bohol, time follows a leisurely, long-established rhythm. At dawn, dolphins frolic in the waters off Panglao, a small island near the southwestern coast, while tiny tarsiers take siesta in the shade of the forest, cottony clouds dapple the Chocolate Hills in the afternoons and fireflies emerge each evening to light up the fronds along the island’s meandering rivers. Sheltered within the Philippines’ central Visayas region, Bohol’s gorgeous coastline and unspoiled countryside are fast becoming a favourite escape for nature lovers.
From Manila, a one-hour flight introduces Bohol with a picturesque descent of rolling hills and shimmering blue beaches. Two bridges connect Tagbilaran city, Bohol’s main gateway, directly with Panglao Island.
On the southwest side of Panglao, the white sand of Alona Beach stretches for a kilometre and a half, sprinkled with tiki bars, resorts, massage tents and restaurants. High tide presents fabulous spots for swimming, while low tide reveals sea grass and starfish. As the sun sets behind a wall of palms, Philippine eagles can be seen returning to roost against the glowing sky.
Dawn comes gently in Bohol, as the native banca boats converge in the waters off Balicasag Island, home to 11 species of dolphins and whales, including – when the stars align – the blue whale. On days when the weather is nice, dolphins break the surface in pairs and pods, jumping and swimming just metres away from the cameras of thrilled tourists.
Balicasag Reef, a protected marine sanctuary and one of the Philippines’ top snorkeling sites, is teeming with colourful fish, giant clams, eels and more than a few sea turtles. Scuba divers can discover the best of Bohol’s dive sites with the help of professional local guides, and swimmers should not miss the soft, crescent-shaped sandbar and turquoise water of Virgin Island.
Naturally, nothing caps off a morning spent on the beach like an island picnic. With their toes still in the sand, island-hoppers feast on fresh mangoes, buttered crab, salmon sinigang (sour soup) and grilled squid, before heading back to the air-conditioned comfort of their hotels
Not far from the action on Alona Beach, Momo Beach House is tucked away on one of Panglao’s quieter shores. Life goes on as usual around this charming, 16-room resort: fishermen cast their lines, children play on the sands and women cook over open fires. Momo Beach House exudes a cosy B&B atmosphere, where guests can soak up the sea air surrounded by bright marine hues, salvaged wood furniture and gauzy curtains.
Peace and privacy aside, Momo Beach House offers just enough diversion to keep guests occupied. Staff will happily organise tours of the island, set up bonfire suppers, lend kayaks and volleyballs or carry a cocktail from the Beach Tree Café to your chosen hammock or lounge chair around the pool. When the need for entertainment strikes, the resort’s shuttle departs to Alona Beach and the five-star facilities at Momo’s sister resort, Amorita.
And while Panglao’s breezy beaches make for a comfortable base, most of Bohol’s best attractions await in the island’s lush interior.
Legends swirl around the origins of Bohol’s curious limestone mounds known as the Chocolate Hills. Equal parts geological marvel and fantastic dreamscape, these perfectly-formed hills — named for their earthy colour in the dry season – rise from verdant plains to draw a gently undulating horizon.
Not far from the Chocolate Hills lives one of the world’s tiniest primates. Small, shy and sensitive, the tarsier may grow to a height of four inches, with each of its eyes as large as its brain. The Philippine tarsier is classified as ‘near-threatened’, and a sanctuary in the town of Corella is dedicated to keeping this fascinating creature from extinction.
Most travellers on a standard countryside tour will glimpse the Loboc River aboard a festive lunch cruise. A lucky few will join the mesmerising firefly tour by banca available only from Loboc River Resort. But for genuine explorers, stand-up paddleboarding offers a more compelling way to experience the island’s tranquil waterways.
SUP Tours Philippines is making waves in this quiet part of the world with its tours on two of Bohol’s biggest rivers. Safe and easy even for first-timers, SUP Tours’ half-day Loboc River excursion winds upstream to Busay Falls, past scenes of daily life, tidy riverside homes, father-and-son fishing tandems and an inviting cold spring. Gliding between green riverbanks under the tropical sky, with no soundtrack other than the calls of exotic birds and the swish of the paddle in the water, is about as close as one can come to feeling the pulse of Bohol itself.