Last March, we spent several weeks beach bumming from one island to another in the Visayas region of the Philippines. We started out in the northern tip of Cebu, staying for over a week in Malapascua and Bantayan Island, then moved south to Dumaguete and Siquijor.
March was really the perfect month to visit the islands. There were hardly any rains, the weather was comfortably warm, the sea was generally calm, and the sunsets were absolutely gorgeous.
The weeks I spent in the beach were some of the most relaxing I’ve had in the last few years. I have just finished my 3-year dermatology residency training and was studying for the board exams, so apart from reading my textbooks a few hours each day, I was basically free to just do nothing and have fun. And doing nothing was such a welcome change from the last three years’ hectic tempo.
And so, after almost 12 hours of transit from Manila using four different means of transportation (car – plane – bus – boat), we found ourselves on the first of many gorgeous islands: Malapascua.
Malapascua is an island 6.8 kilometers from the northernmost tip of Cebu in the Visayas region of the Philippines. It’s an excellent base for visiting several dive spots where you can swim with thresher sharks and manta rays, but its white sand beaches decked in colorful flags attract non-diving beach bums like me as well.
The island is pretty easy to navigate: the south and southeastern border of the island is lined by Bounty Beach, which is a long stretch of white sand lined by resorts and restaurants. West of Bounty Beach is a sort of “downtown” area with shops, markets, and a village fair of some sort where the locals play during the evenings. The northern parts of the island have several secluded white sand beaches that you can reach by walking (it’s a long walk, but doable!) or chartering a boat.
During our entire stay, I was always on the lookout for kinilaw – a dish of raw fish chemically cooked in vinegar and citrus juices like lemon or calamansi, similar to ceviche. While we do have kinilaw in Manila and I can actually make it myself, they have an infinitely more delicious way of preparing it in Cebu. The Cebuanos add coconut milk which blends in such a perfect, surprising way with the vinegar. I have to admit that when the prospect of spending summer in Cebu came up, the first thought I had was: yay, Cebuano kinilaw!
My love affair with Malapascua and kinilaw actually began in 2013, during my first visit to the island. I was on my first year of residency training then and had no vacation leaves. I was on 24-hour duty every other day from January to June, so all I could do was watch beautiful summer days go by from the windows of the hospital. But in August, a lucky duty schedule coincided with a national Monday holiday, which gave me a three-day weekend! So off to Malapascua I went.
My friend and I then proceeded to get drunk on happy-hour margaritas, a parade of hunky European men in tiny swim shorts, and endless views of the sea. For pulutan – a Tagalog term for food eaten with alcohol, somewhat analogous to Spanish tapas – we ordered kinilaw. It tasted so good and so unlike any we’ve tasted in Manila that a few greedy bites later, we gave up our prime-spot beach chairs and went to the bar to pester the waitress into giving up the recipe.
While expertly scooping mangoes from the skin using a glass, the waitress recited the steps to making kinilaw: cut raw fish into cubes, cook in vinegar, drain vinegar, add onions, ginger, and calamansi, squeeze in coconut milk –
“Squeeze?” I interrupted her. Margaritas combined with residual seasickness after being thrashed around by the moody August waves that morning have made my mind lethargic.
Our waitress asked her colleagues for the proper term – she had been speaking in Tagalog for my sake although her main language was Bisaya – but they all came up with the term piga which was “squeeze” in Tagalog. It took me a moment to realize that coconut milk in this island actually came from coconut meat – and not packets of powdered flavoring that I was used to cooking with in Manila.
That was when I realized why food in the island tasted infinitely better than what I’ve been eating in the last couple of years first as a medical student, then as a resident. Everything was made fresh – fish fresh from the sea, vegetables freshly picked from gardens, coconut milk freshly squeezed. I was not only escaping the dreary white walls of the hospital, the miserable 5-km-per-hour traffic, and the mind-numbing 24-hour duties. I was also taking a break from years of canned tuna, instant noodles, and freeze-dried convenience store food. This was the island life!
Unfortunately, kinilaw was not to be had on my most recent trip. Every cook from each of the restaurants we visited for our meals had to woefully inform me that kinilaw was not available, particularly after noontime. Because it’s raw fish, it is best to prepare and eat it in the morning, while the day’s catch was still fresh. And since this was the trip where commitments were basically nonexistent, I couldn’t take up the cooks’ offers to take an advance order from me. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to make it myself — or come back to Cebu again.
The highlight of our time there was a day trip to Kalanggaman Island, an island in Palompon 2 hours by boat from Malapascua. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because there are absolutely no words.
It was difficult to tear myself from Malapascua, but soon enough it was time to head to another island. 7,107 islands — we couldn’t very well stay put in one.
The Bantay at Bantayan Island – “Bantay” is a Filipino word which means “to guard.” One of the most common names given to native dogs like this is Bantay – and the island surely had an army of guard dogs.
From Malapascua, we chartered a boat to Bantayan. It was a long 4-hour boat ride we mostly spent in silence as talking over the sound of the engine was impossible, but as soon as we caught a glimpse of the island, I immediately knew Bantayan was going to be another addition to the long slew of islands that I’ve fallen in love with.
We were treated to a vast expanse of powdery white sand and deep blue water shimmering under the noontime sun. Several boats were docked in some parts and a few children were drawing with sticks on the sand. Apart from a few tourists with cool drinks and contented smiles, the beach was completely empty.
We then made our way to the city center for some lunch where I introduced my foreigner friends to the amazing dessert known as brazo de Mercedes – rolled soft meringue filled with custard. Yes, it’s as mouth-watering as it sounds. After that first encounter, we had brazo almost daily, going back to that same food stall many times during our stay.
Of course, brazo is not a Bantayan exclusive. You can find it in a lot of places in the Philippines and I really suggest that you try it when you do – it will change your life, I promise.
We stayed mostly in the Santa Fe area. Our resort had a really nice beachfront and the town center was a 5-minute walk away. We mostly got around on foot or by tricycles. There are some nice secluded beaches you can trek to.
Bantayan is mostly a beach-bumming sort of place. There are some snorkeling spots just a little bit off the island and then there’s the gorgeous Virgin Island just a short boat ride away.
Virgin Island – an island a few minutes’ boat ride from Bantayan in Cebu
Care for some island art?
Young entrepreneurs selling seashell jewelry along the coast.
Dumaguete was a brief stop-over for us before heading to Siquijor.
It’s a nice, quiet university town with city comforts such as a mall, ATMs at every corner, a coffee shop, and pharmacies where we restocked on sunscreen and toiletries.
Easily the highlight of our brief stay was stuffing our faces with cake at the Sans Rival Bistro along Rizal Boulevard, near the port going to Siquijor. Sans rival – a cake made of layers of buttercream, meringue, and chopped cashews – has always been one of my favorite desserts, but the one in Dumaguete is my absolute favorite.
Siquijor is an island I never thought I’d be spending five days in.
Not that Siquijor has little to offer. Quite contrary, Siquijor is one of those hidden gems of the Philippines that visitors quite have a hard time leaving.
I feel silly writing it now but I hesitated to join my friend in continuing the journey south of Cebu to Siquijor because of witches. I know, it’s crazy! But back then when I was deciding if I wanted to go to Siquijor, my problem with witches felt very real and powerful.
I’ve been to Siquijor once before when I was still in high school and I remember our rushed half-day tour of the island being punctuated by gorgeous beaches and eerie churches. On that first trip, we were on a ship out of the island by 5 PM. “You can’t stay in Siquijor after sundown” has always been one of life’s odd truisms for me since then.
Until my friend suggested we go to Siquijor. I resisted the idea for several days, sticking to my vague plan of heading back to Cebu City after Bantayan Island to hang out with another friend who lives in the city. But as the days went by, the idea of Siquijor became increasingly appealing. And so it was that I found myself on a ferry to Siquijor, witches be damned. (Awful choice of expression, I know.)
It was noontime when we stepped out of Larena port in Siquijor. We made our way to our resort in San Juan and settled down for lunch. Understanding full well the concept of “island time,” we placed our orders and then asked for a glass each of Cuba Libre to sip on while we waited for our one-hour sinigang.
After a disclaimer that she is not the regular bartender, our shy waitress proceeded to hide behind the bar and concoct our rum cokes, laughing with her colleague as they both tried to guess what goes into the drink. At this time, I sent a message to a friend in Manila to update her of my whereabouts.
My friend replied with an army of little shocked emojis with eyes and mouths wide open, blue clouds of gloom above their heads. And then a cryptic – and highly impractical – advice: “Do not accept any form of beverage handed to you.”
But I wasn’t about to refuse the drink the waitress finally set on the table, glistening and beckoning at me. As I downed half my drink in one gulp, the tartness of the calamansi, the sweetness of the rum, and the fizziness of the cola mingling into one fantastic mix, I realized how these silly superstitions have kept us all away from Siquijor.
“You didn’t think you’d come to Siquijor, and yet here you are,” my friend said, as we clinked our glasses. Cheers to that indeed.
The next day, I did another thing I never thought I’d ever do.
Back in 2012, when I was a newly-minted physician taking a break from life, I moonlighted for a while in Boracay. In just over a week, I saw all the ways the party beach town can assault its guests – jelly fish stings, parasailing fractures, decompression sickness, sea urchin spines, STDs… But the most traumatizing for me were the motorcycle muffler burns which left hideous scars on the legs of my patients. Anyone who’s known me for an hour (and has seen me check myself out on every reflective surface in the world) knows how extremely vain I am about my legs and I swore I would never ever ever ride a motorbike.
I kept true to this word, until Siquijor summoned. There I was, riding on the back of a motorbike, wind in my hair, the sun in my eyes. I couldn’t care less about the exhaust pipe steaming dangerously close to my legs – this phobia was pushed to the very back of my mind as we rode past lush green forests, ancient churches, timeworn huts, and glimpses of the turquoise sea. The island was a potion and I was under its spell.
And that thing about sundown and Siquijor? That afternoon, as we watched the sky slowly turn from rose to purple to deep blue, the backdrop of mountains and palm trees blending into silhouettes, I scanned the horizon for outlines of creatures in pointy hats and broomsticks. But there was nothing – only a mystical, bewitching sky.
We were treated to daily sunsets like these.
If you can try to tear yourself from a lazy day in Siquijor, the nearby Apo Island is a great place for snorkeling and diving.
One of Apo Island’s resident sea turtles.
I initially intended to make this a photo essay but somehow it morphed into a 2,700plus-word ode to summer and the sea.
If you’re looking to spend some time in the Philippines, the Visayas region is a great place to look into. It’s island life at its finest – friendly locals, fresh sea foods, yummy Visayan cuisine, and a laidback vibe. It’s easy getting there and getting around – it’s the leaving that’s a bit tricky.
For other summer destinations in the Philippines – check this out.