On a trip to the Cebu region of the Philippines, Mary Ann Pickford discovers plenty of thrills and spills.
I can’t stop staring at the water below. It’s blue. Turquoise blue. A colour similar to tropical ocean waves lapping against sugary white beaches. Except this isn’t by the sea, this is an emerald lagoon. And I’m about to jump 10 very scary metres into it.
Taking a deep breath, I run towards the sheer drop – and into the air. For a millisecond I register the staggering beauty ahead: verdant trees, craggy rocks, a lake that looks like a huge glittering gem. Then I pierce the water and feel its coolness wash over me before I bob to the surface for air, euphoria igniting my brain.
I’m canyoning in what is quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen – Kawasan Falls. Located in the southern region of Cebu island in the Philippines, this haven abounds with lush greenery, gushing waterfalls and deep pools – with high levels of limestone minerals turning the water a striking blue.
In the run-up to this thrilling moment, my friends and I have been sliding down rocks, splashing through rivers and hiking in forests complete with Jurassic Park-esque hanging vines and gigantic leaves.
One thing clients can count on is that Cebu has epic adventure in bucketfuls. “Cebu is the most visited destination [for British visitors] outside of the capital Manila, followed by Palawan, Boracay and Bohol,” says Gerard Panga, tourism attache to the UK and director for northern and southern Europe at the Philippines Department for Tourism. He stresses that aside from beach holidays and city breaks, Brits enjoy going to the Philippines for nature, adventure and diving.
This is exactly what we experience during our exploration of the central region of the country.
After conquering another terrifying jump, this time from a waterfall at a height of 15 metres (or about three stacked London double-decker buses), we return to our homestay in Santander, an hour’s drive from Kawasan Falls, to snorkel.
Santander, on the south-east coast of the island, is a town that is off the beaten track for typical visitors. We arrived a couple of days before from Cebu City, having hired private transportation to take us the four-hour journey down. Public transport is available but it’s a lengthy trip, often without air con, so clients might find it uncomfortable – especially with the Philippines’ average highs of 30°C.
As lovely as our beach house is, with its gorgeous garden leading to the shore, we know it wouldn’t be wise to get too settled as more exciting activities await us on other islands.
According to the Tourism Promotions Board Philippines, 2018 statistics showed the UK is the top market for inbound tourism from Europe, with 4.9% of the 201,039 visitors taking part in adventure and diving activities. But with diverse terrain spanning jungle, volcano, beach and everything in between across 7,107 islands, travellers of all types will be catered for.
Nature aficionados will especially love the Chocolate Hills, a geological formation on the island of Bohol, not far from Cebu, so-called because when the grass turns brown, the peaks look like chocolate puddings.
I try to count as many mounds as I can while climbing the steep steps up to the viewing platform. Apparently there are 1,776 hills across more than 20 square miles, but I can only pick out about 30. Surrounded by this awe-inspiring sight, we relax and bask in the bright sun.
Feeling a little thirsty and in need of ice cream, we make our way back down to the complex at the foot of the observation deck. It comprises a restaurant serving local dishes, a mini-market of stalls brimming with colourful souvenirs and a tuck shop. We select our delightfully bizarre snacks (sweetcorn-flavoured ice cream, anyone?) then jump into our private van to be whisked away to see another popular attraction – the tarsiers.
These little creatures with saucer-like eyes are considered some of the smallest primates in the world, about the size of an adult’s fist. We head to the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, which is both a refuge and an organisation investing in scientific research to help protect the animals.
Just like the tarsiers, we are wide-eyed with awe as we mosey into an area of the jungle and spot one clinging on to a branch. We spy about three more in the foliage, each with their own human guardian, as these super-sensitive primates are prone to harming themselves when unduly stressed.
Wildlife encounters are abundant in the Philippines and its marine life is as varied as its landscape.
Malapascua is our third and final call and a diver’s dream. This small island lies much further north of Cebu City and enjoys a location surrounded by the warm clear waters of the Visayan Sea. It’s taken a long six-hour drive and a short boat ride to reach here, but it’s worth it.
Divers flock to Malapascua for its incredible diving and the chance to see thresher sharks, which call the deep seas nearby their home. As unqualified divers, we take a “fun dive” (about £30pp) to see the coral garden.
Our instructor takes us through the waters and we see all types of coral (blue stag-horn, branch and brain), as well as sea urchins and some tiny, colourful fish.
After all the excitement of our adventures, we end our trip by relaxing on Malapascua’s whitesand beaches, pina coladas in hand. As I gaze across calm waters reflecting the sunset, I am reminded just how stunning the Philippines is – from the depths of the sea to its highest peaks.
Book it: Hayes & Jarvis offers an eight-night Philippines Tour including Cebu, Bohol and El Nido from £3,399pp. Price includes flights departing 3 March 2020, transfers, eight nights’ accommodation on a mixed meal basis, a whale shark-watching and Kawasan Falls tour, and a Bohol tour.
Smarter: While the majority of the Philippines is generally safe, the FCO advises against all travel to western and central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the south due to terrorist activity, and all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao owing to similar threats.
Better: Suggest clients visit Kawasan Falls as early as they possibly can, as the park becomes busy quickly with both locals and visitors enjoying its surroundings.
Fairer: Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, has been considered controversial, but clients will be reassured to know this is now strictly regulated by the municipal government, with some of the visitor fees being shared out among local fishermen.
Flights: Emirates, Philippine Airlines and Singapore Airlines all fly from Heathrow or Gatwick to Cebu. Average flight time with one stopover is 16 hours.
Climate: March to May are the hottest months to visit while December to February are the coolest. Typhoon season is typically June to November.
Visa: Clients won’t need a visa for holidays fewer than 30 days.
Currency: The Philippine peso.