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Cebu, Philippines: A family trip to the paradise island, surprisingly easy to get to from Singapore

By: Katie Roberts

While Boracay tends to hog the limelight, there are thousands of other islands that invite exploration in the Philippines. In Cebu, large resorts dominate the area close to the airport, but just an hour and a half north is a relatively unknown piece of paradise. Alegre Beach Resort, on the fine sand beaches of Sogod, is an idyllic place to unwind, as my family recently discovered.

See all the photos from my lovely island trip in the gallery above

With work, school, sport and social commitments accounting for almost all my 112 waking hours in the week, there’s rarely time to just veg out. The diary is bursting at the seams, and even a Sunday afternoon snooze is a rare luxury. So our family of four was eagerly looking forward to an affordable five-day break on Cebu, an island that we’d heard only good things about. We left on an early morning flight with the agenda mapped out in advance: no driving, no worrying and no hurrying.

Set on seven hectares of beachfront (including an orchid farm) and with just 42 rooms, the 22-year-old Alegre Beach Resort is a spacious oasis built for relaxation. From the first introductions, the warm and welcoming staff chatted to us like old friends. They quickly learnt all our names, as we did theirs. The nicknames proved the most entertaining (for everyone), with waiter July explaining he was actually born in April. After listening to the chatter, my cheeky son said with a big grin to receptionist Apple, “Hi, you look yummy!”

Apart from the lush, park-like surroundings and 100-strong, good-natured staff, we found much to enjoy at Alegre.

Reef revelling


Snorkelling must be one of the most relaxing activities ever invented, and the eight-hectare reef at Alegre’s Marine Reserve is perfect for hours of floating among fish and coral. Cheerful Linda at the Aqua Sports Centre kitted us out with snorkels, masks and fins on our first afternoon, so we could go any time the urge struck – which was about three times daily! Scuba diving is popular here, too.

Buoys clearly define a snorkelling area that excludes boats, so it’s very safe. When local dive instructor Lew had a half-hour to spare, he showed us giant clams and a black-and-white sea snake, and together we looked for the sea turtles that are often spotted here.

The Marine Reserve is legally protected. Over the past two decades the staff at Alegre have worked hard to preserve this beautiful but fragile ecosystem. Unfortunately, it is threatened by illegal work on the foreshore – sneaky fishermen exploiting the bounty of these waters – and all-too regular-typhoons. In-house marine biologist Geri told us that efforts to monitor the reef include yearly fish counts and coral surveys. Coral is also planted to assist regeneration.

There’s a wide diversity of fish, and numerous Nemos (that’s clown fish) living in the soft sea anemones provide endless fascination for the children. At eight and 10 they are accomplished snorkellers; the water here is shallow and calm enough for beginners and younger children, too. Knowing the swimming abilities of my two, I felt comfortable enough to stay out of earshot of the eight-year-old, who talked non-stop into his snorkel and scared off the fish!

The sheltered palm grove with beach bar, hammocks and large shady trees was a relaxing spot for sand-castle building without the risk of sunburn. We were happy at the beach, but Alegre also has a very large pool.

Long, lazy meals

A leisurely two-hour breakfast is an absolute luxury after the usual five-minute rush on school mornings. More so when the backdrop is 180-degree ocean views and the plates are laden with crispy bacon and perfect pancakes. They were so delicious that we almost ate our own body weight in bacon and pancakes, after a healthy start of fresh mango and pineapple.

For other meals we alternated between the restaurant and the relaxed beach bar, tucking into the pizzas and salads for lunch – and the odd San Miguel. The resort’s remote location means other restaurant options are a drive away in Cebu city, which could be combined with a night or day excursion. Room service is also available.

The dinner menu included enough reasonably priced (S$10 to $14) Filipino and Western options to keep us all interested for five nights. Highly recommended is dinner under the stars at a private table by the beach with a Filipino menu of whole deep-fried fish, deep-fried pork belly and marinated fish in coconut milk and herbs. And, after a day of snorkelling, there is absolutely no reason not to have banana fritters for dessert.

Cabanas

Each thatch-roofed, freestanding cabana has two separate rooms. There’s an inter-connecting door – larger families or those wanting more space might book both rooms. One room was spacious enough for the four of us to bunk in together in the two double beds. The enormous marble bathrooms have a spa, separate shower and toilet, lots of thick white towels, robes, and a large wardrobe with a safe.

Cabanas one to 10 are recommended, as their patios open directly onto a grassy lawn, perfect for kids to play safely. Other cabanas rise up the hill and all have stunning views of the sparking sea and Bohol Island in the distance.

Kayaks and boats

Messing about in double kayaks is great family fun, especially when the water is calm. We paddled about and explored the rocky cliff faces and a fourth little beach that’s not accessible by foot. The kids were keen to do this daily, enjoying the adventure, playing with innumerable hermit crabs and looking at the countless shells.

One morning we took a boat trip to Capitancillo Islet (picture, next page), a coral atoll an hour’s cruise away on a traditional outrigger boat. The tiny islet has a lighthouse built in the 60s and century-old, crumbling quarters built by the Spanish. It’s now a protected zone for diving and snorkelling. A leisurely walk around the islet takes less than 10 minutes, so it’s a place to relax, eat a picnic and look at the shells and coral. While

the snorkelling wasn’t great due to the strong current and poor visibility, we managed to swim a lap around the island.

Things To Do

As a break from the beach, we played bad pool and dangerous darts in the Games Room. Explore the resort by bike, or take a walk along the pretty sea cliff. The hotel also has a half-day tour which takes in local highlights including the wet markets at Bogo, a bush snail farm, the Shrine of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal and observing the day-to-day activities.

The highlight of the in-house spa is the hilot, a traditional healing practice re-interpreted into a unique massage therapy. The best bit is the application of warm, soothing coconut oil on the back, upon which the therapist lays strips of banana leaf, apparently to draw out the knots. I’m not sure about that, but the 60-minutes passed in a blissful flash.

Go soon, and tell them I sent you.

Island of contrasts

This year, Cebu rated eighth in the world’s top ten cities for outsourced manufacturing and production. Big employers include numerous call centres, a Mitsumi electrical components plant and a Timex watch factory.

In contrast, travelling in the far north of the island around Bogo city, economic inequality is plain to see. Farmers scratch a living from small plots of land in the hills, living in simple, corrugated iron houses. These people were hardest hit by the November 2013 typhoon that carved a path of destruction through the island’s northern half and left the south largely untouched.

When we visited at the beginning of this year, relief centres were still handing out food parcels and distributing corrugated iron sheets and nails for house-rebuilding. Independent of NGOs, Alegre staff delivered relief goods to 1,000 households and supplied building materials for 226 homes.

Make it happen

Numerous airlines ply the 3.5-hour route to Cebu, and the resort will arrange hassle-free transfers to Alegre.

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