Easy, Breezy Bohol
Bohol is well known in the Philippines as a triple-threat tourist destination, with beaches, the Chocolate Hills and the tarsier, a tiny native primate. But I came to Bohol with grand plans of venturing far off the usual itinerary. I was headed to faraway, isolated beaches and the jungle interior. I would feel like I was on Lost, well, without the smoke monster. Once I got to Bohol, though, the fantastic weather and Bohol’s ultimate tourist strip, Alona Beach, kept me so delighted and indulged I didn’t need to strike out for more remote locations. Alona Beach was surprisingly empty, which meant I had all the area has to offer at my fingertips. The key was visiting at the tail end of the low season (late October). Lesson learned: sometimes it’s the time that needs to change, not the place.
Bohol is best known for the Chocolate Hills, a scattering of symmetrical limestone formations in the center of the island. They’re named for their appearance at the end of the dry season, when the vegetation covering the hills turns a chocolately brown. For the best view of these surreal hills, visit the Chocolate Hills Complex near the town of Carmen. Keep your camera handy on the drive out. The Chocolate Hills start popping up in the backyards of tiny family farms and nipa huts—an almost too-picturesque scene I’d seen on a postcard and assumed was the work of Photoshop.
Tarsiers, one of the world’s smallest primates, are the second major draw for Bohol. You decide if this endangered species is adorable or creepy. These big-eyed, impossibly tiny creatures can be seen at private zoo-like places of varying conditions around Loboc, or in their natural habitat at the Tarsier Research & Development Center. Learn more at tarsierfoundation.org.
For most travelers, the real star of Bohol is the coastline of Panglao Island. Conveniently located just a half hour from Bohol’s main port of entry, Panglao is deservedly popular for the powdery white sands of Alona Beach and excellent sites for snorkeling and diving. Trust me, Alona Beach is a great place to completely relax and forget about ambitious plans off the beaten path. I spent several days in a lovely haze of poolside reading and frolicking in the warm, calm ocean.
To soothe that crick in your neck from all those naps on the sand, treat yourself to a beach massage. I recommend scheduling yours just before sunset, when the sea breeze keeps away any lurking mosquitoes and you won’t add to your reddening sunburn. Foot scrubs, manicures, and pedicures are also available on the beach.
Like the Chocolate Hills, the Island Hopping Tour is a must in Bohol. You can arrange this tour with the tourism info center, dive shops, your hotel, or just about any taxi driver around Alona Beach. Motorized bangka boats leave Alona Beach around 6 am, in time to spot dolphin pods about 30 minutes from the beach. You’ll be in good company with many other rented boat tours, but that doesn’t scare away the leaping dolphins. Next you’ll head to Balicasag Island, which is surrounded by a reef that makes for excellent diving and snorkeling. Rent snorkel gear and a boat will paddle you out to the marine sanctuary. With the help of your boat guide and a few crumbs of bread, you’re almost guaranteed to see a wide array of tropical fish like rockfish, electric blue starfish, and clownfish. Last stop is Virgin Island, a tiny uninhabited speck with a long sandbar. It’s a nice place to take a stroll or picnic on the beach. While it sees plenty of tourist traffic from the daily boat tours, it is still the tropical island of your dreams.
After island hopping and perfecting your tan during the day, spend your nights at Alona Kew White Beach Resort. It’s a mix of traditional beachfront bungalows and more modern hotel rooms closer to the main road. Unlike many other resorts, they’ve chosen not to take up their beachfront property with a restaurant, so this is the spot for shady beach time under their yellow striped umbrellas.
When it comes time to eat you’ll find that most places specialize in fresh grilled seafood by the pound plus Filipino and Western standards. On Alona Beach, nearly every resort has a restaurant, and vice versa. A great snack is lumpia shanghai (Filipino-style eggrolls filled with pork) or a buko (young coconut) shake —available at just about any of the resort restaurants on the strip. Try a traditional Filipino breakfast, a deliciously rich spread that includes your choice of tocino (sweetened, cured pork), tapa (marinated beef), or bangus (fried fish) plus fried eggs and rice. It gets you ready for the midmorning nap you were planning anyway.
If you’re looking for a break from the beach retreat to Bohol Bee Farm, a shady cliffside paradise of cottages, hanging hammocks and organic gardens. Don’t worry, they keep the bees at a separate farm on Bohol. The decor is charmingly homespun and features crafts produced onsite. The complex includes two restaurants, a covered pool, sunbathing deck over the ocean, event space, and an excellent gift shop. Take a tour of the farm and learn about the lifecycle of bees, organic farming, and their crafts.
The restaurants at Bohol Bee Farm prepare delicious salads with their house-made honey mustard dressing, organic herbs, mixed greens, and flowers. Standout entrees include the seafood coconut pasta and squid adobo, an unusual take on the classic Filipino dish of meat cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic. For dessert, don’t miss their honey-sweetened ice cream, served in a fried camote (sweet potato) cone. They have tasty tropical flavors like spicy ginger, mango and ube (purple yam).
Whether you’re looking for one-of-a-kind sights, beautiful beaches, or total relaxation, it’s all at your fingertips in Bohol.
Tiffany Swift is a sometimes writer currently traveling around Asia. Read all about it on her blog.