The Philippines is a great destination. With 1,701 islands to choose from there is a dream holiday there for everyone. This was my first visit to the island of Cebu and I’ll certainly be back.
The excitement was palpable. People were streaming towards Osmeña Boulevard one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Cebu City, the capital of Cebu Island. It was my first visit to the Philippines and I was exploring Cebu City, the capital of Cebu island, and I was in luck because I was just in time to witness the climax, the Grand Parade, of one of the most spectacular festivals in the world: Sinulog 2009.
This annual event celebrates the Feast of Santo Niño, the Christ Child, the patron of Cebu island, and is part religious and part carnival. The word sinulog comes from the Visayan meaning a two steps forward-one step back dance that simulates the currents of a river and the festival itself harks back to 1521 when Cebuanos finally accepted Christianity after Ferdinand Magellan planted the cross that year on the shores of Cebu.
It was the third Sunday in January, the traditional day of the finale, and I got up early to be sure of a good viewing spot. I did not want to miss anything and, as a keen photographer, I was keen to capture the essence of the event. Osmeña Boulevard was already very busy when I got there at 8am and the line of participating parade groups stretched back as far as I could see and people were already lining the route.
This year, the theme was One Beat, One Dance, One Vision. Each contingent had its own band of musicians following behind playing drums, trumpets and native gongs. The music was infectious, and the rhythm unforgettable. Sinulog is colourful, vibrant and exciting and immensely photogenic. Participants come from all over Cebu as well as neighbouring islands and the costumes are simple yet highly effective and inventive and are based on former tribal or cultural designs.
The faces of the young participants, full of concentration and yet so smiley and friendly during processional pauses. The pulsating rhythms of the drums and horn players as each group passed me was energising and I joined the huge crowds lining the boulevard as they swayed and danced to the music.
As the procession moved forward, the group at the head would climb onto the stage that had been set up inside the national sports stadium to perform for the last time in front of the judging panel and the crowd packing the bleachers. As they left the stage, the next group took their place, and so it went on throughout the day and into the evening. The whole event was shown live on television.
It was a long, hot, exciting yet unforgettable day for everyone involved and I felt really lucky to have been present, and, as one of the few westerners present I was pressed for an interview by a passing television crew who were keen to hear what I thought of Sinulog.
CEBU CITY: SLEEPING, SHOPPING AND SIGHT SEEING
Of course, there is much more to Cebu City than Sinulog. Not wishing to be cocooned in luxury at one of the many pricey resorts in Mactan I decided to stay in the more historic and more characterful downtown area which is not to be confused with the more affluent but less interesting uptown district.
I stayed at the Diplomat hotel on Ferdinand Ramos Street which was perfectly located, near to shops and restaurants, and very comfortable. It may not have gym or swimming pool frills but it is modern and squeaky clean which is more than can be said for some other places. My stay here cost me the equivalent of £25 per night including breakfast for a double room.
On the other hand, if you prefer to stay somewhere with all the frills then the Marriott hotel on Cardinal Rosales Avenue is one of your best bets. It has stylish rooms and good views, and it is located near the Ayala mall which is one of the world's biggest shopping malls.
So what else is there in Cebu City ? The city is also home to another of the world's largest malls, namely, the upmarket SM City, in the North Reclamation Area.
Apart from shopping for bargains, a visit to the Tops Lookout on Mount Busay is highly recommended. There is a 100 peso entrance fee to the fortress-like structure but the view over the city during the day and especially as night falls is spectacular. There are snack stalls at the top and beer too. To get there you can take a Lahug jeepney from Osmeña Boulevard which will take you to within about 500m of the entrance up the long winding mountainous road. A return taxi ride will set you back about 900 pesos and you might also have to pay for the driver’s admission ticket too.
Also highly recommended is the Sugbo Museum which opened in 2008. Until recently it was Cebu's Provincial Jail and was built in 1871 but it now houses four galleries each devoted to one of the four key periods of Philippines political history: pre-Spanish colonial, Spanish colonial, American from 1899, and liberation from the Japanese in WW2.
San Pedro Fort built in 1565, the bustling and endlessly fascinating Carbon Market, Cebu’s oldest produce market, and the Chinese Taoist Temple on the hills overlooking the city are all not to be missed.
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating and drinking and there are so many restaurants to try out. Ignoring western cuisine, which I could easily have at home, I enjoyed sampling street food such as Siobao, a meat-filled bun, and Chiceron, fried pork crackling and nuts. It does not sound much, but it is really delicious.
At the Abuhan restaurant on Ferdinand Ramos street, about 500m up the road from my hotel, my friends and I ordered more local food from the menu including Adobo which is chicken or pork braised in garlic, Sinigang, pork, fish or shrimp in tamarind sauce, and Pochero, beef in bananas and tomato sauce. All of them so tasy and very appetising and inexpensive.
For nightlife, you can not go far wrong at Mango Plaza where there is a cluster of attractive busy bars and a couple of interesting nightclubs. If you go clubbing, though, do not dress too casually because you will be refused entry, as I was. No t-shirts and no flip-flops! Instead, my friends and I enjoyed our chilled local Red Horse beers sitting at one of the many outdoor tables and watched the world go by and listened to the great music offered by the DJ.
Getting around is easy. The Philippine-style buses, known as jeepneys, abound, as do taxis. Both are cheap. Jeepneys travel to and fro on set routes which are marked on the side or front of the vehicle. They pick up passengers on most corners on their route, but you could also flag one down. Once inside, you pay the ‘conductor’ who, most likely, will be riding the back bumper, the few pesos fare and to stop, you just pull the bell-cord and get off.
If you have grown tired of Thailand, or become bored with Bali, then do consider the Philippines. Although you cannot fly direct from the UK it is still very easy to get there via Bangkok or Hong Kong for example. The effort will certainly amaze you and there are more than 7,107 other islands to explore after Cebu!
BEST TIME TO GO
The best time to visit Cebu Island, and the rest of the Philippines, is between September and May when it is the typhoon off-season. The nine-day 2010 Sinulog festival will culminate with the Grand Parade on Sunday January 17th. The weather is mostly hot, though clouds sometimes gather during the morning with rain bursts in the afternoon. Even if you do get wet you will quickly be dry again as soon as it stops.
I flew with Eva Air from London Heathrow via Bangkok to Manila and then on to Cebu City with Philippines Airlines. I stopped over in Bangkok for one night at the charming Siam Piman boutique hotel not far from Suvarnabhumi airport. See www.siampimanhotel.com for further information.
More information about the Philippines can be obtained from the Philippines Department of Tourism London, 146 Cromwell Road, London SW7 4EF. Telephone +44 207 835 1100 or www.wowphilippines.co.uk