Right in the heart of the Philippine archipelago is Cebu–the long and narrow parcel of land fringed with stretches of white beaches as dazzling as the ready smiles of its people. Its backbone is a rugged terrain traversing north to south with verdant plains that are as rich as its fascinating past. Surrounding the main island are smaller ones such as Mactan, Olango, Camotes, Sumilon, Bantayan, and Malapascua.
Just an hour’s flight south of the country’s capital city of Manila, Cebu belongs to the Central Visayas region (Region 7) which includes the provinces of Bohol and Siquijor. Being strategically located, it was established as a center of trade centuries ago, way before the spice-searching Spanish conquistadores set foot on the Philippines.
Since Magellan planted the first cross on Cebu’s sandy shores in 1521, the Roman Catholic faith has firmly taken root in the lives of the majority who embrace it with much fervor. Processions or town fiestas honoring a patron saint are pompous events that never lack dramatic flair.
Graceful remnants of the Spanish and American eras are strewn across the entire length of the long island, particularly in Carcar where nostalgia tugs at your heart. The heritage town spreads a visual feast through its showcase of stately ancestral homes, colonial-period buildings and a century-old church.
Fiesta-loving Cebuanos exude a genuine warmth and friendliness that visitors can’t miss. Get up close and personal to discover that beneath their primarily carefree disposition, down-to-earth nature and almost nonchalant manner is an energetic, independent spirit. When faced with pressing realities, the good-humored locals pride themselves in being able to spring back and adapt to the changing tide with a determined “can do” attitude, a seemingly innate Cebuano trait.
This celebrated resiliency was put to the test after super typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) ravaged northern parts of Cebu in 2013. Cebu’s devastated communities worked hard to pick themselves up and have now recovered remarkably to stand proud once more. Moving forward seems to be what Cebu does best.
Exquisite craftsmanship is another quality that distinctly defines Cebu. It’s seen in the fine furniture pieces, fashion accessories, handmade guitars and home interiors that the island produces. Cebuanos are true geniuses too at weaving baskets, furniture, or the humble puso (hanging rice) sold along the roadside. Rice sacks are even recycled and woven into shopping bags by some underprivileged women-folk as an added income, proof of the locals’ creative streak.
Creative expression brims over also in the fields of fashion and the performing and visual arts where young locals excel in graphics, street art and animation. Music and dance, integral to every festive celebration, come quite naturally to most Filipinos, especially in Cebu where talent abounds. Even inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC), a maximum security prison, are internationally famous because of their dancing prowess.
Having to pick out just one from the country’s 7,107 islands may be difficult, but Cebu sits positively high as a favorite while being easily accessible by land, sea and air. A second passenger terminal has just opened to take in more arrivals at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. T he busiest domestic seaport is also in Cebu, which is home to 80% of the country’s largest shipping companies. Merchant ships of up to 180,000 deadweight tons are built in Balamban, a town on the island’s western coast.
Cebu’s allure lies in its perfect mix of city and island life, where the best of both worlds are balanced so well that doing business blends seamlessly with pleasure. As one of the country’s top destinations, accommodations are available to suit the preferences and pockets of all visitors who will happily find it easy to strike up a conversation with the largely English-speaking local population.
The diversity of Cebu’s landscape offers endless options for the adventurous: scuba diving in Moalboal and Malapascua, swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, hiking up to Osmeña Peak in Dalaguete, canyoneering in Alegria and Badian, mountain biking over rugged hills, or even learning the home-grown martial art of eskrima or yaw-yan. Better yet, why not give them all a shot.
For the more sedate, downtown Cebu and its environs overflow with history. Culture buffs need to watch out for the annual Gabii sa Kabilin, or night of heritage, when museums and heritage sites in four major cities in Cebu stay open until midnight on the last Friday of May. If you need to slow down, there’s always upscale retail-therapy shopping and dining, the golf courses and the secluded white beaches of Bantayan and Camotes.
Cebu is like a living postcard, waiting and begging to be explored.