I had spent so many hours going through blog posts about Bali – what to do, where to stay, what to expect – checking and rechecking booking sites for the accommodations, and had not worried at all about our time in Kuala Lumpur (as we would be hosted by family), that finally standing in line to board our Air Asia flight to Cebu City in the Philippines actually caught me off guard. To be honest I found it even a bit hard getting sincerely excited, because I had no idea what to be excited about. I had no idea what to expect.
And then after a surprisingly smooth 3 hours and 40 minutes we landed on Filipino soil and the adventure that was Cebu Island washed over us like a tidal wave. The joys of being there hit us quick without time to adjust to it and we (Joel more particularly) fell in love almost instantaneously. It’s a bit futile to emphasise 5 highlights of our brief time on Cebu Island because it was really all good. But I had to organise a million highlights somehow:
5 DAYS, 5 HIGHLIGHTS ON CEBU ISLAND
5. A DAY IN THE LAP OF LUXURY
When I say lap of luxury I mean a large air-conditioned room with a door in between the toilet and the shower head in a 3-star hotel opposite a huge air-conditioned mall. This might be silly, but it was a real treat to check in to this large room with the prospects of taking a nap and not waking up super early and going to see a movie and maybe buying a new fresh and clean shirt at H&M. I am sure you can stay like this – or some version of this – everywhere we’ve been, but the Philippines we’ve seen makes Bali look like a built up resort. It’s rough around the edges. The tourist infrastructure is there, but not nearly as plugged in or consistent as in Bali.
It’s only been a bit more than a week since we spent a lot of our time in malls in Kuala Lumpur, but our time on the Filipino islands was so opposite of this that going into this mall almost felt like a new exciting experience.
We had big giant burritos, stocked up with a box of popcorn, and got in line to see a movie (Venom, it was bad but we didn’t care) in an air-conditioned theatre.
That is luxury.
4. AIRBNB KARAOKE(ish)
The Airbnb review read: “She invited us to sing karaoke with her friends…we had so much fun”
Uhm yes. Done. Booked.
Joel messaged her and said: “we want to go karaoke with you and your friends!” Whereupon she almost immediately replied: “I won’t be there, but my staff will take you.”
No sooner did we get our key to our room than one of the staff members excitedly stated that ‘a driver will take us to dinner and then come back and pick her up and then we go to karaoke and band.’
So after dinner she took us to a local hangout called Zola Lola’s Restobar, where a band was just starting to warm up under a mix of glowing purple lights and flashing dance strobes. About twenty other locals sat around in plastic lawn chairs working on their first or second beers. There was a semi-open area for the band and a closed room for the karaoke. There was one guy in the karaoke room apart from the sound guy who was singing a Filipino song. So our Airbnb host decided we should skip Karaoke and support the band instead – she seemed super excited about requesting songs. Ten minutes later another staff member from the Airbnb brought a Japanese guy who was also staying there that night and they joined our table. So there we were, with another tourist and our tricycle driver and our Airbnb hosts, drinking beers, and requesting ‘Losing My Religion’ and singing along as one of the singer’s belted out ‘I will Survive’ with some notable skill.
It was fun.
We forced ourselves to leave around 10.30pm (sadly before I could see if they were going to try our requested ‘Kiss from a Rose’), because we had to get up super early for what would be one of the most incredible moment of our lives (read on).
3. AGUINID FALLS
We allowed our driver to talk us into going to one of the waterfalls. It was just sort of an in-between thing to do. We’ve already been to some amazing waterfalls in Bali, but mostly we were feeling full and satisfied, having just dived with whale sharks for an hour, and had some time to kill before our ferry to Dumaguete on Negros island – so we weren’t expecting that much.
We traded in our sandals for rented water shoes, paid the entrance fee (about a dollar, give or take), and followed our two mandatory, though voluntary, ‘technical’ guides in to the forest (guide #2 basically just doubled as personal paparazzi – we’ve never had so many photos taken of us since our wedding day).
Soon we were met by the first tier of this 5-tier waterfall and we were so taken aback. Milky blue white waters gently flowed through multiple pools caked with mud and a sort of chalky sediment, making the falls look like something from a Dr Seuss story. It is a mini canyoneering adventure where you walk and climb through the falls to get to the top, 5th tier. Stopping for a dip at the pools along the way. We started with trepidation at first, walking slowly over what seems like super silky slippery boulders, before we realised it’s actually not slippery at all. Apparently there’s some acidity in the water that prevents algae growth. Each new tier revealed a stunning surreal setting, with milky cool waters, rushing streams and trickling falls, stalagmites and stalactites forming in sidelong caves. And each new tier brought with it multiple photo ops, as we were directed by our ‘technical guides.’
A waterfall for the books.
2. IN THE EYE OF THE SARDINE STORM
There are some spots along the reefs surrounding the Filipino islands where the sardines gather in shoals so enormous they are like underwater storm clouds, whipping this and that way, the silver skin flashing almost like thunder as they suddenly flip direction in unison. The shores of Moalboal, Cebu, is one such place where the sardines run daily, so we decided to do our first dive in almost two years into the eye of the storm.
It is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. At one moment it is just reef wall and sea, the next you fly into a shoal so thick it blocks the light from the sun above you. I thought at one point we were swimming under the shadow of a big boat, or maybe going into a sort of half-cave, only to look up and see thousands of sardines darkening the surface of the water above us. And then our dive master would shine his red light into the shoal and they would change shape and direction, forming a new cloud elsewhere. Straight underwater magic.
1. WHALE SHARKS
I remember the first time I saw a whale shark in the water. We went snorkelling with them in Mozambique. I jumped out of the dinghy turned around and audibly gasped through my snorkel as it headed straight in my direction. Powering past me at a surprising speed. It was incredible.
But seeing 15 to 20 of them, together, in a shallow 12 meters of water was just something else. We walked in to the water with our tanks, descended in only about 5 meters of water and followed our master as the shore sloped downwards. And then all of a sudden we were under them. All of them. So so many. And they would stop and feed at the top, lifting near-vertical, their tails almost scraping at the bottom. And you’d be looking up at this giant creature, and its practically five times your length. and then you’d turn around and see another cruising in from the bottom and you’d have to move quickly to let it pass.
Honestly, it was more like dodging whales. They were everywhere.
Our dive lasted for what seemed like forever. We used almost no air as we just sort of floated in this shallow blue universe with whale sharks gilding all around us. We were able to really take in every moment of it. We stayed out for about an hour and still came up with 70 bar. And then it suddenly seemed like it was a moment that could never last long enough.
Best dive ever? Yes.
Best moment of this journey so far. Certainly.
Craziest most surreal moment in our lives? It’s up there.