Gorgeous beaches, virgin islands, mangrove forests, thriving marine life, friendly animals, and even friendlier locals—all good reasons to visit Panglao Island in Bohol. With the impending construction of a new airport expected to further boost tourism, there’s no better time to visit than now.
WRITTEN BY KLARA ISKRA AÑONUEVO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK JACOB OF STUDIO 100 AND KLARA ISKRA ANONUEVO
SPECIAL THANKS to the Bellevue Resort Bohol
Panglao Island is hardly a secret getaway. For starters, it’s less than two hours away from Manila (less than an hour and half flight plus a 20-minute drive from Tagbilaran airport) and with very friendly and accommodating locals, it’s easy to see why it attracts hordes of tourists, Filipino and foreigners alike.
Of course, its white sand beaches are still the island’s main draw, and while popular Alona Beach is fast becoming developed and congested with tourists (it’s even been touted as Bohol’s Boracay), those who prefer peaceful and semi-private getaways can still have their piece of Panglao’s natural paradise.
Chill at Doljo Beach
Located at the northwestern side of the island is the less popular but equally breathtaking Doljo Beach (pronounced “dolho,” which means tip, since the beach is near the tip of the island).
The beach boasts of three kilometers of white sand which gently slopes into the sea, making it perfect for lazy days by the beach. At the center of Doljo Beach is The Bellevue Resort Bohol, a luxury resort which houses 159 rooms, most of which come with a view of the beachfront. Staying at The Bellevue means having a quiet 250-meter stretch of sand all to yourself (to share with just a handful of other guests), complete with beach loungers and umbrellas, where you can order a drink or two from the Marea Sports Bar while getting that sun-kissed tan or watching a gorgeous sunset. You may also opt to lounge by the resort’s calming infinity pool, one of its most photographed spots.
The waters hold an even bigger secret—it’s abundant with corals, sea shells, and marine life (including sea urchins so best be careful and wear aqua shoes!), making it an ideal spot for snorkeling. Forgot to bring your snorkeling gear? Don’t fret, Emerald Green Diving Center (it’s right beside the resort) can provide you with everything you need. Just be sure to do so during high tide, as the shallow stretches of water can extend for long distances during low tide. Embark on a Sea Tour Doljo Beach is near Panglao Bay, Panglao Reef Flat, and Pontod Island. Balicasag Island is a bit farther away.
To experience all of them in just one morning, ask the concierge to book you a sea tour. Everything will be arranged by The Bellevue Resort, from reservations at Emerald Green Diving Center to your packed breakfast and towels.
All you need to bring is your swimwear, underwater camera (if you have one), drinking water, and your sense of adventure. (Make sure to clear off your whole morning, as you could return as late as noon.)
You have to be at the resort lobby by 5:30 AM, but waking up really early will be worth it. You’ll board a small boat, push off Doljo Beach, and head towards the direction of Balicasag Island. Before reaching the island though, you’ll spend an hour or more (it’s really up to you) dolphin watching. You’ll need both luck and patience to spot them. While the boatmen of Panglao already know by heart the perfect spots to wait for the dolphins to appear (you’ll know because you’ll soon find dozens of other boats circling the area), spotting a bunch or even just one is not 100 percent guaranteed. If you have the luxury of time, wait for the other boats to leave as the dolphins will more likely surface with fewer boats in the area. (During our trip, while we did spot several dolphins with other boats around, they surfaced more often and seemed happier when there was only one other boat apart from ours.)
When you’ve had enough of the dolphins, your boatman will take you to Balicasag Island, and if you haven’t already eaten breakfast by this time, the ride there would be the best time to do so, as it will take around 20 to 30 minutes to reach it. The island is small (its total area is roughly 25 hectares), so much so that a lighthouse had to be erected near the island’s center because many boats would accidentally run aground at night. There’s actually a small community living in the island—the chill and slow-paced lifestyle may actually tempt you to stay and live here yourself. The price of goods will, however, bring you back to reality. Because most products (including food and gasoline) come from Panglao Island, they’re pretty pricey compared to in the mainland.
I was traveling with two inexperienced swimmers, so when we finally finished exploring the island on foot I had to bully both of them into joining me in exploring its waters. (Don’t worry, I didn’t have to push them off the boat, they jumped in themselves, complete with snorkeling gear and life vests.) I had a good reason to do so—Balicasag Island is one of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the whole Philippines. (Part of the waters surrounding the island is even a protected marine sanctuary.) Even without venturing into deep waters, you will easily spot gorgeous corals and a variety of fish (including clownfish, parrotfish, and jackfish). Don’t forget to ask your boatman to take you to the spot where sea turtles roam. This area won’t be filled with corals and fish, but you’ll likely spot sea turtles feeding on the sea floor or even swimming up to the surface! Needless to say, my companions were thankful that I convinced them to take the plunge.
Your next stop would be Pontod Island, or as most tourists call it, Virgin Island. This island lies near the Panglao Reef Flat, and is crescent shaped, with the north end sharply tapering off to its southern tip. You’ll alight at the southern tip, where the squishy sand will gently exfoliate your feet as you walk along the thin strip of beach. Despite the island’s nickname, this strip is usually filled with vendors peddling pearl accessories, souvenir sea shells, fresh sea urchins to eat (we were too terrified to try it ourselves), and other snacks and refreshments. Don’t let the chaos discourage you from exploring the rest of the tiny island. Boatmen and vendors are only allowed in this strip (the island is privately owned and the owners ban vendors from the northern part of the island), and as you venture north, the countless yells of “Ma’am, bili po kayo!” will eventually die down so you can explore the rest of the island in peace. Just remember to return to your boat before hide tide—it will be difficult to walk along the long strip of sand in knee-high water.
Most boatmen will end the sea tour here and return to Panglao Island, but luckily for us, our boatman insisted that we finish the tour by visiting the Pontod Island (you can actually see it from here). This nameless sandbar not only offers a spectacular view of the sea, but of Pontod Island as well. We were even more fortunate that we had the sandbar to ourselves and we spent the rest of our time there taking lots of pictures, frolicking in the sand and waters, and chasing after birds.
Explore on Land
But you don’t have to board a boat to enjoy Panglao Island’s wonders. For those who are more comfortable on solid footing, you may also visit Tarsier Botanika and the Mangrove Forest. Let’s get this out of the way—there are no actual tarsiers in Tarsier Botanika. (Although not yet endangered, the survival of the Philippine Tarsier is now dependent on conservation efforts. If you really want to see one, visit the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Canapnapan, Corella Bohol.) Instead, you’ll find a tropical garden with an animal sanctuary (most animals here were rescued) inside. The best part of Tarsier Botanika is the aviary, where you can go inside to interact more closely with the different species of birds. Just don’t mind the mynas that will call you “pangit” or do a wolf whistle when you walk by. While some birds are overly friendly and will follow you wherever you go, some are also extremely shy and will move or fly away.
Another place you should consider visiting is the Mangrove Forest at the backyard of the Grande Sunset View Resort. The resort is walking distance from The Bellevue Resort, and you could also ask for a guide from the concierge.
We were to originally visit the forest before lunch, but we were told that the best time to explore it is right before sunset, as it offers a gorgeous view. You’ll have to traverse a long bamboo bridge built in between mangrove trees to reach the edge of the forest, where the bridge juts out to shallow waters. The scene is so peaceful that sometimes curious birds will check it out and even interact with people! (One bird even allowed us to touch it!) You may also opt to go down the ladder and swim in the water (just be careful of jelly fish), or you can just sit on one of the loungers and wait for the sun to set and paint the sky pinkish orange.
The Bellevue Resort Bohol is located at Barangay Doljo, Panglao Island, Bohol. For reservations phone (+63 39) 422 2222 or visit <thebellevue.com/bohol