A local Cebuano shares tips on how to enjoy Cebu, the best island in the Philippines for families interested in city culture and great beaches.
Cebu is just an hour’s flight from the Philippine capital of Manila, but it is worlds apart in landscape and sensibilities. The province of Cebu is an island, making Cebu City, the second biggest city in the Philippines, different from landlocked Manila. Cebu offers visitors beautiful beaches, mountain retreats, fun nightlife, a wide selection of shopping and dining –all conveniently located in or around a bustling city. It’s also a place where fresh seafood is as easy to come by as friendly people.
In the past decades, Cebu has grown rapidly as a tourist destination. The Mactan-Cebu International Airport has regular direct flights to Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. A lot of tourists prefer to bypass Manila and fly straight to Cebu, in fact it is the primary destination of approximately 50% of the Philippines’ foreign visitors. Its location in the middle of the country makes it a convenient hub for exploring the other 7,000 islands in the archipelago.
I’d like to add that I’ve been all over the Philippines, and there’s no place like Cebu, where I grew up. Nature trips — both underwater and high in the clouds — were a big part of my childhood, but so was city life. I could scuba dive in the morning, shop in the malls in the afternoon, and have dinner in a restaurant overlooking the city and the sea. I hope you and your family come to visit sometime and find the tropical vacation you’ve always wanted.
Family Fun on the island of Cebu
If you’re not staying at a beach resort in Mactan (the island across from mainland Cebu), the best way to enjoy Cebu’s beaches and dive/snorkel sites is to rent a boat and go island hopping. While the province has beautiful white-sand beaches, most of them are owned by resorts or belong to private homes. Few of these resorts allow day use for a fee — try the White Sands Resort (63 32 495-2226, Mactan Island 6015 Philippines).
The better option is to rent a boat and spend a day touring the nearby islands. Boat operators in Mactan also do dive trips and rent out snorkeling equipment. Don’t forget to tip the boatmen (20% is generous), and pack lunch and a cooler of drinks to make the trip more enjoyable.
You can schedule a trip once you arrive through any of these local boat centers: Boyong Dive Resort (63 32 492-1800, Buyong, Maribago, Lapu-Lapu City) Scuba Star Dive Services (63 32 492-0120, Buyong, Maribago, Lapu-Lapu City), or Liquid Assets (63 32 492-01008, Buyong, Maribago, Lapu-Lapu City).
If your kids prefer to stay dry, they can stay in the city and go go-karting at Kartzone (63 32 422-2782, F. Cabahug, Ayala Ext. Road). It’s fun, safe, and always effective in getting kids excited. Another option is line fishing at a fish farm on the outskirts of Cebu City.
Cebu is great for a Day of Shopping
Filipinos love their shopping malls, and most of them are heavily air-conditioned to combat the heat outside. Most malls feature Western boutiques, so shopping isn’t the best way to experience Cebu. There are however some portions of the mall dedicated to souvenirs and local delicacies.
The biggest malls are Ayala Center and Shoemart (SM), which are about a five-minute drive away from each other. The most reliable souvenir store with quality products is a chain called Islands Souvenirs (63 32 236-4986 Nasipit, Talamban, Cebu, Philippines, 6000). You can find their boutiques and kiosks in malls, airports and major tourist areas around the country.
If you want to get to the heart of the local culture, I suggest visiting the local markets. Hop on a jeepney (the Philippine mode of transportation- converted, colorful jeeps that ply short-distance routes) and head to the Carbon Market (Jones Avenue, dowtown Cebu City). There you’ll find everything from fresh produce to cheap goods made in China to rows of salted dried fish in nearby Tabu-an. It’s also a great place to buy a guitar, as Cebu is known for producing quality guitars. Walk around the small maze that is Carbon and discover what products Cebuanos trade in. Sample the mangoes as well- the sweetest mangoes in the world come from Cebu, take my word for it.
Favorite Family Beach Resorts on Cebu
Cebu’s premiere accommodations aren’t always by the beach. In fact, the Waterfront Cebu City Hotel & Casino (1-800-10-9376688, Salinas Drive, Lahug, Cebu City, 6000 Philippines), 1 Salinas Drive, Lahug, Cebu City 6000) is the preferred hotel for business travelers, owing to its central location in Cebu City. Don’t let the name mislead you, as it’s nowhere near the water. Instead, it’s surrounded by the city’s best restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. This massive hotel has 562 guest rooms, an impressive lobby, duty-free shopping, 10 dining options, and a casino.
Large events, conferences and expos are usually held here, but don’t let that stop you from booking at this three-star hotel. There’s an outdoor pool and fitness center where kids can get active while the parents are taking care of business. If you crave a respite from city life, hillside restaurants and cafes are 10 minutes away, while the beach is just a short ride away over the Mactan Bridge. Childcare services are available upon request. However, no pets are allowed at this hotel.
Perched on a hill, the Marco Polo Plaza Cebu (6332-253-1111, Cebu Veterans Drive, Nivel Hills, Lahug, Cebu City 6000) has an arresting view of Cebu City and Mactan Island. This edifice has long been a landmark in Cebu: the former Cebu Plaza Hotel was the province’s premiere hotel long before big chains arrived. In 2006, the Marco Polo took over the abandoned building, did a major renovation, and reclaimed the hotel’s lost grandeur.
The lobby retains an Old World elegance, while the garden pool is new, big and has a waterfall. Guests can rent mountain bikes from the hotel and explore the scenic routes around Nivel Hills. Because of its newness and its unbeatable location, the Marco Polo offers the best value-for-money as far as staying in the city is concerned. The hotel is only 10 minutes away from the commercial district, and about a half-hour away from the beaches.
On the outskirts of Cebu, the top two beachfront resorts in Mactan are: Shangri-La Mactan Resort & Spa (6332-231-0288, Punta Engaño Road, Lapu-Lapu, Cebu 6015) and Plantation Bay Resort & Spa (6332-505-9800, Marigondon, Mactan Island, Cebu 6015), which you can read about in the Family Resorts of Philippines article on this website.
Trips Beyond Cebu City to more of Philippines
If you would like to visit the farther reaches of the province or explore the other islands, it’s best to make arrangements through your hotel concierge. They can direct you to reliable tour operators and travel agencies. A reliable one that I like is Destinations Specialists (63 32 231-2462, SM City Cebu, North Reclamation Area, Cebu City)
While the Philippines enjoys tropical weather year-round, only a place like Cebu perfectly mixes together business and tourism. Cebuanos are laid back and like to take things slow, but they still get the job done. The province has a progressive economy, with a big export industry and call centers, medical transcription agencies and other business process outsource (BPO) offices taking root around the city.
For more detailed information on Cebu and the Philippines, visit the Department of Tourism website or the Cebu Investment Promotions Center. For more local tips including where to eat, stay, shop, and dine, pick up a copy of my travel guide, Tara! Cebu at any Islands Souvenirs store in Cebu.
Photos courtsey of nexttriptourism.com and cubecitytour.com.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.