Mactan Island is of course a tropical feast for the eyes and other senses. Its warm sun and crystalline beaches nourish the soul and repair the stressed-out, tired city body. But it’s wise to look beyond those glorious aspects of the island and dig a little deeper into the vast array of adventures the curious traveller will love exploring here, one of the many jewels of the Philippines.
First, however, let’s talk about those beaches.
Because Mactan is a coral island, the beaches are made of soft, ground coral, and it’s a delight to the toes that pure sand beaches just can’t match.
Once settled into your hotel – and we’ll get to those later – it’s time to shed your clothes, don a bathing suit and head out for your first swim. Relax on the beach, let the sun work its magic, and then enjoy swimming in Mactan’s spectacular waters.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can even take a free diving lesson at Freedive HQ – no gear, no oxygen necessary. The pros here will help you learn how to breathe so you can see the undersea landscape – all that glorious coral – with nothing more than your own lung power. You” see Manta Rays, lots of colorful and oddly shaped fish, and maybe even a whale shark or two. It’s definitely a memorable way to spend your first day.
After towelling off and getting energized with a smoothie, or a beer or rum drink if you’re so inclined, it’s time to take a tour of the charming, modest neighbourhoods of Lapu Lapu. Depending on the location of your hotel, you can walk or rent a tricycle, and no visit to Mactan is complete without doing this. Some of the best foods – and the least expensive – are available in these neighbourhoods, prepared by cooks in their own homes based on recipes passed down for generations.
Once you’ve tucked into and polished off a satisfying meal, it’s time to go home and get some rest. Hotels on the island are numerous and appeal to every budget, no matter how modest. If you’re seeking a room in which you plan to sleep but do little else, there are budget hotels, studio apartments and other residences available that need little notice. And of course there are luxurious options with amenities like private beaches, pools, spas and fine dining restaurants. Whichever place you choose, you’re sure to get a warm welcome from the hosts, hostesses, wait staff and others in all of them.
When you’re ready to get back into and on the water – and on Mactan, who isn’t? — consider a boat cruise with Ocean Dreamer Island Tours. The company’s “three-hour tour” (remember Gilligan’s Island?) lets you explore the Olango islands off the coast of Mactan. But the captain promises – no getting stranded like Gilligan did! Nature lovers should take a trip to Nalusuan Island Marine Sanctuary, on a small island accessed by a sturdy, wooden footbridge. You can even stay overnight at the island’s resort, then go snorkelling and swimming the following day before breakfast. What a fabulous way to wake up.
Once back on Mactan, the San Vincente Marine Sanctuary awaits, and this, too, is a “must see” for nature and marine lovers. This spot in Lapu Lapu offers stunning views of the jungle and ocean, so it’s the perfect place to see nature up close; you can even camp overnight if you’re game to rough it.
Once back on Mactan, take a stroll to the Magellan Shrine, near the Magellan Port, which reveals a little of the island’s history with the Portuguese explorer. The island has a complicated past with him, but he is honoured for bringing Christianity to the people back in the 16th century.
When it’s time for a little self-indulgence, go relax and get rejuvenated at one of the island’s several spas. Head to the Shangri-La Mactan Resort for a day, or consider staying here for your entire holiday. You can have a manicure, pedicure, massage or all three any time you like. Or seek out the Plantation Bay Resort & Spa; they offer all these services, too. And once you’ve got your twinkle toes on, go dancing at the Ibiza Beach Club; there is no more fun, hip spot on the island than this nightclub! Every night there is entertainment, dancing, and a Mediterranean-infused menu to tempt you while you quaff your favourite rum drink. The club is surrounded by water, so you’ll feel like you’re dancing on it.
When daylight comes and it’s time to get back in the water – or even over it – consider parasailing, snorkelling, diving, jet skiing or spear fishing at NTJ Water Sports. There’s just no aqua adventure these guys can’t arrange. If you’re thinking about taking a boat cruise again, consider asking a local; often they will arrange one in no time flat, and you’re helping the local economy when you book outside a big firm. They’ll bring food, beer, and anything else you want or need – some will even bring towels! And locals know the hidden, less-well-known spots in the waters around Mactan, so you just might discover something that bigger tours can’t always offer, because you’re getting such a personal touch. But whichever way you go, your aqua outings on Mactan are bound to be the stuff of memories – and marvellous Instagram posts! — that you’ll remember for a lifetime.
On your last evening – though any evening will do – take a trip to the Scape Skydeck for a nightcap and watch the stunning sunset unfold. This rooftop bar is on one of the very few tall buildings on Mactan, so you can see an unobstructed, sweeping vista of natural beauty while you have your cocktail and reflect on your days on Mactan. It’s a glorious way to unwind from a long day of swimming and diving and eating and snorkelling, and you just might get a little misty-eyed while sipping. But not to worry – there’s always next year on Mactan, right?
Panglao Beach is a tropical, sun-drenched dream of an island in the Philippines that isn’t as crowded and developed as some destinations – and that’s a good thing. It means there is still plenty of room for you to stretch out on its fabulous beach and sunbathe, and that should be your first goal. Let Mother Nature work her magic when you get there by just lying back and dozing off with your toes in the sand, and a good book in your hand.
Then get up for a swim. Then doze again until you’re nicely tanned. Then swim. And repeat, until all that back-home tension has oozed out of your muscles and you’re a nice, deep bronze.
When you’re finally ready to think about actually moving, there are plenty of options on the island.
Water sports are, naturally big on the island, and you can swim, snorkel and scuba dive to your heart’s content.
For a small fee – a very small fee, considering how unique the experience is – you can even take a tour and see whale sharks, the largest fish on the planet, being fed. And if you have a mind to and are adventurous, you can swim and snorkel alongside them. Dreamcat Marine Adventures specializes in these and other boat tours; you can sit back and let the sea amaze you,
Alona Divers offers diving lessons, and you can and go underwater with the experts. These are just two of the companies on the island that specialize in all things aqua – there are more!
But if staying on land is more your speed, taking an organized tour of Panglao Island is a great way to get your bearings and meet some locals. Grab a smoothie at a roadside vendor, and leave straight from your hotel – there are several good ones on the island, all appealing to different budgets and tastes – and head out in a local’s vehicle.
You’ll see a lot of natural beauty and lush, tropical greenery, and some tours include the Mag-Aso Falls, which are spectacular.
Exploring Hinagdanan Cave is a great way to discover the beauty that lies beneath the island. Tours are available of just the cave, or make it part of a larger tour of the entire island, and spend the day getting to know your surroundings.
Another adventure not to be missed on Panglao is Philippine Tarsier Recreation Inc., a massive complex spread over nine acres that are covered in lush vegetation and exotic plants. The complex has everything, from art to furniture to an upscale restaurant. It even has an equine centre, for the horse-obsessed traveller. Coming soon are luxury villas with pools, so keep this spot bookmarked when you’re planning your next tropical getaway.
After a busy day, you likely want to get back to your hotel and rest up, and on Panglao Island, there are literally dozens to choose from, and they suit every price range – from hundreds of dollars a night to a basic cabin rental for about $20 per night.
It’s best to explore your options and decide what you want and need in a room – just a place to stay, or do you want to eat in and get a massage? Combinations are available in every price range, so do a little digging and you’ll find the right solution. One popular spot is the Henann Resort at Alona Beach; it has pools and every other amenity you could hope for.
Speaking of massages…at the end of the day, when your feet are tired from hiking and your muscles ache from swimming, a massage is in order. The island has a surprising number of spas and wellness centres, offering everything from yoga classes to manicures and pedicures and stone massages. The Yoga Barn Panglao has amazing instructors, so plan to spend at least two hours unwinding in class. But if you want someone else to do the work, try Alona Bliss or Sanando Spa, for a couple’s massage, perhaps? And don’t forget to get a mani-pedi while you’re there.
Panglao Island has glorious beaches on which to relax, but it has so much more than that. It offers water sports, boat cruises, art exhibits and natural beauty, too. A trip to the island, for a week or even a month, will reveal why this tropical paradise is so loved by so many – locals and visitors alike.