Jewel of the South
First time visitors expecting to see similar white sand beaches as Boracay will probably get turned off when they see Alona Beach in Panglao. The famous beach named after a Filipina actress is overly crowded, with so many establishments like cottages and restaurants fighting for space, with tourists – mostly foreigners – enjoying what is left of Alona.
Alona actually started to gain popularity much earlier than Boracay. It was originally called Tawala Seaside. However, during the early 1980s sexy film star Alona Alegre shot a movie there about a mermaid who falls in with a mortal. The film is now completely forgotten but the beach where the movie was shot became known as Alona, the place where the mermaid once lived.
But unlike Boracay, Alona is not the destination itself, but just a base for exploring Panglao Island and its surrounding waters and even the rest of Bohol.
Hundreds of years ago, the island of Panglao was already a magnet to foreigners. Before the Spaniards came into the island, Panglao was doing trade with the Chinese as evidenced by archeological finds of Tang and Ming Dynasty porcelain and trade wares. People from the Indo-Malay islands of Moluccas and Ternate also came and inter-married with the locals.
A Jesuit mission was established in the island in 1782 during the Spanish rule and formed the parish known as La Iglesia de San Agustin de Panglawod. When the parish was made into a town in 1803, the Recolletos took charge of the new town. The present Church of Saint Augustine stands beside the ruins of the older church built by the Jesuits.
At the back of the church is the five-story watchtower built in 1851. Octagonal in shape and covered by pitched roof, it is one of the tallest of its kind in the country. The earthquake that hit Bohol in 2013 badly damaged the tower but not the church.
The first waves of tourists who came to Bohol in the early 1980s were the backpackers who enjoyed diving and snorkeling around Panglao. They stayed mostly in Alona and chilled out at night with a cold bottle of San Miguel Beer. At daytime, they hired local fishermen to take them on outrigger boats to explore the waters and the remote islands. They soon found out the whole island province of Bohol was filled with many cultural and natural attractions.
Many of those backpackers eventually stayed in Panglao to retire. Some of them married local girls, and now own and operate resorts. Some of them come back during summer to enjoy the warm weather of the island.
How to get there
The quickest way to go there from Manila is to take a direct flight to Tagbilaran (around one hour and 15 minutes). Soon, when the Panglao Interanational Airport is finally completed, visitors can fly in direct to the island. In the meantime, it’s via the old and crowded Tagbilaran airport. From the airport, there are tricycles and buses that go directly to Panglao.
An alternative for those who wish to combine the trip to Cebu can fly to Mactan, then take a taxi to the Cebu Ferry Terminal, and from there take a fast craft to Tagbilaran, then a tricycle to Panglao.
What to see, what to do
With Alona Beach as a base, there are many things to do on and around the island of Panglao.
Join an organized island hopping tour to visit diving sites and tropical islands like Virgin, Balicasag and Pamilacan. Balicasag is famous base for diving, Virgin for the long stretch of white sand bar, and the waters around Pamilcan is the best place to go dolphin watching.
Rent a habal-habal or a tricycle to explore Panglao inland. Alona is not the only beach in the island. On the north-eastern side is Dumaluan Beach where Bohol Beach Club is located. Further north is San Isidro where the Bohol Bee Farm is situated. On the northwestern side is the less crowded beach of Doljo where one can enjoy the luxury of staying in Bellevue Resort.
A tricycle is also necessary to visit the heritage and natural attractions of Panglao. From Alona, a short 15-minute ride takes visitors to the town center where the Saint Augustine church is located. Inside the church are impressive ceiling painting, mosaic floorings and imposing altar. At the back of the church facing the sea is the old watchtower now undergoing restoration. The sprawling town center has a large playing field where expats come every afternoon to play football.
Visitors staying in Alona also can join sightseeing tours around Bohol. For less than P1,000 per person, visitors can visit the famous Chocolate Hills, see the tarsiers at their natural habitat, visit the churches of Baclayon, go on a river cruise in Loboc and get a close encounter with the island’s resident pythons.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are dozens of lodging options in Alona, from the cheapest to the most luxurious.
Casa Nova Garden offers simple rooms with fan and shared bath starting at P250 a night. Walk Inn Haven Apartelle has fan rooms for two starting at P800. Bohol Coco Farm in Libaong has beds for backpackers in the middle of a lush green organic coconut farm for P350 per person.
Those who wish to splurge can check in at Amorita Resort, Bohol Bee Farm, Bohol Beach Club or Bellevue where deluxe rooms start from P6,000.
In between, there are several resorts and hotels fronting Alona Beach that offer family room accommodations for P2,000 to P3,000 a night.
For dining, the best option is to try many of the restaurants that offer fresh seafood. Fresh seafood are usually grilled and served with rice. Price range is between P200 to P500 per serving. Those on a budget can try the local eateries that serve pre-cooked dishes with rice turo-turo style.
There are also dozens of bars lining up Alona Beach. They are the best place to chill out and watch the sunset after a day of adventures.