Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Charms of a Southern Cebu Town: Whale Sharks, Old Forts, Waterfalls and Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort

The port of Sibulan, the town next to Dumaguete City, is just fifteen minutes from the airport of the province of Negros Oriental. Here, ferries regularly cross the Tañon Strait from Sibulan to Santander at the southern tip of the island province of Cebu, and vice versa. The trip takes about thirty to forty-five minutes for P65. People from Santander and neighboring towns such as Samboan, Moalboal and Oslob go to Sibulan and Dumaguete to buy supplies instead of Cebu City, which is a four-hour drive away.
            The water of Tañon Strait near Cebu is lucent, and dolphins, whales and sharks are regularly sighted here. By the shore of Oslob, fishermen have been interacting with whale sharks, tuki in Cebuano, feeding them krill like they are pets.
The southern part of Cebu is sleepy and rustic, in contrast to the province’s capital, Cebu City, about 125 kilometers away, which with the adjacent cities is the Philippines’ second largest urban area. Tourism has been sporadic save for Moalboal, which is known for its dive sites. Recently, Oslob has seen rapid development and vibrant tourist influx after travelers discovered the whale sharks that frequent its waters.
            In the country, the town of Donsol in Sorsogon has been long popular for whale shark watching and interaction. Now, Oslob is suddenly in the limelight, offering a surer and closer sighting and interaction. Although guidelines have been set, the way they conduct the interaction has also often drawn criticism, particularly the fishermen’s feeding of the sharks to bring them closer to the tourists. The impact on the sea creatures still cannot be ascertained and is being studied. One thing is sure though: Oslob has experienced a boom. The barangay of Tanawan, where the whale shark tourism is concentrated, has been bustling with visitors and has seen several constructions of resorts and other kinds of accommodations. The whale shark tourism also affected other areas as tourists began to discover and visit other sites in southern Cebu.
            The whale shark tourism started at around 2012, surmised EJ Barretto, resident manager of Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort. He said it has drawn attention to other tourist attractions that have been unnoticed before.
            “The start of the tourism on whale shark watching changed the resort, as well as the town of Oslob and the province of Cebu,” he said.
            Located on the coralline island of Sumilon, part of the barangay of Bancogon, Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort is most likely the only luxurious and well-appointed resort in southern Cebu. It occupies about seventeen hectare and developed about eight hectares of the 24-hectare island just off the shore of southeastern Cebu. The area was the first marine protected area in the Philippines and was made a fish sanctuary in 1974 under the guidance of Silliman University Marine Reserve.
            Charming villas nestled along the rocky shore, which contain modern amenities and sport a lovely contemporary design infused with Filipino sensibilities and details, which can be also be found in other Bluewater resorts owned by the Alegrado family of Cebu and Bohol.
            The Alegrados started in the hospitality industry with opening of the Almont Hotel in Butuan City in Agusan del Norte in 1983. In 1989, the family established Maribago Bluewater Beach Resort in the sitio of Buyong, Maribago, Lapu-Lapu City, on Mactan Island, Cebu. Bluewater Sumilon Beach Resort opened in 2005, furthering the Bluewater brand of which the resort in Panglao, Bohol, is the latest property.
            Among their resorts, Bluewater Sumilon resort has been the most private and serene, being the only property in an uninhabited island of a languid town. The attractions of the resort include a white-sand beach and another one at another part of the island, which changes shape and location. There is a mangrove-fringed lagoon within the resort where one can go kayaking and fishing.
            One can also go trekking through the forest of the island and espying on birds. At the southern part, trekkers will discover a lighthouse inside a protected tree park and a 19th-century watchtower or baluarte, used to look out for slavers and marauders.
            The resort also offers tours around the area, visiting waterfalls, heritage sites and other attractions. Tourists can also watch dolphins in Tañon Strait. Other water activities are boating, snorkeling and diving.
            The rooms are one of the best parts of Bluewater Sumilon. Starting with fourteen villas, it now has twenty-nine rooms—fourteen deluxe villas, twelve premiere, two one-bedroom and one two-bedroom. Additionally, if one desires to rough it out but without the usual inconveniences, the resort offers a chic kind of camping—glamping. One area has pre-pitched tents with electricity and accessibility.
            The Pavilion is the largest structure in resort, an octagonal hut with thatched grass roofing. It houses the restaurant that serves of local and international cuisines with a panoramic view of the swimming pool and the luminous sea. Notable are their seafood dishes and their innovative takes on local dishes such as the adobo rice served inside a bamboo cylinder, lamb shank caldereta and the suman panna cotta. The resort also regularly prepares buffet feasts on the beach and occasionally a lovely private dinner at the sandbar. One feasts on grilled squid and prawns with lamps dangling from a bamboo pole over the table and swaying in the sea wind, surrounded by the sand, the sea, the darkness perforated by distant lights and the sound of waves.
            Diving has been the main activity before the whale shark interaction, said Barretto. Also, the occupancy was middling. Now, it dramatically increased that they are almost always full. Day tours have also dramatically increased, and usually these are the whale tourists. Because of the increase in clients, the resort is now expanding to add more rooms. Filipinos still comprise the biggest slice of the market with about more than half, followed by the Chinese, a recent development.
            Aside from the resort and the whale sharks, many of these tourists explore other sites in the area. The most popular is the town proper, especially for heritage lovers. The town proper has retained the old provincial air with church and its environs forming the most important heritage zone of Oslob. Facing the sea, this area was also developed into a tourist complex, with the preservation of the old structures and the building of a small museum. At its heart is the 19th-century buttressed Church of the Immaculate Conception, constructed of limestone and coral stone, as with most churches in Cebu and many parts of the Visayas.
            Just across it is the Cuartel, also made of coral stone. The building was erected in late 19th century as a barracks for Spanish soldiers, but was not finished until Spanish occupation ended in 1898. Also in the area are the ruins of a watchtower, built in 1788. It is part of the series of old Spanish-era watchtowers along the shores of southern Cebu to look out for marauding pirates and invaders. Also, the church stone walls or fences are still largely intact.
            On the other hand, the museum contains pieces of furniture, utensils, daily implements, etc., giving visitors glimpses of life in the olden days.
            Aside from the town proper and Tumalog Falls within Oslob, tourists explore as far as Samboan for the Aguinid Falls. The falls has several levels, and the adventurous challenge themselves to climb the higher levels with guides and ropes already in place. Here, Bluewater Sumilon can arrange a Boodle Fight-style lunch to complete a nature adventure experience.

             With Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort as base, the offerings of southern Cebu are opened up for the tourists with a range of experiences that can be exhilarating.

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