After our quick diversion in Cebu City we continued our adventures by traveling to Bohol and Panglao, quiet Visayan islands just southeast of Cebu.
We had a blast staying on Alona Beach on Panglao Island. There were great activities nearby, from scuba diving to a Tarsier monkey sanctuary, and the whole area had a relaxed island vibe that resonated well with us.
One of our first adventures from Alona Beach was an awesome island hopping tour to Balicasag and Virgin Islands.
Panglao Island Hopping
“Island hopping today Sir?”
We heard this up and down White Beach while we were on Boracay. We held off on Boracay because we knew we were headed to Panglao and El Nido where, based on what we had read, we planned to do a lot of island hopping adventures.
When we arrived in Panglao we headed straight to the beach for some dinner and right away we came across a couple of boatmen singing the familiar “Island hopping Sir?”. We didn’t agree until later in the evening when we met a family on the beach with their young daughter.
The man was friendly and outgoing, interested in us and how we came to Alona. Only after having a substantial conversation about the twins and our travel did he mention island hopping.
He asked if we had been to Balicasag Island yet. We said we had not. “I have a boat, Sir”. Of course you do!
We learned the boatman’s name was Lo Long. Lo Long offered us the best price we had heard so far to hire the whole boat (1,200 pesos which is about $27) and we just clicked with him.
So we agreed to meet at the beach the following morning for a trip to look for dolphins and snorkel at the nearby Balicasag Island. Lo Long said to meet him at 6 a.m.
While we have twin 3 year olds who like to get up early, 6 a.m. is still very early for us to be actually functional, packed up, and out the door.
We tried asking Lo Long to skip the dolphin watching, which was the reason for the painfully early start, and just go straight to the islands a bit later. But the message got lost somewhere in translation. We came away from the conversation with the understanding that we should be at the beach at 6.
Looking for Dolphins
Bleary eyed and barely dressed we stumbled down to the beach bright and early. Lo Long was waiting with his boat, while his first mate had procured some snorkel equipment for us to rent (we didn’t actually need it as we had our own, but nice to know it’s an option in case you didn’t bring yours).
Not only that, but Lo Long’s mother was along for the ride to Balicasag and she had brought a bag full of some amazing breakfast treats. We don’t know what they were called but they were casava mixed with sugar and spices, then wrapped in a banana leaf. You ate it sort of like a burrito, peeling the leaf away as you went down. Yummy and filling.
We spent about an hour or a little longer motoring along, eyes glued to the water looking for those dolphins, but they just didn’t show. Apparently this is a rare occurance and we just happened to be unlucky that day, but we did not see one dolphin. So much for starting at the crack of dawn!
We did see a big school of flying fish jump into the air and we all enjoyed the morning on the water despite not finding Flipper and friends.
After giving up on the dolphins we headed to Balicasag Island.
Balicasag is a small round island about a half hour boat ride from Alona Beach. It’s ringed with white sand and clear blue water, and known as a scuba diving paradise.
Arriving at Balicasag we were introduced to one of Lo Long’s friends, who happened to operate a tour guide business from his small banca (the Philippines version of an outrigger canoe). It was clear that we were expected to employ this gentleman to bring us to the reef in his canoe.
Lo Long also just so happened to have family who ran a small restaurant on the island (notice a pattern?) and he guided us over to it to sit down and drop our bags.
After some negotiation with Lo Long’s friend (ok, a lot of negotiation, some walking away down the beach, and some help from Lo Long) we agreed on a price and set off in the canoe (400 pesos for the four of us, $9). This included seeing the marine sanctuary as well as a sea turtle feeding ground.
We weren’t trying to nickel and dime the guide, but we had been quoted the 400 peso number by Lo Long the day before, and understood that to be the going rate. We even left a 50% tip at the end of the day because it was a great value.
The guide services at Balicasag are certainly optional, though it doesn’t seem that way. There’s really nothing stopping you from simply walking down the beach, wading into the water, and swimming over to the reef – it’s not far.
But there’s definite value in the guide service and we decided it was worth the small expense.
It’s also a way to support the local economy. This is the way these guys make a living. It is a useful service and we were happy to pay (once everyone agreed to accept the going rate).
We actually had two guides, sort of a captain and first mate of our tiny canoe. With the two of them and the four of us the canoe was pretty well loaded down.
Seeing some 20-30 foot bancas later in our travels labeled as “Max. 8 Passengers” we certainly were overloading our little 8 ft. canoe! But we were in very shallow water close to shore and so didn’t worry about it. Something to think about if the sea was rough though.
Our guides were great. They brought us to nice spots and floated along in their boat next to us while we snorkeled, but the best part was they acted as babysitters too!
Aurora and Jasper loved hanging out in the boat, feeding the fish, and looking down as they swam by in schools below. The water around Balicasag was so clear and the reef so shallow that it was like floating over an aquarium.
Every once in a while the kids jumped in with us and swam for a while. When they got tired, they could just climb back into the canoe. It was perfect.
After some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever experienced the guides brought us to a new area to search for sea turtles.
We actually stopped briefly on the way for the guides to get breakfast. They dropped us on a beach while they ran into their house to eat. It was fine with us as we found some giant clam shells and other shells to look at while we waited.
The sea turtle search was fun and we saw 3 or 4 turtles pretty close up. There’s an area where there’s a lot of sea grass growing on the ocean floor and the turtles graze on the grass. We also saw a couple when we were snorkeling over the reef earlier in the day, but you can never see too many sea turtles.
Exhausted from over 2 hours of snorkeling (more than I think the guides expected of us) we headed back to where Lo Long’s boat was moored. At this point the guides’ services were complete so we gave them an extra 200 pesos for their “babysitting” efforts. Money well spent!
We had a fun lunch at Lo Long’s family restaurant. When we inquired about the type of fish available and the size they simply brought out the exact fish they proposed to serve us on a plate for us to inspect.
All the food was wonderful. In addition, the family that ran the restaurant was friendly and the kids had a blast playing with a little boy who was about their age and the son of one of the proprietors. We felt like we were eating in someone’s home (actually I think we were).
We had read that prices at these Balicasag Island restaurants were high, but found the price for our lunch completely fair. We paid 1,000 pesos ($22) for a large grilled fish, a plate of vegetables, tons of rice, and several drinks for us and the kids. We were all very full afterwards.
Having finished our leisurely lunch after our leisurely snorkeling it was getting into early afternoon.
Typically the Alona beach island hopping tours return to Alona around 1:30 p.m. However, since we had hired the whole boat for the day we had a bit more control over the itinerary and the pace.
We still wanted to see “Virgin Island” so Lo Long obliged and set course in that direction. All of the island hopping tours include Virgin Beach, we were just able to have more time to snorkel and explore Balicasag before heading over to Virgin Island.
Virgin Island’s big draw is a long arching sand bar that extends into the ocean. The scene makes for great photo opportunities.
Besides some fun beach combing in the shallow water adjacent to the sand bar there’s not a lot else to do on Virgin Island. We spent about 45 minutes walking to the end of the sand bar and back and taking pictures.
As we climbed back onto Lo Long’s boat a boatman from a nearby vessel shouted “Sir, very nice sunset pictures here – you should stay for pictures!” followed by something in Tagalog to Lo Long and lots of laughter. We were pretty sure they were all joking about our slow pace of touring throughout the day. Welcome to travel with 3 year olds!
We returned to Alona at about 2:30 p.m. and tipped an extra 300 pesos as we were really happy with the experience. Every other boatman we talked to wanted 1,500 pesos for a private boat right from the start. Lo Long only asked for 1,200 so even with the tip it was in line with what we budgeted.
We loved the island hopping tour from Alona Beach and it was made all the more enjoyable by Lo Long’s friendly and helpful services. Definitely ask around for him if you find yourself in the area (we often found him around the west end of Alona Beach). He knows lots of people and can help with everything from island hopping to diving, and even arranging a car service to the port in Tagbilaran.
We made such a connection with Lo Long that we passed along some of our extra clothes that we weren’t using to his family. The twins were also very generous and happily included some of their toys for Lo Long’s daughter and the small boy we met on Balicasag Island.
Total cost for our island hopping adventure, including all boat fees, tips, guide charges, and lunch on Balicasag Island: 3,100 pesos ($70).
Not bad for a day’s entertainment for a family of four on a private boat, with fresh seafood lunch cooked to order on a secluded beachfront, not to mention world class snorkeling.
Heading to Alona? Contact Lo Long directly at +63 0 909 205 0156.