We’ve all heard about places to visit before development spoils their unique character. Cuba and Myanmar are frequently mentioned. I’ve visited another that’s less well known.
Panglao is a small, flat, sandy-beached island in the southern Philippines covering an area of just 55 km2. It’s 600 miles from Manila and connected to the larger neighbouring island of Bohol, and its basic airport, by a short bridge. The long 7,000-mile journey from London, with a connection in Manila, could put some people off. But travel from Europe is about to become much easier. And that’s the problem – a new larger airport being built on the island, and the expected growth in visitor numbers, is set to bring mass development to the area.
Some of Panglao’s ex-pats told me they’ll be leaving when the airport opens. If their predictions are correct, you have two years to see Panglao as it is now. Currently, around 400,000 people visit the island each year. The new facility will be able to handle an additional 1.7 million passengers. The island will be busier and some people say it will lead to uncontrolled development, as the infrastructure will be stretched to bursting point. That’s happened elsewhere in the Philippines. Many locals likened the situation to that of Boracay, the country’s top beach resort, which has been ruined in recent years by over development. The big pull to Panglao is currently the 1.5km stretch of sand called Alona Beach. In two years time jumbo jets will make their final descent over that warm, white sand. So the clock is ticking!
It was a shame to see what will be lost. The beach is picture perfect – think ‘Bounty’ TV commercial quality. There’s a friendly, chilled vibe around it too. I think it’s partially down to the mix of visitors in Panglao. Ageing hippies and pensioners queue for henna tattoos and sun loungers alongside backpackers and more adventurous family travellers.
The second difference is there’s no seafront road. No cars, lorries or motorbikes thunder past because there’s nowhere for them to be driven. You pass from café to bar to dive shop walking along the tree-shaded seafront path, or cut across the sand. I felt that helped to add to a relaxed atmosphere. It’s a strolling place.
The small, low-rise bars and restaurants along the front have developed organically. I liked that. It is not a planned, big-money resort. The buildings are a mix of wood, breezeblock and corrugated iron, some with thatched roofs. I’ve seen better-constructed garden sheds, but there’s no denying they are a colourful, characterful mish-mash – ramshackle and right on the beach
By day, the shoreline is packed with small, brightly painted wooden dive boats, taking scuba divers out to the famous reefs that surround the island. But it’s at night that Alona beachfront comes to life with live music, fire jugglers and food being cooked on wood-fired barbecues. It’s happy not hedonistic. Panglao is a casual dress down place where people dine barefoot on candlelit tables placed right on the sandy beach. There’s food for nearly every taste – Western or Filipino – and healthy fruit and juice bars. I found a British café that served beans-on-toast too. Imagine traveling all that way and wanting that!
The fresh seafood is impressive. As you stroll along the beach, you pass wooden stands loaded with fish and shellfish, some recognisable, some hideously ugly. They’re packed with ice. You pick what you want and watch the chef cook it for you. A good main course won’t cost more than £4. There are plenty of places to grab a beer or a pitcher of cocktails – from Hawaiian-style thatched roofed bars to lock-up rum shacks blasting out Bob Marley. The bar owners are clearly well travelled! And you won’t experience the irritating hassle by bar touts, trying to drag you in. Most of the people stationed at bar entrances are passive, menu-holders.
The guys offering island-hopping tours and dive sessions will approach you but a simple friendly ‘no thanks’ is enough. They won’t follow you down the street in full sales pitch, like in some places. Alona Beach didn’t seem scary, with plenty of people walking around late into the evening, but you do need to keep an eye on your wallet. The Philippines have some crime problems driven by the poverty and it’s easy to get jostled. Panglao is one of the tidier places in the country but don’t expect a country as clean or orderly as Thailand.
Diving is the big draw and in the last year the popularity of the activity has brought the introduction of daily limits on the use of the reef. Australian ex-pat Craig Benjamin-Charles of Go Scuba, a company based on the seafront at Alona Beach, told me that he is in favour of a new dive-permit ticketing system. Craig accepts the need for a conservation policy but it means would-be divers have to plan ahead and book before they arrive in Panglao. “There’s no such thing as a walk in anymore,” Craig told me. “A lot of people are disappointed at busier times around Christmas and into the New Year,” he warned.
300 daily dives are allowed on the Balicasag Reef and those tickets are shared between 53 dive outlets,” Craig said. So if you fancy seeing Panglao’s underwater world, pick a dive operator online before you visit and they can help you get the permit in place. “So what’s the attraction?” I asked Craig. “50 metres visibility on a good day,” he responded adding, “and it’s cheap.”
Omu has just relocated from Spain to work as a dive instructor and he was clearly excited by the range of marine life. “You see things that someone who has dived for fifty years in Europe wouldn’t see,” he told me. And the coolest thing down there, I asked him? “The whale sharks, they’re awesome,” he beamed.
Panglao is really all about Balicasag Reef and Alona Beach. I’m not one for sitting around on a sun lounger, so I went off to see whether I could find something historic or at least different to visit. I’ll be reporting from the island’s vehicle of choice, a souped-up motorbike sidecar, or ‘trike,’ as my Panglao report continues.
How to get to Panglao
It’s a 13-hour direct flight from London to Manila on Philippines Airlines, with a 75-minute connection to Tagbilaran airport on Bohol island. You can do that for around £500 return. A 30-minute taxi drive to Alona Beach won’t cost more than £10. Accommodation is cheap and a standard hotel room with air conditioning will set you back around £30 a night.