Off the tip of Northern Cebu lies the island called Bantayan, which means ‘sentinel’. Only a few Cebu locals, some intrepid foreigners and even fewer Manila folks knew about Bantayan some years back. It was definitely off the beaten path of most fun-in-the-sun worshippers, who headed for more popular destinations like Boracay. But as word got out, people got a glimpse of this unique and laid-back vacation destination. With its white beaches, turquoise waters, subterranean caves, old Spanish forts, friendly islanders and unique cuisine, Bantayan has piqued the interest of travelers seeking less crowded, more pristine spots.
One comes to Bantayan to slow down, to decompress from Manila and from Cebu City. After a sea crossing from Hagnaya pier in Northern Cebu, one arrives in Bantayan and immediately appreciates its rustic charm. Life here is unhurried and there is no need to rush anywhere, anytime. The cycles of nature dictate the movement of time and the peaceful and hospitable islanders are just fine with that. The islanders are very welcoming and friendly. Their main skills and livelihoods have to do with the sea, and the land.
Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, Bantayan was already a trading center with locals, Chinese and Malays engaged in a thriving commerce. Bantayan is the undisputed Egg Basket of the Visayas. In the center of the island, we visited a farm with 18,000 hens laying an egg or two per day…and this is just one of the smaller farms in Bantayan! In the main town of Bantayan, we discovered the oldest church in the Visayas and Mindanao. The Church of St Peter and Paul was founded in 1580 and is even older than the Basilica in Cebu City. The original nipa (thatched palm)and bamboo church did not survive marauding pirates and the present church was built by 1863.
On the coast facing Cebu is the town of Sta. Fe, known for its white-sand beaches. Near the site of its parish church and beside the Kota Beach Resort, stand the ruins of a Spanish fort. Built around the end of the 18th century, the seaward wall and parts of the side walls still stand. The main entrance of the fort is through a narrow arched doorway that faces the sea. Several beach resorts may be found at Sta. Fe; two popular ones are Kota & Budyong. A beautifully designed resort with a most unique attraction is the Ogtong Cave Resort.
We marveled at the subterranean cave in the middle of the property. There is a natural seawater pool inside the cave and people can even go night swimming in there! The resort’s varied accommodations are all tailored to suit the traveler’s needs for cozy and comfortable lodgings amidst quiet surroundings. The landscaped garden and grounds of Ogtong are a welcome and refreshing sight, with the natural contours of the land and the environment preserved and blended around the structures.
We found more resorts in the Sta. Fe area that cater to those who seek idyllic getaways. The quaint St. Bernard Resort is a beach hideaway with round cottages that resemble medieval huts. Set amidst a grove of palm trees on a white-sand beach, St Bernard’s has something else to be proud of – its very fresh seafood fare. Indeed, this was a seaside haven that soothed and calmed our restless urban spirits, a perfect place to unwind.