Shortly after starting my travels I got an email from Holli, a fellow environmental lady lawyer friend in DC, telling me she and her family were moving to Singapore over summer (2018), and that I should visit them. I immediately accepted; my “policy” is that, if someone invites me to visit somewhere around the world, unless visa issues get in the way, I’ll be there! But the trip to visit Holli, James, and their two adorable kids (Anna Petra and Leo, neither of whom are pictured in this blog, so you’ll have to visit Singapore to meet these cute kiddos), turned into Singapore + girls’ weekend getaway! #WinnerWinnerChickenDinner (More on Singapore in an upcoming blog.)
The original plan was to meet in Bali. But after all of the earthquakes and tsunami activity in Indonesia, I decided it may be best to wait on Bali (though, to my knowledge, Bali has been unaffected by the recent tragedies). I’ll spare everyone the details of how we finally made our decision, but we ultimately decided to head to Cebu, Philippines, for a long (Thursday to Monday) weekend. Confession: neither of us had heard of Cebu before we picked the Philippines. By the end of this trip we both realized: we could not have picked a better destination! Flight time is only 3.5-4 hours from Singapore, same time zone, and the city/area offers everything: culture, history, islands accessible for day trips, an abundance of nature, and our favorite part, insanely good and affordable food from just about any international cuisine you fancy! Cebu is a foodie paradise!!!
Let me run through how we spent our time in Cebu. The flight over meant we had a couple of hours to explore Singapore’s famed Changi Airport (this airport has won the “world’s best airport” award for the past 6 years!), and it is definitely the best place in the world for a long layover or to arrive early before your flight. In our terminal alone there was an indoor garden with a koi fish pond, an outdoor sunflower garden (yes, you can access), an entertainment/game area, and a movie theater showing new releases around the clock. All FREE!
Asia Flight Travel Tip: if you’re traveling around Asia, you will almost certainly be using budget airlines at some point (based on schedule alone and setting aside whether you’re traveling on a budget or not). So be sure to (1) check out baggage rules and pre-purchase (online) checked bags to save a lot of $$ at the airport, (2) pack or buy food and water at the airport to take onto the flight, unless you’re on one of the few budget flights that includes a meal (and even then, there were no vegetarian options, so if you’re on a strict diet or have any food allergies, forgetaboutit), and (3) be sure to download movies onto your favorite smart device, because there are no entertainment screens. However, some of the airlines have Apps you can download for free and access (limited, but still!) movies inflight.
The flight into Cebu was smooth and the view (I was sitting in a window seat on the left side of the plane) was lovely as we were arriving to the island. Cebu Airport Tip: there is an ATM after you exit the airport, but it’s hard to find so ask someone at the airport to point it out. Also, at departure, you will have to pay a departure tax (it was 800PHP if you had cash, or 850PHP if you use a credit card). Note about money/currency: there are quite a few places that will accept cards, but enough (including all taxi cabs) that only take cash, so it’s worth having some on hand. The Philippine peso (PHP) is only worth about $0.02 to $1USD, and a little bit of money goes a long way here.
Cebu Transportation Tips: (1) Taxis are usually cheaper than using Grab (the Uber-like company available here), (2) when you’re not in a hurry, taking the local bus is an awesome and super cheap way to get around (by super cheap, I mean it- one bus we took cost only 7PHP = just over $0.10), and (3) if you’re traveling on Monday-Saturday, leave lots of extra time because traffic is heavy all the time (except on Sunday).
There are lots of hotel options and Holli and I struggled to choose one. We finally ended up picking Hotel Elizabeth Cebu (http://elizabeth.topcebuhotels.com/en/) and that turned out to be one of the best decisions of our trip! The service here was outstanding! The only place I’ve traveled in the world that even comes close was in India. The staff are a delight and go above and beyond to help and make sure you have a good stay. There is construction going on around the hotel, but getting a room on the side of the hotel away from the main road takes care of that (the staff were super helpful and moved us after checkin when we called to complain about construction noise). Next to service, the location is a MAJOR bonus! There is so much in and around the business district, including, almost all of the city’s best restaurants; if I go back to Cebu, I can’t imagine staying in any other area.
Overview of how we spent 5 days: (Day 1) All about relaxing. After arriving, we chilled in the hotel for a few hours, then enjoyed a spectacular dinner at one of (maybe, THE) city’s top restaurants. (Day 2) Hotel gym workout followed by a trip to the nearby mall (Ayala Center Cebu, walking distance from our hotel) for a delish lunch at another top-rated restaurant, then onto another mall (SM City Cebu) for spa treatments (I needed to get my eyebrows threaded and Holli wanted a mani/pedi). If you find yourself in Cebu and in need of brow cleanup or shaping, I highly recommend Hey Sugar! Waxing Salon in SM City Cebu Mall. No wait time, she did a great job, and cost was about $3USD! FYI: the malls in Cebu are amazing! Not just for typical shopping, but EVERYTHING. The food courts in these malls offer some of the best dining in the city. And they have entire health and medical wings, for just about every service you can imagine. Day ended with, no surprise, another amazing dinner. A quick interruption for some of the things you can buy in Cebu that made me go hmmmm???
(Day 3) Tour day! We headed out to Bohol island, and from pickup to dropoff, it was a full, 12-13 hour day. And, surprise(!), an amazing dinner to cap things off. (Day 4) Tour day! We took advantage of much less traffic on Sundays to do a tour of Cebu City and nearby Lapu-Lapu (aka, Mactan Island). And, you got it, finished the day with another great restaurant experience. (Day 5) Departure from Cebu back to Singapore.
Now for what you really want to know…
Restaurants you MUST eat at when in Cebu
The highlight of Cebu for Holli and me was the restaurant experiences. Five-star quality food, sometimes for the price of McDonald’s. This is such an amazing city for food (and, yes, drinks)! When trying to figure out where to go, I found this article in particular really useful: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/philippines/articles/10-great-restaurants-in-cebu-dining-in-the-philippine-paradise/
OH MY GAWD. So, so, so good. Ambiance and location are wonderful. I highly recommend making a reservation to sit outside for the city view. We started off splitting two appetizers: grilled octopus and a beet salad. Both are the BEST of that type of food I’ve ever eaten in my life. For our main courses, we had pasta dishes; mine had pieces of lobster but a very light sauce that didn’t at all compete. Add on two glasses of wine each, selected after discussions with the restaurant’s fantastic sommelier, plus desserts I’m still drooling over, and we agreed it was one of the top restaurant experiences either of us have had, anywhere in the world. All of the bill was only $100USD. TOTAL, not per person. Which, admittedly, is very pricey for the Philippines, but if you pick up this restaurant and drop it into any of the Western cities I’ve lived in or traveled to frequently, you could easily pay 4-5 times as much (easily).
Laguna Garden Cafe
Serving up authentic Filipino cuisine, this is another must visit! The restaurant is located in the Ayala Mall food court; and by food court, I mean a huge area disconnected from the mall by beautiful wooden terraces with countless restaurants.
(You can also visit one of the several Cafe Laguna restaurants in the city, including across the courtyard at Ayala, but we went to the mothership.) Of everything we sampled for lunch, there were two things in particular that fell into the OH MY GAWD category: (1) the ripe mango juice, to die for, and (2) the sauteed spinach and garlic. Holli and I both agreed that the spinach dish was one of the best we’d both ever eaten. EVER. Salivating just thinking about it. That dish alone makes this place worth the visit.
If you’re craving SoCal Mexican food while in the Philippines, look no farther than…
Maya Mexican Restaurant
Great decour and really solid Mexican food, which is not so common on this side of the world. Holli and I both had fish tacos, which were super yummy. (FYI: there were only a couple of things on the entire menu that were vegetarian, so it’s not the easiest place to eat if you forego seafood and meat.)
Places to go for Spectacular Ambiance (& Social Media Worthy Photos)
La Vie Parisienne
Stepping into this cafe is like entering an alternate universe. One that has the smell of warm croissants lingering in the air, and art and bright lights decorating every single nook and cranny of the interior and exterior. Without a doubt, this is one of the most insta-worthy places in all of Cebu.
Nothing was skipped when designing this noteworthy cafe and winery, and it is SO worth an evening. We were a bit short on time so opted for a pizza to go along with our huge (1000mL vs. normal bottles that are 750mL) bottle of Chilean wine, for a grand total of $17 TOTAL. The pizza was nothing to write home about, but there were lots of other yummy sounding dishes that we failed to order, so can’t say you shouldn’t arrive hungry. But definitely prepare to sit back and relax with your bottle of wine (as far as I could tell, they only sell and serve by the bottle) and enjoy either the quirky and comfortable interior design…
or step outside into a magical world of lights, elephants, and even random tepees.
10,000 Roses Cafe
If you’re staying in Cebu City, this place is a bit of a haul, but definitely worth it! Food options are more limited here and pizza was, well, strange (we got a mushroom pizza and they topped it with honey-mustard- not because we requested it or because it was even on the menu). So don’t come here hungry, but they do have a lovely cafe so enjoy a coffee or even beer. And check out what a “garden” of 10,000 LED-roses looks like. If I was to go back, I’d check the place out at night! But it’s still lovely daytime, and offers one of the best views of Cebu City.
When You Want Dinner, Craft Cocktails, and the Best Live Music in Cebu…
There are actually three different places located on this property: in CASA UNO, you find the original restaurant, a fine dining/upscale establishment; in CASA DOS there’s a more casual dining restaurant and craft cocktail bar (CICADA) and the on-site bakery (NOSHERY).
They are located in different areas because the restaurant is located in historic mansions in Cebu, which have been renovated beautifully. Holli and I started the evening at the fine dining restaurant (which is neither very expensive nor is there a dress code). We were both trying to be healthy (which went out the window later in the evening… keep reading…), so we split an appetizer and two salads. We did not try a few of the richer entree items that looked absolutely delicious; our loss! (If I was back in Cebu, I would 100% return here and throw any sort of a diet out the window so I could fully enjoy what they have to offer.) However, their selection of wine by the glass was super limited and bartenders at CASA UNO don’t necessarily know how to make even basic cocktails, so keep that in mind. What made us fall completely in love with this restaurant was what happened after we finished our meal…
The manager, Ivy, was on top of her game and followed us out, offering to walk us next door. Holli and I decided it was worth giving CASA DOS a try, and Ivy made sure we had a better experience. We never complained about CASA UNO, but they were observant and could tell we weren’t entirely impressed when leaving, and they weren’t about to let us leave with anything less than a glowing impression. During the short walk over to CASA DOS, Ivy gave us some history about the houses and development of the property, and then escorted us to seats at the bar and introduced us to the bartender. As soon as we walked in we discovered that there was an acoustic guitarist with this amazing, soulful, folksy voice, serenading the bar. She was brilliant. Ivy was never far away, and after checking in after our first round of drinks, she brought us this…
CHOCOLATE MANGO CAKE! Made fresh at Noshery, their own bakery. And WOW was it good. By this point Holli was head over heels for this place. I let the bartender have some fun with the second cocktail he made for me, and Ivy kept chatting to make sure we were having fun. Our taxi was taking a long time to arrive, so Holli and I opted for dessert #2 of the night. Ice cream sweetened with nothing but honey! YOU HAD ME AT HELLO. I had two scoops, one of dragonfruit and one of avocado, and they were SO GOOD.
The service at Circa 1900 was the best I’ve had at any restaurant in longer than I can remember. When you combine that with beautiful, historic buildings, great drinks, dessert, and live music, it’s the combination for a great evening.
Bellini Champagne Bar
Right next door to Anzani is a great cocktail bar, Bellini. It only has live music a couple days a week, but Holli and I were lucky enough to catch the music the evening we had dinner at Anzani. Bellini also serves food, so would make for a wonderful evening.
The first tour we did was a day trip to Bohol Island from Divaishnavi Travel & Tours. The day started with an early morning pickup from our hotel and then a 2 hour ferry ride to Bohol. The company was awesome and stayed with us at the ferry terminal until we walked onto the boat.
When we arrived to Bohol the company found us right away, and Holli, me, and the other three who had booked the tour for the day, climbed into the van and headed for our first stop, which was a bit weird. It’s a statue of the blood compact the Spanish made with the chief of Bohol, which quite literally involved mixing each others’ blood with wine and drinking together. Its historically significant because it is viewed as the first “treaty” between the two countries.
From there we moved onto the Baclayon Church, one of the oldest Catholic, stone churches in the Philippines.
Then we moved onto my favorite part of the tour: driving through the Mahogany Forest to a Tarsier Sanctuary! These little guys are so cute and teeny tiny! It was nice to observe them in a protected space.
After leaving the most adorable part of our tour, we headed to the prettiest- and most tasty! A river cruise and lunch on the boat in Loboc. They had wonderfully tasty vegetarian (and vegan!) options, including the most delicious jackfruit curry made with coconut milk. There were musicians on board serenading us the entire time, and we even made a stop to watch locals perform some traditional dances.
The final stop of the day was to the Chocolate Hills, a geological formation that formally includes more than 1,200 hills (but our tour guide informed us the number has grown to over 1,700 as the protected area has been enlarged by the government). We came during the “wrong” time of year; the hills are currently covered with lush greenery, so the hills don’t look quite so chocolately. But still very cool.
After a coffee and tea stop at a cafe near the ferry terminal, we were dropped off for the ferry ride home. I had the munchies, so popped into the snack store to buy something to last until Holli and I made it back to Cebu for dinner. But I wasn’t brave enough to try any of these…
For our last full day in Cebu, we headed out for a tour of the City. We probably would have started with this if one had been available when we first arrived. In hindsight, booking the tour for Sunday was a great idea because traffic is SO much better than it is every other day of the week. Our tour took us to most of the historically significant spots across Cebu, and we added in a bit of walking to make sure we saw Colon Street, which is (supposedly?) the oldest road in the Philippines. Here’s photos from our day…
Heritage of Cebu Monument. Brilliant monument that distills most of the historically significant parts of Cebuano history into a single piece of art, beginning with the chief Lapu-Lapu killing explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
Magellan’s Cross. Site where the original cross (from Ferdinand himself) was planted. It is the oldest landmark in Cebu (1521).
Church and Convent of Santo Nino. Erected in 1565, and home to the second oldest artifact in Cebu, the Holy Child Jesus (of which I do not have photos, because the line to visit this was at least 1-2 hours long). My favorite part of this visit was the mass going on in the open courtyard, with people buzzing around everywhere.
Colon Street. Without traffic we were moving way ahead of schedule, so Holli and I headed to Colon Street. There wasn’t too much to see on a Sunday morning, though some of the scenes did make me very sad. So much poverty and trash, everywhere. (We were clearly not walking through the purely commercial part of this street that most tourists go to.)
Fort San Pedro. Not much of this former functioning fort remains, but there was one room in the Fort with a photo exhibit that was absolutely fascinating! It showed photos of the Fort and Cebu’s history and development, along with the original photo captions that were published in predominantly American periodicals. Great example of how history can be whitewashed. A trip to the Fort is absolutely worth it just for everything you can see and learn about the city in this exhibit.
Philippine Taoist Temple in Beverly Hills, Cebu City. This was easily my favorite stop of the day. The Temple is absolutely stunning, and a great place to visit and meditate (though a bit hard to find a quiet spot among all the tourists/crowds). It offers great views of Cebu as well. And yes, this neighborhood is very fancy/exclusive.
Temple of Leah. The next visit offered the best view of the day, but was also one of the stranger stops of the tour. It’s a Roman-Greco styled temple that houses remains of the wife of the man who built it for her (in 2012). Construction seems to be ongoing and there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. Don’t come for the Temple, but come for the views.
The tour then had two stops over in Mactan: one of the Mactan shrine and the other of the famous, local guitar shop. Holli and I wanted lunch and because we had yet to visit the 10,000 Roses Cafe, we had the driver take us there for lunch. It was a much longer drive than we expected, so afterwards, we decided to skip the guitar shop (neither of us were going to buy anything) and just visit the shrine. But our driver was either lazy or confused and took us to a very unimpressive statue that had something to do with Magellan; not even worth posting a photo here. It was a long day and decent itinerary, but things fell apart a bit for me with the Mactan bit, which is why I haven’t provided a recommendation for a day tour to book with. I think you can save yourself some time and money by just booking a half-day tour for Cebu City sites; that will give you everything we saw without the trip to Mactan (and taxis are cheap enough that you can hire one yourself if you want to visit anything in particular in Mactan).
All in all, our trip to Cebu was FABULOUS! It was the first time Holli and I had traveled together, and like Forrest and Jenny- peas and carrots. Cebu is a great destination for anyone interested in history, culture, and FOOD!