MENTION Bohol and Chocolate Hills, Tarsier, powdery beaches and Spanish-era churches come into mind. But beyond, or shall I say beneath, this popular tourism magnets, this beguiling island province is known to a select few for its awe-inspiring underwater world.
Bohol has scores of amazing dive sites scattered in the towns of Loon, Anda, Bien Unido, Baclayon and Dauis, but it is in Balicasag island in Panglao that is the most frequented and considered the “mecca” of diving in the Visayas.
The Department of Tourism (DOT)’s “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” TV ad proudly declares, “We have the most species in the least space of anywhere in the planet. Out of the Earth’s 500 coral species, more than 400 are here.”
Panglao has also become a culinary haven to divers and their family and friends who would rather stay on terra firma to feast on the vast array of food options available and gaze at the vast expanse of the ocean.
Balicasag Island Dive Resort
If there is one reason to go diving in Panglao, this is definitely it. Nestled in a 25-hectare island, BIDR was established in 1986 by the Philippine Tourism Authority, now the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, and blazed the trail of the international niche market for scuba diving.
The 1.5-hectare government-run resort has 20 tropical-themed bungalow cabanas that transport visitors back to its glorious yesteryears with its nostalgic room themes that never seems to run out of style.
As a showcase for marine conservation, it has five spectacular world-class dive spots and a marine sanctuary just off the sleepy shores of the island. Among these sites are Resort Wall, Black Coral Forest, Cathedral Wall, The Cavern and Turtle Point, which teem with sea turtles, mackerels, cushion stars, a profusion of feather stars and a wide variety of reef fishes, such as lionfish, triggerfish, clownfishes and the omnipresent anemones or the popular Nemo.
Balicasag takes pride in its kaleidoscope of marine life, including brilliant reef fish that dart around among flourished corals and sponges, and its resident school of jacks that swirl around almost endlessly at about 100 feet below the surface.
With its amazing underwater kingdom, Balicasag has hosted prestigious events, such as the Shore It Up Marine Ecosystem Program of Metro Pacific Investments Corp. and the exploratory dive of Shanghai-based dive-tour agents and journalists organized by the DOT.
The accommodation and dining of BIDR may not be as flashy as the star-rated resort hotels in Panglao, but it can hold out its own despite the hurdles of government bureaucracy and its physical distance from the mainland. Dining at its Blue Marlin Restaurant is rather basic with its menu comprises of well-loved Pinoy cuisine with a local twist, but remarkable enough if you take into account the logistical challenges it faces on a daily basis.
If you are pursuing certification for open-water diving or advance courses, this is, perhaps, the cheapest places on Earth to earn that coveted license from the Australia-based Professional Association of Dive Instructors , the world’s largest scuba-diving licensing entity.
Bohol Beach Club
BBC was already a landmark in Panglao as early as 1983 when its beaches were still very a much a frontier area, setting the benchmark for its seaside elegance and succulent food. It had the longest private beachfront and the most number of rooms in the whole of Bohol.
Reopening in 2014 after undergoing a makeover, this 33-year-old property marries the allure of the tropics and the timelessness of contemporary architecture. BBC maintained its recognizable 1980s insignia, but its management has adopted to new paradigms and trends in the booming tourism insdustry.
Its open-air restaurant, Agotata, still breathes the fire of the olden days when it was the upscale place to be seen with the seabreeze caressing your skin. Named after the golden cowrie, which abounds in the seas of the Visayas, it serves local favorites to international fare, such as pastas, steaks, pizzas, seafood, poultry dishes, sandwiches, salads, Asian noodles and everything in between.
A house specialty is Steak Dianne, made up of thinly sliced United States Department of Agriculture beef cooked in onions and garlic served in gravy with mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms and vegetables.
In between meals, you can sink your teeth on BBC Burger Special which is 250 grams of pure beef patty with fried egg, bacon, cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and fresh tomato served with barbecue and tomato sauce. Then top it off with the BBC Ice Cream made up of rich vanilla mixed with Bohol’s most famous delicacy. Agotata’s hip food, which gets revamped every now and then, can be attributed to its 25-year-old executive chef Noel Miguel, who has graced major food and beverages outlets in the country despite his young age.
This 10-hectare well-manicured hideaway named after Bohol’s iconic primate is not your typical resort, teeming with beach bums. It actually looks like a garden with the abundance of flowers and plants, masterfully landscaped by owners Nicholas and Patricia Moussempes to create a sanctuary to restore the weary soul.
It also has a stable and equestrian grounds, which serves as the private playground of the horse-riding couple.
With only 12 luxury villas to ensure an exclusive paradise, the resort blends organically with nature to create a special connection—and communion—with Mother Earth. The posh resort, which is still a work in progress, is punctuated with Oriental themes with authentic sculptures sourced from Asian countries.
Aside from its rooms screaming in opulent furnishings, Tarsier Botanika is also noted for Tarsier Paprika, its cliffside fine-dining outlet, one of the must-try places in Bohol. With a soothing view of Bohol Sea, things seem to come to a halt as you bite bit by bit the artisanal food laid before you.
In the evening, the Master Chefs’ Degustation Menu offers a refined culinary journey where fine food are presented in five courses from soup to dessert.
Tarsier Tropika, is another food and beverages outlet of the other end of the sprawling enclave, with the pool café set in the heart of the botanical garden. The café’s all-day dining menu consists of healthy salads, pizzas, sandwiches and grilled delights, all of which are grown organically.
A few kilometers away in the popular Alona Beach, is Tarsier Exotika Resturant, Grill and Gourmet Shop whose menu includes a fusion of Asian and European favorites. Tempt your tastebuds with the handmade pasta, fresh seafood or specialty pizzas.
Other dive and dine getaways
Another mouth-watering dining haunt is Aplaya Restaurant of Bluewater Resort which is bringing its more than 25 years of experience gleaned from its sister property in Mactan, Cebu. Sitting just a few steps away from the beach, Aplaya offers international cuisine, local fare with a modern flair of Filipino-Asian fusion featuring exotic flavors made with fresh produce.
You can try the adobo rice steamed in bamboo, which brings out the earthly flavor of the staple grain, best paired with their Visayan version of the lechon kawali. Cap it with the sweet ube kinampay for dessert.
The newly opened Be Grand Resort on the far end of Panglao is whipping up an exciting blend of Pinoy comfort food, such as the seafood kare-kare, nachos sisig, a host old-time Spanish favorites and an assortment of popular dishes from all over the globe.
Whew, so many sites to dive, so many restos to feast on, so little time.
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