Thursday, September 10, 2009

Philippines III: Alona Beach

In the lower part of the Philippines' 7000+ islands, Alona beach cups the southern end of Panglao island, a small teardrop of land just beneath Bohol, and connected to it by a short car bridge. Panglao is relatively flat, though its sole 100m high hill provides just enough challenge for a motorbike taxi, carrying two passengers, to struggle through a slow crawl to conquer it. The drive from Tagbilaran, Bohol's capital, to Alona beach, is breezy and pleasant, and winds along well-paved roads past small traditional huts set back amongst banana plants and palm trees, with chickens scratching and scrawny cattle lazing in their dirt yards. The scene is not unlike any tropical developing nation, though among the huts and woven houses it is easy to spot the beneficiaries of the foreign remittance of Filipinos abroad - 14 billion USD, the 3rd largest in the world - with their posh cement houses and driveway gates and landscaped lawns. The roads that cover Panglao and Bohol both are well-built and easily accessible.

On the eastern end of Alona Beach you'll stumble into Oops! Bar (and stumble out later, much drunker), a cozy full-service establishment, the kind of place that you can spend an entire day within spitting distance of and never tire of it. It's one of the cheapest places to stay on the strip, with traditional thatched-roof and woven-wall huts going for 1000 pesos (20USD). You can eat around the world on their extensive, inexpensive menu of items ranging from regional Filipino dishes to chicken cordon bleu and a creamy crab and corn chowder. But the main attraction, as the large wooden sign posted overhead will remind you, is the bar.

Well-known for its lively Saturday night discos, Oops! Bar offers a strong cocktail menu and a breezy beach patio. It's comfortable - and cheap! - enough that it's not hard to let the bar's twice-daily happy hours slip by unnoticed. But the bar staff will look out for you, and from 6-7 and 9-10 they'll remind you of the buy-one-get-one San Miguels or a mixed drink of house selection.

Alona Beach is small - only about 500 yards from end to end - but it is home to at least 6 different dive shops, a variety of cuisines (italian, thai, and plenty of filipino), and an endless stream of Tourism Bureau-trained senior citizen masseurs who are happy to throw a blanket down anywhere and work out your kinks for $5 an hour. Aside from the massages, and the $4 knock-off sunglasses, though, the overall prices are higher on Alona than elsewhere around the island. But it's a short walk off the main strip to cheaper fares on food, drinks, and souvenirs. Flip flops selling for 300 pesos in a convenience store along the beach could be had for 40 if you are willing to walk 5 minutes down the road.

If you're interested in diving, there is no shortage of dive shops willing to take your money. If you plan to do a dive course or dive for a few days, though, some may also be willing to accept less of it. Several dive shops, housed within hotels or budget accommodations, can cut you a deal if you book a dive trip with a few nights' stay. Peter's House, for example, home to Genesis Divers, has been known to take 50% off the regular room rate for a dive&stay package.

Alona beach is easy to access from anywhere in the Philippines. From Manila, fly to Tagbilaran on Cebu Pacific Airlines for 899 pesos (under 20USD). Take a 25 minute motorcycle taxi for 2 (250 pesos), a taxi (400+ pesos) or for the most budget-conscious traveler, stuff your gear into a crowded jeepney (30 pesos) and tell the tout in the back where you're headed. They'll make sure you get where you want to go.

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