Bantayan Island: Beguiled by Bantayan

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When you head to Bantayan, you explore the island with nothing but a rented motorcycle and get toasted under the sun through it all. Yet you still have one of the best, most carefree moments of your life.

Bantayan Island—an hour’s ferry ride from the northern tip of Cebu in the Visayas region—is one of those places without public transport to tour you around. It doesn’t even have enough beach umbrellas to shield you from the sun when you’re out for a swim.

But who needs jeepneys and cabs anyway when you can rent a motorcycle and head to wherever your heart pleases throughout the island’s three-town stretch? Who needs beach umbrellas and all the trappings of a Copacabana holiday when you can simply pitch your tent nearby, lounge around in the white sand and clear blue waters with nary any other tourist nearby, and hop again on your motorcycle should you want to explore farther, through dirt roads and coconut-treelined neighborhoods?

Carefree in Bantayan

Rarely do beach revelers get the same freedom that Bantayan offers—the undisturbed kind that’s free of episodes of unsolicited island hopping offers, that tend to ruin the quietest of vacations. There will be no need for tour guides as your motorcycle will gladly do the tour for you. For P300 (USD 7) a day, you can forget about missing out on the ‘must-see’ spots that have become clichés in other destinations.

You find it equally refreshing to see Angelenos now being reasonably proud of their heritage. You don’t hear here the contumacious sneer, the unseemly putdowns, of one’s own, only eager recommendations. Watch how tour guide Kim Tinio of Kuliat Foundation’s Museo nang Angeles animatedly turns back the hands of time to trace the evolution of Angeles from Barrio Kuliat, originally named after a parasitic vine proliferating then but now a rarity. His zeal is infectious and typical.

Once the motorcycle has had your fill of gas, consider Bantayan your own private road where there’s hardly any traffic, the cool breeze making you forget you ever needed sun block.That was exactly what happened to us when we rented a scooter for a whole day, enjoyed the countryside so much we ended up with an uneven tan afterward. But anyone who’ll ever step into Bantayan will love the sun, sand and sea.

In this tiny island, everything seems undiscovered, unspoiled and postcard-perfect. Every corner presented the perfect photo opportunity for that memorable souvenir: school children on bicycles with wicker baskets treading coconut-tree-lined roads, the bright blue beach beckoning far off; trees on both sides of the road arching together; the remnants of concrete bungalow on top of a cliff overlooking the beach, with stone steps hidden on a narrow gap between the rocks leading to a portion of the beach below.

One of the best times to head to the beach is a little past 6 AM. This was when we waited for the sun’s first light to bathe the beach a golden glow. This is the best time to see the coastal village start the day, boatmen going to and from the sea and local kids going out for an early morning swim. But seeing the beach shift from a pale blue to bright cerulean had been the most amazing part. Between having coffee by the cool sand and seeing a hermit crab emerge from the clump of shells I had collected, this had been one of the most peaceful mornings I ever had, a clear competitor to the sunrise marathons I had previously done in a Southeast Asian island.

Getting lost, finding treasures

We only had a full day to explore Bantayan. So we motored past vast plains through the National Road from Santa Fe to the municipality of Bantayan (the island has three: Santa Fe, where most hotels and establishments are; Bantayan; and Madridejos, the northernmost part).

Easily the most impressive piece of architecture in the island stands in its bare beauty at the town center—the Saints Peter and Paul Church, or simply the Bantayan Church. Shafts of light streaming from its large windows greeted me as I entered. There was something about how the birds inside the church chirped, along with the bright, airy feel inside and the bareness of its stone walls that made me feel for an instant that I was so far off from everything else.

The church was almost deserted, and then I spotted a man kneeling on one of the pews, his eyes closed and his face contorted as if in pain. I was living one of those moments I will never live again—that this spot, far from its religious nuances, embodied everything I had perceived Bantayan to be: simple, welcoming, calming, sincere, gratifying. It had this humanity I have not found elsewhere, definitely not in one of those tourist magnets whose noise overpower its natural beauty.

The Bantayan Church stood out as one of the best parts of our Bantayan road trip, but there had been a lot more throughout the day. We treaded dirt roads and semi-paved roads, passed by huts and towering coconut trees, spotted a cow or two, and were at the receiving end of warm smiles, hellos, and waves from local children who spotted tourists on a motorcycle passing by.

After a full day of exploration, we decided to see more of Ogtong Cave, where we found ourselves swimming through the cold water underneath the sprawling landscape of a hotel. It was a refreshing dip after roughing it up on a kayak earlier (Bantayan is so secluded we were the only ones on the beach apart from the fishing boats docked far off on the other side of the shore).

We had reached portions of such thick vegetation we couldn’t see what lay ahead. We had cruised past the cliff overlooking the beach for the nth time, not knowing exactly where to go next, when a fiery orange and purple hue showed up, telling us to head back to that same spot. And boy was the sunset breathtaking. What was previously bright blue and green had then been a fantastic, larger-than-life panorama of the setting sun. As if the heavens could not make the moment any more perfect, we soon saw boats wading down below to the direction of the sun. They formed the perfect silhouette to cap what was already an amazing day.

Savory seafood, the Bantayan way

No trip is complete without good food, and Bantayan served up savory dishes that even those with discriminating taste would appreciate.

For around P600 (USD 14), Blue Ice Restaurant in Sta. Fe could satisfy two famished stomachs with a generous serving of succulent prawns cooked in lemongrass, a luscious serving of katamba fish, stuffed with onions and tomatoes and perfectly grilled for that nice blend of smoky and milky taste, and a tasty platter of seafood rice that could be a meal by itself with all its squid rings, prawns, and crablets. The restaurant’s wooden, open-air interiors are cozy and breezy. There’s never a crowd too big to disturb your love affair with your prawns.

The giant crab that was cooked in mild chili sauce we had for dinner reminded me of the yummy crustaceans we had at an all-you-can-eat crab house in Davao City. The aligue (crab fat) was too tasty and sinful for dinner, but with the Thai stir-fried prawns we had as well, there was no turning back. We ate like it was our last day in Bantayan—and for a moment I thought I was fooling myself. It was in fact our last night in this gem of a place, and though I felt that familiar pang of guilt over planning such a short stay, I knew I haven’t seen all of Bantayan yet. And this merits one more motorcycle date, sooner or later.

Getting to Bantayan

Take a plane from Manila to Cebu City (1 hour). From the Mactan International Airport, head to the Cebu North Bus Terminal (15 minutes). Hop on a bus bound for Hagnaya port (Ceres Bus line, 3 to 4 hours for P150 or USD 3), and finally, take a ferry to Sta. Fe port (Island Shipping Corporation, 1.15 hours for P170 or USD 4). The first and last ferry leaves for Sta. Fe at 5 AM and 5:30 PM, respectively. Meanwhile, the first and last ones to leave for Hagnaya are the 5 AM and 5 PM ferries, respectively.

If you haven’t made any hotel reservations (and therefore no one to pick you up at the port), you may ride one of the tricycles for a minimum of P10 (20 cents) each depending on your location.

Getting around

Rent a motorcycle or scooter for P300 (USD 7) for 24 hours (negotiable). You will also shoulder the gasoline cost (a full tank costs P100 or USD 2 and will last a day and a half to two days).

Where to stay

Bantayan has options for travelers of every budget—from P500-a-night fan cottages (USD 11) to P5000-a-night rooms (USD 100). The Santa Fe Beach Club’s two hotels—Sta. Fe Beach Club and Santa Fe Beach Club- Ogtong Cave offers fan cottages for P1,600 (USD 37) to a deluxe suite with Jacuzzi for P16,000 a night (USD 372). All over the town of Santa Fe are beachside hotels and more affordable accommodations located five minutes from the beachfront.

Where to eat

Santa Fe’s restaurants and bars are literally five steps apart, so it wouldn’t be difficult to have steak on one and finish it off with cocktails on the other. There’s Blue Ice Restaurant, Coucou Bar, D’Jungle, Hard Kock Kafe, Marisqueira O Portuguese, and smaller eateries serving grilled food and the Cebuano version of the banana-wrapped rice, the puso. No trip is complete without good food, and Bantayan served up savory dishes that even those with discriminating taste would appreciate. ” Bantayan’s sundry delights for the senses A typical lazy afternoon at the island.

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