Cebu: What’s New, Cebu?

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Mention Cebu and two things instantly pop into your head (and stomach!): history and food (specifically lechon ). Beaches come in a very close third. I must admit I have always had a fondness for the province hailed by many as the country’s Southern Belle. After all, what’s not to love about a place teeming with history, deliciously brimming over with gastronomic delights, and loaded with fun in the sun, sand and sea? Cebu City has become not only a booming giant of trade and industry, but also a burgeoning hotspot for local and foreign tourists alike.

Beyond the Bourdain-approved pit-roasted pig and all the expected attractions and delights, however, the city has some new exciting adventures in the pipeline. And we were among the first to experience them.

Nothing ‘blue’ about the Blu 

Where to stay when in Cebu? Options abound at which a traveler can lay his or her head, but my favorite is quickly becoming the Radisson Blu Hotel. Centrally located in the city, the hotel offers luxury, leisure and a whole lot of loving.

“We have such a strong service philosophy embedded into each of us: ‘Yes, We Can!’” shared the hotel’s General Manager Nishan Silva. “It’s about finding ways to get it done to satisfy our guests. This is the real differentiator for us.”

Good food, great service and a go-to location ensure a seamless stay from check-in to check-out, leaving guests without reason to be any shade of blue.

An added bonus, Radisson just recently opened the first Dilmah t-Bar in the country, with 21 of the finest single origin teas from the world-renowned Sri Lankan brand.

“Although the Philippines is primarily a coffee-drinking country, we have already doubled the number of cups of tea we serve daily. Even the High Tea Service is gaining popularity,” revealed Princes Anderle, Director of Marketingand Communications.

With a slew of international awards (including the prestigious Safehotels Premium Certification) under its belt, the Radisson Blu Hotel is definitely a top pick of places to call your place in Cebu a home away from home.

Shop ’til you drop!

On a fast track towards urbanization (complete with the traffic phenomenon that comes with this), Cebu is steadily gaining ground as a shopping hub of Southeast Asia. The much-anticipated annual shop-’til youdrop extravaganza, Cebu in the Bag, is proof that Cebu and shopping go hand-in-hand.

“Cebu in The Bag Island Madness Sale was first launched in 2013 as part of the activities of Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (CCCI) Cebu Business Month,” explained Melanie Ng, Cebu Business Month Chairperson of 2013. “Conceived as Cebu’s Biggest Sale of the Year, retailers, furniture and fashion accessories exporters, malls, restaurants and hotels participate and offer huge discounts.”

“This year, instead of holding it in June, we decided to include it in the ‘Lakbay Lingaw’ (Cebu’s big tourism fair) in September. This way we can capture the international and national tourism market as well,” she added.

City by the sea

Also at the forefront of this experience is the SM Supermalls Group, with their latest venture, SM Seaside City. Located in Cebu’s thriving South Road Properties area, this expansive 30-hectare development designed by Miami-based firm Arquitectonica, is positioned to dominate and elevate the shopping and lifestyle scene across the region.

Set to launch in November 2015, SM Seaside City, also known as SM Cube for its main sculptural piece symbolizing the Cebuano’s strength and resilience, is already a top spot to visit when in Cebu.

“We haven’t even opened yet and we are already on a list of ‘50 Places Tourists Must See in Cebu.’ Cebu’s tour guides have included us on their agenda, as well,” Hester Jane Amigo, AVP for Marketing, Visayas region, said.

SM Seaside will offer over 470,000 square meters of retail, dining, recreation and entertainment space; that’s definitely worth getting excited about.

An innovative feature, the Seaside Tower “will be located in the middle of the development, 148-meters in height, with a viewing deck at the top, and a maze garden around it,” Joy Veloso, the group’s VP for Operations, enthused.

“When completed, this first-of its-kind structure will afford a stunning 360-view of the surrounding sea, and of Cebu City,” added Sherry Tuvilla, Regional Operations Manager.

Church of 100 Walls

A key structure of this city by the sea is the Chapel of San Pedro Calungsod, the Church of 100 Walls. Dedicated to the Visayan saint, the chapel was the first building to come up in the Seaside City development.

With its clean and modern design, the chapel has not only become a preferred place of worship and the city’s number one wedding venue, but also a must-see tourist attraction.

“In July, we received an award from Trip Advisor for Excellence in Hospitality,” its rector, Monsignor Vicente Tupas, Jr. said. “We have greeters, ushers who welcome you with warmth and sincere friendliness. This has now become a part of travel agencies’ itineraries. No balikbayan, when they come back to Cebu, will skip a visit to this place.”

Designed by Filipino-Colombian architect Carlos Arnaiz, one hundred walls – no two of which are exactly the same in height and width, to signify unity in diversity – showcase the overall contemporary design aesthetic. As natural light streams through strategically placed panes of glass, it is easy to sense an uplifting peace, the kind one only finds in a sanctum of the spirit.

Head for the hills

Perhaps the highlight of Cebu’s fresh sights for tourists is the Highlands Tour, spearheaded by Cebu City’s Tourism Commission. It is interesting to note that a vast 80 percent of Cebu City is located in the mountains, a fact of which I am pretty sure not many people are aware.

“We believe that Cebu has a lot to offer, especially in terms of undeveloped, new destinations, so we chose to explore the possibilities of our beautiful highland areas,” noted Tetta Baad, Chairperson of the commission.

It is a project modeled after the successful community-based Bojo River Cruise in Aloguinsan, southwestern Cebu, and is poised to uplift the lives of the highland dwellers. To be launched in September and implemented in phases, the initiative will include visits to flower farms, organic gardens, caving, trekking, river rafting, and the construction of a Farmer’s Market.

Ably guided by Capt. Pastor Alcover (“Kap Jong”), point person of the Hilly Land Commission, his trusty Jack Russell terrier Shorty, and Anna Quisumbing of the tourism board, we ventured eagerly across roads way less travelled. Muddy terrain, slippery footpaths (due to rainy weather) and grassy patches led us into the exquisite beauty of the mountainous areas of Busay and beyond, to places with amusing names like Tabunan (literally, to cover), Binaliw (gone crazy), Guba (broken), and Agsungot (cranky).

The sights we saw were nothing short of spectacular.

How does your garden grow?

Betty’s Garden is an astonishingly gorgeous 6-hectare parcel of hilly land that took my breath away. Delicate blooms and verdant plants of a variety so large – Betty said she no longer knows how many kinds there are – greet you with a riot of color and a profusion of charm.

Anthuriums, chrysanthemums, birds of paradise, orchids, innumerable ornamental flowers (including one that locals swear tells them if it is high tide or low tide in seaside areas), vines, ferns and fruit-bearing trees bedazzle and refresh even the most tired of eyes and weary of souls.

A down-to-earth (really quite literally) and impassioned woman, Betty Rivero Abellana, alongside husband Dr. Fred and her small team of gardeners, has been working the land for 7 years, to date.

“I do my best to keep the whole area as natural as I possibly can, to keep the plants in their natural habitat. I have indigenous plant species that have already disappeared and are no longer found in the forest,” Betty detailed, over a mouthwatering homemade lunch of steamed shrimps, river snails, stewed fish, and hearty squash soup.

With plans of building a gazebo atop her garden’s highest point, Betty is prepared for the influx of nature-lovers who will surely fall head-over-heels with how her garden grows.

Secret caves and hidden waterfalls

At 2 pm, a thick, cool fog came rolling down the hills, transforming the scenery into a hazy wonderland. It was hard to believe that we were still in Cebu City, really, as we made our way from Betty’s to Kubtingan Falls in Barangay Binaliw’s lush nooks and crannies. A group of boys frolicked in the clear pools, but shied away upon our arrival.

Then, we drove (and trekked) past bountiful vegetable patches to the haunting allure of centuries-old Satuhan Caves in Sudlon Dos. Once used as a refuge during the Japanese Occupation, the caves now house a makeshift chapel of a local religious sect and serve as shelter for nearby communities during typhoons.

Best of both worlds

From cosmopolitan capers to rugged retreats, Cebu’s new thrust is to showcasewhat those of us who love the Queen City of the South have always known: that the best of both worlds truly does await those who journey to its sun-drenched shores – and misty mountaintops.

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