Chasing white sand beaches all over Asia can be a chore—but once you end your pursuit at Panglao Island in the Philippines, you'll realize you've hit the jackpot.
Unlike some other beaches we could mention, Panglao lies right in the sweet spot between human development and raw natural beauty. The party scene along the main Alona Beach stretch consists mainly of getting some really good European-style grub and getting buzzed with friends. Beyond the beach, Panglao's diving and island-hopping scene gets rave reviews for their ease of access and relative low cost.
First you'll need to get to Panglao Island: visitors can fly in from Manila to Tagbilaran International Airport, or ride a ferry from nearby Cebu to Tagbilaran Wharf. From Tagbilaran, the capital of the province of Bohol, visitors can hire a tricycle to take them to Alona Beach in Panglao Island. The ride takes about 30 minutes, costs about P300 ($7.50), and crosses a causeway between Bohol and Panglao Islands.
Named after a Filipina actress who shot a movie here in the 1970s, this 1.6km-stretch of white beach is Panglao Island's most "civilized" spot, with many resorts taking up the best spots along the beachfront. Several dozen dive shops and a whole flotilla of rent-a-boats have followed suit, making Alona Beach an ideal jump-off point for travelers looking to island-hop off Panglao.
If your Panglao trip stops right at Alona Beach's waters, that's okay—the fine white sand and brilliantly clear waters make this part of Panglao an ideal spot to sunbathe, have a beach massage, or bar-hop as the night creeps in. But you've made it this far—why stop here?
Hiring a "Pump-Boat"
The shallows off Alona Beach are populated with "pump-boats" at anchor—these motorized outrigger boats seat between 10 to 20 passengers, and shuttle passengers from Panglao to neighboring Balicasag Island, Pongtod Island, and dolphin-watching in the seas in between.
Your Alona Beach resort—assuming you're staying at one—can hire a boat on your behalf. This is the best option instead of finding a trustworthy boat captain along the beach itself. Expect to spend about P1,200-1,600 ($30-40) per booking. If you book through the resort, expect to spend about 20 to 25 percent more.
Dolphin-Watching Off Panglao
Pump-boats leave Alona Beach as early as 5 a.m. to catch the dolphins having breakfast in the Bohol Sea off Panglao. The early wake-up call is worth it: seagoing travelers will find pods of spinner dolphins dancing in the waves; a dolphin-watching tour consists of a few hours chasing after the pods as they frolic.
They're not just putting on a show—acrobatics may be the spinner dolphins' particular version of parasite control. To shake off remora fish that stick to their skin, dolphins leap spinning into the air. In any case, it’s a delight to see especially if you had to wake up particularly early to catch it.
Sunbathing on "Virgin" Island
The western side of Panglao Island consists of coral shallows with the occasional islet sticking out of the surface. Pontod Island (or as locals refer to it “Virgin Island”) is one of these tiny outcrops; it's a tadpole-shaped islet with a tail curving south. The tail is a brilliant white sandbar that gets maximum exposure during low tide.
To find the island’s pristine beach though, your boat would have to navigate the island’s shallows where boats often snag on the seaweed. But the reward is a beautiful sandbar where you can sunbathe and soak in the water imagining you have your own little island.
Snorkeling Off Balicasag Island
When you’re done with sun and sand, catch some surf in the waters off Balicasag Island. Because of its remoteness and rough beach, it’s easily overlooked by boat-hopping tourists, but visitors know that it’s worth the boat stop for corals around Balicasag's shallows shelter a massive population of colorful tropical fish, all visible at snorkel-friendly depths.
Travelers with a PADI license will find Balicasag's deeper reaches even more rewarding. Four recognized dive spots around the island provide good prospects for seeing turtles, barracuda, and moray eels, among other deep-sea creatures, at depths reaching up to 60 meters under the surface.