Alona Beach on Panglao island, connected to Bohol via a causeway, is becoming one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines. Unlike Boracay, it is still relatively undeveloped, with only two resort-style hotels on the beach. Most accommodations along the beach and just behind it, are guest houses that cater to families, divers and backpackers. Alona Beach itself is a tiny strip of white sand lined with small restaurants and bars. You can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. There are local handicraft shops, grocery stores, cafes and spas offering massages and beauty treatments.
When I visited Alona Beach in January 2013, I discovered that most of the tourists are Korean families escaping the harsh winter. Other tourists come from Germany, the UK, France, and Scandinavia. The atmosphere on the beach is relaxed and tranquil. Occasionally one of the restaurant-bars will blast loud music from their speaker system, but this usually happens late in the afternoon. There are no louche bars or aggressive hawkers. At most, you will get people urging you to stop at one of the small beach tents for a massage, or offering green mangoes with bagoong (a pungent shrimp paste that Filipinos add to all kinds of dishes and which most Westerners cannot stand).
Restaurants and bars at Alona Beach
The restaurants along Alona Beach serve Filipino, Korean, Thai and Western food, none of which is particularly memorable. The best thing to eat is grilled seafood since it does not require any culinary skill beyond a flick of the wrists above hot coals.
Even the Filipino food is mediocre; most places along the beach cater to the culinary preferences of Chinese, Koreans and Westerners. Nevertheless, savouring your grilled fish under the stars on the beach in front of one of the restaurants is a lovely experience. Many restaurants and bars have a live band that performs every evening.
You should try the seafood at Hidden Dream, a popular restaurant which lies on a side street off the beach. It does get very crowded in the evenings. You approach a long table topped with fresh squid, shrimp, lobster, prawns, and fish, and select what you want to have for dinner. They weigh it, grill it with the side dishes of your choice (corn, vegetable kebabs) and serve it to you at your table. The menu is cheap, excellent and varied. After dinner, wander across the street to one of Alona Beach’s most popular hangouts, Helmut’s Place.
Helmut’s Place is owned by Helmut Nauels, a German who seems to have found himself a home in the Philippines. Good inexpensive German and Filipino beer, a pool table, Western food, a welcoming ambiance, as well as the presence of lovely young Filipino women, are reasons why Helmut’s Place is very popular. It is also the unofficial headquarters of the Bohol Bikers Club.
There’s nothing sleazy or scary about Helmut’s Place. When I went there one evening for a cold glass of San Miguel beer, I observed two families enjoying an evening meal, next to what looked like a gathering of several members of the Bohol Bikers Club, whose gleaming Harleys were carefully parked outside the bar.
Where to stay on Alona Beach
I stayed at the Henann Resort, which is constructing a new multi-storey building with more guest rooms behind their beach-front villas. I don’t know what the experience will be like for guests when that is finished. I suspect there will be more people, more kids and more noise. At the time I stayed, it was very quiet because they were officially “not open”. I saw only five other guests.
The other resort hotel is on the beach is the Amorita Resort. I did not get a chance to see the rooms or the swimming pool. It is a popular venue for weddings so if you decide to stay there, make reservations well in advance.
What to do during your stay
(1) Scuba Diving: Many people go scuba diving among the coral reefs off Panglao island. There are dive shops that will rent scuba diving gear and take you on a boat to the best diving spots.
(2) Island hopping: You can rent a banca (a typical Philippine boat, see photo below) to visit nearby beaches and islands. The island hopping tours take several hours, so bring enough sunscreen, a hat and swimwear. If you don’t want to burn, follow the example of the Korean tourists and swim with your clothes on (a thin light0-coloured long-sleeved top and long shorts are a common sight). If tanning is your goal, you can join the Western tourists grilling themselves like kebabs on the beach, but be warned — the Philippine sun is very strong and roasted pink-red skin, not a cocoa tan, seems to be the unintended result.
(3) Chocolate Hills of Bohol (see photo below): This is a half day trip from Alona Beach. If you leave at 9:00 am, you can be back at your hotel at 1:00 pm, unless you decide to visit other places in Bohol. Ask your hotel to arrange the trip or take a taxi. Many taxis are available in Alona Beach. It’s a beautiful drive that takes you through the lush countryside of rice fields, up to the Chocolate Hills viewpoint which has a restaurant, cafe and restroom facilities. Along the way you can ask your driver to stop at Baclayon Church, which was built during the Spanish colonial era (note: it is closed during the lunch hour starting at noon).
How to get to Alona Beach
I flew into Cebu-Mactan airport on Cebu Pacific Airlines from Singapore. The advantage of flying into Cebu, as opposed to Manila, is that Cebu airport is small and it is not busy. You won’t be stuck in long queues, unlike at Manila International Airport. Then I took a 2-hour ferry to Tagbilaran (on Bohol) where I caught a taxi to the Henann Resort on Alona Beach (a 45-minute journey).
If you arrive in Cebu-Mactan too late to catch the ferry, you can stay for one night at the wonderful Abaca Resort, a quiet boutique hotel with a terrific restaurant.
* * * * *
Here’s another resort I recommend if you are looking for an even more beautiful beach. This is north of Palawan: