Spanish forts, Chinese food and Filipino hospitality
FOR years, the central Philippines island province of Cebu was known solely for its robust economic growth, friendly people and sumptuous mangoes.
But with several new international air routes into Cebu, and a handful of deluxe resorts and hotels springing up, foreign travellers are quickly discovering the island's other attractions.
As the locals like to point out, no part of Cebu is more than 40 kms away from the sea and some of the best weather in the Philippines can be found here.
Many of the resorts, some ranking as the best in the country and offering almost every imaginable form of aqua sport, are within a 90-minute drive of Cebu City.
The well-known Tambuli and Coral Reef are only 20 minutes from the airport. Cebu and nearby islands have some of the best diving spots in Southeast Asia.
Cebu's 167 islets and islands are sheltered from seasonal storms which hit the Philippines' northern and eastern provinces. The period from December to February brings the coolest weather.
On the third Sunday of every January, Cebuanos hold the biggest fiesta of the south - the colourful Sinulog, highlighted by a mardi gras parade.
The bulk of the resorts are located on Mactan, a large coral island connected to the ''mainland'' by a single bridge. The island is renowned for its guitar-making factories - a small export-quality guitar sells at 2,000 pesos (about HK$650) - stone-craft and shell-craft businesses, and white, sandy beaches.
With its emergence as the central domestic air hub, Cebu's Mactan International Airport - about 560 kms south of Manila - has become a convenient jumping-off point for trips to nearby islands.
A new international terminal, served by direct Cathay Pacific and Philippine Airlines flights from Hongkong, puts the airport a long way ahead of Manila's decrepit Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Even though Cebu, the Queen City of the South, is the second-largest city of the Philippines, it is in many ways its financial heart and a centre for Chinese entrepreneurs.
Cebu did a bustling trade with China long before Magellan arrived here 400 years ago. About two-thirds of the country's rattan furniture is made in Cebu.
Historically, the province holds an important place in the country as the place where Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan planted a wooden cross to symbolise the triumph of Christianity in this faraway archipelago - making it the only Christian nation in Asia.
Not far from the site of the present airport is a monument designating the place where Muslim chieftain Lapu-Lapu slayed Magellan and many of his men in 1521.
Many houses, churches and buildings date back to the first Spanish settlers. The best examples of the period are found in the Basilica Minore del Sto Nino, the Cathedral and San Pedro, one of the country's oldest and smallest forts.
In the city centre, the University of San Carlos Museum displays archaeological finds from the Visayan Islands and Mindanao.
Szechuan and Cantonese dishes are available, and prices can be as much as 50 per cent less than those of comparable restaurants in Manila.
Visitors to Cebu City may, however, be turned off by worsening traffic jams, a confusing road network and pot-holed roads. From the air, one can see the effects of relentless illegal logging which has stripped many of Cebu's hills of their trees.
Although tourism and trade officials have frequently attempted to package Cebu as ''an island in the Pacific'', the province still suffers from maladies found elsewhere in the country: brown-outs and water shortages. The beaches are nice, but low tidesoften expose rocks and coral that make some of them unappealing.
In terms of convenience and value, the 200-room Cebu Midtown Hotel is the place to stay if you want to be in the city centre and close to shopping outlets and nightspots. Single rooms at the newly-opened hotel start at US$60 and doubles at US$75.
In May, Shangri-La will open its first resort in the Philippines, on a 13 hectare, seaside site in Punta Engano on Mactan Island. It will have 349 air conditioned rooms and 14 suites, most with views of the sea.
For longer stays, about a 90 minute drive south of Cebu City is the new Alegre Resort - arguably one of the most plush, well-run and most expensive resorts in the country.
Island hopping can be arranged by Alegre, as can land tours past historical monuments, churches, sugar cane plantations, colourful markets and cock-fighting pits. Highly-recommended is the half-day trip to the spectacular islands of Kalanggaman or Capitancillo.
Cathay Pacific and Philippine Airlines operate a four-times-weekly joint service between Hongkong and Cebu. The 21/2-hour flight operates four days a week. Return excursion fares start at $2,980.
Hongkong passengers can also fly to Cebu via Manila on a number of international carriers. Several shipping lines operate services between Manila and Cebu. The trip takes about 24 hours.