Cabilao Island, Philippines, December 20-27 2008

As soon as Emily & Tim finished their last day of school we bustled off to the airport. A mere 30 hours of travel later, we arrived on the tiny island of Cabilao, off the somewhat larger island of Bohol, in the Visayas group of the central Philippines.

Our pleasant Philippine Airlines flight from San Francisco made a quick refueling stop in Guam and arrived in Manila a full hour ahead of schedule. Unfortunately the early arrival served only to extend our already interminable 6-hour early morning layover in Manila, before catching a flight to Tagbilaran, Bohol. The interisland flight was on low-cost Cebu Pacific Airlines, a popular new way to get around the Philippines -- a significant improvement over those capsize-prone ferries one hears about all too often in the news.

Whereas Manila appeared quite modern -- at least from the gleaming new airport overlooking an impressive skyline -- Tagbilaran brought us back to the Southeast Asia we're familiar with: jam-packed buses, colorful three-wheelers, ramshackle shops & stalls, livestock in the road, and smiling people. (A recent survey identified Filipinos as some of the happiest people on earth. As with all surveys one needs to be a little circumspect, but the people do seem very relaxed and happy on the whole.) Our last leg was a bumpy van ride and finally a traditional "bangka" outrigger boat (photo 1) that brought us to Cabilao.

Like many of our travels, this trip is focused around a specific objective: scuba diving the reefs of the Philippines. After their scuba certifications and our adventures in the Andaman Sea last spring, the kids were anxious to do more diving. We picked the Philippines for a number of reasons: It's a frontier diving destination that's likely to become more popular (and crowded) over time; it's part of the Indo-Pacific region that generally has the best diving worldwide; we all love Southeast Asia; and it's cheap.

After considerable research, Emily had selected two "resorts" (take that word with a grain of salt) where we would spend one week each. On Cabilao we settled into Polaris Beach & Dive Resort. Polaris has about a dozen bungalows, a pool, a pool table and a badminton court, a large grassy area overlooking the ocean, and a good bar & restaurant. It's certainly not fancy, but it's not too much of a stretch to call it a resort.

We rarely left the grounds the entire week, except by boat -- as with quite a few of the guests, our daily routine centered around diving. Polaris ran a punctual and efficient operation, offering boat dives at 8am, 11am, 2pm, and a night dive at 6pm, with underwater time on each dive exceeding an hour. We were on the enthusiastic end of the spectrum, with some fraction of the family opting in to almost every dive. Cabilao Island is only two miles across, ringed by a pristine reef with numerous excellent dive sites no further than a 10-minute speedboat ride from the resort. There were plenty of dive guides, with one of them assigned to our family throughout our stay -- not only was "Junjun" competent and patient, but he was amazing at finding unusual critters we never would have found ourselves.

Tim has maintained his strong interest in photography, and he couldn't wait to apply his improved photo skills underwater. For Tim, diving is all about taking photos; for the rest of us it's about waiting for Tim to take photos. (Granted we could enjoy the reef while we were waiting. Actually Jennifer and occasionally Emily took photos as well, but not with Tim's passion or patience.) Photos 2-10 are a sample of Tim's work, taken with our usual low-end setup: a Canon SD700 IS point-and-shoot inside a simple underwater housing. It didn't take long for Tim to befriend other underwater photo enthusiasts at the resort, and by the end of the week he was boasting a borrowed strobe for even better results.

Our daily routine was broken mid-stay when Christmas eve rolled around. Polaris hosted an elaborate party for the workers and guests alike. A whole pig was barbequed, paraded in on a spit to Emily's horror, and then carved directly to our plates (photo 11). There were a number of speeches and songs, gifts and a holiday bonus for each worker, some moderately risqué games (ask us for details of "pass the eggplant"), and finally general dancing where age, gender, nationality, sobriety, and guest/worker status were no obstacles (photo 12). A good time was had by all; the 8am morning dive was canceled.

The vast majority of the guests -- everyone but us, in fact -- were Europeans of various persuasions, many of them living in Asia. There were several families, as well as the ubiquitous middle-age males on a dive trip with their buddies. At one point there were no fewer than five 13-year-old boys, if you count the resort owner's' son. The place was small enough that we got to know many of the other guests, always a pleasure of traveling.

In between dives we did manage to explore the island a bit. Despite its small size there are several distinct villages, and a lake with good bird-watching. The pace is slow and the people are very friendly. Refreshingly, there aren't nearly enough tourists around to affect day-to-day life, other than offering employment to a small fraction of the island's inhabitants.

Although we're currently at the start of the Philippines dry season, it was often overcast and we did have quite a few showers -- of little consequence since most of our activities were water-related anyway. Looking on the bright side, we haven't dealt with blistering tropical heat -- both the water and the air have remained a fairly constant 82 degrees.

Next: A long travel day of boat then van then ferry (no flights on this route) then another van will bring us to Peter's Dive Resort, Padre Burgos, Southern Leyte, still in the Visayas group, where we'll spend the second week of our trip. Peter's is smaller and even lower-key than Polaris, but promises equally good diving.

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