Philippine isle of Cebu welcomes U.S. travelers

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CEBU, PHILIPPINES -- Cebu welcomes Americans. This I learned firsthand during my recent stay at the luxurious Shangri-La Mactan Island Resort here.

Although caution should be the watchword for anyone traveling in the Philippines, Cebu, in the east central part of this 7,100-island nation, remains off the U.S. State Department's list of dangerous places (most notably the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the extreme southwest).

I found Cebu to be an exceptional destination with a year-round climate of sunny days and balmy nights, topflight recreational facilities and warm hospitality. I felt secure there, and it didn't take long to >unwind after the 50-minute plane ride from Manila.

Asian favorite

The island's infrastructure is well equipped to accommodate clients traveling either independently or in a group and is a good sell to several markets, including lovers of water sports (especially scuba divers), history buffs and those interested in exotic cultures.

While still relatively unknown in the U.S. market (there were about 30,000 American arrivals last year), Cebu is a favorite of travelers from Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. During my stay I encountered several Asian tour groups, including a contingent of Korean newlyweds.

Even during a short stay of two or three days, it's possible to see most of the island, and the most convenient way to get around is to sign up for half-day and/or full-day escorted tours that can be booked through the Shangri-La.

I participated in an island tour that went first to historic Cebu City, the Philippines' oldest city, which was named its first capital in 1565 by the Spanish colonialists.

Today, Cebu City ranks second to Manila as the nation's leading commercial center, having in recent years undergone an economic resurgence known as "Ceboom."

A bustling, chaotic metropolis where glittering shopping malls and modern office buildings are clustered adjacent to dilapidated neighborhoods, Cebu City is moving ambitiously into the 21st century while it struggles to improve the overall living conditions of its 800,000 people.

The city also maintains links to its colonial past by preserving several important historic sites and relics.

Magellan and mangoes

Explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to set foot on the Philippines when he landed in Cebu in 1521. Despite spending only a brief time on the island -- he would meet a violent death the same year in a battle with local chieftain LapuLapu -- Magellan made his mark by leaving behind the Cross of Magellan on the place where the first Filipinos were baptized.

A replica encasing remnants of the original wooden cross is a major Cebu landmark. It is located downtown in Plaza Independencia across from Fort San Pedro.

Built in 1565, San Pedro was the first fort built on Philippine soil. It is now a museum containing a treasure trove of artifacts recovered from the Spanish galleon San Diego, which sank offshore in 1600. Among the most prized items are Ming porcelain, cannons, helmets, and gold coins.

The Basilica Minore de Santo Nino in Cebu, Philippines.From the fort it's a short walk to the Basilica Minore de Santo Nino, a pilgrimage site attracting thousands of religious devotees every year. They come to pay homage to the oldest religious relic in the Philippines, the Santo Nino statue, a gift from Magellan to Cebu's Queen Juana.

Also of historical interest downtown is Colon Street, the oldest street in the Philippines, dating from the 16th century.

Colon Street passes the Carbon Market, where I jostled my way through a teeming mass of humanity in search of some quality handicrafts.

While primarily an agricultural market, it also has some quality handicrafts, and by bargaining with the vendors, it's possible to come away with some good buys on items, including Filipino blankets, baskets, barongs and shells.

As I was leaving the market, I bought a couple of packages of mango chips. To my mind, the island grows some of the most delectable mangoes this side of paradise.

Guitars and scuba

Cebu is home to many cottage industries producing native crafts, and among the island's finest products are handmade guitars.

On the way back from the city to the resort, we stopped off at a guitar factory where classic and acoustic guitars are custom-made of mahogany and rosewood.

It was fascinating to watch the craftsmen in action. They whittled and shaped the wood to create magnificent instruments that are sold at prices far below what they would cost in the U.S.

Scenic tours

I also joined a countryside tour that proceeded along scenic coastal roads and stopped at villages with factories engaged in the time-honored Cebu handicrafts of basket-weaving, ceramics and wood-carving.

Other day trips offered revolve around outdoor activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and sailing.

Cebu is best known as the diving center of the Philippines with dive sites that go to depths of 150 feet; the town of Moalboal, 55 miles from Cebu City, is adjacent to several of the most sought-after sites. There also is quality diving just offshore from the Shangri-La.

For those looking for a tour operator, Philippine operator Rajah Tours, with more than 26 years in the business, will customize tours for groups and individuals. For details, call (800) 392-3345. Another good source of information is the Philippines Tourist Office at www.wowphilippines.com.ph. For an update on general security concerns in the Philippines, view the Consular Information Sheet at http://travel.state.gov/philippines. The information is updated so that it always remains current.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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