OK, so the beach resorts are great. The gardens are usually immaculately maintained, palm trees provide the shade, neatly uniformed staff bring you drinks with little paper umbrellas, and you can just feel the stress melt away as you relax in your hammock.

But, in all honesty, the resorts' beaches, comprised of white sand trucked in and kept free of trash by the resort crew as they are, nonetheless still leave something to be desired. Often, the beach will be quite short, as the resorts usually put up walls, either to keep their territory free of intruders, or to demarcate their beach from their competitors next door. In addition, there is usually a lot of seaweed, jelly fish, people who wade in at low tide looking for shellfish, and you may be disappointed by the muddy look of the water.

You may find yourself asking: Where are the endless white sand beaches and the crystal clear azure waters I saw in the ads? Where is that aquamarine lagoon I dreamt of, full of tropical fishes and devoid of people? Where is the real paradise?

Never fear. Cebu does have that slice of perfection, that special zone which is as close to heaven as you can get without passing through St Peters gates. Best of all, you don't even need to go very far to find it. Heaven can be found about 20 minutes away, by boat, on one of the numerous tiny islands off the Mactan coast.

Going to these islands is an activity termed "island hopping," and it is something you absolutely must do if you are in Cebu for vacation.

In World War II, Allied marines would land their amphibian craft on a Pacific Island, take it over, and then sail towards the next one. This military strategy was termed "island hopping." Nowadays, it basically means to rent a boat, go to an island to enjoy the sea and the beach, and come back in the evening.

The boat - a native banca - can be rented via any of the beach resorts, or from one of the numerous operators in Mactan. Beware, though, about the pricing; even though bancas are basically the same - wooden outriggers propelled by diesel engines and equipped with a roof of some sort - the price can vary hugely depending where you book your boat. Many boat operators have agreements with hotel staff to provide kickbacks. So even though a fair charge is about 2000 pesos or $40 per boat, some places (regrettably, a lot of places) will try to charge you $40 per person.

By G8 standards, $40 for a trip to heaven is quite cheap, and a lot of ill-informed tourists pay it. But you are basically being robbed. $40 per person should get you a cruiser with tinted windows, a spinning radar, mahogany panelling, champagne, and satellite TV. Well, maybe not, but you get the point.

Usually, the charge will include food, in the form of a barbecue set to be prepared on the beach, or packed lunches.

The ocean around the islands is as pure as can be, just like in the brochures, only far better. The sand is pure white, and it has been trucked in by none other than Mother Nature herself. Tropical fishes will nibble at your feet, and the lagoon will be filled with a magic, glowing substance that must be liquid lapis lazuli, for it is far too wondrous to be anything as ordinary as mere water.

Lolling around by the beach is good enough for most, but you could also go snorkeling or scuba diving.

It should be noted that the little atolls have entrance fees, which are usually about 100 pesos per head. This is understandable, even though, technically, the islands are public places and, the Philippines being a free country, you can go anywhere you like. But these little islets are cut off from the civilized world and the islanders have a hard enough time making ends meet even without the tourists, who expect expensive facilities, such as toilets, showers, and electricity to cool their drinks.

Some islands, regrettably, go overboard. Nalusuan Island, for instance, request an entrance fee of 160 per person, and forbid any beverages to be carried in - and sell a can of Coke for more than 10 times the usual price. Still, the idyllic waters of Nalusuan are so perfect that it's rather hard to argue over the price of a Coke.

Heaving anchor and going Island Hopping!
Photo of Hilutungan Island
Photograph of Hilutungan Island
Picture of Nalusuan Island off Mactan, Cebu

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