Family holiday to the Philippines: swimming with whale sharks in Oslob and hitting the beach in Mactan

We recently had a fabulous holiday swimming with whale sharks, swimming in natural pools and lazing on the beach in Cebu

We used the recent local school holiday to jet over to the beautiful Philippines for a vacay full of sunshine, vitamin sea, waterfalls and whale sharks! Here’s why we can’t wait to get back to this stunning patch of the world… Yes, Oslob and Mactan in Cebu, we’re talking about you.

How to get there

We took a direct flight to Cebu with Scoot. Cebu Pacific and Singapore Airlines also fly non-stop, with journey time at just over three hours.

Sumilion Island, Oslob

We’re not gonna lie to you, it was an epic journey to get to the crystal clear waters of this paradisiacal island in the Philippine Sea. Our hotel arranged a driver to pick us up at the airport and transport us the 130km journey, and it took a whopping four hours. Boat schedules are strict from Oslob over to Sumilion, and unlucky for us we just missed one, so had to wait around for over an hour to get a 4pm ferry. We left home at 4am… Bring snacks. A lot of them.

Mactan Island

Just a 20-minute drive from the airport you’ll find a collection of luxe hotels nestled on private beaches. We decided to head there (another four hour drive back from Oslob) for the second part of our holiday, so it was a wayyyy easier transfer for the return flight home.

Where to stay

Oslob

swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

You would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in the Maldives when you get to Sumilion Island. Photography: Lee Tristram

If you’re heading to Oslob then it has to be Bluewater Sumilion Resort. The rather tedious journey was definitely worth it when we pulled up to a Maldivian-esque scene. Beautiful shades of blue water lapping at a white sand sand bank? Check and check. The resort also has some pretty cool hiking trails to take as a family (careful of the monster spider who lives in the cave), its very own lagoon with free kayaks and pedalos, an infinity pool, a playground and a daily schedule of family activities. Hot tip: Hang around outside room eight every morning at around 11am to spot the reef tip sharks in the waters below. Bring reef shoes if you want to go in with the fishy fellas: it’s rocky around that spot.

Mactan

swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

The staff at Azura Beach Club were immeasurably lovely. Photography: Tracy Tristram

We’ll be honest: we were worried about our Mactan being a disappointment after having such an amazing time in Oslob. How could it possibly compete? We are, however, very pleased to report that Crimson Resort and Spa Mactan not only delivered the jolly holiday goods, but was an all-round hit with the whole fam. Did we leave the hotel once we were there? Nope. Not for a second. We simply didn’t need to. And can we just give a big round of applause to the hotel’s Azura Beach Club. This beach-side restaurant and bar had the nicest staff we’ve ever met on a holiday AND the food was some of the best we’ve eaten in a hotel anywhere in the world. Hot tip: one-for-one drinks, including cocktails every evening until 7.30pm – work your way through the list, ladies! And do try the Sri Lankan fish curry. Delish.

What to do

Oslob

Oslob is ALL about the whale shark experience – which was nothing like we thought it would be. We expected to board a biggish boat and be taken way out to sea to catch sight of the largest species of fish in the ocean.

Nope. You’ll be ferried across to the mainland from Bluewater Sumilion and then driven five minutes to the whale shark ‘hub’. Next, you’ll be checked in, shown a do’s and don’t board plus a quick video, handed a life jacket and then sent down to the shore. There you will find a small army of long thin wooden canoe type boats and you’ll be piled on in a way which we’re pretty sure doesn’t comply with too many safety regulations…

swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

This is the kind of boat you’ll be herded into for your whale shark experience. It’s cosy for sure. Photography: Hector Periquin via Unsplash

Once you’re all aboard and feeling cosy with your sea mate, you’ll be sailed 100m from shore where you’ll be allowed to jump in and snorkel with the whale sharks. It gets busy out there, but the fisherman constantly throw in (super smelly) fish to keep the whale sharks in the vicinity. They’re MASSIVE. They take a lot of feeding (humans are not on their menu, don’t worry).

The whole process to get to this stage was not, we’ll be honest, a whole lot of fun. But once you bob under the water and you’re face-to-face with the most extraordinary creatures, you’ll have a whale of a time.

You’ll get about 15 minutes to bob around and take it all in before being asked to board back on the boat (we use the word boat loosely), and then you’ll head back to dry land. It’s fairly rushed, really quite stinky, and not the most organised of experiences, but is it worth it? So much yes. It’s a truly magical family experience, but we would advise not to do it with young kids. Our youngest is seven-years-old and he was fine, but much younger than that this would be far too stressy, in our opinion.

swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

Wash off the stinky whale shark smell with a trip to nearby Tumalog Falls. Photography: Tracy Tristram

We also combined our morning with the whale sharks with a trip to nearby Tumalog Falls. Your driver will bring you as near as possible to the falls, and then the rest of the journey into the valley will either be on foot (on a proper path, don’t worry) or on the back of a motor cycle (not ideal if you have children). We walked down (and back up) which was fairly strenuous, but also great for burning off those buffet breakfasts!

Cool off and rid yourself of that fish smell with a swim in the emerald-coloured natural pool at the bottom of the falls, take a million photos and admire just how pretty and peaceful this place is. We were the only tourists there, which was lovely but also a little eery. Warning: the washroom facilities are grim: sure you use a bathroom before you take the trip!

We never made it to the bigger, more dramatic Kawasan Falls, as we were advised that these are fairly tough to visit with younger kids. If you have tweens and teens then definitely think about taking them in – we hear they’re stunning.

Mactan

swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

Holiday heaven at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan. Photography: Tracy Tristram

Beach, pool, water sports, divine food and happy hour cocktails: Mactan has it all in spades. If you’re travelling with kids in tow, definitely book a hotel with a kid’s club or decent kid’s activities: we barely saw our rug rats at the Crimson Resort & Spa thanks to foam parties, giant chess, an awesome indoor kids’ space and a water playground. With the kiddos happy and busy, there’s plenty of time to pop off to the spa.

Happy holidays, people.

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