Cebu, Philippines

If you live in Hong Kong and are in need of a quick weekend getaway, Cebu is the perfect destination. It’s affordable, easy to get to (two hours away by flight) and offers nice beaches for some r&r.

Most travelers go to Cebu for diving or the white sand beaches, but if you’re like me and a) don’t dive or b) want something to do in addition to laying on beach, there’s another option: Jay’s Ocean Dreamer Island Hopping Tour.

If you haven’t done an island-hopping tour before, it’s the best way to see outlying islands while also getting to spend the day swimming and snorkeling. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can book a private tour or you can go with a group, which is less costly. However, for a boat for the day combined with lunch, alcohol and snorkel equipment, these tours are usually reasonable for what you get out of it (about $70USD/person on average).

If you’ve done an island hopping tour before, you’ll know that most stick to a strict schedule. There’s a designated amount of time you can stay on each island and each stop is usually packed with other island hopping groups.

However, what was special about the Ocean Dreamer tour is that the owner, Jay Canastra, tailors the tour to your liking and doesn’t stick to a regimented schedule. Whether you’re interested in snorkeling, beach hopping or visiting local parts of the islands, Jay is more than happy to accommodate your wishes. And if you’d rather stay on the boat to relax and drink all day, Jay can make that happen as well!

For our tour, we chose the GOS package which stopped at Gilutungan and Olango to snorkel and Sulpa beach to relax. However, we ended up nixing Sulpa beach as Jay provided us with a more authentic experience, which I’ll share below.

Now before I go on, I must admit if you’re looking for the best snorkeling experience or most picturesque scenery, Cebu should not be the first on your list. There are more scenic parts in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia; what Cebu offers is a perfect place for a quick, easy and affordable getaway. That being said, the scenery and snorkeling were much better than I expected. The turquoise water was crystal clear, calm and shallow, making it a great snorkeling experience. We also saw an array of tropical fish, sea urchins and starfish – more sea life than I had expected as well.

Snorkeling in the turquoise waters of Cebu with an array of tropical fish  IMG_1283 (2)

However, the best part of the day, was the experience that Jay and his staff provided. Noticing that Matt and I were interested to experience more than just snorkeling, Jay and his team taught us (ie. Matt) how to spearfish, shared their personal stories about living in Cebu and even gathered a basket of fresh sea urchins for us to try. I’ll admit that they tasted like slimy sea water, but hey it’s all about the experience!

Trying our first fresh water sea urchin, pulled from the sea just minutes before

Spearfishing off the coast of Cebu

Our guide catching a fish while spearfishing off the coast of Cebu

Another highlight was the local lunch feast that Jay prepared, consisting of fresh mangos, rice, pork, fish and even raw conch shells. If you haven’t tried raw conch before, the experience of eating it is in and of itself. You hold the shell in one hand and with the other, pull the conch directly out of its shell, eating it raw in one big bite. As our shells were small, the conch was only about two and a half inches; it looked most comparable to a small squid, if anything. The taste? Somewhat between a scallop and a mussel, surprisingly not very fishy or slimy, but extremely chewy. After about three conches, I called it a day.

After lunch, Jay graciously offered to give us a tour of his home village in Cebu. We had been talking about our backgrounds for most of the day, learning that Jay had recently come back to Cebu after working in Chicago for many years (coincidentally working in a neighborhood nearby to where I grew up). While it was bittersweet to leave Chicago, Jay had come back to support and be closer to his family. Ocean Dreamers was the company he started once he got back.

Jumping on the possibility of visiting Jay’s home, we bypassed our third stop and ended up docking nearby his village instead. As in most Filipino towns, we were transported by tricycle about ten minutes away.

Jay’s village was only feet from the water, built right off the main path in which we rode in. The homes were basic without running water, electricity or air conditioning. On many occasions, the extended family would live in each home (grandparents, parents, siblings and children). Jay mentioned the difference in standard of living in Chicago versus his local neighborhood, but it didn’t matter. What was important was being near and supporting his family. Not to mention that the weather rarely drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit in Cebu, a stark difference from the Chicago cold.

We only spent a short time there, but after learning about Jay’s story, seeing his village and meeting some of his family members was a very meaningful experience.

When it was time to head back, we were surprised by how quickly the day had gone. The experience not only provided us with a tour around the lapu lapu islands, but we were able to experience a host of new adventures including spear fishing, trying fresh sea urchin and conch, and getting to see a local community in the area.

When we booked our two day trip to Cebu at the last minute, we expected an uneventful, relaxing getaway from Hong Kong. However, nearly a year later, it continues to stick in my mind as one of our best trips to date. It’s all thanks to Jay and his team at Ocean Dreamer Island Tours.

More photos from our trip below:

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