City Life: Languid and low-key
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan must have thanked his lucky stars when he landed on Cebu in 1521, although he was more interested in converting islanders to Catholicism than scuba diving or banana boating - more fool him!
These days, Cebu City is an energetic metropolis, the country's second largest, and the heart of the Visayas region. On offer, abundant bars, restaurants, casinos, golf courses and prime examples of the Filipino's national obsession, shopping malls. All without the chaos of capital Manila. Here you'll meet some of the friendliest people in Asia - Filipinos love to eat, talk and especially combine the two. The best thing about a tropical island, though, is that it's surrounding by ocean. Cebu's 166 white-sand islets, including must-visit Mactan Island nearby, are perfect for lazing or gliding between on laid-back banca (boat) trips across turquoise waters. There is also world-class diving - scuba Smiths can ogle vibrant corals, brightly hued fish, manta rays, thresher sharks and more. And to think the Philippines used to be best known for a certain former first lady's shoe collection!
The major gateway to the region is Mactan-Cebu International Airport (www.mactan-cebuairport.com.ph). Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Malaysia Airlines all fly direct from overseas destinations, although you're most likely to fly into Manila and connect to Cebu with Cebu Pacific Airways, Philippine Airlines and Zest Air.
Country code for the Philippines: 63; Cebu City: (0)32 (drop the zero if calling from overseas).
Peter Bacho's award-winning novel Cebu offers a realistic look at culture, tradition, faith and violence in the Philippines, with the story of a Filipino-American priest on his first visit to the islands. Learn about the Spaniard who bought Christianity here in Katharine Bailey's Ferdinand Magellan: Circumnavigating The World or Lauren Bergreen's Over The Edge Of The World. The Marcos File by Charles C McDougald and Inside The Palace: The Rise and Fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos by Beth Day Romulo tell all about the Philippines' most famous couple.
Do go / Don't Go
It can get almost too hot from March onwards - visit between September and February and temperatures will be pleasantly a little lower, with the occasional welcome cooling shower. Holy Week in April, when the predominantly Catholic country all but shuts down, probably isn't the most exciting time to visit, and some hotels and resorts can be crowded during Chinese New Year and other Asian, especially Korean, holidays.
Filipinos love their food so much they have at least five meals a day and have a special word (meryenda) for the snacky meals between main ones. Meals are traditionally eaten 'family-style' with lots of dishes that everyone shares. Street vendors serve barbecued pork, chicken and fish straight off the grill. The Philippines' favourite beer, San Miguel, has a factory on Cebu. Locals are also partial to their rum and homemade tuba (coconut wine), available at most basic street shops with varying toxicity.
Ask the resort to recommend a trusted company. Aim for a metered taxi whenever possible and make sure the meter is switched on. If there's no meter, always haggle and agree a fare before getting in. Colourful, ornately decorated jeepneys are how most locals get around - they're cheap, full of character, often crowded, but handy if they happen to be going your way.
Many restaurants will add a service charge of around 12 per cent. Tipping for good service, although not expected, is always appreciated.
Philippines pesos (PHP) and US dollars (US$) are widely used.
The Philippines is hot, hot, hot - if you're not on the beach or in the water, keep as cool as possible, with airy light cottons and linens. Bring your own snorkel and mask for ocean exploration, and diving certification if you're planning to scuba. Leave the big shoe collection at home - Filipinos have had enough of those for a lifetime.
Cebu's historical highlights, including Colon Street (the oldest throughfare in the Philippines), Magellan's Cross, Fort San Pedro, Casa Gorordo Museum and Basilica Minore del Santo Niño can be seen in a pleasant half-day historical tour. Ask the resort to recommend a trusted company. For something a little more current, pop into Mooon Café (+63 (0) 32 253 3635; Emilio Osmena Street, Guadalupe, Cebu City), whose triple O'd name isn't the only hip thing about this Mexican venue. The walls of this café and art gallery showcase the work of interesting local artists.
How Filipinos love their malls, from gleaming air-con giants to green outdoor walk-arounds. Ayala Center and SM Shopping Mall are the places to go for boutique finery, cinemas and cafés galore. For something a little less glitzy, though, take a jeepney or tricycle to Carbon Market. Dirty, smelly, hot and chaotic, Cebu's oldest and biggest market is the real deal, where locals go to buy fish, meat, fruit and veg, shoes and clothing. This is also the place to get authentic handicrafts, such as bags, baskets, ashtrays and jewellery boxes, made from local materials including abaca, rattan and bamboo.
The top of Mount Busay offers an excellent panorama of Cebu City, Mactan Island and the bridges connecting the two. Visitors pay a small fee to go inside the 'park' area at the top, where there are picnic tables and vendors selling barbecue. The admission price is worth it to check out the strange year-round Christmas park, with kitsch statues of Santa and friends.
Wannabe Jimi Hendrixes and Nick Drakes will want to visit Alegre Guitar Factory in Abuno, on Mactan Island, where acoustic and classical guitars, mandolins and ukeleles are handmade and sold for a fraction of the price you'd pay at home. You don't have to buy - you can just enjoy a guided tour and observe master craftsmen at work making instruments the old-fashioned way, using traditional tools and methods.
January Sinulog (wwww.sinulog.ph), or Fiesta Señor as it's often referred to, is held on the third Sunday of the month. This is Cebu's biggest, loudest and most popular festival, honouring the Holy Image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu. Expect to see colourfully costumed Cebuanos dancing (Sinulog is the name of a special rhythmic prayer dance) to deafening drums. President Osmeña Boulevard is one of the best spots to watch the parade, but you'll have to get there early to secure a spot among in-the-know locals, or slink off to one of the quieter streets where you might be able to join dancers and try your own sinulog. The week-long festivities also include fireworks, processions and cultural shows. April Holy Week, covering Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is a big deal in this predominantly Catholic country, and pretty much everything but the churches is closed. April 27 Kadaugan sa Mactan is the annual re-enactment of the historic Battle of Mactan between Ferdinand Magellan and the forces of local chieftain Lapu-Lapu, which ended Magellan's crusade and life. Get to Barangay Mactan beach early - it can start before 8am, depending on the tide. June 12 Independence Day celebrates the Philippines' long-sought freedom from Spain's colonial rule. December 30 The death of Dr José Rizal, national hero and martyr of the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish, is commemorated with a national holiday.