Sometimes you find a place in its tourism sweet spot — just enough development to make life comfortably accessible to foreigners, where tourism still retains a symbiotic relationship with the local culture, void of global chains. On Siargao Island we found the quintessential beach sabbatical I had been imagining — if only we had known ahead of time, we would have stayed the whole month.
Siargao is a small island in the Philippines, located just north of Mindanao Island. Its claim to fame is Cloud 9 — a surf spot known for its thick hollow tube, which hosts an annual surf cup. There is more to do on the island than just surfing, but water sport culture permeates the island. Wherever we went there was a SUP board and something to see with a snorkel mask.
Cebu Pacific Airlines has two trips daily between Cebu and Siargao (1 hour), or there is a ferry from Surigao City on Mindanao.
Symbiotic tourism sweet spot
– No thank you we have a surf teacher.
– Very nice good.
– Ah, Junjun’s place. Very good teacher. Enjoy.
This sums up many of the street side interactions we had with the Islanders — laid back, never opportunistic or aggressive, and we never felt swindled, cheated or pressured. The locals seemed to feel the same — they were receiving tangible benefits from tourism and weren’t over-saturated or cheated by it. Motorcycle taxis always cost the same price. Food prices were clearly posted. And the key industry of surf lessons was reserved for locals only — no foreigners were allowed to give surf lessons, and everyone respected that the locals knew the surf conditions and dangers better than anyone.
On the water
There’s also quite a lot to do on the island without feeling like a herd of tourists. The typical trips that are recommended to visitors are a half-day trip to a lagoon, island hopping, visiting the Magpupungko tidal rock pools and surf lessons. We traveled during the country’s busiest time of year and never felt crowded by tourists. There were plenty of tourists around, but groups were more in the 4-8 people size (the local boats could only handle about that many passengers) and never more than 30 tourists in one spot. This size gave us the flexibility to modify our itinerary, make stops along the road and go at our own pace rather than marching like a drone to the pace of the herd.
Every day we managed at least one water activity. Stand Up Paddling (‘SUPing’ — with a wide enough board, there is little tippiness and we could confidently fit our whole family including the baby), surfing lessons, snorkeling, boating — we only went to the pool one day when everything was closed for the New Year.
TIP: If your children are too young to surf, try an extra-wide SUP board and surf a wave with them sitting down in front of you.
There are lots of places to stay on the island within any budget, from more high end resorts to family apartments to backpacker dorms.
We stayed in a 2-bedroom beachfront bungalow at Greenhouse — a mid-range serene retreat with a philosophy of eco-friendliness that penetrates every aspect.
This was the family holiday I had imagined: a wide veranda that spilled onto the ocean, falling asleep to the sounds of waves, a generous seabreeze to keep us comfortable without any air conditioning, and beach life to keep the kids entertained. Hermit crabs, fish caught in tidal pools and a shoreline protected by the distant reef provided the right blend of calmness and activity our family needed.
A big highlight for us was the food. We were unimpressed by the heavy, overly sweetened and unhealthy Filippino food we had been eating off the island. At Greenhouse, the local staff were trained by an Australian chef to make healthy and original organic meals, mostly locally-sourced, and served three times daily. Our chefs went out every day to see what was available at the market and the organic farm on the island to develop their menu. They prepared one meal for everyone on an opt-in or opt-out basis, announcing what the meal would be in the morning and asking if you’ll join for lunch, dinner and breakfast the next morning. If you have allergies like us, or picky children like us, they can make some adaptations, but we were thrilled to just put ourselves into the hands of the chefs.
- Mango coconut pancakes
- Granola served with fresh coconut milk
- Soft boiled eggs with beans, mint, pesto, olive oil and potatoes
- Chicken sandwiches in homemade bread
- Moroccan chicken with couscous
And wide range of other meals.
When we didn’t eat at Greenhouse, our favourite was Mama’s Grill — a popular outdoor grill house with meats and vegetables where you can choose sweet, spicy or mixed sauce. But we also enjoyed Kermit — a tasteful surfers resort whose restaurant includes a forno over for cooking delicious pizzas. And Bravo — Spanish tapas served with a sea breeze.
Greenhouse also has a surf shop that mostly sells Kudo Surf — an Australian-Filipino surf brand that includes clothes made on Siargao Island. The boat floating out front on the beach also had a Kudo Surf logo, and I began to suspect the resort and surf brand were owned by the same person, who we had been told also lives at the small resort half the year.
I began imagining what his life was like: living half time in Australia, half time in surf paradise, owning an eco-resort where the staff was been trained by an Australian chef to cook you three deliciously varying meals a day, all while looking stylish in your very own surf brand.
If he also DJs, he’s our hero.