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Mother nature takes a bow

Chocolate Hills are Bohol Island's most famous landmark.

Chocolate Hills are Bohol Island's most famous landmark.

From a botanical garden stacked with art to lazy lunches on an unspoilt river and its famous chocolate hills, Bohol is a nature lover's paradise

Life moves at a snail's pace in Bohol, an oval shaped island next to Cebu in the Philippines. Its capital Tagbilaran is quiet unlike the boisterous Cebu and even though Bohol has its own airport and direct flights to the capital Manila, tourists tend favour Cebu's vibrant nightlife and natural wonders.

With more trees than people, Bohol's eco-tourism policy has spawned a wealth of land-based treasures. Having enjoyed plenty of eco-adventure fun in Catigbian, our media group stays on the road during our second day in Bohol. With a well-planned itinerary, it's possible to see several attractions in just one day. An early morning visit to the Wildlife and Botanical Garden, five minutes away from the Eskaya Beach Resort in Panglao Island, just southwest of Tagbilaran, confirms Bohol's status as a tropical paradise.

Run by Nicholas Moussempes, a French interior designer and his Filipina wife Patricia, who's a retired Cathay Pacific flight attendant, the botanical garden covers seven hectares, showcasing over 3,000 species and varieties of tropical plants as well as an extensive selection of stone and bronze statues and sculptures dotted throughout the garden. The property houses a "cabinet de curiosites", a museum of European, Asian and African art and antiques acquired by Nicholas during 40 years of travelling around the world.

Patricia's garden is truly a mini-forest. Even more striking than the plants is the art on display in different parts of the garden. A bas-relief Christ taken from a dilapidated old church is tucked away behind the overgrowth. A few steps away, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus Christ glitters in the morning sun. In the lotus pond, a gigantic bronze sculpture of the reclining Buddha has a calming effect.

Nicholas' art is more diverse in his museum where African tribal masks are overshadowed by precious chinaware and Silk Road antiques.

There's a new venture in the making too. Patricia is building a horse training ground and a stable in the premises, hoping to turn her passion for dressage into business.

I could have spent the whole day loitering in the botanical garden and learning more about the couple's plans, but other attractions beckon.

The real taste of Bohol's ecotourism reveals itself over lunch. Our meal is arranged on a vessel for a Loboc River cruise, which takes us past coconut orchards, rural villages and forests. The water is so clean that we see naked village kids jumping off tall coconut trees into the river. The vessel stops at different piers where a village dance troupe stages a performance. The lunch cruise is by far better than any river cruise in Thailand in terms of pristine nature.

Bohol's ecotourism reaches fever pitch at Chocolate Hills, Bohol's most famous attraction and our third destination of the day. Here you stand dwarfed by 1,268 cone-shaped hills rising 30 to 50 metres. The grass covering the hills is green for much of the year, but it turns brown at the end of the dry season.

Geologists do not entirely know how the marine limestone hills were formed, but surmise they were once undersea because of the coral and shells found on them. Local legend has another theory. Long ago a young giant named Arogo fell in love with a human girl Aloya. When she died, the giant was so heartbroken that he cried and his huge tear drops fell to the ground and hardened into these hills.

This is probably one of a few places to see the tourists. Along with them, we scale the 214 steps to the top of the observation hill to catch a panoramic view of the hills that stretch to the horizon.

Another famous symbol of Bohol is the tarsier, the world's smallest monkey, believed to be the inspiration behind Steven Spielberg's ET character. On our way to the Loboc Tarsier Conservation Area, we stopped to survey a man-made mahogany forest, the habitat of rare and endangered flora and fauna. We feel the abrupt change in temperature immediately: Outside the forest it is hot, but once inside, it's cool and refreshing.

We don't see any tarsiers though. They live much deeper inside the conservation area. The tarsiers' days are numbered as the species is nearing extinction. In the park, these nocturnal animals are easily approachable as they embrace the stems of trees quietly. Even with a crowd watching over them, they are not scared. You can actually touch them. But camera flashes might upset them and these little monkeys commit suicide when they are stressed out.

Some of the media members in our group feel these animals should be barred from close contact with tourists. On the other hand, tourists want to see them up close. I'm ambivalent: I feel lucky to see the wide-eyed animals in the conservation area at first hand, but also think something could be done to conserve the animals in a different way.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Philippines Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines. The Bohol Tourism Office hosted his visit to the island.

If you go

Bohol is in the central Philippines and can be reached by air and boat. If visiting from overseas, you can fly to Manila or Cebu. Via Manila, you need a connecting flight to Tagbilaran, which takes about 75 minutes. Philippine Airlines flies daily to Tagbilaran. Get the details at www.PhilippineAirlines.com.




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