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Bohol unique among islands

THE 15-minute flight from Cebu into Bohol, the island at the heart of the Philippines, gave our family its first look at the Chocolate Hills, Bohol's most publicized assets. And, while this geological curiosity is worth a half-day visit, it was the rest of this island that enticed us to linger - the white sand beaches, undersea gardens, ancient churches, and interesting markets. We disembarked at Bohol's tiny airport, retrieved our baggage, and spotted George and Gie Lao, owners of the Momo Beach Resort, where we were to stay. Soon we were off to a Chinese lunch at their in-town hotel.

Tagbilaran, Bohol's capital, is a quiet place where one can walk the streets safely, even at night. It has a few handicraft shops and a market, where forgotten beach mats and hats may be replaced and where many of the island's residents come to shop.

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After lunch we decided to go island-hopping to Panglao. Panglao is just off the southwest coast of Bohol and is fringed with some wonderful beaches.

At Momo Beach Resort, nipa-palm cottages, each with its own tiled bath, nestle into the greenery overlooking the sea. The sand is coral, and at low tide there are pools full of life to inspect. I spent hours watching the brittle star waving its lacy legs and seeing tiny, brilliantly colored fish darting about.

Other beaches, with glistening white sand and azure waters, are minutes away by jeep.

After a delicious dinner of fresh seafood, we visited the shell dealer in Panglao town. He showed us some of the world's most expensive shells - the golden cowrie, the gloria maris. We purchased some of the not-so-expensive ones. The dealer showed us several fakes and pointed out the minute details that spell the difference between a shell worth thousands of dollars and an imitation worth about $10.

The next morning, back on Bohol, our first stop was Baclayon, whose small market was just coming awake. The town's massive stone church, built in 1595, is the Philippines' oldest structure. Detail work on the altars and retable is exquisite.

After passing through Loboc to Bilar, we reached Carmen, a town at the middle of the island, where we could see some of the 1,000 rounded, haystack-shaped mounds that are the Chocolate Hills. During Bohol's dry season, from February to May, vegetation on the hills dies, turning them chocolate-brown. But they are just as interesting during the rainy season, when they're a vibrant green.

We ate our picnic lunch at a hotel-restaurant on one of the tallest hills, then climbed the 115 steps to the top to enjoy remarkable views all around.

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Geologists are not sure how the Chocolate Hills were created. For many years they believed that suboceanic volcanism bubbled up the mounds, which were then coated with coral. Millennia later, the ocean floor rose, and Bohol, with its conical hills, emerged. A more recent theory suggests that the hills resulted from dust eruptions and landslides from a deteriorating volcano, similar to the process Mt. St. Helens may now be undergoing.

Local legends are, of course, more fun. According to one, the hills were formed when two warring giants had a rock fight. Eventually they tired of throwing boulders at each other and left the battlefield littered with mounds of rock.

At Loboc, our next stop, a massive Spanish church and a wood-carving industry that produces mahogany furniture are the main attractions. After a brief look, we boarded a large outrigger canoe and journeyed up the Loay River to gentle Busay Falls. We enjoyed a refreshing swim at the falls and clambered about the rocks before heading back.

The next day was market day in Antequera, and I got up early to go with our hosts, the Laos. On the way, we passed through Cortes, where the wide Abatan River snakes its way to the sea.

Bohol is unique among the Philippine islands because it never developed the plantation system with vast differences between upper and lower classes, imposed on the rest of the Philippines by the Spanish.

Thus, one feels a refreshing equality among people that is absent in other parts of the country. Nipa and pau lands are communally held. Any resident may harvest them, as long as he leaves enough of each plant so that it can regenerate itself.

The honor system still works, a remnant of pre-Spanish life.

We arrived in Antequera in time to see huge piles of baskets being loaded onto trucks and buses bound for other markets. We inspected shops and saw incredibly intricate baskets made from assorted vines, roots, bamboo, and rattan.

In the afternoon we went to the fine white sand beaches on the other side of Panglao. These beaches offer an assortment of accommodations, some crowded and inexpensive, some pricey by local standards. We enjoyed the sun and sand before heading back to spend one last night at our more private resort.

If you go

Philippine Airlines has eight daily flights from Manila to Cebu, the country's second-largest city. From there, two daily flights go to Bohol. There is a daily bus from Cebu via ferry, and a ferry to Tubigon, where one can take a minibus (``jeepney'') to the Chocolate Hills and another to Tagbilaran. Accommodations range from $5 for a simple beach hut to $30 for a cottage with private bath.

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