A Tiger Safari

On any overnight visit of mine to Subic Freeport Zone, I usually include a day trip to one of Subic’s many ecotourism attractions. The last time around, it was bonding with the whales and dolphins at Ocean Adventure. This time, it was a land-based encounter with the wild: an authentic “tiger safari” at the cleverly named Zoobic Safari. After an overnight stay at Subic Yacht Club with my son Jandy, we proceeded, after a Chowking lunch and duty-free shopping at the Freeport Exchange, for a short-haul drive to this sprawling 25-hectare theme park and zoo located deep in the old Naval Magazine at the Jungle/Forest Adventure zone.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by general manager Ms. Delia de Jesus, who assigned to us the affable Mr. Noel Caneda as our guide on this two-hour, five-part tour. He explained to us the different species that can be found inside the park, extolling their virtues as well as their deadly qualities. At the reception area, we already got to see adult and baby tigers in large cages, all crossbred from Bengal and Siberian varieties in the Residence Inns’ tiger cub-breeding facility. A joint venture with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the PhP80-million Zoobic Safari was opened to the public in November 2004 and is part of Residence Inn’s chain of zoo-cum-resort businesses. The animals here may not be all originally from the Philippines, but the place was nonetheless developed with a Filipino theme in mind.

Our first stop was the Petting Zoo, a path through a forest with different animals stationed on both sides of the walkway. Here we saw exotic animals such as deer, temperamental and territorial cassowary, bearcats, monkeys, mini horses, several rabbits, plus some farm animals including a number of goats, sheep, carabao, pigs and a pinkish albino cow, all frolicking about in their natural habitat. Jandy and I had a wonderful time petting and feeding dried leaves to a camel. A close encounter with an Asiatic black bear (or moon bear) named Nicholas, the only one in the zoo—and thus no doubt lonely—was a highlight. Other stops include the Serpentarium, the only one of its kind in the country. Housed in one of the former ammunition bunkers, it showcases a variety of reptiles, including a Malaysian water monitor, blood pythons, a Burmese albino, reticulated python, the Philippine monitor lizard, iguanas and turtles.  The star here was “Biggy,” a 15-ft. long, 10-year-old female Indian python.

The highlight of the tour was the Tiger Safari. Here, we boarded a customized “safari” jeepney colorfully painted in tiger-inspired golden stripes and enclosed with a one-inch open wire mesh which covered the windows and doors. It was driven by a professional Aeta who drove us, through a gate, to the well-kept Ilanin forest (although a number of big trees were uprooted by a typhoon) where four full-grown, 500 pound-plus tigers, with their trademark rust orange and black stripes, were roaming around. Most lazed about in a large pond, their deep-set, golden eyes staring back at us, probably wondering why we were “caged” inside our vehicle while they were roaming freely in the open. During the ride, one of the guides inside our vehicle dangled a dressed chicken from a small window. On instinct, one of the tigers ran over to the vehicle and grabbed the chicken, an encounter so close we really had a good look at his teeth. Another tiger jumped on the roof.

After the Tiger Safari, we all dropped off at the “Tigers Den,” where we got up close and personal, along a narrow aisle, with tigers inside their cages, barely two feet away from these awe-inspiring beasts christened with such cute names as Cynthia, Gimo, Jana, Krishna, Nasha, Nico, Sharon and George. The last named, a mammoth Alpha male and the oldest at 16 years, is the acknowledged leader of the pack and king of the harem, with all of the female tigers his for the taking. Noel explained that a tiger’s urine smell marks his territory.

Adjacent to the Tigers Den is the dusty Savannah Trail. This we traversed via an open red-and-blue Zoobic Safari train (with 20 to 30 seating capacity), watching 50 long-legged ostriches from Africa and Australia, as well as potbellied pigs, swift mountain goats, wild boar (from the USA, Vietnam and the Philippines) and 200 guinea fowl (from Papua New Guinea) glide past our vehicle. Next stop was the Animal MuZOOeum, housed in another former ammunition bunker. This interesting and educational tour features a rare collection of real stuffed animals and skeletons.

Our last stop was the Croco Loco section. Here, we trekked, via the Aeta Trail, to an Aeta Village where a group of Aetas performed, to the delight of the tourists, the dragonfly dance and a war dance, both accompanied by an Aeta guitarist. Of course, we also went to the 3,000-sq. m. Crocodile Farm, again seeing up close and personal, in their carefully designed natural habitat, 200 of these thick-skinned, long-bodied, carnivorous saltwater crocodiles from Palawan. In the future, Zoobic Safari has plans to expand with Elephant World, Honey Bee Farm, Alligator Land and the Rice Wine Brewery.

An Island Paradise’s Private Hideaway


Breathtakingly beautiful Boracay, the No. 1 tourist destination for foreign and local travelers in the Philippines, is noted for its turquoise waters and gradually sloping, sparkling white-sand beach, voted as one of the best in the world by Beach Bum, BMW Tropical Beach Handbook (1990), London’s Harpers & Queen (August 1990) and the British publication TV Quick (December 21, 1996). Through the years, rapid development along its 3.5-km. long, palm-fringed White Beach has left no room for privacy-seekers like myself.

However, all is not lost, as on the northwest tip of the island, along secluded Punta Bunga Beach, stands The Panoly Resort Hotel, a four-star enclave which possesses its own private beachfront. A personal favorite of mine, having stayed there twice, this Singaporean-owned and -operated resort opened its doors in 1990 (as Club Panoly Resort) and is the first Triple A-rated and the only Gold Crown-awarded (in 2001) resort in Boracay. This getaway from the grind of urban life nests on a four-hectare property hidden from the hustle and bustle of White Beach, yet is just a five-minute boat ride away. Renamed The Panoly Resort Hotel in 2004, it brings the best elements of nature, privacy, comfort, service and fun, creating a totally redefined island experience. Its hospitable staff, more than 50% of which has had more than 10 years of service with the hotel, has always provided personalized, intimate and refined service to all its guests.

The Panoly consists of a mix of native and contemporary-styled accommodations to suit any guest’s preference. Sprawled throughout the luxurious resort are eight octagonal clusters with five cottages and a four-story hotel with 47 deluxe rooms and eight VIP suites. Each room has a private veranda where one can wake up to see the panoramic view of the resort’s landscape and the beach. The VIP suites have additional amenities such as living room, kitchen facilities, built-in jacuzzi, an in-room safety deposit box and Internet connection, providing total relaxation and security. The custom-designed furniture, made with indigenous creativity and materials, offers guests a truly native experience. Cottages and deluxe rooms are all fully air conditioned, with hot and cold shower, cable TV, minibar, complimentary coffee and tea, and 24-hour IDD telephone facilities, all standard features in all rooms. Internet access is available in the de luxe rooms and suites in the Garden Wing. For conferences, the resort has sheltered outdoor conference/meeting facilities.

For gastronomes, The Panoly has a number of food and beverage outlets. The Yum Yum Asian Seafood Restaurant offers fresh, delicious seafood including crabs, lobsters, oysters and fish. The al-fresco Café Havana, located beside the beach and inspired by the warm and passionate Cuban culture, offers an à la carte menu of Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean and Continental cuisine coupled with a relaxing ambiance and beautiful sunset views. Also along the beachfront is the Voodoo Bar. Here, guests share travel experiences, sip unique blends of cocktails and, later, dance the night away, shoeless, to the beat of engaging salsa and Caribbean music.

For fun under the sun and to keep the guests busy, The Panoly offers a number of sea sports activities. It has its own swimming pool and a dive shop, with trained professional dive instructors and divemasters on hand for beginners and advanced divers. The resort also offers parasailing, banana boat rides, paddleboats, plexi-paved tennis courts, a basketball court and beach volleyball. Indoors, there’s table tennis, billiards and darts. For the more adventurous and for those who want to soak up more of the sun’s rays, The Panoly also offers island-hopping tours, bat cave adventures, picnics at Mount Luho, all-terrain vehicles, horseback riding and jungle trekking, and arrangements can be made for golf at Fairways and Bluewater Golf Club.

After all these activities, you can rest your tired muscles or recharge one’s mind, body and soul at the Panoly Spa, an authentic Thai-style haven located on a cliff overlooking the beach. Here, or on the beach, you can enjoy first-class massages and spa treatments.

Mercedes’ Seven Delightful Sins

I recently got an invitation from Daet Mayor Tito S. Sarion to attend Daet’s Pinyasan Festival together with other media guests.  Two days before the big event, I hopped on the 1 PM Philtranco bus bound for Daet.  Normally, the trip took just eight hours but traffic due to road widening and repair projects extended my trip another two hours.  It was just about 10 PM when I arrived at the town, checking in at the Prime Suite Hotel along Vinzons Ave.  After a late dinner at a nearby Jollibee outlet, I met up with Atty. Debbee Francisco, of the Camarines Norte Tourism Office, at the Miss Daet/Miss Pinyasan 2012 pageant held at the Daet Agro Sports Center.   Debbie scheduled an island hopping treat for us the next day.

The next day, after breakfast, Debbee and Mr. Aldrin Sarion, a member of her staff, picked us up at our hotel and brought us to the municipal port of the nearby (7 kms.) town of Mercedes.  One of the most important and prosperous fishing ports in Luzon, this town, the fish bowl of the Bicol Region, is home to the third largest fishing ground in the country.   Mercedes’ large fishing fleet of 20-m. long basnigs supplies a large bulk of the catch of fish and shrimps to Manila.  We arrived in time for the lively early morning fish market (open from 6-8am).  At the port, we were welcomed by Mr. Victor John Orendain IV, a staff member of the Mercedes Municipal Tourism Development Operation Center.

Here, a boat was chartered for our morning tour of Mercedes’ picturesque Siete Pecados (“Seven Sins”) group of islands which comprises Apuao Grande, Apuao Pequeña, Canton, Quinapaguian, Caringo, Canimog and Malasugui Islands. Victor and Aldrin accompanied us on this trip and we brought along snacks and a tandem kayak.  Debbee stayed behind as she had to attend to their float for the festival.  On several occasions, while we were cruising along, we espied hundreds of flying fish doing their aerial acrobatics around our boat.  About 15 mins. into our trip, we passed (but did not land) by the crodile-shaped Canimog Island, the largest of the seven islands.  The island has a dramatic lighthouse (erected June 26, 1927, it is one of the oldest in the Bicol Region) where one can camp, a grayish sand beach and lush foliage which is home to thousands of huge bats.

About 30 mins. out of town, we arrived off the coast of rocky Canton Island. We also didn’t make landfall here as the island has no beach and has minimal vegetation.  However, the island is noted for its underwater Canton Cave. The cave is visible only at low tide and we were hoping that was the case as we planned to kayak all the way to its entrance.  Disappointment was written in our faces as we neared the cave, still at its high tide mark.  Somewhat strong waves here would also have dashed our kayak to the rocks.  Oh well, maybe next time.   We proceeded on our way.

About 15 mins. later, we arrived at small Quinapaguian Island, this time making landfall at its nice stretch of white sand beach. The island offers a good view of the other islands and has a fish sanctuary where one can go snorkeling.  However, we weren’t there for the latter as we offloaded the kayak from our boat, donned our life vests, boarded the kayak and started paddling its calm clear, blue waters towards the other side of the island.  This more than made up for our missed opportunity at Canton Island.

Back on our boat, we still had time to visit Apuao Grande Island, the most famous of the seven islands.  Located 10 kms. northeast of Daet and a 45-min. boat ride from Mercedes, we again made landfall at a beautiful stretch of white sand beach.  The island also has agoho trees (an evergreen species of trees that look like pine trees),  mangrove forests, a sandbar and a steep cliff (ideal for rock climbing) on the Pacific side.   Apuao Grande Island was also once home to the once high-end TS Resort, formerly operated by the Australian-run Swagman Hotel chain.  At its heyday in the 1980s, it had 30 non-airconditioned cottages with bath, a restaurant, beach bar, swimming pool, tennis court, gym, sauna, a nine-hole golf course and an airstrip. Now abandoned due to lack of marketing push and typhoons, most of the solar-powered villas are leased to many expatriates who want to stay on the island.

From Apuao Grande Island, we crossed over to the 24.29-hectare Apuao Pequena Island (also called Apuao Munti Island) which is connected to Apuao Grande Island by a land bridge (during low tide).  It wasn’t low tide yet, but somehow we managed to cross to the other side despite the somewhat strong current.  The island has a 350 m. long shoreline, a 150-ft. high mountain and a campsite.

We didn’t have time to visit Caringo Island and Malasugui Island (the smallest of the seven) and their white sand beaches and, thus, we again boarded our boat for the return trip back to the mainland. The perfect time for visiting these islands is from late March to early May. It was such a pleasant surprise to see how beauties like these have been kept from the national tourism spotlight for so long. Maybe, next time, they’ll take notice.

It’s More Fun in the Waters of Sorsogon

One major destination in our 3-province romp across the Bicol Region (the others are Albay and Camarines Norte) is the province of Sorsogon, known for its whale shark (butanding) sightseeing tours. Event organizer Bernard Supetran and I just had a taste of some of Camarines Norte beautiful white sand islands but, in Sorsogon, we were in for other kinds of water fun – dipping in a therapeutic hot spring, hiking to a waterfall and kayaking a placid lake.

From Bacacay (Albay), we were driven to Sorsogon town of Irosin which sits at the foot of the still active Mt. Bulusan.  The town has a number of cold and hot springs and, fittingly, after a tiring but fulfilling day, we were to savor the curative hot waters in Brgy. Monbon.  At Irosin, we stayed at the Nature Spring Resort & Inn, owned and managed by Mr. Reojun Y. Gabito and opened last May 20, 2007.  Here, Ms. Jerelle J. Marquez, the town’s Municipal Information Officer, was already waiting for us.

After dinner, we were checked in at one of the resort’s airconditioned cottages with cable TV plus a skylighted bathroom with a unique, private mini-pool. The mini-pool in the bathroom can wait (we tried it the next day) as outside were 3 steaming, free-form swimming pools of different sizes and depths (one exclusively for children).  In the beginning, it was quite hot when I immersed myself but I eventually got used to it.  The clear, naturally-heated waters here, said to have sulfuric healing properties, were relaxing and soothing to the nerves, working wonders on our aching muscles and tired body.

The next day, after our courtesy call on Irosin Mayor Eduardo E. Ong, Jr., Bernard and I were driven, along the Maharlika Highway, to the junction to Bulusan Volcano Natural Park (BVNP) where a 2-km. long partially paved side road brought us to Lake Bulusan in Brgy. San Roque.  Lake Bulusan, a small, round crater lake known as the “Switzerland of the Orient” due to its lovely scenery, is located at an elevation of 635 m. (2,084 ft.) on the southeast flank of Bulusan volcano and is believed to have been formed by tectonic damming.

Here, we met up and interviewed, over a cup of local brewed coffee and pili snacks, environment activist Philip G. Bartilet, the president of Aggrupation for Advocates for Environmental Protection (AGAP)-Bulusan, Inc. and the Municipal Tourism Officer of Bulusan town. AGAP-Bulusan works hand-in-hand with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to protect and conserve biodiversity of the BVNP through Project PRESERVE (Participate Reforestation with Ecological Support, Education and Research to Validate the Ecosystems) which was launched in Lake Bulusan last October 31, 2011. The DOT has declared the town of Bulusan as a Tourist Zone due to the fact that it has the biggest share of the BVNP in terms of land area, 43% or 1,580.20 out of 3,673.30 hectares.  Six of the town’s barangays are located within the national park and all are ingress and egress points to this protected area.

After the interview, Philip accompanied us to the municipal hall where we had lunch with Mayor Michael G. Guysayco. After lunch, Philip then joined us as we toured Punta Diamante, the Spanish-era muralla (stone fort) that encloses the church complex of St. James the Greater.  Facing the sea, it has a base shaped as like diamond (with 8 sides). The church’s belfry is the largest of the 5 watchtowers dotting the historical complex.

We also dropped by the town’s beige sand Dancalan Beach. Too bad we had no time for a swim. From the town proper, we proceeded on our way back to Lake Bulusan for some kayaking.  Along the way, we decided to drop by Bayugin Falls in Brgy. San Francisco, a popular swimming and picnic site.  The falls is just a 500-m. hike from the road.

The trail, along hard-packed mud, was relatively flat half of the way. Along the way, we crossed a wooden footbridge over a very narrow, steep-sided creek which, according to Philip, is a possible quake fault line. Past the bridge, the trail eventually became steeper as we went down steps carved along the hillside.

After 20 mins., the sound of onrushing waters heralded our arrival at the falls.  The falls, surrounded by a thick, mossy forest, is the source of the Bayugin River which eventually joins the Paghasaan River as it flows into the Bulusan River.   The ascent, on our return, though short, was just as tiring.  Back in our vehicle, we continued on our way to Lake Bulusan.

Upon arrival at Lake Bulusan, we all donned life jackets and were each assigned a tandem kayak.  Once on our kayaks, we started paddling along the lake’s 2,006 m. long perimeter, admiring the lake’s calm, emerald green waters and the park’s impressive and lush old growth forest of dipterocarp trees and endemic species of plants.  Overhead, a soaring eagle kept us company.  Truly a postcard-pretty sight.  It was already dusk when we returned to shore and, after a merienda of maruya, brewed coffee and soft drinks, said goodbye to our gracious hosts, returned to our vehicle and continued on our way to Sorsogon City where we stayed overnight at a suite room at the Class “A” Villa Isabel Hotel & Resort (www.villaisabelhotel.com).

Bagasbas: More Than Just The Surf

Barely two months after my last visit to Camarines Norte, covering the quadricentennial of three town parishes, I was again invited, this time by professional surfer Mr. Joey Cuerdo of Power Up Gym and MOJO Slippers and Sandals, to cover the 4th Bagasbas Summer Surf Festival in Daet, held in line with the province-wide Bantayog Festival (the provincial foundation day).  This wasn’t the first time I was to cover this event, having done so in 2009.  This time, I was joined by fellow Camarines Norte companion (but first timer to this event) and blogger Mark Vincent Nunez and we were both picked up by a van at Starbucks in Magallanes, hitching with co-event organizer and MOJOS Vice-President for Operations Ms.Thea Yusay and other Mojo staff also on their way to Daet.  We arrived at the town by 2 AM and we both checked in at Canimog Hotel, the 3-day home of most media men out to cover the festival.

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The 7-km. long, gray sand Bagasbas Beach, site of the surf festival, is a popular surfing destination known for its consistent waves, ranging from 2-5 ft. tall, making it one of the best sites for beginners to learn surfing (with its incomparable feel of walking on water).  In fact, it is now ranked 62 among the top 100 surfing spots in the world.

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Kiteboarding events are also held there during the November to March northeast monsoon season.  When Mark and I arrived at Bagasbas, the beach was already a beehive of fun-in-the-sun sports activity, with lots of surfers, skim boarders, beach volleyball enthusiasts and wall climbers plus sun worshippers.

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An artificial, 40-ft.-high rock-climbing wall was set up along the beach.  Many would-be surfers, mostly yuppies and college kids on summer break, were signing up (PhP800) at the registration booth at the Aquamarine Sports Center (manned by Thea and her staff) right on the beach.  Registrants are given a surf session schedule and a time slot for their 50-min.(20 mins. prep on land and 30 mins. hands-on in the water) session (normally worth PhP400), which included surfboard rental and instructor.  There are 10 people per batch.

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Registrants also had the right to join the wall climbing, ultimate frisbee, beach volleyball and dodgeball (a geek’s ball sport) clinics, each worth PhP200 and taught to you for 2 hours each.  The easy-to-learn Ultimate Frisbee, a non-contact team sport that feels a little bit of a mix of the following: soccer, basketball, American football and netball. There are no special gear needed to play it; all you need is a wide-open space plus a flying disc (Frisbee in layman’s term) to toss around. Aside from that, they were given one event shirt (worth PhP250) and a pair of MOJO flip-flops(worth PhP350). On the night of April 16, the eve of our departure, we all attended one great beach party with the reggae and ska sounds of Coffee Break Island.

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On our last day in Daet, we took time out, early in the morning, to learn surfing ourselves.  It would be my second time to try (and failing miserably on 10 tries) and a first for Mark.  Joining us at the surfing clinic was ABC TV5 correspondent Justine Santos, also a second time surfing student.  Mr. Ryan Francis V. Vito, president of the Bagasbas United Surfers Association (BUSA), was on hand to personally teach us the basics of surfing.  First, we were taught the parts of the surfboard.

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Then, with the surfboard on the sand, Ryan taught us how to lie down on a surfboard (centered along the stringer), with the toes of our feet touching the tail-end (called the tail block) and making sure that the board is not tilting left or right while we’re trying it. Next, we were taught to push up on the board, with our hands on the sides (called the “rails”) of the board, then when up, to drag one foot up under us in the center of the board and, finally, to push up on our front foot into a standing position, using our arms like legs to push it up. Sounds easy.  Well, it was easier said than done.

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Ryan assigned an instructor to each of us, with champion surfer Ms. Lolita “Mocha” F. Edusma assigned to Jasmine.  I don’t remember the names of the guys assigned to us. BUSA’s instructors were the first in Philippines to be trained by the Academy of Surfing Instructors.  We headed down the beach, away from any surfers, our surfboards harnessed to our ankles. After walking some distance from the shore, I slowly mounted my surfboard with my instructor on the lookout for whitewater, waves that are crested and broken and rolling in long even white lines toward the beach.

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With the approach of whitewater, I was told to get ready and whoosh!!!, the whitewater  slowly catches my board and lifts it up as I struggle to stand up and keep my balance while doing so.  Try as I did, I failed to do so with each try, falling each time just as I was getting my footing, getting a face full of salt water every time. I finally gave up when the board hit and sprained my wrist. I gladly surrendered my board and my instructor to ABC TV5 cameraman Mr. Amor Casiano while the other cameraman Mr. Dencio “Dennis” Suing filmed on. Then, it was Dennis’ turn to try it with Amor manning the camera.  In both cases, as in my case, the waves won with every try, with wipe outs the rule and not the exception.  The same was true with Mark and Jasmine.  Well, better luck next time.  Just, the same it was an experience we would gladly like to try again and again.   Hopefully, there will be a next time.  The waves of Daet haven’t seen the last of us.

Unspoiled Calaguas

Part of my itinerary during my first week of February visit to Camarines Norte was to camp overnight at the famed Calaguas Islands, a group of 17 islands northeast of Daet under the jurisdiction of the town of Vinzons.  This was not to be as three days of continuous rain prevented us from doing so.  Two months later, I was again invited back in the province during the peak of summer, covering the 4th Bagasbas Summer Festival in Daet (held in line with the province-wide Bantayog Festival, the provincial foundation day) with travel blogger and good friend Mark Vincent Nunez.  This time the weather was perfect, with bright sunshine, clear skies and calm seas, and Mark and I were again invited by Provincial Tourism Officer Atty. Debbee Francisco to visit these islands  famed for their Boracay-like (minus the commercial development) white sand beaches.

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Aside from, Debbee and Mr. Amable Miranda, a member of her staff, the boatmen and ABC TV 5 crew Ms. Justine Santos and cameramen Mr. Amor Casiano and Mr. Dencio Suing; Mark and I were joined by participants of the summer surf festival who availed of the special, hassle-free participant’s price of PhP1,350 per person (normal rates range between PhP1,800-2,300) which included the boat ride to and from the island, tents and two meals (dinner and breakfast) with snacks. They include Ms. Joie Lacson, Ms. Iya Yujuico, Ms. Katrina Cruz, Ms. Lei Reinares and Mr. Philipp Cabales of www.pakyaw.com; Mr. Arnel Pahuway of World Vision; and Mr. Darryll Montebon of Jubilee Christian Academy.

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From Daet, we all boarded a van for the short 38-km. drive to Paracale fish port, arriving there by 2:30 PM.  Here, we all boarded a large, 25-pax outrigger boat chartered for us.  Provisions for our overnight stay were loaded as well.  The boat ride took all of two hours, passing by, and viewing from afar, a number of rocky outcrops and beautiful islands with patches of white sand.  We landed on a beautiful cove called Mahabang Buhangin (loosely translated as “long sand”) at the 8 km. long Tinaga Island, the most frequented camping and swimming site for tourists.

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The beach was everything it was hyped up to be: powdery fine and gently sloping white sand, crystal clear waters and blue skies.The beach front, however, are not without owners and one of them is Dr. Orlando Sacay, owner of Waling-Waling-Waling Beach Hotel in Boracay.  Luckily, the owners have refrained from setting up resorts on the island opting, instead, to leave it in its pristine state, possibly because of the great distance of the island from the mainland and the absence of electricity and a substantial water supply.  The island, though, has a village (Barangay Mangcawayan), about a kilometer hike, through a thick forest, to the other side of the island.  Here, you can buy basic supplies.  What it lacks in utilities the island more than makes up with its great beauty and quiet surroundings.  The cool sand was as fine, if not finer, than the powdery white sand of Boracay.

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It was now late in the afternoon (4:45 PM) when we landed on the island and, once the provisions were landed, we all set up our respective dome tents in a shaded area, Mark and I staying in one of the seven tents provided for us.  A comfortable hammock was already in place between two trees.  As the beach faced the west, we were in for a magnificent sunset show.  After a delicious dinner of grilled fish and chicken, we all shared a good chat and laughs while toasting marshmallows over a bonfire. Later, Mark, Amable and I walked along the beach, amply lit by moonlight.  It was already late in the night when we decided to call it a day and retire to our tents, sleeping to the sound of sea waves and cooled by a gentle ocean breeze.

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Come morning, we awoke to a delicious Filipino breakfast, prepared by Amable (it was his birthday that day), of fried rice, fried egg, hot coffee and crispy dilis (anchovies) and espadawhich we all indulged in, kamayan style.   Dabbing on a lot of sunblock, we all savored the sand, sun and sea, doing snorkeling, sunbathing as well as swimming.  Later, some of us tried to burn our excess calories by walking along the beach and then climbing, along a well-marked trail, up a nearby, moderately-sloped hill.   The view up there was truly fantastic, with a bird’s eye view of Mahabang Buhangin Beach on one side and the nearby islands on the other side.  A photographer’s dream, it was truly beauty from every camera angle.

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Our cameras also espied boatloads of tourists coming in from the mainland, it being a Sunday weekend.  It somehow signaled to us that it was time to go and, it was with deep regret that we went down the hill.  Back on the beach, many boats were now unloading their cargo of tourists, surfer friend Mr. Oween Andrade and his family among them, plus their provisions.  It was just fitting that we left by 10 AM, giving up our campsite to these tourists, as we wanted to avoid the influx of this maddening crowd out to savor what we have felt, minus the solitude.  Thus, we left the island with bittersweet memories, hoping one day to again savor its beauty.

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Paradise by Any Other Name

Half of our North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB)/Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC)-sponsored Lakbay Norte 2 Media Tour was to cover Cagayan province (the other half being Ilocos Norte), and one of this province’s major draws is the second-class fishing municipality of Sta. Ana, located 158 kms. from Tuguegarao City (a 2-hr. drive) and 651 kms. (an 11-hr. drive) from Manila.  The town is home to the 125-hectare Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport, the fastest-growing industrial, logistics and ecotourism hub in the country. The Cagayan Export Zone Authority (CEZA) manages the free port and attracts new locators into the economic zone.

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It was already late in the evening when we arrived at the 7-hectare Sun City Holiday and Leisure Resort. Sta. Ana Mayor Darwin A. Tobias and a delicious supper awaited us at the resort’s fine-dining Chinese restaurant. Owned by Hong Kong-based Sun City International, the resort used to cater to just mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong high rollers. Now to be opened to Filipinos, we were the first locals to avail ourselves of its world-class facilities. Sun City offers five-bedroom oceanfront villas (each with a private pool), a spa and holistic center, shopping arcade, KTV center, lounge and bar. It was now very late in the evening and I, Ferdz Decena and Gabby Malvar were billeted at a plush two-bedroom villa (one of 99, some of which are oceanfront).

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We woke up very early in the morning to overcast skies and rain. After breakfast at the hotel, we all checked out of our villa and boarded our coaster for the fish port in barangay San Vicente. Point Escarpada, in barangay San Vicente, has the best fishing grounds for marlin, being at the confluence of several ocean currents that carry baitfish and the larger pelagic predators that hunt them. At the port, five motorized outrigger boats were chartered to bring us to the undeveloped and seldom visited 3,850-hectare and volcanic Palaui Island, a 7,415-hectare Protected Landscape and Seascape with a shoreline of 20.6 kms., a length of 10 kms. and a width of 5 kms. The island is inhabited by a community of Dumagats administered by a Filipino church group, and is also home to different monkeys, wild pigs, deer, sea turtle, and various endemic and migratory birds.

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The skies were still overcast when we left the port but our 45-min. boat ride was uneventful until we reached open water when the sea suddenly became choppy, creating mild to wild panic among the other boats but childish exhilaration (except for the visibly worried Astra Alegre) from me and my companions with every rising wave. We first made short landfall at gray sand Siwangag Cove for some photo-ops then returned to our boats for our final landfall at a gorgeous bay with a curving white-sand beach and well-preserved coral. The beach looked really inviting but we weren’t here for swimming or snorkeling. Instead, we opted to visit its picturesque old Cape Engaño Lighthouse (Faro de Cabo Engaño), the northernmost Spanish-era lighthouse in the country.

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Located on the windswept headland of Punta Engaño, it was designed by Engr. Magin Pers y Pers, started in 1887 and completed on December 30, 1892. Upon reaching the end of the beach, we began our ascent up a trail of the 92.75-m. high cone-shaped hill, pausing at intervals to admire the Batanes-like scenery of its surroundings. After a 30-min. hike, we finally reached the lighthouse.  Though now rundown and a little eerie, it was obviously a sight to behold during its heyday.  The back of the lighthouse had a panoramic view of the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean breaking on the beach and rocky shore, the rolling green-carpeted hills below, the two rocky islands of Dos Hermanas beyond and, farther off, the Babuyan group of islands, leaving all of us awestruck by the sheer beauty of nature before us.

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It was already drizzling when we went down the hill and returned to our boats.  The return trip was just as exhilarating as the previous.  Upon arrival at the port, a prepared lunch awaited us at nearby picnic huts. Later, we were picked up by our Ceza bus and brought to Eastern Hawaii Casino and Resort, where we were to spend our second night in the town. Our media group was welcomed by Front Office supervisor Carl Dulay.

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The suite I had, though less luxurious than Sun City’s, was more spacious with a queen-size bed, cable TV, fridge, toilet and bath, and writing desk. I also had free Wi-Fi but my TV only featured Chinese channels except for the Macau Lotus Channel, which featured some English movies, a reflection of its catering to an all-Chinese clientele before.

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Aside from its air-conditioned suites spread out in a number of four-story buildings, the resort also had its own online casino (the first in the town), a Chinese restaurant and, across the street, an infinity swimming pool, ocean-view villas, watersports center (Jet Skis) and private beach. And just like Sun City, it is also opening its doors to Filipino tourists. Since it was still early in the afternoon, some of the ladies went for a swim at the pool while others, including me, had a chat and merienda with Dulay at a picnic shed by the beach.Dinner that evening, served at the nearly finished clubhouse beside the pool, featured a number of ihaw-ihaw (barbecued) dishes, sizzling sisig, grilled prawns in butter, etc. After dinner, Ma. Theresa “Tess” Liwanag, the resort’s assistant general manager and HR head, hosted a number of team-building games for our group. C’est la vie.

A Paradise Place Called Bolinao

A major destination during our 3-day (April 4-6, 2011) Pangasinan Media Tour (with events organizer Bernard Supetran, travel writers Kara Santos and Vince Lopez, travel blogger Mark Vincent Nuñez and my travel photographer daughter Cheska) was the premier tourism town of Bolinao whose  69,568 people speak the unique Bolinawen dialect.  This wasn’t my first visit to this paradise place, having gone there during a 2005 Holy Week break with my son Jandy and two friends at Patar Beach.

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Four years after my first visit, on May 7, 2009, super typhoon Emong (international code name: Chan Hom, packing winds of 150 kph with a gustiness of 185 kph) made a 7 PM landfall in Bolinao and, in less than an hour, damaged 80-90% of its houses, blocked roads with fallen trees, destroyed 95% of its aquaculture industry and killed at least 20 people (with 4 missing), mostly fish cage caretakers who stayed on their makeshift huts.

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However, nothing could really bring a good town down and, through the cooperation of its townspeople, the town has recovered.  We arrived in town in the midst of a high school graduation in front of the town hall and first visited its venerable Church of St. James the Great. This solid, stone church, built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1609, used to double as a fortress against attacks by pirates, the English, Japanese and Americans.  Today, this church (as well as 25 other churches) is listed by the National Museum as a National Cultural Treasure.

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The church’s roof and ceiling were damaged during the typhoon but its roof and its trusses (now steel) have since been replaced though still ceiling-less. However, the impressive High Renaissance façade, with its weathered wooden santos in the niches, the bell tower and the beautiful, intricately carved retablos remain intact. In front of the church is a memorial marker which challenges the accepted historical fact of the March 31, 1521 first Mass held at Limasawa in Southern Leyte. Instead, the town claims that, in 1324, an Italian Franciscan Fr. Odorico, enroute to China, celebrated a thanksgiving Mass there and also baptized natives.

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We made a brief rest stopover at El Pescador Beach Resort before proceeding to the Bolinao Marine Laboratory, the official marine station, started in 1983, of the Marine Science Institute (MSI), University of the Philippines. Here, we observed the laboratory’s propagation of the endangered giant clam (Family Tridacnidae), sea urchins (locally called uni) and sea cucumbers.

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After lunch at the Bolinao Tourist Center, we next drove up a 107–m. (351-ft.) high promontory in Brgy. Patar called Punta Piedra Point, to the century-old Cape Bolinao Lighthouse, built by American, Filipino and British engineers in 1903.  The original apparatus was made in England and its lantern, with three wicks, was imported from France.

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This 30.79-m. (101-ft.) high lighthouse, the second tallest lighthouse (after Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte) in the country, guards the entrance to Lingayen Gulf and its light, could be seen 44 kms. (26 miles) out.  Too bad we couldn’t climb its 134-step winding stairway as its gate was locked and the caretaker nowhere to be found.  Typhoon Emongunroofed its administration building, destroyed the solar panels which recharged its two beacon lights but the lighthouse still remains an attraction by itself. Spectacular sunsets and the deep blue sea can be watched at its view deck.

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After our lighthouse tour, we made a short stopover at nearby white sand Abrac Beach (where we shopped for souvenirs), then proceeded to 3-km. long Patar Beach where we visited Solomon’s Paradise Bar Grill Resort.  Operated by Australian Brett Solomon and opened last March 2008, the place truly lived up to its name, being located in a short but very private white sand cove between towering rock formations. Both rock formations each had small huts on top where one could do quiet contemplation while enjoying the invigorating sea breeze and admiring the huge South China Sea waves crashing against the rocky shore, a scene truly reminiscent of the movie “Wuthering Heights.”

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We proceeded along the road to Enchanted Cave, one of three caves (the others are Cindy’s Cave and Wonderful Cave) in Brgy. Patar.  Located in a private property it is, however, open to the public but, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee of PhP30 if you’ll just look at the place and take pictures, and PhP40 if you’ll swim.  Along its paved walkway, we noticed, mixed with the garden landscape, fossilized remains of giant clams discovered in the hilltop, 2 kms. from the cave, and estimated to be about 2-3 million years old.

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We then carefully went down, through a small opening with paved steps and railing, to the cave’s 30-m. freshwater (which some say is unusual for a coral cave) pool with crystal clear water. Adequately lit, it was very humid and musty inside.  According to the caretaker, the pool, connected to an underground river, has depths of 3-6 ft., during low tide, and 3-10 ft. during high tide.  Some scenes in the 1996 movie Ang Pinakamagandang Babae sa Balat ng Lupa (starring Ruffa Gutierrez) and the popular 2008 telenovela Dyesebel (starring Marian Rivera) were shot here.

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On the way back to the Tourist Center, we made a short stopover at a bridge to photograph the the now fishpen-free Balingasay River (Brgy. Balingasay),  twice winner of the Gawad Pangulo sa Kapaligiran Award for inland bodies of water and a recipient of the highly prestigious Wetlands Conservation Award in 1994. Set aside as a protected seascape, it has century-old and new growth mangroves areas (home to many fish species), stretches of attap palms and balete trees hanging into the water. Before leaving, we passed by the multi-disciplinary Bolinao Museum, home to some important Balingasay archaeological finds as well as a natural history collection of Philippine flora and fauna and ethnographic and archaeological materials collected from neighboring Pangasinan towns.

Tripping on History and Culture in Pampanga

Pampanga was a major destination during our Manila North Luzon Tollways Corporation (MNTC) and North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB) sponsored Lakbay Norte 2.  In fact, almost 3 days of our 6-day media tour were spent in this history and culture rich province with its many Spanish and American era architecture.  After our tiring but rewarding Pinatubo tour, it was back on the road on our special Victory Liner tour bus as we made our way to Angeles City, our first Pampanga destination, arriving at its two-storey Museo Ning Angeles (the former city hall built in 1922) as dinner guests of the Kuliat Foundation.  We were all welcomed by Ms. Herminia Pamintuan, wife of the City Mayor Edgardo Pamintuan; Ms. Joy Cruz and Ms. Prisca Cantor, Special Projects Head and Treasurer, respectively, of the Greater Clark Visitors Bureau (GCVB); and museum curator Ms. Jiji Paras.  Before filling my stomach with the tasty, aromatic and appetizing Kapampangan dishes prepared for us, I took time out to explore the a charming diorama exhibit of Ninay Dolls (created by Patis Tesoro, an Angeleña) showing various episodes of Kapampangan lifestyle (weddings, fiestas, woodcarving, etc.); the evolution of Philippine revolutionary uniforms (1806-1906); a brief history of Angeles through dioramas and photos; and the Hall of Fame, which shows Angeleños who have made significant contributions in their field.

After late evening cocktails sponsored by Ms. Abel Villavicencio of Flying V and an acoustic night out at Island Grill in Clark with Mr. Gabriel “Bing” Sangil and tourism officer Mr. Angel Maniti, we all retired to our rooms at the Clark Star Hotel.  After a rest and recreation stop at Subic, where we enjoyed a round of banana boating and jetskiing (a first for me) courtesy of Networx Jet Sports, and a luxurious overnight stay at Lighthouse Marina Resort, we spent the morning of Day 5 exploring two of Pampanga’s famous churches, one noted for its resiliency in the face of calamity, and the other for its artistic beauty.

At Bacolor, we were met by Mr. Poch Jorolan of the Pampanga Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (PCVB).  The town’s Church of St. William the Hermit, one of the oldest and largest churches in Pampanga, is a survivor.  Probably built in the early 17th century, it has survived damage during the 1645 and 1880 earthquakes, a fire in 1672 as well as heavy damage during the British occupation, being restored each time.  However, the Mt. Pinatubo lahar flows of September 3, 1995 almost did her in, burying the church up to one-half its 12-m. height.  Its 4.9-m. high main entry disappeared. However, this bastion of faith refused to follow the footsteps of the half-buried Cagsawa Church (Albay) and Guiob Church (Camiguin), all victims of the eruptions of Mt. Mayon and Mt. Vulcan Daan respectively. Bacolonians resurrected the altar of the Lady of La Naval from the mud and a new concrete floor was built almost at the level of the windows.  The profusely and intricately-ornamented window of the choir loft now serves as the new main entrance.

We next proceeded to Brgy. Betis in the woodworking (furniture, guitars, pool sticks, etc.) town of Guagua (my late father’s hometown) were we were welcomed by Sangguniang Bayan member Anthony Joseph “Tonton” Torres at the 17th century Church of St. James the Apostle.  The church, honored as a National Cultural Treasure (one of 26) by the National Museum, has a profusely ornamented, two-level, German Baroque façade with decorative, coupled columns and skillfully arranged flora, spirals and intricate curvilinear carvings decorating the projecting portico.  The church’s wooden entrance doors are intricately carved with the Dreams of Jacob from the Old Testament.

Its awe-inspiring interiors are something else.   The huge, elaborate retablo is furnished with authentic icons while spectacular murals of 19th century artist Simon Flores as well as the father-and-son team of Macario and Jose Ligon (finished before World War II) fill the walls.  The interpretation of the Bible is painted on the entire wooden ceiling and the breathtaking trompe l’oeil dome.  At the center of the plaza, fronting the church, is the first artesian well in the Philippines, built by Fr. Manuel Camanes in the late 19th century. Before leaving Guagua, I bought some yema and pastillas as pasalubong.

Hizon-Singian House

Prior to our attending a cooking demo by local culinary expert and historian Lilian “Atching” M.L. Borromeo in Mexico, we made a brief stopover at the provincial capital city of San Fernando where we made a walking tour of a number of Spanish and American-era ancestral houses along A. Consuji St. in  Brgy. Sto. Rosario. The Hizon-Singian House, built in 1870, was occupied during the 1896 revolution by Spanish Gen. Antonio Ruiz Serralde.  During World War II, it was used by the Japanese Imperial Army as a military hospital and barracks (1943-1944) and, during the liberation period until the end of 1945, served as headquarters of 6th Army American Gen. Walter Krueger.

The Lazatin Residence, built in 1925, exemplifies the architecture prevalent during the American colonial period. During World War II, it served as a residence of Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma. On January 27, 2003, both houses were declared as Heritage Houses by the National Historical Institute.   Other ancestral houses along this street include the Consunji House, the turn-of-the-century, Victorian-style Augusto P. Hizon House and the Pampanga Lodge and Restaurant (the first site of the Pampanga High School when it first opened and, later, of the Harvardian College).

Finally, on my own, I visited the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando, started in 1756 by Fr. Sebastian Moreno and finished by Fr. Mariano Alafont in 1781.  Burned during a big fire in 1939, it was rebuilt in 1950 by Arch. Fernando Ocampo. The church has a Tuscan interior, a round and majestic, Baroque-style dome which rises from the rotunda of the transept, and a four-storey, hexagonal bell tower which tapers up in uneven levels.

Camarines Norte: 400 Years of Keeping the Faith

This year marks the quadricentennial (1611-2011) of the University of Sto. Tomas, the oldest university in Asia and my daughter Cheska’s college but, in Camarines Norte, it marks a different milestone – the 400th year foundation anniversary of the three parishes of Daet, Paracale and Vinzons.  Although all these towns were founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1581, it was only in 1611 when permanent parish priests were assigned. I, together with events organizer Bernard Supetran, travel blogger Mark Vincent Nunez and mediamen Mr. Joselito “Lito” Cinco and Ms. Kara Santos, were invited to cover quadricentennial activities in these towns as well as one of the province’s top tourist draws – the Calaguas Islands.

We all met up at Starbucks in Magallanes Village in Makati City where our transportation and our hosts, Mr. Amable Miranda and Roufel “Raffy” de Vera of the Provincial Tourism Office awaited us.  We left the place by 5:30 PM and the 350-km. long-haul drive took all of 8 hrs., including stopovers for toilet breaks and dinner at a Chowking outlet in Quezon, snatching sleep in between.

I awoke at our final destination – Bagasbas Lighthouse Resort set right along Daet’s famed piece of surfing heaven.  It was 2 AM and we all decided to continue our sleep at the resort, Kara at her very own Trailer Room (a container van converted into a comfortable hotel room) and us guys in two, twin-sharing airconditioned de luxe rooms  equipped with 32” cable TV, minibar, tea maker and in-room safe.

Morning dawned to the sound of Bagasbas’ famous waves, also ideal for skimboarding and kiteboarding aside from the usual surfing.  The resort caters to all these activities as well as sea kayaking and island hopping but, with our limited time, we were not here to indulge in these activities.  After a Filipino breakfast at Catherine’s, the resort’s F&B outlet, we were picked up by Amable and Raffy to visit Bagasbas Park and the First Rizal Monument (unveiled on December 30, 1898) then meet up with Atty. Debbee Francisco, the Provincial Tourism Officer designate, at the Provincial Capitol as well as visit the Bulawan Museum with its collection of old photos, portraits of past governors, busts of local heroes, family heirloom pieces, numismatic collection and paintings.

From Daet, we moved on to Paracale where we were to attend its Pabirik Festival which  showcases the rich mining industry of the town (the pabirik is a tool used in gold mining) which started when a large gold mine was discovered here in 1626. Locals here still pan for gold.  In fact, the town’s name was derived from para cale, meaning “canal digger.”

The festival coincides with the feast of Our Lady of Candles (Nuestra Senora del Candelaria), the town’s patroness and, as such, her statue is borne by most participating contingents in the street dancing competition, together with cardboard or wood replicas of the gold panning trade. The town’s Church of Our Lady of Candles was reconstructed between 1888 and 1898 under the direction of Fr. Jose Cardenoso, the last Spanish priest to serve the parish.

We next left for Labo where we checked out the Museo de Labo, the Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist and a showcase of the town’s handicrafts.  After a few hours rest bit back at the resort, we proceeded to the town of Vinzons where we interviewed Fr. Francisco P. Regala, Jr., the parish priest of the town’s Church of St. Peter the Apostle, the oldest in the province (first built in 1611 by Fr. Juan de Losar and rebuilt at its present site in 1624).  Fr. Regala, narrated in detail, the town’s town’s quadricentennial plans on June 29, the town’s fiesta.  We capped this evening with dinner at the residence of Atty. Francisco where I stuffed myself full with angko, a glutinous, rice-based and thumb-size native delicacy with a filling of sweet, grounded peanuts.  We left right after this as we were scheduled to leave early in the morning for overnight camping at the Calaguas Islands.  That night it started to rain heavily.

That same heavy rain welcomed us early in the morning and a phone call confirmed our worst fears – the trip to the Calaguas Islands was cancelled.  Regretfully, we switched to Plan B – hiking to Nakali Falls in San Lorenzo Ruiz town, rain or shine.  We all proceeded to the municipal hall where two guides were assigned to us.

The trail was understandably wet and muddy and I regretted having worn slippers instead of sandals which, more often than not, got stuck in the muck.  The uphill, downhill and sometimes flat trail brought us hiking through coconut and pineapple plantations, boulder-strewn river banks as well as crossing a hanging bridge.

A number of times, Lito wanted to quit, uttering his famous line “This is where I draw the line” a number of times, only to continue on his way.  We all finally drew the line when we neared the falls as the strong river current, even with a guide rope thrown across, prevented us from hurdling the final leg.  However, we contented ourselves with bathing the cool river waters. It was now late in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten lunch, just snacks and some coconuts.  The thought of a late lunch waiting for us goaded us to reduce the return hike from the original 4 down to 3 hours, helped along by my walking barefooted in the mud. Mark and I, bringing up the rear, finally staggered back to the municipal hall where Mayor Nelson P. de los Santos welcomed us with a much anticipated late lunch.  Sleep came easy to us the weary that night.

It was raining less the next day and all had lunch with Daet Mayor Tito S. Sarion at Golden Palace Restaurant followed by an ocular tour of the newly-established museum at the Daet Heritage Center (formerly the old municipal hall), a courtesy call to Gov. Edgardo Tallado at the Provincial Capitol and a farewell visit to Atty. Francisco who gifted us with daing, dried dilis (anchovies) and my favorite angko.  Amable and Raffy accompanied us on our return trip to Manila, with a delicious dinner stopover at Lita’s Carinderia along the way.  We made it back by midnight, tired but still determined to see the Calaguas in the future. Maybe next time.