Paradise by Any Other Name

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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.

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