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.