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Paradise Trance: Camiguin Island, Philippines

Posted on 24 June 2014 by migoloyd

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Seven volcanoes stood on the island beckoning across the Bohol Sea. Yet again they call to me like silent sentinels in search of human bonds. What manner of enchantment does this island hold over me? What is it that keeps bringing me back?

The Island Born of Fire reforged sweet memories of every pilgrimage I’ve taken to its lovely shores in the last few years. Vivid images danced through the mind’s eye as I try to remember and latch on to every memory of its pure shores, lush volcanoes, and aquamarine waters.

I always believe that the journey is the destination so I don’t mind going on a 3-hour road trip across Misamis Oriental and an hour’s ferry ride to get to this pearl-shaped island just off the northern coast of Mindanao. Yes, I’m talking about charming Camiguin Island, my dear reader and I can almost feel its waters on my toes.

For each trip I make, I almost automatically get to experience a place even more through its roads and people. Though familiarity becomes established, there’s always a new experience for every trip to the same destination and having already taken the longer route, going through a different one is always worth the time. For instance, instead of travelling from Cagayan de Oro City all the way to Balingoan to catch hourly ferry rides to the island you can take the 8:00am Paras Seacat ferry from CDO’s Macabalan Port which only takes 2 hours of sea travel with fare rates ranging from Php 550 – 750 per person. No matter what route you take, just breathe it all in because its how you get there and how you enjoyed it that really counts into the experience.

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Benoni in Camiguin is one of the friendliest ports I’ve set my foot on. People are beaming both with pride and modesty of their lush island province and you never get any shortage of accommodating jeepney and tricycle drivers who are very happy enough to take you anywhere in the island. Making lasting friendships with the local people makes each visit like a journey home. So from Benoni, my next stop is always my favorite “home” in all of Camiguin, Enigmata Treehouse Ecolodge and Art Camp. Yeah, I find comfort in the trees and I’m quite the hippie in my past life. Enigmata means “to open your eyes” and “enter the journey inwards the creative circles of the mind”. Well put I should say because nature is an artwork all by itself and how man shaped it to tell stories did open my eyes to this paradise which allowed my heart and mind to see and experience a rustic yet splendid form of island living.

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Built around a century-old acacia tree, this three-storey treehouse is a cultural bank, an art camp, and a backpacker’s lodge. The paintings, sculptures, installation and functional art works are always a feast for the eyes. Everywhere is an open space and you get to breathe the island air through bamboo floors, and artfully crafted wooden walls. Engaging with members of the Enigmata Creative Circle particularly Ros Zerrudo, artist, co-founder, and an old friend of mine, allows me to feel the “life” of the place, how it breathes through art and resonates its messages in poetry. Art and nature are definitely best buddies and as such, I always find a home in their abundance in Enigmata.

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There’s so much you can do in Camiguin even in just a span of 3 days. In one stop, the island is a melting pot of majestic volcanoes, waterfalls, springs, and beaches. My favorite after-siesta jaunt includes a relaxing dip at Katibawasan Falls southeast of Mambajao where the water cascades more than 70m down to a pool surrounded by lush orchids and ferns.

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From here I normally take a roadtrip to the Gui-ob Church Ruins and Sunken Cemetery in Catarman for an experience of the island’s violent volcanic past.

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I would then end the day with a beautiful sunset at White Island, a sandbar just off the northern shore where I would gaze long into the magnificent contrast of white sand and aquamarine waters against the vibrant green silhouettes of mighty volcanoes. It’s always the best way to end the day.

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From across White Island, Mt. Hibok-Hibok beckons the next day’s adventures. The entire 2nd day in the island is often reserved for mountain climbing. So far, I’ve taken two different dayhike traverse routes up Mt. Hibok-Hibok or some would fondly call it “H2”. If you’re up for a challenge, the Itum Trail is the steeper one that gets you through thicker jungle and serene rock gardens. The more rolling terrain is through the Yumbing Trail which is the route to take if you plan to hit the old crater and the lake before reaching the summit. Standing at 1,332 metres (4,370 ft) above mean sea level (asl) the H2 summit is the highest point in the island. It gives you a bird’s eye view of the mountains green slopes and the encroaching coastlines, the striking C-shape of White Island and the blue expanse of the Bohol Sea. I think that description introduces a take-my-breath-away kind of feeling. Sceneries seen and captured by the heart dissolves physical exhaustion until you feel ready to come down and the best way down is through the Ardent Trail. It takes 3-4 hours until you exit to the sulfur springs, a nice treat for sore legs and muscles and also a nice spot to contemplate on the day’s adventure and the next day’s promise.

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Getting around Camiguin is easier said AND done. You can rent a motorcycle for P500 for the whole day or a multi-cab for about P1,700. You can take any direction on the national road because it encircles the entire island and don’t be afraid to get lost, people are friendly and they’ll point you in the right direction. And oh, you have to be lost in order to find the most beautiful of places.

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I prefer starting off the road from Mambajao following it northwest to Catarman passing Mt. Vulcan, Sunken Cemetery, and Gui-ob Church Ruins. If it’s a hot start, there’s a side road that leads to Sto. Niño Cold Springs whenever you feel the need for a cool dip and you can then just follow the road back to the highway and continue making your way south to Guinsiliban and take a sidetrip to the old Moro Watchtower and play a Spanish settler looking out for Moro pirates from mainland Mindanao if you feel like it. ;-)

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By mid-morning, Cantaan would be the next great stop for a guided snorkeling tour of the Giant Clams Sanctuary plus some short relaxation by the shores of Kebila Beach.

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After half a day spent on the road, lunch is served best at J&A Fishpens. A hearty lunch of fresh seafood beside the Taguines lagoon always gives me enough energy to pursue the rest of the day.

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I’m almost three quarters into Camiguin’s road circuit and it’s just half the day. After lunch, I make my way to Mahinog because by routine, I cannot miss out on Mantigue Island just 15-20 minutes off the coast. This is where I would spend the rest of the day walking among the trees in the island forest, skin-diving in the Fish Sanctuary, basking in the afternoon sun, and gazing across the crystal waters not wanting to go back to the old city life and the madness that is called Manila.

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This is where I would usually end my 3 day sojourn in Camiguin. I’ve seen numerous sunsets before but why do I prefer it here? Why do I keep coming back? Why do I tell this story of my own experience? The simple truth is enchantment. I cannot even begin to describe the island’s inherent charms. Besides its numerous beautiful spots, perhaps it’s the synergy between its environment and its people. A symbiotic relationship wherein one benefits the other; where people chose to commit to simple forms and joys of living in such a way it allowed nature to continue its blossom and had so much more to give in return. Or perhaps it opened my eyes to life’s simplicity, that there is so much to be thankful for like the earth and the sea and that it doesn’t take too much effort in making every moment in life worthwhile. I guess that’s all to it.

I’m going back again this year. Would you like to join me?

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Basking in Sun-drenched Biliran

Posted on 28 April 2014 by matetreyes

Maritess Garcia-Reyes shares why this province in the Eastern Visayas owns a spot in her heart

A spectacular view of Sambawan Island from the view deck

A spectacular view of Sambawan Island from the view deck

“What keeps you going back to Biliran?” asks Santi, a descendant of the Sabitsanas who own the unassuming Agta Beach Scuba Resort in Brgy. Talahid in the town of Almeria. It was our last night in the resort, and we were having drinks since sunset to combat the chilly sea breeze brought by the storm. Sure, we were under the influence of alcohol, but his question drew back vivid memories in my mind. It’s a good question anyway. So I asked myself back, why do I keep coming back to Biliran?

My husband, dear friend and I had celebrated our birthdays in Biliran last year, three days before the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that crumbled most of Bohol and Cebu, and three weeks before the horrifying wrath of typhoon Haiyan. For those reasons alone, our journey was obviously unforgettable.

The pristine beachfront is perfect for basking in the sun

The pristine beachfront is perfect for basking in the sun

I was invited by Antonio, another one from the Sabitsana clan. What started as a sort of cold call on my fan page turned out to be an interesting story lead. When he asked me to feature his hometown in my blog, I Googled “Biliran” right away and was surprised to see photos of amazing beaches and underwater sceneries. That’s it. Deal.

Getting deep into Dalutan Island

Getting deep into Dalutan Island

The initial plan was to go during the summer months as the beaches and islands are at its best during this season. The sea is also flat and calm during this time. However, our schedules were unanimous and we only had a window for a trip in October. It was habagat (southwest monsoon) season already but we figured it might work nonetheless.

Biliran's capital, Naval

Biliran's capital, Naval

Reaching Biliran is not as easy and as fast as going to popular destinations like Boracay and Cebu, but the one-hour flight to Tacloban, the three-hour road trip from Tacloban to Naval and another 30-minute ride from Naval to Almeria is all worth it. After all, what matters most is not how you get there; rather, it’s what’s in there.

A view of Dalutan Island from Agta Beach

A view of Dalutan Island from Agta Beach

There is an instant feeling of homeyness as soon as you get to Agta Beach Scuba Resort. The endless view of the sea and with Dalutan Island just across, the place resonates pure serenity, and thanks to the warm hospitality of the Sabitsanas and their staff, as it made us feel at ease right away.

The majestic Ulan Ulan Falls

The majestic Ulan Ulan Falls

Our first day was spent trekking the unpaved paths to Ulan-Ulan Falls in Brgy. Sampao. Walking the trail took us more than the usual 30 minutes as we were still groggy and exhausted from our early morning flight. It was a fair mix of concrete walkways and rocky cliffs, of lush greenery and picturesque views. When the forceful waters of the falls came into view, we couldn’t help but rush down to have a closer look. The sound of the raging cool waters was so rejuvenating as if melting our fatigue away. For a while, we felt like we were in a different dimension.  We felt like we were in some kind of fairy tale.

13. The famous purple sunset over Dalutan Island

The famous purple sunset over Dalutan Island

We went back to the resort just a little before sunset and were surprised to see the sun painting the skies over Dalutan Island with hues of purple, orange and blue. The sun was not at its perfect sphere, but the kaleidoscope of colors it had given the horizon was indeed jaw-dropping. It was a great backdrop to cocktails and nibbles that even if you get drunk, you will still remember how beautiful the skies were the day after. No exaggeration, that’s how striking it was.

Sambawan Island's pristine waters

Sambawan Island's pristine waters

That night, I had the best, deepest sleep ever, and before I knew it, it was already time to get up again as we were about to depart for Sambawan Island on our second day. A sub-island of Maripipi, the island was in fact what had convinced me to go to Biliran in the first place. The photos on Google showed verdant rolling cliffs, cerulean waters and an impeccable white shoreline. It is perhaps the most photographed island in Biliran.

The view deck at Sambawan Island

The view deck at Sambawan Island

The two-hour bumpy boat ride from the wharf in the town of Kawayan was one of the scariest I’ve had, thanks to whirling winds brought about by the southwest monsoon. I was almost sure I wasn’t breathing at some point when our boat was juggling in between the Biliran Strait and the Samar Sea. But all my fears vanished when the crystal clear waters of Sambawan Island unfolded before our eyes. It was love at first sight.

The other side of Sambawan Island

The other side of Sambawan Island

After settling our stuff under a big tree, Melo, our guide who is also part of the Sabitsana clan, took us to the viewing deck which promised a spectacular view of the island from an altitude. The climb to the view deck seemed easier than that of Ulan Ulan Falls but the occasional loose rocks made it a bit challenging. Landing at the stairway to the view deck already commands a fantastic view, but going up to the quaint nipa hut gave us a better 360-degree vantage point. It was blue and green everywhere we looked. Even from where we were, we could see a glimpse of what’s beneath its waters. The rocks gave an interesting accent to what was already an idyllic piece of land. It was breathtaking. No wonder it is the most popular island here. I can live, and die here. Believe me.

Beach bumming in Sambawan Island

Beach bumming in Sambawan Island

When we went down for a swim, we were greeted by strong currents, so we had to wait a while before we submerged ourselves into the water. The wait was worth it nonetheless, as beneath the azure surface were stunning corals and a panoply of colors brought about by the island’s rich marine biodiversity. I was told that dive sites here are astounding, and if you’re lucky enough, you might be able to sight some turtles, sharks, or dolphins along the way. “The first bull shark sighting in the Philippines was here,” says Melo.

Dalutan Island's shoreline

Dalutan Island's shoreline

After lunch, we boarded our boat again to go to our next destination – Dalutan Island. The sea was choppier and the ride was a bit uncomfortable that it lulled me to sleep. The descending noise of our boat woke me up and as we set foot on the island, we could see the bright sun strikes upon the white pebbly sand, making it look lighter than what it really was. We did not waste a single second, geared up and went into the water again. The island usually serves as a training ground for intro divers in Biliran as the snorkeling and diving sites here are closer to the shore, so it is easier to swim back anytime you feel panicky or if there is a need to adjust your gears. We were amidst the snorkeling site when Melo pointed at something into the water. When I looked down, I immediately swam away at the sight of a long, black-and-white striped creature that he later confirmed as a pipe fish and not a sea snake. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Sambawan Island from afar

Sambawan Island from afar

We capped the day with another round of drinks at the resort’s restaurant while watching the sunset over Dalutan Island. What surprised us was the fiery horizontal cloud formation that seemed to envelope the entire width of the island. It was again an awe-inspiring sight.

Fiery colours envelope Dalutan island at dusk

Fiery colors envelope Dalutan island at dusk

Six months later, my second time in Biliran, I came back with a different set of companions – most were first-timers – and with a different purpose. Our team’s goal was to extend help in the form of school supplies to some students of Caucab Elementary School, a public school near Bayombong Falls. We formed the outreach with hopes of making the children happy especially after the typhoon Haiyan. The damages in this part of the world were nothing compared to what happened in Leyte and the rest of the Visayas, but one realization of our team was that there are more issues outside of the flattened areas that need to be addressed, too. And this school is only one of many schools that need attention. “We badly need school supplies. Students here come from less-fortunate families and they have little capability to support the needs of their children,” says the school principal.

Iyusan rice terraces

Iyusan rice terraces

We arrived in Agta early morning, and despite lack of decent sleep, we pulled our strings to assemble the stuff we need for the outreach. It was already afternoon when we went to Caucab Elementary School. On our way, we couldn’t help but noticed the lush rice terraces and the steep trail towards the school.

4. Outreach at Caucab Elementary School

Outreach at Caucab Elementary School

When we got there, there were a lot of students lining up already, waiting for us. Our team was nervous as we only prepared a hundred packs and it seemed like there were more students than what we expected. But at this point, there’s no way we could turn aback. We started giving out our small presents and we were moved by the sight of children smiling with joy as they opened the red bags. For once, we were sure we did the right thing! It was the best trip ever – traveling with not just photos to take home but with the gratification that somehow, we made them happy.

School packs for Caucab Elementary School

School packs for Caucab Elementary School

The following day was stormy despite the summer season. There was a typhoon in Eastern Samar, and it seemed like it had no plans of moving elsewhere at all. We almost thought that we wouldn’t be able to go to Higatangan, an island almost halfway from Biliran to Malapascua in Cebu. When the rain stopped and the wind mellowed, we took it as a signal to push through. The waves were furious that we had to slow down a bit. Covered in dark clouds, our destination seemed to have disappeared into thin air. We carried on until alas, we reached the island safe and sound. It was freezing cold as we were all wet and the breeze was blowing like a big bad wolf.

9. Higatangan Island shifting sand bar

The historic island is said to be where the late Ferdinand Marcos took refuge when his boat capsized during the World War II. He was rescued by a local fisherman named Fidel Limpiado, Sr., father-in-law of Agta Beach Resort’s founder Clemencio “Mesyong” Sabitsana, Sr. When Marcos became president of the Republic; he went back to Higatangan Island with his wife Imelda and daughter Irene to visit Limpiado. Grateful as he was to Limpiado for saving his life, he had given the island infrastructures such as a school, a nine-kilometer circumferential road, post office, clinic and four windmill-powered water systems. To date, a hill on the island still remains to be called “Marcos Hill.”

Rock formations at Higatangan Island

Rock formations at Higatangan Island

Moving forward, Melo and his friend, Jonah, showed us the island’s makeshift kitchen, and there, we tried to make a fire where we could cook the food for our boodle fight. Nothing beats eating on banana leaves with bare hands and sharing a feast with new friends. It was indeed our best meal in Biliran!

The next two days were stormy still. Our trip to Dalutan Island was a blast despite having to swim with tiny planktons and going home dotted with red itchy stings. Our boat ride to Sambawan Island was calmer than when we went to Higatangan but the sun did not dare show up. Nothing much had changed since the last time I was here. Thankfully, everything was spared from the fury of typhoon Haiyan.

Going back to Santi’s question, I guess what brings me back to Biliran is not just pure wanderlust. For one, I love the fact that it is less-explored, unspoilt. The beaches are not crowded. There’s deafening silence at night made me feel detached from the chaotic world.

Second, each island has its own character: laid back Dalutan Island; adventure-packed Sambawan Island; and adrenaline-inducing Higatangan Island.

Lastly, the locals have a unique charm that makes guests feel at home. Besides the beautiful sights, the best part of our days in Biliran are the nights when we would have drinks and recap the day that was. It was always full of laughter; each one in the group has something new to share; each has a story of its own.

The kids at Agta Beach resort

The kids at Agta Beach resort

It may not be as popular and as pristine as the other destinations in the country, but one thing is for sure — in Biliran, I don’t need a loud party to enjoy, nor a modern resort to stay in. I can indulge in its purest, natural wonders. The fresh air, the sea, and the company of good friends are more than enough reasons to go back.

To me, one thing is certain — in Biliran, I found my happy place.

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Batanes: A Year After

Posted on 09 April 2013 by Ariel Vinarao

Me outside one of the stone houses in Savidug.

Me outside one of the stone houses in Savidug.

It’s Holy Week 2013 here in the Philippines. Since work left  me with too little time to book an airline ticket and hotel accommodation for travel during the long holiday, I decided to stay home and write about my Holy Week travel last year. I have been wanting to go to Batanes (the northernmost part of the Philippines and is also the smallest province in terms of population and land area) for the longest time and it has been in my bucket list since the stone age. And the dream became a reality a year ago. The trip was initially planned for two persons but something came up with my companion and it left me with no choice but to travel alone since nobody wants to go with me. Ha! Ha! Hotel accommodation was booked a year earlier and the airline ticket was bought 6 months before I flew to my shangri-la.

Holy Wednesday, 4th of April 2012, the day of my flight to Batanes. I overslept! I arrived at the airport to find the counter closed 30 minutes before the scheduled take off time at 5:15am. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do. One year of preparation and there I was feeling numb and about to cry. The ground crew of Seair told me to go to their office next door and have my flight re-booked the following day. And so, that’s what I did. Luckily, there was still a vacant seat for the flight the following day and they were able to accommodate me for no extra charge. I went home, had lunch with a friend and slept the whole afternoon till early evening to make sure I will stay awake hours before my flight. Arrived at the airport at 3am the following day. The flight was slow but it was smooth.

Maundy Thursday, 5th of April 2012. Touchdown Batanes! The airport looks new but it has an old-fashioned attractiveness and charm because of its stone walls, which is peculiar to the island for it is frequented by typhoons. I didn’t know a single soul, but I spotted a few familiar faces in the crowd in the arrival area. They were a group of celebrities from Manila. The moment I went out, I immediately saw my name on a small board being held by a middle-aged man. He’s the driver from Fundacion Pacita, the hotel I was billeted for the next three days. The van ride to the hotel was nothing but magnificent. Hills and ocean as far as your eyes can see. There are occasional cows, too. No high rise buildings, no wide roads, no traffic, no pollution. “This is going to be a very good Holy Week”, I said to myself.

Fundacion Pacita seen from the reception area.

Fundacion Pacita seen from the reception area.

My jaw dropped when I alighted from the van upon arriving at the hotel. The hotel’s exterior is so beautiful. It’s on top of rolling hills and sits at the edge of a cliff almost kissing the ocean below. This used to be the studio of internationally-acclaimed artist Pacita Abad. The hotel is full of her artworks. I was mesmerized! So, I picked up my jaw from the ground only to drop it again when I entered my room. The room I reserved is called the Idawud Room. It is the corner room in the far end of the main building and the private viewing deck is facing the vast ocean. The room has large glass windows that offered a good view of the blue sea. I asked the attendant, ” Is this viewing deck mine alone?” She replied, “Yes Sir, all yours until you leave on Sunday. By the way Sir, your breakfast is now ready in the main dining hall. But you have a choice if you want your meals served here in your room or in your view deck.” A tear fell on my cheek when she left and closed the door behind her. This is so surreal! My dream is now starting to unfold. I started to unpack my things and started taking pictures of my room. It’s a good thing that I have complimentary bottles of water, coffee and tea complete with a boiling pot. The phone rang and I was informed that my tour guide is now ready and waiting for me outside. Adventure awaits. . . .

Key to the Idawud Room.

Key to the Idawud Room.

We started off by visiting DOST’s PAGASA Station where they used to monitor the weather of the islands. I think this is no longer operational because there were no people inside the building. Not far from the station is the  Tukon Church which was built by the Abads. The ceiling was painted by local artists. These artists are supported by the hotel’s foundation because art is very close to Pacita’s heart. The Japanese tunnel is next on the list. They said that a lot of Japanese tunnels were constructed in World War II. The one we went to had some type of bunkers where the soldiers slept and they also kept their food. When we were navigating the interior of this tunnel, the walls were moist and there was a 90 degree drop. When we emerged from the tunnel, another view of rolling hills greeted us. We then proceeded to the lighthouses of Basco and Mahatao. These lighthouses are open and you can actually go inside and take pictures from its viewdeck. When you’re up there, you can just close your eyes for a moment and thank God for all these wonderful creations. We had to stop for lunch at Ms. Lydia Roberto’s restaurant. It was sumptuous, complete with uvud balls, calamari, soup and fried fish dish. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the Chapa view deck where there is a small grotto and it offers a great view of the ocean and the hills. The Valugan Boulder beach was mind-blowing. You can’t help but wonder, where did all those boulders come from? They said that the boulders were once spewed by Mt. Iraya when it erupted decades ago. However, the Ivatans started quarrying these stones and boulders to build the walls of their houses. It is now prohibited to quarry these stones. Here now comes the Honesty Coffee shop. A lot have been said about this store. There is nobody in this store, just the goods. If you need something, by all means, get it and drop your payment in the box. I have read that the owner felt that she would be wasting her time if she would stay in the store the whole day. She might as well do her farming. Batanes, if I am not mistaken, has zero crime rate. Maybe she was banking on this that’s why she trusts all the people coming to her store. Last stop for the day was the House of Dakay. This is the oldest stone house in Batanes and the current occupant is Frestilda Dakay. In other blogs and write ups, she is named as Florestida Estrella or Lola Ida. She’s a bubbly, fine lady who speaks impeccable English. She talked about her growing up years and their life during the war. It was a very nice experience to talk to Lola Ida as the sun was setting on the horizon. I was smiling during the drive back to my hotel. Just a day in this beautiful island and a lot has happened. The sight of my room refreshed me. I took a long bath and got ready for dinner at Lydia Roberto’s again.

Since I knew that I will be travelling alone, I made arrangements before I left Manila with the famous photographer, that I will be joining her photo safari group for two days. And they will be arriving on Good Friday.

Good Friday, 6th of April 2012. Slept for the 8 straight hours. The sound of the waves the night before slowly dozed me to sleep. It’s a new day, new adventure! I was informed that I will picked up at around 9:30am. The photographer’s group will be arriving from Manila early. I heard a soft knock on my door. It was the hotel’s attendant. He’ll be bringing in my breakfast and he suggested that he set it up in my view deck. According to him, nothing beats enjoying an early breakfast in the view deck because everything is so serene. His words were true. The brewed coffee was really good as well as the beef tapa. They always include sweet potato in their set breakfast. Somehow the sweet potato in Batanes seem to taste differently, much sweeter. After breakfast, the photo safari group arrived on time. from here on all my meals and transportation has all been paid for from the fee I paid to join the group. We were taught all about photography the whole day while transferring from one spot to another. Fashion photography with the group members as models, portraiture, landscape photography as well. We were also taught how to use ambient light, how to diffuse our lighting and all. This day was a rewarding day for me because I was able to learn a lot from a very accomplished photographer.

Black Saturday, 7th of April 2012. We had to be up early today because we are going to cross the West Philippine Sea going to Sabtang. As I have read, the waves in the ocean can really go crazy. I informed the hotel’s kitchen that I need to have my breakfast very early on this day. I had it set up inside my room because it was still a bit dark outside. The staff were very efficient and well-mannered. Anyway, quick breakfast, quick bath and off we go to Ivana port to ride the falowa boat going to Sabtang island. When we got to the port at 8am, there were already tourists and locals queuing for the boat ride to the next island. The waters look calm but we still needed to wait for the approval of the coast guard if we can cross or not. We set sail at around 8:45am. The boat ride was quiet, just a few big waves and it took us 40 minutes to reach Sabtang Island. When we docked, the mayor of Sabtang was there to greet us. After the necessary paper works about registration, we went straight to the Sabtang Church. This church was built by the Dominicans in 1785. It was left behind in 1791 when the people in Sabtang were forced to transfer to Ivana. It was rebuilt in 1844 under the supervision of Fr. Antonio Vicente, O.P. The belfry was reconstructed by Fr. Gumersindo Hernandez, O.P. after it was detroyed by a typhoon in 1956. After talking to the current parish priest, we boarded our jeep and proceeded with our long and bumpy ride to Savidug. Savidug is the town in Sabtang where you can see the old stones houses in Batanes. We also went to Chamantad-Tinyan Sitio where the view is just awesome. Last stop is the Nakabuang Beach where we had a really tummy-filling lunch.  This beach is the one with a natural arch of stone and moss and has white sand. And now, it’s time to sail back to Batan island. It was already 4pm. The boat ride back to Batan was nowhere near calm. Ha! Ha! For a first time tourist, it was kind of scary. The locals however, can still afford to talk and laugh. We arrived safely after the looooong ride. After dinner, it was already time to pack my things for my flight back to Manila the following day. Batanes is quite expensive. But everything was all worth the money. It was sad that this adventure had to end. Memories were made and these will last a lifetime. But reality is kicking back in. I need to work and save for another adventure in the future.

My view deck at dusk.

My view deck at dusk.

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4 Hours In Manila’s China Town

Posted on 08 February 2011 by Mac Dy

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Tired of modern shopping malls and predictable amenities? Try Manila’s Chinatown, aka the Binondo/Ongpin area, a 45-minute drive from Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Most public transport operators won’t be too familiar with Chinatown, but using its alias will get you there as quickly as traffic jams will allow.

Many Chinatowns are considered to be tourist traps. In Manila, this is where locals go to get their goods — from wet markets to wholesale and everything in between. A lot of shops are still on a cash basis for payment and restaurants remain authentically Chinese. From Monday to Saturday, business is brisk and usually attracts a sea of people. On Sunday it is quiet: almost a ghost town.

Although the Binondo/Ongpin area has one of the most expensive real estate properties in the Philippines one of the biggest concerns for tourists is safety. This is one of the oldest areas with all types of characters in every nook and cranny. The keyword here is inconspicuousness. Dress down that DSLR, keep the jewelry to the minimum and tuck the passport/wallet some place safe. This is not to deter the future visitor, but to avoid a troublesome scenario as the Philippines is synonymous with long lines and red tape.

Do enjoy your visit to the Binondo/Ongpin area. Manila’s Chinatown will definitely be one place to tickle the senses.

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Trekking Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines

Posted on 21 October 2010 by Mac Dy

In June of 1991, a volcano in the Philippines erupted and some considered it to be the biggest eruption in living memory. Lahar flow covered much of the surrounding villages, towns and forest. Neighboring cities were carpeted in a layer of ash that put normalcy on hold for months. The eruption rendered 2 of the biggest US bases in Southeast Asia useless and affected the rest of the world through weather patterns.

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The 1 sign that signals you have arrived.

Now adventurers seeking beautiful Mt. Pinatubo can contact tours that cater to groups. Going on your own is not recommended as guides and 4×4 jeeps are required to reach the Mt. Pinatubo crater lake. The lake was carved from the explosive power of the eruption. It now acts as a reservoir for rain water.

Trips from Metro Manila starts before dawn just to reach the Pinatubo Spa Town in Barangay Santa Juliana, Capas, Tarlac by 6am. With traffic along the highways the trip takes approximately an hour or 2. Pinatubo Spa Town is the main stop for all private vehicles and the place to register in case of emergency.

To reach the trek point for the Pinatubo crater lake all adventurers must pile into 4×4 jeeps with local drivers. They will race through rough lahar roads that are carved by rain water flowing down from Pinatubo. The 45 minute trip will go through remnants of towns and villages that were buried during the lahar flow.

Once reaching the initial trek point for the lake you must take a bathroom break unless going au-naturel is your thing. Here, two outhouse style comfort rooms provide the basic-lets take a whiz and run type of scenario. Usually, the crowds get too big and these are mostly used by the women. Men, well, should just improvise. The next bladder break will be at the crater lake.

Pinatubo Spa Town, Tarlac, Philippines. Mandatory registration before heading out.

Pinatubo Spa Town, Tarlac, Philippines. Mandatory registration before heading out.

The guide, a local Aeta tribesman, will take the group up the lush green forest of the mountain side to the beautiful Pinatubo crater lake. Depending on how fast a group travels, the trek will take up 30 minutes to an hour. He can help to carry a ton of baggage and still have a limb to spare for the ice box of sandwiches and drinks that the tour provides. The guides, friendly and helpful knows the path like the back of their hands- much, much better than a GPS.

Once at the top of Mt. Pinatubo, take a 15 minute breather and enjoy the amazing view. Then it will be off again down 5 or 6 stories worth of stair way carved from hardened lahar to the crater lake. Spend a few hours at the lake to have snacks, a dip in the water and a boat ride to the other side of the lake. Mt. Pinatubo is still active and on the other side the crisp blue water is much warmer, albeit hot. Relax a bit in the volcanic hot water before taking the trip back down. Keep in mind, Mt. Pinatubo is still brewing it’s lavas down below and it will make the trip that much more worth it.

Things to bring: trekking gear, good hike shoes, sunglasses, candy/power bars, a bottle or 2 of water, change of clothes, towels and swimsuits just in case you want to take a dip in the lake.

Recommended time to go: November-February. It’s not so hot during these months and tropical typhoons are at it’s low season.

All photographs © 2010 Mac Dy

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Cruising lahar flat lands on 4x4 jeeps.

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Local Aeta tribesmen on the lahar path on a more traditional 4x4.

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Hiking up the lush trail at the foot of Mt. Pinatubo.

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The welcoming view of the crater lake.

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View of the lake from the 5 or 6 story stairway to get down to the lake.

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In the middle of Mt. Pinatubo crater lake-transport for getting to the 'hot spring' side.

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Lonely Planet’s backpackers’ tips for Asia

Posted on 10 September 2010 by Joel Quenby

Lonely Planet’s Tom Hall recently gave the UK’s Guardian newspaper his picks for the hottest tickets for young travelers looking for economical ways to navigate the region

INDONESIA: The Eastern Islands

Flying into Flores, though LP says go by boat (by Prilfish via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Flying into Flores, though LP says go by boat (by Prilfish via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: Flores is home to world-class diving, volcanic lakes and empty white-sand beaches. Start … from Bali via Komodo or Rinca on a Perama boat—you’ll pick up enough suggestions on the way to work out the rest for yourself!”

PHILIPPINES: El Nido

Volcanic beauty: El Nido (by Vanna GocaraRupa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Volcanic beauty: El Nido (by Vanna GocaraRupa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “If you’re in search of stunning coastline and beaches, El Nido in northern Palawan is the place. This small, chilled-out town has plenty of amenities, but development remains slow meaning accommodation can be limited and the place never gets too busy.”

ASIA: The Andaman Islands

Not a lot in Havelot, I mean Havelock (by Kai Hendry via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Not a lot in Havelot, I mean Havelock (by Kai Hendry via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “Two and a half hours by ferry from Port Blair, the islands’ main town, Havelock, is a pretty good approximation of a backpacker paradise, with great snorkeling,  and cheap eating and lodging.”

ASIA: Bangladesh

Boating at dawn near the Bay of Bengal (By joiseyshowaa, courtesy of Flockr Creative Commons License)

Boating at dawn near the Bay of Bengal (By Joisey Showaa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “This underrated country might just be the world’s best-value country for travelers. Marvelous meals will cost less than US$1, and a midrange hotel room less than $10.”

ASIA: India’s Northeastern States

in Northeastern India (by Old Fashind via Flickr Creative Commons License)”]Technicolor melting pot and spotting rhinos  [inset] in Northeastern India (by Old Fashind via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Technicolor melting pot and spotting rhinos [inset

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “India’s final frontier—the “seven sister states” of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizaram, Nagaland, and Tripura—hides obscure tribal societies, forested hills and the feeling you’re breaking new ground.”

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Batanes – Philippine’s last frontier

Posted on 25 May 2010 by clairealgarme

by: Claire Algarme

It was a small plane that flew us to Batanes, the northernmost part of the Philippines, and not usually frequented by travelers. Flights are few, and often have to cancel when a storm enters the country. Even without a typhoon detected, the waves surrounding Batanes furiously splash on its rocky beaches and cliffs. Located between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Batanes seems helpless in the middle of the vast raging waters.

We left Manila scorching under the early Asian summer and arrived in Batanes greeted by slight drizzle and a steady breeze. Our accommodations was located near the Boulder Beach, a small cottage that fit all eight of us. A separate cottage houses the dining area and the shower room and toilet. There was also a small swimming pool good only for dipping.

Batanes introduced me not only to the harsh climate brought about by the ocean, but also to the sunshiny disposition of the locals. Ivatans, as what they are called, are friendly and open. They have learned how to keep a positive outlook in life, situations, and people around them and find a silver lining in their remoteness and challenging weather conditions.

We visited Sabtang Island where fishing villages were found. Old stone houses that have braved wind and water stood proud and formidable. Interestingly, we met Marcelo Hestarilo, aged 103 years, who was witness to the wars, storms and celebrations that have rocked their province.

A visit to Batanes will not be complete without a tour of its rolling hills, thrilling cliffs, and breathtaking landscapes. We sat there marveling at the blue sea, watching the cows grazing, breathing in fresh air, and waiting for the sun to kiss the ocean’s end.
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Claire Algarme loves to travel and write. She authors the blog, First-time Travels.

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Angus Bacon at Katre

Posted on 23 November 2009 by Darediva

Katre's Angus Bacon

Katre's Angus Bacon

I used to think that all bacon were created equal because I had never tasted bacon I didn’t like. To be sure, there were nuances in flavor but all invariably gave me the rush of endorphins that I needed to feel filled and fulfilled.

But one night at Katre restaurant, I discovered the hierarchy of bacon. I was there with friends for a send-off party at a private function room. We were all having a hard time choosing from the ample selection, and trying to outdo the other by ordering the most sinful, calorie-drenched dish on the menu. I couldn’t decide between the paella and the barbecue ribs, both of which I had enjoyed on previous occasions, so I ordered both.

The ribs was as I had remembered it – the flavorful meat, glazed with barbecue sauce and with the right trimming of fat to send me into a frenzy, was clinging precariously to the bone, and gave absolutely no resistance when I poked it with a knife.

The paella, however, was a disappointment. The rice I had fallen in love with – not the traditional Arborio, but a long-grained, chewy variety whose name now escapes me but whose texture and flavor left an indelible impression – had been replaced with couscous, which, in my view, did not provide enough surface for the proper coating of spices in the paella.

I nursed my paella failure by licking every sliver of meat off the rib bones. I thought myself satisfied, until my friend Bambi  graciously offered me a slice of Angus bacon from her husband’s plate. One slice and one big bite later, I must have blown a synapse because suddenly all I could manage was a long, emphatic Mmmmmmmm. Another friend was offered a bite. He proved to have more resilient neurons for he managed to say, “Panalo! (Winner!)” In a conspiracy to have at least one more taste, Dingdong and I ordered Angus bacon for Perl who called to say he was arriving late. So taste it one more time we did, and again my vocabulary was reduced to that of a one-year-old’s.

I vowed that night that I will be back. I will have a serving of Angus bacon all to myself, chew the meat and fat with equal passion, and pay the chef the best compliment of all – a clean plate.

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Flying Sky High

Posted on 03 November 2009 by Nellie Huang

Kitesurfing in Boracay - Photo by Alvin Gumba

Kitesurfing in Boracay - Photo by Alvin Gumba

Forget surfing or wake boarding. These days, golden-skinned surfers prefer to fly sky high. Or at least as high as the winds can bring them.

Kite-surfing has caught the eyes of many, becoming a sort of celebrity in the water sports scene. Rightfully so, with a lethal combination of strong winds and wave-cutting surfboard, kite-surfing is here to stay.

If there is only one place you”d kite-surf in South East Asia, it has to be Boracay.With an extended shallow shoreline and consistent cross-shore winds, Bulabog Lagoon is secretly hidden in a secluded end of the island. Plenty of kitesurfing schools organize courses ranging from 2-hour discovery lessons to 3-day certification course. (Prices start from US$80. Check out Isla Kite or Extreme Sports Cafe.)

White Beach, Boracay

White Beach, Boracay

Beyond the surprise of many, the 8-mile long island has managed to escape the ravages of  mass tourism.  The island can only be reached by boat, and the main beach sprawls across the length of the island.

Powder sand, clear skies and turqoise waters (as emerald as it can get), and you can find a nice combination of the three at White Beach. It’s quite a rare piece of heaven.

Begin your education in beach-bumming by chatting up the local folks on the beach. You’ll be surprised by how laid-back these friendly bunch can be. After all, in Boracay, life is a beach.

A View of White Beach from the Sea

A View of White Beach from the Sea

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Amy Ma

Food & Drink + Hong Kong

Amy is a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal amongst other publications. [...]

Pua Mench

Hong Kong

Pua is a writing and traveling enthusiast based in Hong Kong, with a weakness for all things related to the culinary arts and healing modalities, and a passion for sustainable living. [...]

Kim Inglis

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Kim has been an editor and journalist for over 20 years, more than half of which has been spent in Asia. [...]

Nellie Huang

Travel Adventures + Singapore

Nellie has been published in Food & Travel magazine and Lifestyle, and is a contributing author of V!VA's Guatemala Guidebook. She writes to travel, and travels to write. [...]

Sarah Jane Evans

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She has published travel articles in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in publications including: Vacations and Travel magazine... [...]

Carrie Kellenberger

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She has traveled throughout Asia, finding work as a writer, editor, educator, voice over artist, photographer, and nightclub singer. [...]

Mark Lean

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From writing about music, Mark expanded his focus to design, fashion, food and travel. In recent years, he has explored the highs and lows of Asia. [...]

Joel Quenby

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Joel is a British writer and journalist who's lived, worked and traveled in Southeast Asia since 2002. He's filed yarns for numerous publications...[...]

Alex Gunn

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After several diverse careers as a circus performer, school teacher, psychotherapist, stunt pilot and university lecturer he can now be found poking about far flung markets, museums, restaurants and odd places in and around Chiang Mai.. [...]