DESTINATIONS

No longer just storm country

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Samar used to be synonymous with storms, while Northern Samar has some towns famous for coconut and fish produce, like San Antonio, also known as Dalupirit Island.

Fortunately for the peripatetic among us, this island municipality is slowly discovering a new identity as a pleasant and charming settlement ideal for leisure and relaxation.  While most townfolk still grow coconuts and go beyond their shores to fish, many now look to the island’s sandy white beaches and surrounding seawaters for another source of living.

San Antonio is easily the most popular among tourists and vacationers from other towns of Samar because of its relative closeness to the mainland, idyllic island neighbors and its tourist-friendly accommodation and amenities.

Like Boracay, the town’s tourism potential was first unlocked by a foreigner, though most of the island’s resorts are now owned natives of Dalupirit Island.  Cebuano and Waray are widely spoken here.

One of the oldest resorts in the island is Haven of Fun, owned by Dalupirit natives Danilo and Juliet Mahinay.  The couple opened the resort in 2005 and enticed guests with a simple and low-cost videoke singko, a popular sing-along machine that allows users to select and sing a song by inserting a five-peso coin.

With their modest investment, the couple were pleasantly surprised to discover that they were easily earning more than P5,000 a day, and decided to expand their operation with more beachfront cottages and other amenities, including function rooms, a volleyball court and gazebos for day-tour guests.   They also realized that the resort’s main attraction was not the videoke singko but the entire four-hectare beachfront that Juliet had inherited from her parents.  Danilo, a civil engineer, personally planned and supervised the construction of every one of the casitas to blend with the island’s natural landscape and look.

After seven years in the business, Haven of Fun is now a full-service resort with more air-conditioned cottages for couples and families, a floating raft where guests can opt to have lunch or dinner, and function rooms for private parties and corporate functions.

The videoke singko is now only allowed for families and corporate gatherings, said Juliet.

Taking a cue from the success of the Mahinay couple, other entrepreneurs also started building full-service resorts in the newfound island paradise, among them Crystal Sun, rated by online Trip Advisor as “one of the best hotels in Northern Samar.”

Mayor Rudy Baguioso and the Sangguniang Bayan of San Antonio were likewise quick to pick up from there and immediately embarked on an eco-tourism study to ensure the long-term sustainability of San Antonio as a major tourist attraction in Northern Samar.

The study showed the need for preventive measures to avoid water degradation caused by sewage mismanagement, as what happened in Boracay.  This early, local officials have already lined up measures to reduce, if not totally prevent, pollution in the waters surrounding the island.

The town also collects P2 from every outgoing passenger, both residents and visitors, to help in the upkeep of the island.  It will likewise impose a minimal environmental fee on every beach user to help build the necessary structures to keep the beach clean and safe for everyone. The residents don’t seem to mind.  For them, it’s a small price to pay for the economic benefits that families are bound to reap, not to mention the strong sense of pride instilled in them.

Aside from swimming and snorkeling, tourists can also go island hopping and proceed to the nearby island towns of Capul and San Vicente by renting a pump boat from local fishermen. Resort owners or staff can recommend boatmen, or simply ask around at the pier area.

The boat trip can be as exhilarating as your destinations. The San Bernardino Strait, a body of water that separates Luzon from the Visayas, is both beautiful and storied. This is the same route used by Spanish galleons for 250 years, from 1565 to 1815.

Capul, famous for its lighthouse and centuries-old fortress church, is one of the oldest towns of Northern Samar.  The island town of Biri, known for its rock formations, is also nearby (see boxed story on page 10).

The Capul Lighthouse, although in a state of disrepair, is located on a corniche with a mesmerizing view of Samar Island and parts of Bicol.  On a clear day, you can see from the garden terrace of the lighthouse a vivid and fantastic view of Mount Bulusan in Sorsogon and Mayon Volcano in Albay.  It’s a totally rejuvenating experience!

The church of Capul is one of the oldest in the Philippines.  Originally built in the early 1600s, it was plundered and razed to the ground by Moro pirates in 1615 and in 1768.  The church building was restored in 1781 and fortified with thick stone walls and a baluarte (fort) to guard against Moro attacks.

Just behind Capul Island is an island known for its pink beach—San Vicente.  The town is composed of seven small islets, but the island barangay of Sila is the most popular because of its literally pink beach, a phenomenon explained by scientists as being caused by pink seashells that abounded in the area.

Like several other beautiful beaches in Northern Samar, the Sila beach has no existing facilities for tourists who may however pitch their own tents to spend more time swimming, snorkeling and fishing.

But the island of San Antonio provides an excellent venue to plot your itinerary in Northern Samar.  Resort owners and their staff are generally helpful and can help you arrange your itinerary to maximize your stay on the island.

More than just your typical island getaway, the island has a number of natural landmarks and historic sites that will take you away from your everyday reality and give you a taste of paradise. •

How to Make Your Trip to Northern Samar Memorable

Air Philippines, the budget airline of Philippine Airlines, has one daily flight from Manila to Catarman, the capital town of Northern Samar.  The plane leaves Manila at 5:10 in the morning and arrives in Catarman at around 6:30, or an hour and 20 minutes later.

You can also take a bus, regular or air-conditioned, at the bus terminal in Cubao.  Operated by various companies, the buses take you on a 16-hour ride, including a ferry crossing from Matnog, Sorsogon, straight to the port of Allen, the gateway town to Northern Samar.

Know that there are very few towns that have good roads leading to natural attractions in the interior barangays, but that the peace and order situation in the province is not as bad as reported in the news.  The District 1 towns of Catarman, Allen, and the island towns are generally very peaceful and safe.

Catarman, Allen and San Antonio have adequate hotel rooms, while Biri, famous for its cathedral-like rock formations and a natural swimming pool within the islet, lacks accommodations and amenities, including basic toilet facilities.

As of now, only San Antonio has tourist-class rooms and facilities for visitors going to the island havens. If you’re coming from Catarman, take a P5 pedicab ride to the main transport terminal, where you can get on a jeepney bound for the town of Victoria.   Or you can take the Grand Tours or Turbanada van to Calbayog from their respective terminals in Catarman, and ask the driver to drop you off at Victoria.

From the drop-off point, take a tricycle or pedicab ride to Victoria’s pier, where the boat barker invariably asks passengers if they wish to take a special trip to San Antonio town or Dalupirit Island.   A special trip means you’ll have to pay for all the seats, that’s around P360 for 12, or more if the boatman senses that you don’t know your way around.  If you’re willing to fall in line and go along with the rest of the commuters, the fare is only P30.

The best time to go to Northern Samar is between the months of January and September.  The island towns of San Antonio, Capul, San Vicente and Biri are along the San Bernardino Strait, notorious for its rampaging currents during the monsoon months of October to December.

There are no active tour operators in Northern Samar, but getting around the province is generally fun and easy.  You can make your plans from Catarman and Allen, but doing it from a resort in San Antonio town is more than half the fun.

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