Sun, sand and surf may not exactly be your first images of Christmas. For most people, December in Manila means overindulging in cholesterol-rich party food, getting stuck in snarled traffic, getting harassed over last-minute shopping and gritting their teeth over the parking crunch in jam-packed malls.
But if you’re looking for another way to spend the Yuletide season, why not try a road trip up North and spend it some place like La Union? This is also the perfect opportunity to show balikbayan friends and relatives the rest of the country outside congested Manila.
Here are a few reasons to pack your bags and head for La Union:
1. It’s a surfing and beach haven
The stretch of white and gray sand beaches is the main tourist draw in La Union. San Juan Beach, roughly eight kilometers north of San Fernando City, is dotted with tourist-friendly establishments. The peaceful, laid-back vibe of San Juan, fresh off-the-grill seafood and spectacular sunset views make for a real dream December break.
Pro surfer Luke Landringan rates La Union as one of the top three places to surf in the country (the other two being Siargao and Samar) because it offers something for everybody.
“There’s a beach break for beginners and a reef break that’s more challenging for professional surfers,” shares Luke, who runs the Billabong Surf School, popularly known as Surf Camp.
In one area of the beach, waves only go up 2-3 feet high, making it ideal for surfing clinics. Further down towards the reef, waves can reach up to 15 feet, great for pros who aim to practice or showcase their tricks on the waves.
Because of this, La Union is the ideal venue for surfing competitions and events, like the recently held 6th La Union Surfing Break last October. The three-day event highlighting the skills of local surfers had a full complement of surf clinics, beach volleyball activities, sandcastle making contests, and beach parties featuring live bands.
Surfing season in La Union lasts from October to February, and December is actually a peak month for surfers.
2. Get lots of sun and exercise
The next great thing about surfing is that it’s not just all adventure and thrills. You get the adrenaline rush plus health benefits that are pretty hard to beat. Landringan says it’s a great cardiovascular exercise, using mostly upper body muscles for paddling, and leg muscles to guide the board once you’re up. You’ll spend most of your time paddling on the board, which provides an intense upper body and core workout.
And the best part about surfing for exercise is that it’s so much fun you won’t want to stop. Surf instructors share that a lot of beginner surfers end up extending their surfing lesson because an hour just whizzes by. It also takes a while to get the knack of balancing on the board.
Landringan shares that surfing is offered as a Physical Education course in other countries like Australia, and hopes that the Philippines could follow suit, especially in surfing provinces. Though the country is blessed with 7,107 islands and has numerous surf spots, it’s an odd reality that many Pinoys don’t even know how to swim.
While most people who take up the sport are in their teens to twenties, the youngest surfing student Luke has had was only 3 years old, while the oldest was 65!
3. Accessibility, safety and cleanliness
San Juan in La Union, where all the surf resorts are located, is roughly a five- to seven-hour drive by car or van, depending on the traffic. If you travel at night by air-conditioned bus that leaves Manila on an hourly schedule, travel time could be even less.
“From Manila, we’re the only surfing destination that gets you to a surf resort right after you get off the bus and cross the street,” says Landringan.
The accessibility has also made La Union a popular weekend destination not just for Manila-based tourists, but also those coming from provinces further up north like Baguio and Ilocos.
The town is also known to be peaceful and is safe even for visitors who arrive at midnight or early morning. Lemon Dines of Surfstar School, who served as president of the La Union Surfers’ Association for 10 years, shares how during the day, tourist police patrol the beach to make sure that tourists (who usually tend to be careless with their belongings while on vacation) don’t lose anything.
Surfers also double as lifeguards to make sure that no untoward accidents happen. Local surfers organize beach cleanups as well to keep the place free of trash that tourists tend to leave behind especially during long weekends and holidays.
4. Enough options for all budgets
San Juan has an array of beach resorts to choose from – from the backpacker and barkada-friendly resorts like Sebay Surf Resort (www.sebaysurfcentral.com) to the upscale Kahuna Beach Resort (www.kahunaresort.com), which has Balinese-inspired cottages, its own infinity pool and spa. Most beach resorts have their own surfing instructors and holiday packages.
If you have money to burn, you can also opt to stay at the five-star Thunderbird Resort at Poro Point (www.thunderbird-asia.com/poro.php) nearby. Watching the sunset while sipping cocktails at Thunderbird Resort’s Patio Santorini, nestled on a scenic cliff overlooking a white sand beach will let you live out your dreams of a vacation in Greece.
Thunderbird Resort Poro Point currently has only 36 rooms, but construction is underway for more rooms and villas. It’s best to call beforehand to check room availability, as the hotel reaches 70-80 percent occupancy during normal days (since rooms are booked by VIP guests making use of the casino), and they are usually fully booked during the holiday season.
5. You’ll be helping the locals
Many families living in La Union rely on income from tourists. As many as 80 percent of the families in La Union run guesthouses and resorts, work in the restaurants, or teach surfing lessons to tourists.
Dines shares that many locals regard the surfboard as their “tricycle,” since it has become their main source of livelihood. The cheapest surfboard costs P20,000 and not all locals who are surfing instructors have their own. The La Union Surfing Association uses a sharing system so that locals can have an equal chance of earning from surf lessons.
The local group is usually seen hanging out at the beach under a native hut, which has been there way before the other resorts were set up. It has since become an important landmark for local surfers. Just head over and you’re bound to find someone ready and willing to offer surfing lessons. Lessons cost P400 per hour, inclusive of board and rash guard rentals. •