THERE’S so much more to the North than historic churches and Spanish colonial houses. Beaches abound, mountain trails and waterfalls beckon, sand dunes offer a taste of adventure, and relaxing resorts can prove to be a respite from routine.
This was proven by the second leg of “Lakbay Norte 2,” a media tour organized by the non-profit group North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB). The whirlwind tour had us traveling by air, land and sea over six days.
Here are a few of the tour’s highlights:
1 Luxurious living in Sun City. Roughly a two-hour straight drive from Tuguegarao City (or 11 hours from Manila), in the municipality of Sta. Ana at the northwestern tip of Luzon, stands the upscale Sun City Hotel and Casino, also known as the Cagayan Holiday and Leisure Resort. Formerly an exclusive resort for high-rollers from mainland China, it recently opened its doors to local tourists, with richly decorated Asian villas, a beautiful infinity pool by the beach, gourmet cuisine and a range of water sports and activities to choose from. With its excellent facilities, the hotel is fast becoming a popular place for business conventions, destination weddings, and other special occasions for folk who want to get away from it all.
2 Island-hopping adventure. Despite, or maybe because of, the rainy weather on the tour’s second day, the island-hopping trip turned out to be quite an adventure. The 40-minute boat ride to Palaui Island had our boat drifting on a roller-coaster of 15-foot high swells. It was a relief to step onto the shores of the island, speckled with tiny white corals and hermit crabs crawling on the sand. Another short boat ride brought us to an island where Cape Engano, a Spanish lighthouse built in 1892, stands majestically on top of a hill. From that vantage point, we got a panoramic view of the island – on one side a calm cove where our boats had docked, and on the other, a tempest of waves smashing against the rocks. According to the local tourism staff, crew members from the show “Survivor” scouted the island as a possible venue for a future season. With the island’s dramatic hilltop, shoreline and terrain, it is easy to imagine hearing the “Survivor” theme music playing against picturesque shots of the place.
3 Seafood lunch at the “Crab Capital.” If hospitality is measured in terms of food, then the people of the North are perhaps among the most hospitable in the country. On our bus ride from Cagayan to Ilocos Norte, we stopped for lunch at the coastal town of Buguey, dubbed “the crab capital of the north.” Here, we were warmly welcomed by our hosts with fresh buko juice, crab sandwiches, and a feast of beautifully plated crabs (both steamed and cooked in a half shell), shrimps, breaded prawns, oysters, seaweed, fresh fruits and their local delicacy bocayo (coconut candy). I’ve always loved crabs and the sight of thick orange aligue (crab roe) as I cracked open a large shell was enough to make me abandon the use of utensils and dig in with bare hands for my meal.
4 Peaceful retreats in Pagudpud. Our stopover in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte was Kapuluan Vista, a laid-back resort owned by surfer couple Mike and Alma Oida. After the heavy buffet meals previously served us on the tour, the organic fare they served was detoxifying, starting with kilawin, seafood sisig, cilantro soup, salad greens, and the main course of dinakdakan (grilled pork) and blue marlin, finished off with homemade ice cream.
According to Mike, the resort tries to offer something new every year. Aside from being a popular food destination, Kapuluan Vista has become a yoga destination as well for those looking for a holistic vacation. They also offer surfing lessons, although Mike warns that surfing waves are not consistent all year around. But when they do come, they are world-class, he adds. The area also offers fantastic mountain biking trails. Interestingly, the resort doesn’t sell packaged items like chips, so it only generated ten bags of trash in its first year of going organic. Check out www.kapuluanvista.com.
5 Roughing it up at Adams. Our next adventure took us to down to Adams, a small community nestled amidst mountains. To get there, we rode a good hour to the town proper on a dump truck, unsteadily driving along dirt roads and ducking every time we would pass low hanging branches and foliage. After loading up on kakanin (native rice cakes), we trekked for an hour and a half through rice fields, hanging bridges and narrow mountain ridges to get to Anuplig Falls. Some opted to pass a longer and safer route with a river crossing, while others (including myself) passed a steep pathway through the mountain as a “shortcut.” The 25-foot natural falls with two cascading basins was a welcome treat for those who braved the cold and jumped in for a swim.
After our trek back, we enjoyed a riverside lunch of native delicacies – tuck (deep-fried frogs), palos (stewed eel), bu-os (boiled ant eggs), suahe (freshwater shrimps), seaweed and assorted organically grown vegetables. The group then made its way to a charming wooden cottage where we got to taste several varieties of local wine – basi (made from fermented sugarcane), tapuey (rice wine) and bugnay (wild blackberries wine).
6 Scaling the Kapurpurawan Rocks. Clear blue skies welcomed us when we visited the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation in the northwest town of Burgos in Ilocos Norte. We were stunned by the sheer natural beauty of the white sandstone formation. According to our guide, Kapurpurawan was formed by the geological deposition of minerals and sculpted by the forces of the ocean on the rocky coast. The locals say the name Kapurpurawan is derived from the Ilocano root word puraw, meaning white. During low tide, the majestic white limestone rock fringed by a coastline of flat corals, loose rocks, tiny pools and the crashing waves of the South China Sea seems straight out of a fantasy movie. Sights like Kapurpurawan make you just exclaim in awe at how beautiful the Philippines is.
7 Pay homage to historic sites. While the adventure tours are gaining popularity, a trip to Ilocos Norte would not be complete without visiting some of its historic churches like the grand Paoay Church (a Unesco world heritage site that blends gothic, baroque and oriental architecture) and Sarrat Church. The Marcos Birthplace (the ancestral house where Ferdinand Marcos was born), Marcos Mausoleum (which houses the deposed president’s body) and Malacañang to Amianan or Malacañang of the North, a vacation house of the Marcoses that sits along the lazy shores of Paoay Lake, are also worth visiting.
8 Adrenaline rush at the sand dunes. One of the highlights of the trip was the adrenaline rush from sand boarding and riding a 4×4 vehicle at the La Paz Dunes in Laoag. The activity initiated by the LEAD Movement of Ilocos is becoming one of the main attractions of Ilocos Norte, aside from the historic churches and museums. From a height of 25 to 30 feet, while either standing on a board strapped to your feet or sitting on a board, you’re pushed down into a steeply inclined sand dune while you try to maintain your balance. Meanwhile, in the 4 x 4 ride, our driver sped all around the course, at one point going up a hill at breakneck speed then suddenly letting the vehicle fall back in reverse, while we, the passengers, held on to the railings for dear life. It was such a rush that all of us were on a high for hours after. (Highly recommended!)
9 Food trip in Ilocos. For a morning snack, we stopped by Pasuquin Bakery that produces that northern delicacy biscocho (a bread roll that comes in soft and crispy variants). Then over a delightful Ilocano lunch in Herencia Café just across Paoay Church, we learned that Ilocos’ signature bagnet (deep-fried pork belly) is boiled in saltwater first, dried, frozen and then deep-fried again (yum), hence retaining twice the goodness of lechong kawali. Aside from the crunchy bagnet, we got to sample a number of dishes such as poque-poque (a grilled eggplant salad), dinengdeng (vegetable soup flavored with bagoong), higado (a liver and meat dish), pinakbet (vegetable stew with bagoong) and Ilocandia Pizza (topped with longganisa).
With just a couple of hours between lunch and our last snack, I was too full to try the famous Batak miki (a noodle soup) at a streetside eatery, but shared half a special empanada, a local pie made of crispy orange dough filled with longganisa, egg and veggies. It’s best sprinkled with a little vinegar to take off the umay (satiety) factor.
10 Chill out in Currimao. “Forget Bali and Boracay,” says a recent Time Magazine article referring to pristine beaches in a list of “Five reasons to visit Ilocos Norte” (other reasons include churches, cuisine, natural wonders and historic Vigan). Our last night was spent in Playa Tropical, a relaxing seaside resort in the fishing town of Currimao. Decorated with aged hardwood furniture and surrounded by lush plants and flowers, the resort epitomizes pure relaxation. Just beyond the infinity pool, bright red and white fishing boats lined the shore. Couples can opt to stay in the main rooms while larger families or groups can rent one of the four gorgeously decorated casas good for eight people (it comes with its own private pool).
Aside from skimboarding lessons offered on the beach, Playa also arranges tours to Vigan and Pagudpud, as well as an overnight tour to nearby Badoc Island where guests can camp out. Visit www.playatropical.com.ph for details. Just a short walk down the shore takes you to Sitio Remedios, a heritage resort with vintage houses and a quaint chapel decorated in old brick and wood details that are worth a visit.
Starting with this tour, guests to the North will definitely find themselves lusting for more! •
Lakbay Norte 2 was made possible through corporate partners: Manila North Tollways Corporation, Victory Liner, McDonald’s, Smart and Robinsons Land. This year’s participating brands were Flying V, Cebu Pacific, URC, Dizitab, R.O.X., Sanuk, The North Face, Columbia, ActivAsia and Elite Ads. Hosts included the Cagayan and Ilocos Norte Convention and Visitors Bureaus.