The #Balikbayan Chronicles: Captivated by Coron, Inspired by Ilocos

Coming home to the motherland is one of the best feelings in the world and no matter how often one goes, that elation that does not change.

The invitation to join a group of Miami-based travel agents and tour operators for a week-long trip to the Philippines came at a most opportune time: spring was almost there but winter had its claws out, trying to stay on for a few more weeks.

A March blizzard blanketed the city in a few inches of pure white snow, making it picturesque for a grand total of 24 hours. Rain followed, then the mercury rose, melting the once pristine snow and becoming puddles of dark brown mush. Not the best feeling to plow through that on a daily basis.

Me? I was already adrift on a boat, island-hopping and enjoying the blue skies and the bluer waters somewhere in Palawan.

That daydream was cut short when the pilot announced that we had already landed in Manila. Indeed, it never gets old, that feeling of giddiness every time one sets foot on his or her homeland.

As we stepped out of the plane and into Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I noticed a few changes that weren’t there BD, Before Duterte, that is.

The place seemed brighter and cleaner, and a quick bathroom check showed flowing water and toilet paper was available. The baggage carousels were moving efficiently, there was wifi and the air-conditioning worked.

There was a line at the immigration, nothing out of ordinary at first, but as soon as the passengers of the two other planes that arrived with us deplaned, the place was packed.

The temperature in New York when we left was a nippy 35 degrees Fahrenheit. When we stepped out of the airport, the warm air of Manila’s 35-degree-Celsius weather struck us like a punch. I skipped spring altogether and jumped into summer with my jacket on.

Our friends from the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) prepared a tight but enjoyable itinerary to make the most out of this trip.

We had a walking tour in Manila, visiting Luneta, Fort Santiago and Intramuros. This was during the mini-heatwave that happened last month so we were all sweating profusely.

I was part of a tour group that consisted of Colombians, Japanese, Mexican, Brazilian and Filipino tour and travel operators from Florida, all excited to see what the Philippines had in store for them. More than half of the group has been to Manila before and a few were first-timers.

Fernando DaSilva, COO and partner at Miami-headquartered Brickell Travel Management has been to all seven continents but he has never been to the Philippines. Upon the invitation of the Department of Tourism through Luisa Yu, herself a travel agent who has been promoting travel to the Philippines in South Florida for decades now, DaSilva cleared his schedule and joined the tour.

“It’s hard to sell or recommend any destination if you never been there,” DaSilva told the Asian Journal. “I was particularly very impressed with the Philippines and my enthusiasm was contagious. The entire office heard about it, saw pictures, and learned about the country through my experience. It is hard to explain but the place is so magnificent it touches you.”

When he learned that the trip was pushing through, DaSilva did his due diligence and did his research.

“I knew it was a unique place but nothing could prepare me for what was to come,” he shared. “One has to experience it. One has to taste the delicious food, to smell the flowers, to swim in the most transparent lagoons and feel the warmth and welcoming of the people. No pictures can do due justice nor internet articles can accurately describe it.”

Our group of ten had a grand time during the tour but had an even greater time come lunch or dinner time.

From the buffets of The Peninsula to Manila Hotel to Ilocos hotels and restaurants (Fort Ilocandia in Laoag, Hotel Luna in Vigan, Two Seasons in Coron) that featured regional specialties to island picnic in Palawan, each meal was an opportunity to have conversations with some people who are looking at the country with a fresh set of eyes.

In Coron moments after conquering Mt. Tapyas, the group egged on DaSilva, the first-timer, to try the balut. The peripatetic travel junkie that he is, he obliged. And he lived to tell the tale, with videos to boot.

“The food was delicious and so diverse that for a food lover, the Philippines is a destination on its own,” he said. “From the infinite buffets in Manila to the local home made cuisine of Ilocos to the perfect fresh fish and seafood in Palawan. And let’s not forget the street vendors as a simple green mango with salt, or the more exotic balut, were a total success.”

Ilocos in my Mind

We flew to Laoag City to see the sights of the Ilocos Region, something I’m all to familiar with. Growing up, we would spend a big chunk of our summer vacations in Ilocos Sur, my father’s home province. We would drive all the way to Laoag to visit some relatives and I remember those easy drives quite well, with the endless view of the sea on one side and some mountains on the other side.

Fort Ilocandia was our home base this time and it is how I remember it from staying there a decade or so ago. We were told that they are renovating a wing, I can’t wait to see the finished product. We went around the city to explore, visiting Museo Ilokos Norte, the local church and the market.

The following morning we drove to Vigan, home to the famous empanada, longganisa, bagnet ang sinanglaw, a sampling of the Ilocano cuisine I grew up eating. En route, we passed by the Malacanang of the North and the beautiful Paoay Church, founded by Augustinian missionaries in 1593.

We were billeted at Hotel Luna, the first and only museum hotel in the Philippines today. The hotel’s location was prime, a block away from the famous Calle Crisologo – that stretch of cobblestoned street with preserved heritage houses, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As a museum, Hotel Luna takes pride in its extensive collection of the finest in Philippine art, ranging from the classics to the modern. There are rare and vintage artworks from notable artists, master painters, contemporary artists and National Artists such as Arturo Luz, BenCab and Napoleon Abueva, whose works adorn the lobby of the hotel, which was once one of the heritage houses in the village.

Palawan Pride

The Philippines is aiming to become a prime tropical travel destination and for the past few years, its islands have been reaping awards left and right. It has been a fight between Boracay and Palawan for the title of The Best Island in the World, but back in 2014, Palawan won the top plum from the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards.

It’s easy to understand why.

We’ve seen gorgeous photos of the island but these photographs just don’t give justice to the beauty of the place. From the calm azure waters that effotlessly blend with the emerald forests and karst limestone hills that seem to jut out of the waters to the melange of boats and huts that dot the islands, believe me, there are no bad views.

I’ve been to Coron before, maybe a decade or so ago. Back then, we stayed on one island resort for the rest of our trip and I maxed out on adventure back then, from snorkelling to an attempt to a little scuba diving.

This time around, we stayed in the town, at the Two Seasons Resort.

It was like coming to a totally different place, specially when we ventured out to the sea and began island-hopping. Island after island, picture after picture, it dawned on me why readers of Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler would vote for Palawan as the Best Island year after year.

Coron is blessed and that is why the Tagbanua tribe of Coron Island are taking good care of it, making sure that the place is not over-developed and that mother nature is protected at all times.

Outside the waters, Coron is just as beautiful. We visited the Coron Church en route to the 700-step Mt. Tapyas to catch the glorious sunset, and a visit to Maquinit Hot Springs to cap the evening and relax the sore muscles from the earlier climb.

Palawan is not just the last frontier, it is paradise. And it is good to realize that it is only an hour flight away from Manila. While it is an idyllic place to visit during the summer months, the locals we met shared that there are no longer peak months since even the oft-called lean months are now no longer lean.

After exploring the town proper on Day 1, we were off to explore the islands on Day 2 with an island-hopping tour that brought us to Siete Pecados, Banol Beach, CYC Beach and Twin Lagoon. We wanted to see Kayangan Lake but it was closed a few days earlier because of a drowning accident that involved a couple of Czech tourists. We settled for Barracuda Lake which was just as breath-taking as the hidden lagoons.

Our third day exposed us to a few more islands and lagoons, including a quick trip to Culion, the former leper colony. The municipality of Culion is roughly an hour and a half boat ride away from Coron port. We visited the La Imaculada Concepcion Church and Culion Museum and Archives, which has become a repository of photos and memorabilia during the days when the town was the biggest leper colony in the country. The church, build around the ruins of the old fortress of Fort Culion (which was built around 1740), sits on top of a hill and provides a great vantage point for photographs.

I’m not an adventure junkie in the word’s strictest sense but I was able to enjoy exploring the islands including the trek to the lagoons and floating with the rest of the group to a secret lagoon that cannot be accessed by a boat.

I can just imagine how literal adventure junkies would feel when they get to visit the various islands of Palawan, particulalrly those who are into scuba diving because Coron Bay is reported to have some of the best ship wrecks in the world. This just means that whether you are above or below the pristine waters of Palawan, there’s an adventure waiting to happen for you.

For many in the group, the tour was perfect for its combination of the metropolis, countryside and the islands. For DaSilva, the highlight was Coron, and the buildup worked.

“Nature was very generous in Palawan. It’s a hidden paradise,” he concluded. “I must have taken over 200 pictures and none or all of them together can slightly do justice to this place. We are already working on a package that will include Coron, Kawasan Falls and whale shark swimming. It is my goal to go back next year and do this itinerary as well.”

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