Saturday, August 19, 2017

Dashing into Davao's Bamboo Sanctuary

Life on the farm has always fascinated me even as a child. I’ve come to associate it with those happy moments spent at my maternal grandma’s place in a remote village in Cotabato. Endowed with some of nature’s amazing wonderssweet-scented mountain breeze, rolling hills, fertile valleys and a meandering river—that rustic haven was my favorite playground during the summer months.

Cool pool inside the bamboo sanctuary

Compared to the city, the air there was fresh and crisp, permeating the surroundings with a distinct whiff—a stimulating mix of dried leaves on the ground, smoke coming from the makeshift dirty kitchen and the sweet ripe mangoes clinging into the branches of a mango tree just behind her house. It’s a nostalgic episode of the distant past that still delights my senses even to this day.

A stone’s throw away from my grandma’s home was a cluster of tall bamboo trees which have formed a significant part of their bucolic yet blissful life. There, she and her children would gather huge bamboo stems to make garden trellises, carabao-drawn carts, fences for pigpens and channel linings for irrigating rice fields, etc. But the one thing that caught my interest were those bamboo shoots that our indefatigable matriarch picked, which she mixed with shrimps and coconut milk to make one mouth-watering dish for lunch or dinner! 

Humonguous dome at the Davao Bamboo Sanctuary and Ecological Park

Unfortunately, time and circumstances have kept me from returning there if only to relive the memories of that rural life I’ve enjoyed to the hilt. So it was with fervent anticipation that I waited for the chance to rekindle that part of my childhood—sans traveling to that faraway place. To my delight, there’s this place somewhere in the outskirts of my home city where I had to chance to finally reconnect with nature, bamboos and all—the Davao Bamboo Sanctuary and Ecological Park.

Hidden somewhere in a gently sloping, semi-forested area in the village of Malagos, this verdant slice of paradise is the perfect hideaway for those who want to run away from it all even for just a few hours. Here’s a place so Zen yet within the vastness of Davao where those who want to take a much-needed time-out from the hustle and bustle could find some silence, space, and, of course, satisfaction.

Mind you, the sanctuary, which is a few meters away from the Malagos Watershed, the home of the bred-in-captivity Philippine eagle, is a recent addition to the growing number of natural resorts found in that village. Recently, I, along with my staff, dashed into this new resort where we had our annual teambuilding activity. 

It's not so often that me and my staff—many of them so absorbed with their work as planners, analysts and programmers they couldn’t find time for some weekend escapade—flock together (yes, everyone was present!) and get away from the narrow confines of our cubicles and computers to bond in the great outdoors. 

That's why we all grabbed the chance to commune with nature—right smack in the bamboo sanctuary—if only to bang away at the ABCs of working smartly and swiftly, valuing the importance of the so-called three C’s of teamwork, namely, communication, cooperation and coordination—plus lots of strategic as well as creative and critical thinking so that we can continue to give our best to our customers.

A stream inside the sanctuary

Although it’s still undergoing some enhancements, the resort can already cater to the needs of guests for day tour and overnight stay. Davao Bamboo Sanctuary has family and dorm-type rooms that can accommodate large groups. Certain areas of the resort such as the dome, function hall, and poolside, are also open for events, be it baptismals,  birthdays, debuts, weddings, reunions and the like.

Caveat: The road leading to the resort is quite rough and still being paved. Small cars would surely have some tough time negotiating through the rugged terrain. A van, a pickup or some other huge car would be ideal if one intends to bring along his vehicle. For those who have no personal vehicles, however, the resort provides free shuttle service from Calinan where they can assist visitors who want to explore the place.

We spent most of our time inside the resort’s humongous dome where we engaged in various cathartic activities—playing games, cracking jokes, sharing stories, engaging in small talk, laughing our heads off, munching chicheria and what have you—which has helped foster the feeling of camaraderie among us. I believe the gains we had there far outweigh the cost of the day-long activity, that is, Php600 per person, inclusive of buffet lunch (such a bargain, indeed!).

Dashing into the bamboo sanctuary for some quality time with nature certainly did wonders to reinvigorate us. Truly, slowing down and enjoying the natural beauty around us helped uplift our sagging spirits. By taking it slow, we got to reassess so many things about life, work and interpersonal relationships. I guess that’s something all of us need to do once in a while.

In many Western countries today, the rise of the so-called slow living—a lifestyle that promotes the use of slower approaches to various aspects of everyday life—has lured many urbanites to take it slow and move from the cities to the countryside. I’m not sure though if this would catch fire here in these islands. Here’s hoping it would gain a strong following someday.

Like some city slickers who’ve grown weary of the din and drudgery in the urban areas and yearn to commune with nature every so often, a part of me dreams of escaping the rat race in the near future and, hopefully, start living again—on a farm. Like those tall bamboo trees at the bamboo sanctuary, which reminded me of my carefree days in the boondocks, I hope to be flexible enough yet firmly rooted should I finally opt for a slower pace of life. :-D

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sedated by Secdea’s Serenity…Again!

Somewhere along the palmy, northern fringes of Samal Island, in the village of San Isidro in Babak, lies this fast-rising hideaway that easily fell under my definition of the perfect weekend sanctuary the first time I saw it three years ago. Here’s a slice of paradise where everything seems as easy as Sunday morning, as cool as my favorite buko halo-halo, or as fun as the best island resorts in Mindanao that I’ve visited. The place? Secdea.

Serenity is Secdea's sought-after attraction

What’s with the surreal beach resort that has attracted me? Well, it’s more than the usual dose of sun, sea and sand that it offers to visitors from near or far. Nor the fascinating sights, sounds and smells it exudes. If there’s one thing that I really love about the resort, it’s none other than the serenity it gives you.

One of Secdea's cool pools 

Serenity is so precious to me. I can’t function effectively if I’m in short supply of it. Stuck with a fast-paced, chaotic quotidian existence, I can’t help but sometimes cry “Can someone please stop the world from spinning terribly fast? I need a darn break!” Human as we are, I bet the thought invades your minds every now and then, too.

Whenever the going gets tough, yes, I keep going but I usually do something to sustain my vim and vigor. I usually take out my to-do list for the month, go to the end, and add Find serenity somewhere. And when time and resources permit, I hie off to a remote destination where I hope against hope to stumble upon some peace and quiet even for a few days.
So I wander off the beaten path. Otherwise, it’s gonna be hell for me. I’ll find myself dealing with an excruciatingly short attention span, a predilection towards bitterness and hatred, and a warped sense of obligation to work myself to death. Usually, I opt for an esoteric place where the madding crowd would shun. But long-distance travel for this world-weary gadabout has taken a back seat for the moment what with the many uncertainties of the times, especially in Mindanao.

Given that, the only option I’m left with is to head for nearby hideaways like Samal. To my chagrin, finding serenity in that island these days is getting quite hard. I realized I’m not alone in my search for something placid as throngs of wanderers from near and far are going there, too, most especially during weekends and holidays when most of the resorts are fully-booked!

Serenity reigns in this crib

Sometimes, I get lucky though and manage to spend even one night in some of these resorts—Camp Holiday, Paradise Island, Punta del Sol, among others. But I had to rub elbows with swarms of beach bums! As the rainy season sets in, coming back to Secdea turned out to be the best treat for me—I had the rare chance of mixing work with a little wandering for one last summer hurrah this June.

Halfway through the year, we at the office usually find time to take stock of what we have accomplished and what remains to be done for the second half. Like other firms, it is customary for us to hold a mid-year evaluation either in June or July to assess our respective performances, both as individuals and as a team.

For my team, we’ve made it a point to hold such gathering outside the confines of the office, usually to a place where we can be in our best element to discuss ideas and find solutions to issues and problems. The choices usually are the beach, the mountain or some other remote hideaway. When asked where my staff wanted to go this year, everyone shouted “Secdea!”. So that was how I finally made it there after three years.

Few places have a calming effect on me. Secdea is one of them. The resort had me the moment we jumped out of the resort carts. Entering the resort’s clubhouse, we were treated to the picture-perfect view of the infinity pool and its spectacular background—Davao Gulf and the coastal towns of Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley, including the two Ligid Islands!

With its sedate and splendid ambience, the beach resort is the picture-perfect rendezvous for a great island escapade. It has lovely cottages, villas and lodges which are well-appointed and tastefully decorated. The rooms can be Spartan in a rustic way, modern Filipino or Spanish colonial depending on your choice of accommodations.

Summer or not, we all need an interlude from the hubbub of everyday life—a respite to a serene destination where we can indulge in creating magical moments and memorable holidays—enriching experiences worth relishing and reminiscing.

So, whenever your feet get itchy for adventure, cross the sea to Samal, head north, and saunter along the well-paved highway where traffic is light and easy, and stay in that place where you can stretch your legs, soothe your senses and shake your worries away to the rhythm of island life—Secdea. :-D

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Humbled by the Hundred Islands of Pangasinan

Many legends have been woven around the origin of Pangasinan’s most popular tourist destination—the Hundred Islands National Park (HINP) in Alaminos City. One of them has it that the amazing islands and islets numbering 124 (during low tide) were created by Bathala to immortalize the intrepid warriors of an ancient kingdom in the form of unique land masses scattered all over the vastness of Lingayen Gulf so they could keep watch of their territory against all invading forces till the end of time.

The breathtaking seascape as seen from Marcos Island

Indulge me, please? I’m fond of legendary stuff so I’ve included this legend in my blogpost on the amazing islands and islets. Coming across such legend from my grade school textbooks a long time ago, I grew up fascinated with the idea of setting foot there one day. When that chance finally came my way this year, I knew I had to post something about it, legends, leisure and all. 

A glimpse of the Hundred Islands from Lucap Wharf

Seen from afar, the unique formations will strike visitors as a group of oversized turtles. Truth is, they’re rich ecosystems replete with white sands, coral caves, shallow waters, colorful fishes, and rare flora. Science has it that the islands, estimated to be over two million years old, are ancient corals in an area that were part of the seabed of a prehistoric sea.

Actually, HINP was just a hair’s breadth, so to speak, from where I was last Holy Week—in nearby Bolinao, which I explored to the hilt after so many failed attempts in the past. I would have wanted to include a tour around the Hundred Islands in my itinerary where it not for time and resource constraints. But I knew deep in my heart I’d definitely make it there though I wasn’t sure about the date. And step I did into HINP this year—whatta thrill of a lifetime! 

At a time when people were scampering to their chosen destinations for one last summer hurrah, I found the perfect opportunity to gravitate up north and finally tour around the Hundred Islands. This is it! I joyfully told myself. At long last, I’d get to see them (or some of them) for the first time. For me, they’re the picture-perfect locales for my last summer hurrah—also my first out-of-town sojourn during the rainy season this year!

First, a little back story. Weeks ago, my friends (some of whom are based in Metro Manila) and I talked about exploring the islands. That time, most of us were noncommittal due to conflicting schedules. Besides, who would want to go for one last summer hurrah when the rainy season has already set in? (LOL!) As days passed, however, four wonderful people decided to give it a go—Juju, Baby, Letty (who brought along her daughter, Abbi) and me!

So off we went to the northwestern part of the province one Saturday midnight. Mind you, going to HINP these days is fast, light and easy—if you’re onboard those Alaminos-bound aircon buses, a number of which are outfitted with wifi connection and built-in toilets.  Our group boarded one huge bus from the Five Star Company’s fleet at its Cubao terminal. Travel time was roughly five hours, including stopovers.

Some of the islands are connected to each other by man-made bridges

Island hopping is such an adrenaline-pumping experience

Island hopping is a must if you want to fully appreciate the veritable beauty of HINP—it was on top of our itinerary, of course. Arriving in Alaminos in the wee hours of the morning, we first hunted for a transient house where we could get some rest and freshen up before going to the islands. Unfortunately, we didn’t make any prior arrangements. A bad decision as many hotels, inns and transient houses were fully booked that time because it was a long weekend! 

Fortunately, the two tricycle drivers we hired knew of some cheap accommodation (Php3,500 for all six of us!) in the village of Lucap, just a few kilometers away from the HINP. After billeting ourselves for an overnight stay in the transient house, we then spent the next few hours dozing off in preparation for our adventure to the islands.
By 6:30 in the morning, we were on our way to Lucap Wharf, the jump-off point for hopping around the Hundred Islands. Motorized boats for rent are docked there. Arriving at the wharf, we could already see some of the small islands albeit from a distance.

We didn’t want to go island hopping on an empty stomach so we first scouted for a place to eat. To our delight, there’s a food court near the wharf where we had a hearty brekkie at one of the stalls there. We settled for Helen’s Eatery, which happens to be managed by the owner of the transient house where we were billeted! 

Travelers fond of selfies, duofies and groupfies will have a blast shooting themselves to the max at the welcome signage.  Of course, we didn’t pass up on the chance to have our photo ops, too! A friendly advice though before embarking on your sojourn: Get your smartphones and gadgets some waterproof cover to protect them from the splashes as you go about hopping from one island to another.

From what I’ve gathered, only a few of the Hundred Islands have been developed for tourism, including Governor Island, Quezon Island, Marcos Island, Children's Island, and Pilgrimage Island (formerly Martha Island), to name some. A number of them have cottages and various facilities for those who want to stay overnight.

The islands and islets as seen from Governor Island

Statue of Christ the Savior at Pilgrimage Island

Among the popular islands, there was one which caught our fancy—Pilgrimage Island. Standing on top of it is the 56-foot statue of Christ the Savior, the newest attraction awaiting pilgrims who want to observe various religious festivities all year round, most especially the Holy Week, in that part of Pangasinan. The pilgrimage site offers a breathtaking panorama of the 1,884-hectare national park.

We opted for a tour that only had two stopovers, one in Governor Island and another at Marcos Island.  Governor Island boasts of a 200-step staircase offering a good vantage point of some of the islands while Marcos Island has a 20-foot lagoon inside a cave where intrepid tourists can dive into.

Wanna dive?

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Even though we lingered in these two popular destinations, we were able to see a number of other less popular islands and islets bearing such esoteric names as Cuenco, Clave, Quirino, Lopez, Milagrosa, Monkey, Old Scout, Paniki, Romulo, Scout, Cathedral, among others, on our way back to the mainland.

Going around the fascinating islands and islets took us roughly three hours. Whew, it was one helluva joyride that really had our adrenalines rushing! We would have wanted to explore some more but the huge waves that we encountered earlier made us wary. So, before noon time, we were already ashore where we did some shopping for shirts and other souvenirs at the row of stalls near the wharf.

We also took the chance for some selfies before a small lighthouse which stands prominently at the wharf, probably one of the smallest I’ve seen so far. Unlike other lighthouses, the one at Lucap Whart has no enclosure, top room or view deck. It seemed enough as the wharf only caters to small vessels. We didn’t attempt to climb up the lighthouse as its small gate was locked up.

Tupig is a popular delicacy in Pangasinan

You’d never fully understand a place unless you’ve tasted its homegrown treats. That’s why we also tried some delicacies Alaminos is known for—tupig (sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal); binungoy/binungey (sticky rice cake cooked inside bamboo tubes); puto Calasiao (steamed rice cake from the town of Calasiao); and the popular boneless bangus (milkfish) and the eponymous longganisa (local sausage).

By the way, when you’re in Alaminos, there are at least two names worth remembering for the best dining experience: Maxine by the Sea and Eliana’s. If you want to enjoy a sumptuous meal near the sea, then Maxine is the perfect place to be. Eliana’s, on the other hand, is worth visiting if you want to listen to a live band while dining or drinking. 

Short as the sojourn was, I’m so awed by the raw beauty of the Hundred Islands of Pangasinan. Humbled, I should say. Here’s a veritable place where you can really experience for your yourself the magnificence of God’s creativity—or Bathala if you wish to call him. And even if the origin of those islands and islets was just the stuff of legends, I still felt humbled and honored to have been given the rare chance to “meet and greet” a few of the legendary fierce warriors of yore, even in their non-human form! 😃