Gora: Bolinao, Pangasinan

The farther one travels from Manila, the less it seems inevitable as home.

The never-ending parade of cars and barely concealed road rage, the perennially packed MRT, the proliferation of gangs attacking commuters (the Batang Hamog, Saboy Bigas, and Dura gangs, to name a few), the circuitous routes, the expensive fares – who has the energy to deal with all of that? It is no wonder people, relieved from the necessity of commuting for work or school, stay at home on weekends, decompressing for the next week’s war with the pace of city life.

I say war because it feels like no one likes this routine of hurrying. Or maybe I am projecting. I have occasionally heard officemates and friends complain that in Manila because of the time and the many vehicle changes it takes to commute, one already feels tired arriving at the office, and even more spent still coming home at night, to manage anything more than an hour of television before going to bed.

This is why I feel, in my old age, I might relocate to the countryside, where I am from, where traffic is a memory of the future, and where nature is one quick jeepney ride away.

One such place is Bolinao, in Pangasinan, where you wake up not to the groans of tricycles, but to the sloshing of waves. You open your door to an uninterrupted sea.

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This was our view from Sundowners Inn, which is located in the town proper. Most of the resorts in Bolinao are along the shore, and are thus more expensive than Sundowners. But if you just need a respite from your neighbor’s laundry blocking your view of buildings long in need of another coating of paint, Sundowners will cut it for you. Sundowners is a shadow of its former self: its restaurant is no longer open – the cook has retired, end of story – and it could use more lamplights, but its lodgings are clean and spacious. An airconditioned room for two costs P1,000 a night. It is a good starting point to try Bolinao’s restaurants in the heart of town.

The most famous is London 2 Bolinao, named after the owners, the British husband and the Filipina wife. Since the husband is Moslem, the restaurant doesn’t offer pork dishes.

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Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of the food, but you should try the pancit, kinilaw, fried chicken, halo-halo, and the fruit shakes.

We also tried Adora, which is a good carenderia, and Bolinao Seafood Grill Atbp., an open-air seafood restaurant which serves calamares that’s light on the breading. Bolinao isn’t like Bacolod or Cebu, which are food capitals offering variety on every corner. The Northern Luzon palate, in general, is less greasy and more streamlined than other places I’ve been to.

Bolinao’s landscape, however, is storied. It boasts of the country’s second tallest lighthouse.

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It also has caves, the most intricate of which is called Enchanted Cave. It has a grotto.

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It was too dark down there for my camera, but it has an indoor pool. I looked for it on Google, and here’s one photo from http://www.outoftownblog.com (thank you, Sir/Ma’am).

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We also went to Cindy’s Cave, which is a much humbler work of nature.

Bolinao is also home to a waterfall tucked so far away only the locals know how to get there. We stopped to ask at least ten people for directions because there were no signs. I kind of like that because it means the place hasn’t been thoroughly commercialized yet, and it forces you to talk to people. Plus, the harder you look for the place, the much more rewarded you feel finding it.

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Bolinao’s most famous destination is baby-powder white-sand Patar Beach.

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Patar is a public beach – as it should be – and there are plenty of cottages that cost a few hundred pesos each and have no concept of personal space, so do not come to Patar for self-reflection.

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You can do that at any of the less populous resorts before you hit Patar. In our case, we found a family along the road that rents out their two cottages for a song. They also sell San Miguel Flavored Beer which is the best grease for soul-searching.

Speaking of souls, we caught its Holy Week procession when we went back to town.

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Ritually gathering – for processions to street dances – keeps small towns together in a way that is hard to do for and in the city. Doing things as a group reinforces ties that bind. The defined world of the countryside is calming for the mind rent apart by the seeming limitlessness of city life.

Or maybe it is time for me to buy a car to cope with Manila.

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Gora: Bangkong Kahoy Valley, Dolores, Quezon

In Bangkong Kahoy Valley Eco Resort, in Dolores, Quezon, we stayed in a cottage without walls, making the outside – a tennis court, of all things – as much a part of the inside.

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We loved our straightforward beds and our hanging mosquito nets.

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The cottage comes at PHP 1,600 for four people. There are smaller and bigger cottages. There is also a lodge on the property which has queen-size beds, Wi-Fi, and television, at PHP 6,000 per room. It also has its own restaurant which serves good hot meals cooked by the same warm woman takes your orders, who is also the lodge’s caretaker.

Bangkong Kahoy contemplates, on one side, Banahaw, considered a sacred mountain, home of healers, and, on the other, Cristobal, known as the Devil’s Mountain.

Sacred mountain Banahaw.
Sacred mountain Banahaw.
Mt Cristobal, I think.
Mt Cristobal, I think.

The cool climate is friendly to growing raspberries, lettuce, and all manner of flower.

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The resort’s tap water comes from a tubod at the summit of Banahaw, and tastes clean and primeval.

Bangkong Kahoy's water comes from a tubod or spring at the summit of Mt Banahaw.
Bangkong Kahoy’s water comes from a tubod or spring at the summit of Mt Banahaw.

You can go up the summit where there is also a grotto of the Virgin Mary. For a small fee, a guide will make sure you won’t get lost in the thicket of trees and birdsong.

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On our way up there, we passed by a tractor in the middle of an obviously recently cleared land, a reminder of the steep price trees had had to pay to create this getaway. We were told it would be for some sport (football? mini-golf course?) – how odd to bring the city to where you’ve gone to take a break from it. A small basketball court would cut it in a place built for quiet than competition.

Paving paradise to put up a football field.
Paving paradise to put up a football field.

Still another way to pass the time in Bangkang Kahoy is star-gazing, because there is no smog, unlike in Manila, to conceal an always illumined sky.

Bankong Kahoy Eco Resort, Dolores, Quezon. Contact: Mobile: +63 929 819 8537 or email at bkvalley@gmail.com.                                                                                                                                         

My friend drove so I don’t know how to get there, unfortunately. It was quite hard finding it, and we had to stop and ask for directions many times, but obviously worth every wrong turn. Aside from the lodge restaurant, there is a smaller café which offers affordable buffet meals.     

Gora: Tampuhan Cafe, Taal, Batangas

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Rei: Tuloy po kayo!

Tampuhan Cafe in heritage town, Taal, in Batangas, takes its name after an intriguing painting by Juan Luna.

A woman is at the center of the painting, looking somewhat let down, while a man, obviously her paramour, has turned away from her and is looking out the window. Across the street from him, two figures can be made out engaging in small talk, or at least are proximate to each other.

This is a rendition by a local artist which hangs in the café.

IMG_0557A restored bahay na bato, Tampuhan café has a laidback vibe suffused with art.

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It’s so laidback you’ll let your guard down the minute you sit down, spilling your deepest darkest secrets to any willing friend.

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GIRL 1: I am secretly married to Zanjoe Marudo. GIRL 2: Talaga lang ah.

The café teems with paintings

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which are a taste of other, bigger works, housed in the adjoining art gallery.IMG_0563

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Even the bathroom has art. There is a gorgeous life-size mural of a woman clad in Filipiniana, covering her nose, obviously anticipating hell.

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The cafe serves Batangas lomi, which is a thick noodle soup on whose top fan out slices of meat, liver, boiled egg and fish and squid balls.

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They also have excellent traditional Taal pork tapsilog, which made its way to my stomach faster than I could take out my camera phone. For dessert, I had chewy revel bar, the better half of their top-grade kapeng barako. IMG_0586

The food and ambience will make you want to stay longer, which is possible because right above the café are two rooms you can each book for P850 per person, inclusive of that scrumptious pork tapa.

The rooms have antique furnishing, including a prayer kneeler, replicating the habitat and habits of an older time. IMG_0578

The rooms open out to a dining area for families and bigger groups. IMG_0579

From here, you can see the Pansipit River go its merry way to join Balayan Bay.

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Taal is one of the most charming towns I have seen, and Tampuhan has made it even more inviting.

Find out more about Tampuhan Café on their following social media accounts: IMG_0548

 

Gora: The Circle, Liw-Liwa, Zambales

Getting close to nature for the price of a 3D movie ticket is as good as it gets.

For P350, you can stay overnight at the Circle, an eco-friendly budget hostel on a beach in Liw-Liwa, San Felipe, Zambales.

The place is a treat for those who miss living in the tree houses of their childhood. The hostel has some 30+ bunk beds separated from each other by an arm’s length, your privacy ensured by a mosquito net & curtains on either side of the bed. Great for a barkada outing, but definitely not for honeymooners.

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Although the lone couple who was also there did not seem to mind…us. They shared a single bed beside ours & talked in hushed tones, even when they were ironing out a minor snag. My owl-like sense of hearing is just so handy at times. Ha!

Speaking of birds, the Circle hit two with one stone: wooden venetian blinds served both as walls and ventilation system, allowing the cool sea breeze to move in and about as it pleased.

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The Circle really did live by their ‘There are no strangers’ motto: how can you not be friends with people who’ve seen you sleeping, & maybe heard you snore?

I liked the common area, which had hammocks, an electric fan, speakers, a low table and some books. Rica was working!

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Must buy a proper camera. I forgot to take a photo of the bathroom, which I wasn’t a big fan of. It had eco nipa walling & those rain shower heads the size of a plate in vogue these days, but it needed tidying up.

What was clean was the Liw-Liwa beach, with a coastline of volcanic sand that was expansive & not yet blighted by resorts in the fashion of Boracay. I pray they never do. Over-development comes at  a price, and it is the quality of water & the communities that are displaced that pay for it.

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It was perfect for just taking in the beauty of the natural world. Right, Rica?

IMG_1100Wonder what Rica was thinking about. Maybe that yoga has become too easy?

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There was also a pile of huge boulders (an aborted plan for a pier?) at the side of the beach that you could interpret as our own tropical Stonehenge.

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Liw-Liwa, at the end of the day, is a surf spot. There are only three eateries & there’s no night life to speak of. Which is thrilling for hard-core surfers and people like Rica and me who want to be far from the madding crowd occasionally (often?).

Surfers on Liwa-Liwa Beach

For more information, visit the Circle Hostel website.  San Felipe, Zambales is four hours away from Manila on a good day. The Victory Bus Line on EDSA, before Cubao, if you’re coming from the North, has daily trips to Iba, Zambales. Just ask to be let off at San Felipe, from which you can take a tricycle (P50) to the Circle. Check the Victory schedule here.  However, like the movies, the sked changes without prior notice, so it’s best to head to the terminal in the morning.