Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018 | Last Update : 04:21 AM IST

Seven thousand islands in the sun!

THE ASIAN AGE. | PRIYA PATHIYAN
Published : Aug 12, 2018, 12:46 am IST
Updated : Aug 12, 2018, 12:46 am IST

Mayon’s heat seems to have seeped deep into the sub-conscious of the people of this area.

All-Terrain Vehicles are an exciting way to get up close to the Mount Mayon volcano
 All-Terrain Vehicles are an exciting way to get up close to the Mount Mayon volcano

If your perception of The Philippines is limited to heavy shopping in Manila or lying on the beaches of Boracay, think again. The writer takes you on an island adventure that brings you unexpected joys.

Of all the 7,000 islands that make up the South East Asian paradise of the Philippines, I am on Miniloc in El Nido, in the province of Palawan, where the South China Sea spills into cosy coves and languid lagoons edged by towering limestone cliffs.

It’s gorgeous for sure, but why did I choose this particular place, I’m asking myself a day into my visit. Here I am, hanging off a boat for dear life, an arm clutching the step-ladder, bearing my entire weight as my legs dangle into the aquamarine abyss below me. My life-jacket isn’t much reassurance. The bright yellow kayak I’m supposed to have sat in by now, floats a distance away. So near, yet so far… it could almost be on another planet.

Mount Mayon's beauty and symmetry is unrivalledMount Mayon's beauty and symmetry is unrivalled

Soon, I realise that the imagined perils of floundering in the deep sea are not quite as bad as clinging like a barnacle off the side of a pump-boat for the rest of my life. With a burst of acrobatic fervour that I didn’t know I had in me, I swing myself into the kayak. Phew! The collective sigh of relief from all the people around me can easily be mistaken for an off-season typhoon. After this unplanned adventure, paddling the kayak through the tiny opening under a natural stone arch to witness the wonder that is the Small Lagoon, is child’s play.

I’m now not only up to enjoying a luxurious picnic on a private beach, but channelling Lara Croft enough to feed some extremely energetic jack fish, island-hop, cave-walk and nonchalantly pour vinegar over jellyfish stings on my long-suffering limbs! I even venture into the water again, this time to snorkel in the placid pools near the crystal-clear Big Lagoon and then a splash about in the sun-dappled shallows created by the shifting sandbar at Snake Island.

On our island-hopping and cave-exploring adventure, we see the Cathedral Cave. The boat docks at the entrance and we can peep inside to see towering limestone walls and stalactites that truly resemble the architecture of an imposing church!On our island-hopping and cave-exploring adventure, we see the Cathedral Cave. The boat docks at the entrance and we can peep inside to see towering limestone walls and stalactites that truly resemble the architecture of an imposing church!

That’s the thing about The Philippines, I later muse as I board the 75-minute Air Swift charter flight from El Nido’s exclusive airport to the domestic terminal at Manila. As the best kind of travel should, the country challenges you, it makes you open yourself up to new experiences, it allows you to discover a new internal mindscape even as you explore some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. By the time I’ve taken the connecting flight to Legazpi in the Bicol region, I’m all set for more adventure.

Legazpi: A gasp a minute!
Wherever you go in little Legazpi city or the surrounding province of Albay in the Bicol region of The Philippines, it’s like the elephant in the room. You can see it from the corner of your eye as you drive in from the airport and everywhere you go after that. You can sense how preoccupied the people are with it, be it taking pride in its looks or prepping to run away from it at a moment’s notice. I even see it from my room at the Oriental Legazpi, the only five-star hotel around.

What's left of the Franciscan church at Cagsawa after the volcanic eruption in 1814What's left of the Franciscan church at Cagsawa after the volcanic eruption in 1814

I’m talking about Mount Mayon, an active volcano that last erupted in January. “She has ejected around 65 million cubic meters of volcanic materials since then,” says a resident before adding, “Isn’t she a beauty? She maintains her shape after every eruption!” Umm yes. I’m quite surprised that even those who live within the six-kilometre radius of the ‘permanent danger zone’ are lovestruck by this mountain with a volcanic temperament. To them, Mayon’s a ‘she’. And now, I’m going to get up close and personal with her.

Crash helmet on and nerves steeled, I get on to an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) to go up slopes on a rough dirt track to the ‘green lava point’. This is where the last eruption’s devastation has cooled down and since being greened by Mother Nature. The Black Lava Zone of the more recent eruption in January is still smoking hot and a much longer ATV ride up the mountain. I leave that daredevilry for another trip.

Mayon’s heat seems to have seeped deep into the sub-conscious of the people of this area. Bicol’s food is full of red chillies, with flavours that rival our Indian chatpata ones. The popular Bicol Express stew, named after a passenger train, is quite the dynamite dish! In fact, the chilli symbol is everywhere, even painted on souvenirs and turned into jewellery for tourists at the ruins of the 16th century Franciscan church at Cagsawa, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mayon in 1814.

The boat that brings us to the crystal clear water and white sandy beaches of a private island in El NidoThe boat that brings us to the crystal clear water and white sandy beaches of a private island in El Nido

The love for heat has even led to a local couple — Dr Rowena and Elmer Boy Aspe — who own the 1st Colonial Grill, to create a ‘Sili Ice-Cream’ in 2004, using red hot bird eye chillies with coconut milk! Today, they offer four different ‘levels’ of heat. Still high from my ATV adventure, I submit to trying the Level 4 or Volcano Level of this chilli ice-cream. For a few seconds, I feel like I’m channelling the spirit of Mayon, ready to spew lava from my burning mouth! Fortunately, there’s a shot of cool milk to calm my tastebuds.   

At dinner that night, Noel Rosal, Mayor of Legazpi, says, “You must visit the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” In all seriousness, he proceeds to narrate the story of this avenue by the sea where many couples once walked arm-in-arm but never made it to the altar because the men were fickle. While it later dawns on me that he was joking about the sad antecedents to this beautiful coastal road that has taken years to build, his pride in what is more legitimately known as the Legazpi Boulevard is undeniable.

We pass by it on the way to yet another amazing experience that the Bicol region has to offer. Less than 60 kms from Legazpi is Sorsogon, in Donsol, one of the few places globally where rare whale-sharks can be sighted. Donning snorkel and fins, I’m all set to jump off the swaying boat into a churning grey ocean for the opportunity to swim alongside these gentle giants. The minute the spotter sees these sinuous spotted fish called Butanding, the Interaction Officer signals for me to jump in with him in pursuit of the whale-shark. It’s terribly scary when I notice the struts of the boat I could crash into and the high waves that could drive me under. But all that’s forgotten the minute I catch sight of these wonderful wild creatures with.

Later, I’m enchanted by more of Nature’s bounty in the mangroves around Donsol. Our boat glides silently down a barely visible channel on a no-moon night. The gentle breeze rocks the boat, giving me a hypnotic sense of comfort. Suddenly, I watch in sheer amazement as, one by one, hundreds of iridescent fireflies start to shine all around us! The river pulsates with the radiance and it’s almost as though Christmas came early. What a dazzling end to my visit to this country that has turned out to be deliciously different in so many ways.

I’m now not only up to enjoying a luxurious picnic on a private beach, but channelling Lara Croft enough to feed some extremely energetic jack fish, island-hop, cave-walk and nonchalantly pour vinegar over jellyfish stings on my long-suffering limbs! I even venture into the water again, this time to snorkel in the placid pools near the crystal-clear Big Lagoon and then a splash about in the sun-dappled shallows created by the shifting sandbar at Snake Island.

To swim in the same seas as the rare and beautiful whale-sharks is exhilaratingTo swim in the same seas as the rare and beautiful whale-sharks is exhilarating

That’s the thing about The Philippines, I later muse as I board the 75-minute Air Swift charter flight from El Nido’s exclusive airport to the domestic terminal at Manila. As the best kind of travel should, the country challenges you, it makes you open yourself up to new experiences, it allows you to discover a new internal mindscape even as you explore some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. By the time I’ve taken the connecting flight to Legazpi in the Bicol region, I’m all set for more adventure.

Legazpi: A gasp a minute!
Wherever you go in little Legazpi city or the surrounding province of Albay in the Bicol region of The Philippines, it’s like the elephant in the room. You can see it from the corner of your eye as you drive in from the airport and everywhere you go after that. You can sense how preoccupied the people are with it, be it taking pride in its looks or prepping to run away from it at a moment’s notice. I even see it from my room at the Oriental Legazpi, the only five-star hotel around.

I’m talking about Mount Mayon, an active volcano that last erupted in January. “She has ejected around 65 million cubic meters of volcanic materials since then,” says a resident before adding, “Isn’t she a beauty? She maintains her shape after every eruption!” Umm yes. I’m quite surprised that even those who live within the six-kilometre radius of the ‘permanent danger zone’ are lovestruck by this mountain with a volcanic temperament. To them, Mayon’s a ‘she’. And now, I’m going to get up close and personal with her.

Crash helmet on and nerves steeled, I get on to an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) to go up slopes on a rough dirt track to the ‘green lava point’. This is where the last eruption’s devastation has cooled down and since being greened by Mother Nature. The Black Lava Zone of the more recent eruption in January is still smoking hot and a much longer ATV ride up the mountain. I leave that daredevilry for another trip.

Mayon’s heat seems to have seeped deep into the sub-conscious of the people of this area. Bicol’s food is full of red chillies, with flavours that rival our Indian chatpata ones. The popular Bicol Express stew, named after a passenger train, is quite the dynamite dish! In fact, the chilli symbol is everywhere, even painted on souvenirs and turned into jewellery for tourists at the ruins of the 16th century Franciscan church at Cagsawa, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mayon in 1814.

The love for heat has even led to a local couple — Dr Rowena and Elmer Boy Aspe — who own the 1st Colonial Grill, to create a ‘Sili Ice-Cream’ in 2004, using red hot bird eye chillies with coconut milk! Today, they offer four different ‘levels’ of heat. Still high from my ATV adventure, I submit to trying the Level 4 or Volcano Level of this chilli ice-cream. For a few seconds, I feel like I’m channelling the spirit of Mayon, ready to spew lava from my burning mouth! Fortunately, there’s a shot of cool milk to calm my tastebuds.   

At dinner that night, Noel Rosal, Mayor of Legazpi, says, “You must visit the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” In all seriousness, he proceeds to narrate the story of this avenue by the sea where many couples once walked arm-in-arm but never made it to the altar because the men were fickle. While it later dawns on me that he was joking about the sad antecedents to this beautiful coastal road that has taken years to build, his pride in what is more legitimately known as the Legazpi Boulevard is undeniable.

Mount Mayon's beauty and symmetry is uMount Mayon's beauty and symmetry is unrivalled

We pass by it on the way to yet another amazing experience that the Bicol region has to offer. Less than 60 kms from Legazpi is Sorsogon, in Donsol, one of the few places globally where rare whale-sharks can be sighted. Donning snorkel and fins, I’m all set to jump off the swaying boat into a churning grey ocean for the opportunity to swim alongside these gentle giants. The minute the spotter sees these sinuous spotted fish called Butanding, the Interaction Officer signals for me to jump in with him in pursuit of the whale-shark. It’s terribly scary when I notice the struts of the boat I could crash into and the high waves that could drive me under. But all that’s forgotten the minute I catch sight of these wonderful wild creatures with.

Later, I’m enchanted by more of Nature’s bounty in the mangroves around Donsol. Our boat glides silently down a barely visible channel on a no-moon night. The gentle breeze rocks the boat, giving me a hypnotic sense of comfort. Suddenly, I watch in sheer amazement as, one by one, hundreds of iridescent fireflies start to shine all around us! The river pulsates with the radiance and it’s almost as though Christmas came early. What a dazzling end to my visit to this country that has turned out to be deliciously different in so many ways.

Tags: mount mayon, cathedral cave, manila