Friday, February 27, 2015

“Lakbay Norte 2010: Part 3"

Day 3 (Adventure Day): Sandboarding
By consensus, our day at the Ilocos Norte sand dunes was the best adventure gig in all of Lakbay Norte. Credit that to the newness of the sport: many of didn’t know sandboarding existed until we read about it in our itinerary. There was also the suggestion of danger about the sport. What happens if you fall off the board?

But, since most of my mates were in their 20s (that is, hot and “x-tremely” daring), the danger was the addiction. Dawn on Jan. 27 again found us at the sand dunes we zoomed through in 4x4s the night before. This morning, however, we headed straight for a towering sand dune.

We were met at the top by the guys who were trying to make sandboarding the latest x-treme sport in this country and Ilocos Norte the epicenter of sandboarding. It’s easy figuring out what sandboarding is: it’s surfing on sand. The tough part to sandboarding is mustering enough courage to hop onto a teeny strip of laminated wood, position yourself on the edge of a 20-foot tall sand dune and willingly plunge downwards. Visions of a broken neck dance in your head as you contemplate your immediate future.

Sandboarding appeared easier said than done until travel writer Ida Calumpang became the first to sandboard. She reached the bottom standing up and let out a loud rebel yell. A road went up from those of us left up on top. In the next three hours, more than half the group—and most of the girls—sandboarded. The consensus: nothing to it. It isn’t as scary as it looks and we should have sandboarded from a taller dune. That would have made it more exciting.

Travel writer Margie Francisco went gaga over sandboarding, and for that reason Ilocos Norte was her top destination at Lakbay Norte. “Ilocos Norte, for sure, takes the top spot in the list! I've been to Ilocos Norte before for a history class back in college and fell in love with the architecture of the buildings in the province,” she said.

“So going back to Ilocos Norte and finding something new and out of the ordinary to do is a really wonderful surprise. Who would have thought you can go to Paoay Sand Dunes, ride the 4x4 and try out sandboarding?”

Travel blogger Ferdz Decena also believes sandboarding was the outstanding adventure in Lakbay Norte. “I definitely enjoyed the Paoay sand dunes adventure. In terms or activities it’s really fun and the photographic landscape of the sand dunes early in the morning is stunning. The Cagayan Valley spelunking and river activities is also one of my faves since it's a mix of nature and extreme activities like caving, rappelling and kayaking.”

From our sandboarders and instructors, I gathered these helpful tips:

§  Sandboard at an angle and not straight down. Slicing through the sand diagonally ensures you pick up speed—which is what makes sandboarding fun. Plunging down in a straight line means sand accumulates in front of your board. That build-up will slow you down and ultimately stop you. We saw that happen more than once.

§  Keep your butt down and your knees bent. If you feel yourself falling over, simply sit down on the sand. That will stop the board and keep you safe. Put your weight on your rear foot to keep your balance. Putting your weight on your front foot will make you tumble.

§  There are other ways to sandboard apart from the “surfing style.” You can sit on the board, but that means you’ll drop straight down. No fun there. Or you can lie face down on the board. This’ll mean eating a lot of sand, however, and sand is definitely not a nutritious breakfast though it contains minerals.

§  If you’re wearing large sandals like Crocs or Crocs knock-offs, you can “sandalboard” down the dune, said one of the instructors. That takes a lot more guts, but nobody wanted to do that. I had on a pair and no, thank you. Not this time.

Those who want to try sandboarding when they’re in Ilocos Norte can contact these organizations:

  • LEAD Movement (Sandboarding and 4x4 adventure)
Glenn Guerero (0908) 8853669

  • Paoay Off-roaders and Adventure Group (4x4 adventure)
Gilbert Santos (0928) 9473518

Ilocos empanada
The empanada in Metro Manila is nothing like what they’ve got in Ilocos Norte. Up there it’s a meal in itself, and is also nutritious because it uses fruits, vegetables and bean sprouts. The “empanada de Metro Manila,” on the other hand, is hardened bread with cold, small pieces of meat filling. It doesn’t look delicious and most of the times I’ve tried it, it wasn’t.

Historic Batac is the home of Ilocos Norte’s version of the empanada. Batac empanada comes in many forms: ordinary (papaya, bean sprouts and egg); ordinary eggless (vegetables only); special (longganisa and egg), special eggless (longganisa without egg), special without mongo (everything except mongo), jumbo (with hot dog), double special (double longganisa and one egg), double egg (one longganisa and two eggs) and the double double (double the longganisa and egg). Best of all, Batac empanada is served hot off the wok.

It was the first time I’d eaten an empanada I liked at first bite. I started out with an ordinary empanada and finished that off in no time with a bottle of Coke. Feeling bold, I ordered a double special. I got halfway through this before I called it quits. The reason is because Batac empanada is huge: about twice the size of the cold, mass-produced versions we’re used to in Metro Manila.

The empanadas we had were lunch. That’s how “filling” they were. Wish we had them in The Metro. I guess they are in The Metro but I haven’t run into them yet. It was also fun watching the empanada made in front of you. That way you know the ingredients are fresh. Our videographer, Karlo de Leon (, considers empanada one of his favorite foods at Lakbay Norte. “My favorites . . .  Batac empanada just because it’s comfort food for me.”

Ivan Henares, one of Lakbay Norte’s organizers and an authority on tourism and ethnic cuisine, told us beforehand Batac empanada was a complete meal in itself and he was right. He’s also an authority on old churches. You can catch Ivan and learn from his experiences at

From Ilocos, our road took us to La Union and its famous beaches. I first got to visit the La Union shoreline in the 1980s and it looks like it had hardly changed. There are more resorts this time, however, but the beach I stood on looked like it never left the 80s.

We spent the next four hours watching waves hammer the metallic gray seashore and our girls taking quicky lessons on how to surf and survive. Back in the 80s girls wore tees and shorts when they took a swim in public. Our Lakbay girls—bright, assertive fashionistas—were surprisingly as modest as the Pinays of the 80s when it came to public exposure or lack of it. No bikinis here.

After slow cooking under an intense afternoon sun, we packed up and headed for Baguio, six hours away. We got to Baguio at about 10:00 pm, which is saying there isn’t much to see of the fabled Summer Capital at his ungodly hour. The royal welcome we got at the posh Baguio Manor Hotel, however, more than made up for this disappointment.

We had the hotel garden all to ourselves. The setting was romantic; the evening temperature probably that of chilled red wine and the magnificent buffet mostly European (the chef is Irish, which seems unique in itself). I miss Baguio’s wonderfully cool climate and God, I wish we had it in Metro Manila. That alone would make this crazy city life worthwhile. The Mayor of Baguio City, Peter Ray Bautista, recited a poem, Beautiful Baguio, to welcome us.

Too much red wine, even if you’re used to it, will make your head spin in no time and I found myself constantly wiping a silly smile off my face to appear sober. But it made the night’s sleep all the much better. As we headed towards our hotel room at the storied Baguio Country Club, I thought it ironic we were toasting under the sun just hours before, and now were rubbing our palms together to keep warm. “C’est la vie.”

My roommate this night was Anton Diaz (, a very popular travel blogger. Anton came to Lakbay to have fun and do business at the same time. After I stepped out of the shower, I found him on his notebook PC checking out his website, then on his Blackberry re-checking his business for the next day. He arranges tours throughout the country and banks on his immense travel experience and knowledge to give his guests a travel experience worth their money.

For this very well-traveled man, “. . . my most awesome (experience) was sandboarding in Paoay sand dunes because it was unique and exciting.” He also rated the Ilocos empanada as the best fare at Lakbay. “Ilocos Empanada. Sarap! You can't get the same taste here in Manila.”

Day 4: Baguio/Ambuklao
We were in Baguio because Baguio wanted to be known as something other than “The Summer Capital of the Philippines,” which is how elementary school text books consistently describe “The City of Pines.” The bright boys in Baguio’s tourism industry had decided to repackage Baguio as the jump-off point to adventure sites within an hour’s drive from the city.

We visited one of these new adventure sites, the Ambuklao Dam, on Jan. 28. The soon to be launched “Baguio Adventure Experience” will feature rappelling, kayaking, ultralights, all terrain vehicle (ATV) rides, nature treks and romantic lunches or dinners in exotic locations. Then it’s back to chilly Baguio to cool down after a hard day’s adventure. That’s the thinking behind Baguio’s repackaging.

Ida found the new Baguio Adventure Experience the second best of Lakbay after sandboarding. “Personally, I was impressed by the various adventure destinations that can be found in the north,” she noted. “I would recommend Paoay/Laoag for the 4x4 and sand boarding because it is something new and unique. My second recommended place to visit would be Baguio/Benguet for their adventure packages because they offer so much from kayaking to go-karting, mountain climbing, ATV, airsoft and even hang gliding! Even though we didn't get to experience all of these activities, I would love to go back and try them out.”

We left Baguio late afternoon and slept as our bus roared towards Lingayen City, Pangasinan and its famous Hundred Islands. We got to Lingayen at 10:00 pm but the city government was still wide awake and treated us to a tour of their renovated and imposing capitol building, which is also a tourism site. We had a midnight dinner and a few beers before calling it a night at the Islandia Hotel. Most of my mates, however, stayed up even later to party and, of course, karaoke/videoke!

Day 5: 123 Islands
The next morning saw us head for the world famous Hundred Islands National Park. This was my second time at Hundred Islands, the last over a decade ago. The tour and the onsite facilities were infinitely better this time around. And I’m glad safety is the major concern at the pier. The boats looked safe and sturdy although the freeboard of the one we took appeared too low for comfort. All of us wore life vests but these were the old Styrofoam-type.

The Hundred Islands are exactly 123 islands, of which only three are developed. The rest are off limits to tourists so you can’t plant a flag and claim an island as your own. That is past history. We stopped at two of these developed islands: Governor’s Island for photo ops and Quezon Island for lunch and snorkeling.

Over lunch, I got to talking to Melo Villareal, another famous travel blogger (, who also makes money in that new business called “mobile marketing.” He uses his mobile phones to “text blast” his client’s gigs or products to his enormous list of contacts or potential customers. His job is to create the all-important “buzz” that leads to sales. His job is as “viral” as it gets.

Our next major destination was Subic, Zambales, famous for its Duty Free shopping but now a new center for adventure tourism. It took us five hours to get to Subic. We first stopped by the quaint seaside town of Masinloc, however, to have a look at its famous San Andres Church made out of coral stone. An hour after checking into the White Rock Resort Hotel at 6:00 pm, we were off to Subic for an evening at the tree top zip line.

I’d always thought plunging downward suspended from a metal cable would be heart pounding fun. It would’ve, but the guys at Subic decided to send us down the zip line feet first—for safety reasons since it was now late evening. So, I plunged feet first down the zip line, watching the tops of papaya trees colored pale gray by the moonlight slide lazily beneath me. It wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped but it was still my first ride on a zip line.

But the evening’s videoke at White Rock was the wildest of Lakbay Norte. Our girls really went romantic, singing songs that told of love rewarded or gone terribly wrong. The stunning Sol Racelis, editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Sidetrip, seemed to spend the evening holding on to the mike. Izah Morales, always lovely to behold, from the online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, again took to the mike and was again her romantic self.

Fun-loving Ella Fortez of the Asian Traveler magazine was delightful in her selection of romantic and rock ballads. And lovely photo-journalist Monica Barretto ( of Smile Magazine, inflight magazine of Cebu Pacific, proved enchanting as a singer. While some of the guys did videoke, we left the singing mostly to the ladies, who were glad to oblige.

Day 6: Adventures closer to home
A trip to Subic by the sea wouldn’t be complete without a boat ride. The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority arranged a one-hour boat ride across Subic Bay on one of their search and rescue boats, the M/V Redondo. After this exhilarating cruise, it was off to the neighboring province of Tarlac at around 1:00 pm. Breakfast and lunch at the Lighthouse Marina was superb.

The Tarlac “adventure” was the most serious part of Lakbay since it saw us visit the “Ninoy Aquino Museum” where we learned more about the heroic Ninoy Aquino. We departed for Pampanga late afternoon and checked into the Holiday Inn. We toured this famous hotel; had a fantastic and massive dinner at the nearby Red Crab restaurant (the red crabs were deliciously huge!) and got to know more about Pampanga and its culture at the Center for Kapampangan Studies at the Holy Angel University.

Highlight of this fast paced evening was our taste of the nightlife at San Fernando and partaking of the famous Camalig pizza. This pizza is known for its bewildering array of toppings. There’s pizza with chicharon/adobo/white cheese; pizza with salted eggs; pizza with dilis/white cheese and that eternal favorite, pepperoni pizza, among others.

And, as has been our practice since Day 1, we let our bloggers and photographers take as many pictures of the cuisine before we plunged headlong into a gastronomic feast. I called it our version of the grace before meals or “The Pictures before Meals.”

Day 7: Goodbye to adventure
The mood at breakfast was somewhat somber: this was our last day together and some of us had that wistful air about them. It had been a grand and great six days and I really didn’t want it to end just yet. But nobody bucks Father Time.

We spent the entire morning at the nearby “El Kabayo,” a convincing replica of a small town in the U.S. Wild West. What you have here is a main street flanked by a saloon, a stable, a sheriff’s office and all those quaint shops you see on old Western movies. The main draw at El Kabayo, however, is horseback riding and most of us rode the ponies halfway to our next destination, the Paradise Ranch.

The ranch was the final adventure in our fantastic seven-day odyssey. As we got to the ranch, we were greeted by busloads of “excursionistas” from high schools in Metro Manila and Pampanga. The ranch is famous as a nature preserve and one of its most delightful sights is the Butterfly Farm where hundreds of butterflies flit around in careless abandon. It’s nature at its cutest. A late lunch at the Oasis Hotel confirmed its reputation as an oasis for excellent international cuisine. A visit to the Lakeshore in Pampanga and its enormous man-made lake and to Robinson’s Starmall were our adieu to Lakbay Norte.

It wouldn’t have been a great adventure without great organizers. In this regard, I say “That was one hell of a great job” to Vince Araneta, Charisse Anne Fernandez. Michelle Liza Co and Anthony Hapa of NPVB; Grace Ayento and Frances Dionisio of Manila North Tollways Corporation and Nixon Batarao and Reynaldo Valdez of Victory Liner.

More than the many magnificent places we visited and the new adventures we experienced, many of us pointed to the friendships gained as the most precious possession they took home from Lakbay Norte.

“We had a very great group,” said travel blogger Nina Fuentes. “Each participant was passionate about traveling and equally passionate about life. What I'll remember most about my new friends is their gung ho attitude about every activity, their courage to try new things and their unwavering devotion to the videoke machine.”

For Ferdz, “It was a great group. Most are adventurous and enthusiastic. I think everyone gelled well.” This veteran traveler saw Northern Philippines as a “. . . different type of market as the north has something to offer that Boracay or Cam Sur don't have. If people are looking for heritage, caves and sand dunes adventure, the north has it.”

“Strangely enough, in spite of all the incredibly exciting and one of a kind experiences we had during the trip, the most memorable moments for me were our crazy karaoke nights,” said Ida. “These moments were precious to me because it was during these times that we all got to bond with each other the most.”

Karlo saw the whole trip “. . . as an unforgettable experience in itself. Having to join a bunch of people enjoying the north, sharing experiences, delightful or otherwise, for seven straight days. I think that is unforgettable enough. I think it’s because I like relating to people. Travel is about experiences and who you share it with is also important. Sometimes it’s not the journey, nor the destination, but the experience shared from journey to destination.”

“These people are definitely an adventurous bunch!” said Margie. “They're not afraid to try out new things. They go head on with whatever is in store for the trip. There was never a dull moment with them. I'm so lucky to have met these people who have made this trip so much better than I expected it to be.”

It’s about who you travel with. That’s what makes a great vacation—and great relationships.

(Published in Zest Air Inflight magazine, 2010)