The best pandemic stress reliever

Published May 21, 2022, 12:00 AM

by Emilio Aquino

A breathtaking tour of Boracay, Cebu City, and Coron, organized by the Philippine Airlines and Tourism Promotions Board

It is safe to say that the Philippines is finally back on track after two years of lockdown and economic decline. As the country is seeing fewer cases per day and, as more are getting vaccinated, people are seeing their friends over shared meals both at home and at restaurants, people are drinking with their friends, and even raving at local bars. It is clear, however, that one reliever can also be explored further—traveling around the Philippines.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Last March, I went on an eight-day media familiarization tour around Boracay in Aklan, Cebu City, and Coron in Palawan. The trip was a collaboration between Philippines Airlines (PAL) and the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), under the Department of Tourism. This partnership was formed, according to TPB chief operating officer Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones, as a “sneak peek of the fun experiences local tourists can explore when they visit around the Philippines,” with media and social influencers invited to showcase them on their respective platforms and to promote the tourism industry after two years of suspended animation.

First stop: Boracay

In mid-March, we fly out of NAIA 2 to Caticlan. After a super quick one-hour flight with PAL, a short boat ride courtesy of our resort, and a few bus rides to and from the ports, we arrive at Henann Crystal Sands, a beautiful resort near the heart of Station 2’s vibrant shopping and party scene, which boasts of clean and modern rooms, as well as excellent service at very accessible rates. When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted with a beautiful plant-themed setup for lunch. We were served comforting dishes like pork sisig wrapped in a bread-based pouch, chicken binakol, smoked salmon Nicoise salad with artichoke, Filipino beef roulade, and various Filipino delicacies for dessert.

After lunch, we proceed to our own modern twin rooms. Besides the sanitation kit with face masks and alcohol included in pandemic fashion, everything from the beddings and the tables and chairs to the bathroom screamed cleanliness. The room even welcomed us with a platter of assorted chocolates—one I savored for my entire stay.

Our activity on the first night was an all white-themed courtesy call to Malay acting mayor Frolibar Bautista. I considered it to be a bold beginning for the trip we were about to embark on, with the officer in charge promoting tourism in Boracay while boldly easing pandemic restrictions.

The cuisine for the night was Japanese. We were served fresh sushi and sashimi, tender and perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned steak, and halo-halo in a buko shell.

SWEET COCONUT Hennan Resrot dessert (Image courtesy of the author)

We began the following day with lunch at the famous Dos Mestizos, which spread out dishes like lengua de vaca, paella negra, croquettas de hamon, and the jamon and manchego platter. In all its good quality, actor and restaurant manager Jon Achaval is proud of the unique ingredients used in the dishes, the great aesthetic of the restaurant, and the culture of good vibes among the staff.

FINE SAND, FINE PEOPLE Destination rediscoveries 2022 participants in Boracay (Image courtesy of the author)

The afternoon ended with a sunset cruise around Boracay Island. From the other end of Station One, we went all the way to Diniwid Beach, where the group was encouraged to explore and swim. For the rest of the ride, the boat stood still a few hundred meters away from the island, with my friends going in for a short snorkeling session. We were also able to catch the beautiful sunset, which helped create a warm and fun vibe, accompanied, of course, by some pizza and Soju.

UNPARALLELED BEAUTY A breathtaking sunset (Image courtesy of the author)

Second stop: Cebu

It was a quick evening as we had to hop on a plane the next morning. The next destination—Cebu, the Queen City of the South. The first thing we did when we arrived was visit the renowned Rico’s Lechon with its very unique localized flavor, which would have been a sin to dilute with the traditional lechon sauce.

LET’S GO LECHON (Image courtesy of the author)

We arrived at the Shangri-La Mactan, a serene, away-from-it-all sanctuary, perfect for those who wish to unwind after traveling long distances. The room welcomed me with a classic hotel aesthetic and a breathtaking beachfront view. While the establishment seems to be dated, it was clean and cozy. I was also welcomed with a delicious red velvet cake.

The team spent two days in the city, visiting several spots like the Yap-San Diego Ancestral House, The Chocolate Chamber, the Magellan’s Cross, and Alegre Guitars. I was also surprised to discover nippy, rather cold Buwakan ni Alejandra, the “Little Tagaytay of Cebu,” in this tropical, near-equatorial country. After a drive along the scenic Transcentral Highway, the garden was a vibrant scene filled with fresh cold air, beautiful flowers, and an endless array of colors.

(Narjay Calinao, TPB)

Clearly, Cebu is an ideal one-stop shop to discover various aspects of Filipino culture and history. From all the good food, scenic views, and sites showcasing our history and local industry—one can expect to de-stress by nurturing one’s knowledge of one’s heritage and identity.

Legend has it that a giant octopus, the ‘panlalabyut,’ guards the waters at the heart of the island. Hence, we were forbidden to go beyond a certain point in the Kayangan Lake.

Final stop: Coron

Our journey was not complete without the surreal experience of island hopping in Coron, Palawan. We landed to the warm hospitality of the Coron Westown Resort, a good and affordable option for most tourists looking to spend their days on boats and beaches. While the resort did not host reliable cellular or internet service, the condition was a strong statement that the pleasures and treasures of the islands in Coron are meant to be enjoyed offline. Why spend a minute looking down on the small screen of your table or even the smaller screen of your phone when there is this primal, timeless beauty surrounding you.

(Narjay Calinao, TPB)

From the town’s port, we boarded a one-hour boat ride to the island of Bulog Dos, a remote island with lush palm trees and translucent waters. When we got down, the team spent a few minutes swimming around the area, and hiking the short hill that gave a majestic view of the other islands. It was a moment of relaxation on a tiny hammock right in the shade of trees under the tropical sun.

SPLASH BUDDIES The author and co-travelers (Narjay Calinao, TPB)

Later, we spent an hour or two on the island of Malcapuya. A 20-minute boat ride away from Bulog Dos, the island was the closest one could get to having a traditional beach vibe. From the dock, we spent 10 minutes hiking across the island onto the white sand beach set up with many cabanas. We were also greeted with a kamayan meal for lunch, which served grilled pork belly, fish, shrimp, clams, and lobster, among others.

HUNGRY FOR THE SEA Boodle meal by the ocean (Image courtesy of the author)

From here, we moved on to Twin Lagoon, a body of water surrounded by mountainous structures and limited infrastructure. Because the port could not accommodate our boat, we were made to swim across the outer body of water, and through the lagoon’s rocky entrance. This effort was made worth it given the Yosemite-like rock formations and the clear waters that it surrounded—a scene that left me in awe.

Unfortunately, I was not able to take pictures here since swimming with my phone was a risk I did not want to take.

SWIM-TASTIC Kayangan Lake (Image courtesy of the author)

The lagoon made our next stop, Kayangan Lake, no stranger. Following a taller hike, we ended up in another majestic body of water enclosed in similar rock formations as intricately structure as those on Twin Lagoon. Beyond this rocky terrain and the fascinating underwater views, what makes this lake particularly interesting is the local lore. Legend has it that a giant octopus, the “panlalabyut,” guards the waters at the heart of the island. Hence, we were forbidden to go beyond a certain point in the lake.

Given these experiences, I am ultimately amazed at how much culture, history, and geography our country has to offer. Truly, my pandemic stress reliever did not only serve its purpose, it filled me with stories meant to be kept for years and shared with the people I care about.