From the white sands of Puerto Princesa to the ultra-chic Resorts World, the Philippines is as energetic as it is relaxed. The islands truly live up to their hype as a tropical escape. And, it really is more fun.
Accompanied by 11 of my friends from Guam, in July I fulfilled my dream of finally experiencing Manila, Pampanga and Puerto Princesa firsthand.
After a short hop from Guam on the ultra-friendly Cebu Pacific Air, we were soon on the ground in Manila. A shuttle took us to the massive Resorts World Manila, just in front of the airport, and we checked into the nearby Belmont Hotel.
Afterwards, we walked back to Resorts World for dinner at the renowned Happy 9 restaurant. Here we sampled Master Chef David Choo’s fusion creations before finishing with a unique desert plate that included a white puff pastry that resembled “Sonic the Hedgehog.”
After our meal, we took in a live burlesque show at the famous Bar 360 - located in the huge casino. The show, in middle of the bar (thus 360 degrees), included many well-known and unique numbers in addition to several elevation acts using a winch mounted in the ceiling. This was definitely not something normally seen on Guam.
Early the next morning we left metro Manila in vans to experience the famous Puning Natural Hot Springs at Pampanga - about three hours away. As we drove out, the bustling sprawl of Manila slowly thinned to countryside paddocks, then rolling fields and finally mountains as we approached Pampanga.
Once we arrived at the Puning Hot Spring stage #1 area, we split into groups and jumped into the back of souped-up Jurassic Park-esque jeeps for the ride up to the springs. As we bounced and roared up the mountain, the road became steadily narrower before gradually becoming a dusty track. Then the road itself disappeared and our drivers headed into the Sacobia riverbed, which alternated between sandy and dry tracts to swiftly flowing water deep in huge mountain gorges.
We clung onto our jeeps for life, and after flying past stage #2 and crossing several mountain traverses, we finally came out of the river onto a wide sandy plain. In front of us was stage #3 Puning Hot Springs on terraces, like some mystical Shangri-La surrounded by volcanic mist.
We dusted ourselves off and climbed out the jeeps before hiking up the stairways to the springs. Along the way, we passed a crystal-clear waterfall that at first glance appeared to be cool and refreshing, but after offering it my big toe, was revealed to be scalding hot.
The hot springs have flowed forever, but it was only recently that locals discovered their healing powers and hewed out terraces in the mountain top to make them more accessible.
We climbed to the top level and sampled pools of water ranging from very hot to tepid and cool, all the while enjoying the panoramic full view of the surrounding mountains and alluvial plain below. We could see the source of the water, where the locals had created rock dams out of riverbed stones to contain the naturally flowing waters into flumes, which flowed down the mountain into the soaking pools around us.
After being alternately stewed and cooled, we returned refreshed to the base, and after some cooling drinks, hopped back into our monster jeeps for the ride back to stage #2.
After a short albeit bumpy 15-minute ride back through the riverbed, we arrived at the Puning Spa. I’m admittedly not a fan of the spa thing, though I’ve spent my share of time waiting for my better half outside them. The 2nd station at Puning was a different thing altogether, though.
The Puning Spa hot sand spa consists of a large covered sandbox with ovens beneath to heat the sands. This purportedly enhances body circulation and eliminates joint pain.
The staff had raked the box to Zen-like perfection - with perfectly symmetrical lines - so it seemed a shame to destroy their work. Nonetheless, they dug shallow grave-like holes for us to lay down in before shoveling sand on top of us until we were all covered and immobile.
The hot sand felt weird at first and sensations of being buried alive notwithstanding, I found myself drifting off to sleep, especially when one of the attendants used her toes to massage my shoulders through the sand.
After about 15 minutes, we all sat up resurrected and were directed to stage two: mud packs. They explained to us that the mud was sourced from the bottom of the thermal spa lakes and was high in magnesium, potassium chloride and calcium.
It looked like swamp goo to me, but I gamely let the staff slather my face with the stuff and waited. After the treatment, our group looked like a bunch of white-faced zombies, and after being brushed down by the staff with long horsehair brushes to remove residual sand, we boarded our jeeps and flew down the mountain back to stage one.
To the natives working along the road, we must have looked like a pack of ghosts flying straight out of Hades. We returned to basecamp for a welcome shower and local chow before heading back to Manila International Airport.
After a quick check-in with the friendly staff at Cebu Pacific, we were airborne and oscar mike for Puerto Princesa. 85 minutes later, we touched down and were greeted by the local tourism board, local dancers and music.
Before taking a two-hour ride over the mountains to the Sheridan West, we stopped by the famous Badjao restaurant to sample some local seafood.
Our drivers proved their expertise on the narrow winding mountain roads. The path was full of dogs, cats, snakes and goats that had come out to sleep on the warm pavement and were completely unafraid of oncoming traffic.
We arrived exhausted at the resort in the pitch-black night without having injured any animals. The next morning we awoke to a vision of paradise incarnate - the azure sea laid out in front of the white sand resort as far as the eye could see.
Puerto Princesa is home to one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature: The protected 8.2 k.m. Subterranean River National Park. We gathered for our safari into the underworld, and began the short 30-minute journey from nearby Sabang Wharf to the caves. We took large outrigger canoes, constructed with no nails or metal fasteners of any kind, but rather lashed together with heavy monofilament fishing line. Simple but effective.
After arriving at the white sandy beach entrance to the national park, we trekked inland through rainforests filled with birds, monkeys and Komodo lizards, to the black lagoon dock for our journey to the cave.
We piled into six-person canoes and our cave guides slowly paddled us across the lagoon to the huge underwater river cave. The entrance loomed from the side of the limestone mountain like a natural “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.
We glided into a still world of stalactites and stalagmites, populated by thousands of chirping cave bats that swirled around us as we went deeper into the labyrinth beneath the mountain.
Amazingly, the bats navigated in the pitch black without hitting us or our boats. Our guides warned us to keep our mouths closed to avoid any chance of tasting bat droppings.
As we slowly U-turned, I asked our guide to turn off his flashlight so we could fully experience the darkness of the cavern, and once extinguished, all sense of direction was lost. After paddling out to the lagoon and dock, we returned to our outrigger canoes for the ride back to Sabang Wharf. Here we transferred by van to our next stop: Sta. Lourdes Wharf on Honda Bay in Palawan.
Honda Bay is famous for its small resort islands, so we boarded a local outrigger to experience Cowrie Island in the middle of Honda bay. Cowrie is a boutique island that is almost too beautiful to be real. As we approached, the word “Cowrie” was even spelled out in 10-foot letters on the white-sand beach.
The island’s main activity is doing nothing but relaxing on the beach, getting massages and marine sports.
After eating local fruits and soaking up the sun for afternoon, we piled back into our boat for the ride back to Sta. Lourdes and then home to Guam.
All too soon our journey was finished, but we promised to return soon to experience more of the paradise that is the Philippines.
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