February 14, 2014

Travel Bites: Surf’s up and more in La Union

IN the 1970s until about the mid-1980s, La Union in the Ilocos region was one of those provinces where Metro Manilans would flock to during the summer for their beach escapades.
Straddling Ilocos Sur in the north and Pangasinan in the south, La Union has an amazing coastline facing the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) that has spawned a number of fine white to gray sand beaches.
I particularly remember going to  Bauang, La Union, as relatives had a resort there. Accommodations in the area were simple and neat, not like the boutique-style luxury offerings resorts we have in most parts of the country today.
But what I will never forget about Bauang is its glorious blazing sun setting on the horizon, one of the best that I’ve seen. As dusk falls, the sky is painted in an exhilarating palette of striking oranges and golds, with dark bluish grays toward the edges of the upper sky.
As the 1990s rolled around, Metro Manilans eventually found other go-to summer places in the south, where the beaches had pristine powder-white sand, and the partying went on from early evening to the wee hours of the next morning. I assume the five-to six-hour drive, which includes the rapidly growing traffic going out  and along the North Luzon Expressway, has also become challenging to tourists making their way to the north. After all, it’s much faster to hop on a plane and be in Boracay in an hour and half, than to sit in the car or bus for a butt-numbing road trip.
La Union is a popular location for surfers. (Photo from http://launionsurfing.blogspot.com/) 
Amazingly enough, things have turned around for La Union. The tourists are back in droves, specifically drawn to the municipality of San Juan now recognized as one of the three major surfing capitals in the country. (The other two are Aurora in Baler, and Siargao, Surigao del Norte.)
Of course, we’re not talking about Big Kahuna waves or the tubes Hawaii is famous for (check out Hawaii 5-O’s opening billboard sequence). Still, the waves in San Juan reach about shoulder high, giving enough lift, power and speed for the average weekend surfer. There are also spots of 15-foot waves that make their presence felt enough for the occasional professional to practice his moves.

Aside from the numerous beaches along the coastline of La Union, there are other places that tourists might find interesting in the province:
Got silk? About 10 minutes away from the provincial capital of San Fernando, is the first-class municipality of Bacnotan, which hosts the Don Mariano Marcos State University (DMMSU). Tourists can drop by the university’s Sericulture Research and Development Institute, which raises silkworms. As the silkworm goes into the pupa stage, it weaves a cocoon around itself  which can produce about 1,000 yards of silk thread. DMMSU also has honey-bee making facilities. (Call the university at 072-242-5641, to arrange a visit.)
A look at the past. If Italy has its leaning tower of Pisa, La Union has its leaning watchtower along the Pebble Beach of Luna (formerly called Namacpacan). The watchtower is now split in two as it continues to be exposed to the elements and left to deteriorate with time. It is just one of the baluartes that dot the Ilocos region’s long coastline from Ilocos Norte, until La Union. The Spaniards built these to keep watch and alert the locals on marauding pirates.  Other watchtowers in La Union—often built from adobe and coral—can be found in San Fernando, Bacnotan and San Juan.
The Pindangan Ruins (Barangay San Vicente, San Fernando) is what remains of a church built in 1764, which locals say was destroyed by an earthquake sometime in the 19th  century. Now under the care of Carmelite nuns whose monastery just stands behind the ruins, the area is now covered with grass and other vegetation (snake alert!), but one can still make out the buttresses and the church walls. According to local folklore, the ghosts of a beheaded priest and a nun in white are residents of the ruins, which I would think makes it an attractive destination for ghost hunters and thrill seekers during Halloween.
The Don Mariano Marcos State University in Bacnotan host a sericulture research center. Above, are silkworm cocoons. (Photo by http://www.dmmmsu.edu.ph)
One’s history trip won’t be complete without visiting the Our Lady of Namacpacan shrine in the Saint Catherine de Alexandria Parish Church in Luna. Built in the 19th century, many miracles have been attributed to the image which planted itself in the area, it is said, under divine guidance. Another unique church in the province is the Saint Christopher Parish Church in Bangar, which was completed in 1697.  Unlike most old Spanish churches in the country, this one has three bell towers.
Cottage industries. Visit Taboc in San Juan to see how clay products are made using techniques handed down through generations. In Bangar, homemakers weave wide Ilocano blankets in rayon, cotton and polyester, and tinagudan yarn. (Call Evangeline Dadat of the Department of Tourism regional office at 072-888-2411 to help set up personal visits to the craftsmen and weavers.)

Hike. The Holcim Cement Plant in Bacnotan initially developed the eco-trail for their employees’ recreational activities, then later opened it to the public who want to surround themselves with the lush greenery of the forest. The most popular spot along the eco-trail is the so-called viewpoint, which offers a panoramic view of the Bacnotan Coast. (For team-building seminars and other corporate activities, contact Holcim La Union at 072-888-4252.)
Drink up. The town of Lioac, Naguilian, which is less than 20 minutes from San Fernando, is most famous for its basi, the Ilocano native wine made from fermented sugar cane juice. The dark color is from the bark of the duhat (java plum) tree.  You can just ask any tricycle driver to bring you to the home of a basi maker and see the age-old process of developing the wine.
Most probably don’t know that the basi inspired a revolt among the Ilocanos in 1807 as the Spanish government tried to take over the manufacturing of this fruity but intoxicating wine, forcing locals to buy only from government stores. Today, Naguilian commemorates the Basi Revolt in a festival every first week of May, holding activities such as a parade, street dancing, and agri-trade fair, sports competitions, etc.
Swim and surf. San Juan is ground zero for surfing in La Union, with a host of schools and instructors available to teach anyone the fine points of balancing and riding on the long boards. The most popular is the Billabong Surf School (San Juan Surf School) operated by Luke Landrigan, a silver medalist at the Bali Asian Games in 2008, and son of Australian surfer Brian Landrigan  who had settled in La Union in the 1980s, and introduced surfing to the local community. (Call 0917-8008004/0916-7442229 or e-mail billabongsurfschool@gmail.com for inquiries.)
For an even more unique vacation, try Flow—a three-day weekend workshop that combines surfing, yoga, samba dancing­—usually held every  November by Manila-based yoga instructor Monica Eleazar-Manzano and percussionist Toni Bernardo. (For particulars, click http://www.flowsurfyogasamba.com.)
October to March is the best period to enjoy the surf in San Juan.
If you just want to swim and lie under the sun all day, Bauang and Poro Point are the most popular destinations for beach bums. The reef area around Poro Point is also a go-to area for snorkelers.
Needless to say, there is a rollicking nightlife in La Union especially with many resorts hosting its own bars and restaurants. Locals underscore the safety and security of guests and partygoers even in the evening as tourist cops regular patrol the beaches.

Where to stay
The Kahuna Beach Resort & Spa (Barangay Urbiztondo, San Juan)  has Balinese-inspired cottages and an infinity pool, with its beachfront dotted with lounging beds that make watching the sunset with drinks in hand quite exhilarating. Guests laud the professional massage therapists at the spa, as well as the breakfast experience—generous delicious dishes and good coffee in an open air setting, fanned by the sea breezes. Now who wouldn’t want to wake up for that? (For reservations, call 817-5592/0917-6695353 or click the web sitehttp://www.kahunaresort.com/.)
For budget guests, check out the Coconut Grove Resort (Paringao, Bauang, La Union (072-888-4276 /242-3222/888-5381/http://www.coco.com.ph). The rooms are basic but clean, with a friendly staff. It also has a swimming pool, restaurant, dive shop and a bar. As an alternative to the beach, guests can go lawn bowling or play billiards.
(Click http://www.sanfernandocity.gov.ph/ for a list of hotels and resorts in La Union.)
Getting there: By private vehicle, take the Nlex then go via SCTEx to Tarlac, and head on to Pangasinan, and La Union via MacArthur Highway.
You can also take the bus directly from several points in Metro Manila then get off at San Fernando: Autobus Transport (Sampaloc, Manila); Dominion Transit (Cubao, Quezon City); Fariñas Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Genesis Bus Lines (Rizal Avenue, Manila); Maria de Leon Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Partas Transportation (Cubao, Quezon City); Philippine Rabbit (Edsa, Quezon City); RCJ Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Viron Transportation (Sampaloc, Manila).

(This piece was published on Jan. 28, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

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