Metro Manila’s urban sprawl does provide the city dweller with many opportunities for leisure and entertainment, but sometimes you just need to get away from the bright lights. Fortunately, just outside Metro Manila, cool mountain retreats, breezy lakeside vacation spots, and beautiful beaches abound. Just a few hours’ drive away, these getaways are perfect for that quick weekend refresher.
Caliraya’s floating days and nights
From the part of Lake Caliraya bordering the Laguna town of Cavinti, you can enjoy the lakeside life at two speeds. The thrill of roaring jetskis is a huge draw for Caliraya visitors; but if you’re looking for something with a little less velocity, you can spend a night on the lake aboard one of Aquascape’s floating cottages (Eco-Saddle, Caliraya, Laguna).
Aquascape’s floating cottage can accommodate a maximum of four visitors. Resembling a nipa hut on floats, the house can be unmoored to free-float around the lake. The bamboo and wood finishes make it clear you’re on no luxury yacht, but calm, motor-free nights spent floating on a beautiful lake beat a luxury cruise any day.
If you’d rather sleep on terra firma, book a stay at one of Aquascape’s seven lakefront cottages instead — take on the lake using one of the local watercraft, including jetskis, speedboats, banana boats and kayaks.
(Photo by travelswithahobo.com)
Taal Town’s time travel
Few places can boast of having so much history crammed into so little real estate. “Taal is the quintessential Filipino town,” says Taal scion and tour guide Pio Goco (+63 917 373 7346). “When it comes to our heritage, it pretty much has everything here in a nutshell, all within walking distance from each other.”
Taal Town’s stately churches and bahay na bato — grand stone houses — were mostly built in the 19th century, after the first town’s lakeside site was destroyed in a 1754 volcanic eruption. Revenues from massive Batangas hacienda fueled the town’s rapid rebirth. “This is where the [Philippine] sugar industry started,” Pio explains. “A lot of the houses built here were derived out of sugar wealth.”
You can follow in Pio’s footsteps and hit Taal’s highlights — the Goco Ancestral Mansion; the Galleria Taal Camera Museum; the Agoncillo mansion, home to revolutionary icons; the tin-ceilinged Casa Villavicencio; and Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic Church, the Basilica de San Martin de Tours.
Taal indulges pasalubong shoppers with stores selling intricate burda embroidery, balisong knives and longganisa at the town market. Complete your Taal experience by spending the night in an old mansion-turned-B&B like the Paradores del Castillo (28 Calle Dr H Del Castillo, Taal, Batangas; +63 43 740 4060).
San Pablo, Laguna’s sunny cultural trail
World War II may have obliterated the grand mansions of San Pablo City, but the area’s legendary hospitality has survived with barely a scratch. “It’s still alive in the food and the way we entertain people,” says Boots Alcantara, the proprietor and innkeeper of the Casa San Pablo B&B, whose quaint interiors and cultural tours lovingly revive San Pablo’s coconut-gentry past.
The Viaje del Sol itinerary uses Casa San Pablo (Brgy San Roque, San Pablo City; tel: +63 2 211 2132) as a launchpad for a day or two’s self-propelled trek through the area. Boots’ wife An Mercado-Alcantara came up with the name; their friends came up with the rest. “It’s a DIY trip,” Boots explains. “We just help you with the brochure and you do it, using our advice or recommendations.”
Viaje del Sol connects travelers to artisanal workshops, like Ugu Bigyan’s pottery shop and Carlito Ortega’s metalworks; restaurants like PatisTito Garden Café; and tours of San Pablo’s famous lakes, particularly Sampaloc and Pandin, with their baker’s dozen of privately developed parks.
The tour highlights San Pablo’s down-to-earth personality. “[The establishments in San Pablo are] small and quaint and run by the owners,” Boots says. “[For tourists], it becomes more sincere and personable.”
Bataan’s rebuilt culture
Bataan’s center of gravity as a tourist destination has shifted almost completely to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (Brgy Ibaba, Bagac, Bataan; +63 2 332 5338), where 27 18th-century heritage houses have been reconstructed. Kaye Olfindo, multimedia producer and blogger at Get Lost with Us, likes the rooms set up inside the restored houses, but loves the exteriors even more.
“At night, even if there are not a lot of people, they leave the light on,” Kaye says. “We got to walk around the resort at night, and we were able to take a lot of photos.”
Official tours allow visitors to explore the houses, which are spread out around 400 hectares. “[Las Casas is] a big place, so [it’s hot] if you keep walking around,” Kaye says. “So they provide jeepneys as a shuttle to take you from one spot to another. They also provide kalesas for hire.”
The Olfindos like to use Las Casas as a base from which to explore the rest of Bataan. “The beaches we really prefer are at West Nuk near the Bataan Power Plant, but the accommodations there are super basic and you have to bring your own food,” Kaye explains. “[From Las Casas] we schedule day trips to West Nuk; there are times we move on to Subic nearby.”
Laiya’s last-minute getaway
Whiter beaches and cushier resorts can certainly be found elsewhere, but few places can top Laiya, Batangas in terms of cost and quick access from Manila. “Since we plan at the last minute, Laiya is usually the most convenient place to visit,” explains Kaye.
Having recently visited with kids, hubby and dog in tow, Kaye gives Laiya a family-friendly thumbs-up. “It’s not too noisy,” Kaye tells us. “It’s pet-friendly, too.”
Rocky outcrops aside, Laiya’s beach is perfect for families — it’s regularly cleaned and fun to swim in. The resorts around the beach complement the experience. “We’re not roughing it,” Kaye explains. “I like the service of Acuaverde Beach Resort (+63 927 680 7839). Food is good, too, although the space in the rooms is a bit tight.”
Anawangin’s remote rewards
It took Mount Pinatubo’s epic 1991 eruption to make Anawangin Cove the peaceful getaway it is today — converting an unwelcoming rocky shoal into a fine beach shaded by agoho trees.
To get to Anawangin Cove, you’ll first need to drive to Pundaquit Town; from Pundaquit, Anawangin is a four-hour trek or 30-minute pumpboat ride away. Anawangin has very basic toilet facilities, and overnight visitors are required to bring their own tents and camping gear.
Jovencio Orcino (+63 919 321 5252), who conducts tours of Anawangin Cove, warns visitors about the rustic conditions: “No hotel, no electricity, no [cellphone] signal.”
“From Anawangin, you can go trekking up to the hilltop, go snorkeling or have a bonfire at night,” Jovencio adds. You can also ride your boat-hire from Anawangin to nearby beaches and coves, among them Nagsasa Cove and Capones Island.
The latter has a run-down lighthouse with amazing views of Zambales and the South China Sea. “You can also go snorkeling at Capones and enjoy its white-sand beach,” Jovencio explains. “You can’t stay overnight as it has no toilet, and no source of water.”
Tagaytay’s volcanic detour
It’s a shame to have a famous volcano on your doorstep and not ever ascend its peak. Bryan Ocampo, Operations Director for tour company Intas Destination Management (702 Common Goal Tower, Finance St, Madrigal Business Park, Ayala Alabang; +63 2 772 3312), suggests you extend your Tagaytay experience from simply viewing the volcano to conquering it completely.
“You ride a boat, and it takes you around 30 minutes from the lakeshore resort to the volcano island,” Bryan explains. Visitors can choose to hike up the mountain on foot, or hire a pony to climb the only trail leading to the peak.
“It’s a 45-minute hike, but sometimes it takes longer because of the heat,” Bryan says. “The trail is fully exposed — no trees, no anything.” The view alone is worth the slog: it’s breathtaking to peer into the Taal crater lake ahead, with the bigger Taal Lake behind.
After getting your breath back, you can use the crater lake as a driving range — local vendors offer golf balls and clubs for practice on the world’s most epic 18th hole.
Minalungao National Park’s nature adventure
The pristine branch of the Peñaranda River, in Nueva Ecjia province, is flanked by limestone walls rising up to 16 meters, and provides a different experience from the Pasig River. The clear waters reflect the blue of the sky as visitors picnic on bamboo rafts floating on the river’s surface, or dive off the cliffs into the depths.
This is Minalungao National Park — up to four hours’ drive from Manila gets you to this protected area in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range within Nueva Ecija. There’s plenty of adventure to go around: you can zipline, explore the caves hidden in the cliffs or walk on the hanging bridge strung across the river.
“I think one whole day is enough,” says travel blogger Maria Rona Beltran, who visited Minalungao as a guest of the North Philippines Visitors Bureau (291 St Joseph St, Oranbo Dr, Pasig; tel: +63 2 637 6798). “You can do everything before the sun sets — provided you go early in the morning — and complete the Minalungao experience: swimming, spelunking, trekking and ziplining.” Rona suggests travelers take a private vehicle to get here, and bring their own food. “There are carinderias or eateries but there are no established restaurants yet,” she explains. “Guests can do overnight camping for free at designated areas.”
This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Smile magazine.