A stirring song from South Pacific captures the timeless appeal of the island province of Catanduanes in the Bicol region.
Like the cinematic island called Bali Hai in the film version of the Broadway musical, Catanduanes is a special island where, indeed, the indigo sky meets a wide expanse of the wide blue sea.
It is a mere 45-minute flight (via Cebu Pacific) from Manila to the capital town of Virac where you can find modest accommodations that will suit your budget.
For the budget-conscious and for those on the lookout for genuine island hospitality, check in to the Marem Pension House, which offers assorted package tours. Other recommended accommodations are those offered by Catanduanes Midtown Hotel and Kemji Resort, among others.
A new resort with a view of the sea is Alon Surf in Puraran in Baras town. There is Patag Island in Cagraray, Bato town and later you can go north and visit Panay Island in Viga town and the Palumbanes Island in Caramoran town for more island adventure.
Now observing its 71st anniversary as a separate province (it used to be part of Camarines Sur and Albay), Catanduanes is where you will still enjoy natural ecological attractions minus the expensive hype aimed at prosperous visitors.
For a glimpse of the island’s past, a quick visit to the Museo de Catanduanes in the capital town is a must. The island is the home province of Sen. Kit Tatad, the Sarmientos (Congressman Cesar V. Sarmiento and his brothers Jorge and Rene) the Albertos (Congressmen Jose and Juan Alberto in the 60s to the 70s) and earlier the Veras of Pandan who founded the Vera-Perez film outfit also known as Sampaguita Pictures. On exhibit in the island museum are the 1895 window panel from the ancestral house of Don Ariston Sarmiento, including his antique typewriter belonging to the same era; a 1914 baul (chest) donated by Maria Magno; old photos like the 1928 wedding of Jose Surban and Carmen Arcilla of Calolbon (now San Andres town) along with a 1938 Ballesteros-Santelices nuptials.
The old photos clearly reflected the lifestyle of the island middle class. In the old photos, the gentlemen wore white suits with proper hats and the ladies looked like characters from The Great Gatsby. This must be the era when the island was virtual rainforest, when deer roamed the island and the houses of the middle class families (notably the Sarmientos and the Alcalas) reverberated with the music of Bach and Beethoven.
Fact is the province is surrounded by stunning satellite islands from Palumbanes Island in Caramoran town and the Panay Island up north called Panay Island.
But the island’s glorious appeal is its natural beauty still unspoiled ecological attractions. From the now popular Balacay Highland Point in Baras town, you can see the wide, seemingly endless span of the Pacific Ocean in all its natural glory.
You can move on to Bato town where the glory of Bato Church awaits you. After crossing the Bato River, the St. John The Baptist Church greets you with its stone facade reeking of a historic past. It was built in 1830 and finished in 1883 with local islanders figuring in forced labor. You can head for the nearby Cagraray barrio where the equally stunning Patag Island awaits the visitors.
Clearly, Balacay Highland Point is the heart and soul of the island. From atop this glorious hill, you see the wide, seemingly borderless expanse of the Pacific Ocean and get a glimpse of islets and more rock formations along the coastal areas.
From this hill, you can go down to nearby Puraran Beach Resort and this is where you can try surfing under the watchful eye of local surfing instructors.
If adventure is your cup of tea, you can drive to nearby Guinsaanan barrio, also in Baras town, walk for half an hour and experience the beauty of Binurong Point with more stunning view of the sea and assorted rock formations
As it is, some islanders wanted to keep what was left of the island’s natural and cultural heritage.
A new tourism watchdog called Tropang Turismo continues to discover new tourist destinations. The island photographers, notably Ferdie Ocol and Floyd Evangelista Flores continue to document not just the newly discovered tourist spots, but the remaining bird species on the island. Ocol said there is still what he calls the “Little Mindanao” in Viga town and, in one sojourn, he replayed recordings of bird sounds. To our surprise, the live birds in the area responded.
For now, preserving what is left of the island’s pristine beauty is the priority of Tropang Turismo which guards against bad elements out to destroy the island’s natural attractions.
The late island poet Jose Tablizo sums up the old Catanduanes before the advent of cell phones and internet cafes:
“There are many things we do not have –
A few things we do have.
We have no hustling, wide, cement boulevards
With glittering streetlights; no sinful women on the boulevard under the street lights,
We have no traffic jams, no ticket fixers,
We have lazy narrow roads – and lazier streams
We have devastating typhoons and generous seas
For what we do not have, we are proud:
For what we do have we are humble.”
Photos by Floyd Evangelista Flores
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