Camiguin: Exchanged glances and captured hearts

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As the ferry docked into the port after its two-hour journey, I knew I was in familiar territory – the air was sweeter, the chatter soothing and the heat a stifling but delightful reminder that I have returned. It is true, perhaps, that once you’ve experienced Camiguin, the longing to come back never ceases.

In many ways, the island of Camiguin is a paradox among the rest of the Philippines’ many island provinces. Located just off the coast of urban Cagayan de Oro, the island is also two hours away from the beautiful province of Bohol, with many tourists arriving as part of a hopping tour of the central Philippines. Camiguin now banks on a rich variety of attractions to garner the interest of foreign guests, many of whom have chosen to stay behind to savor the flavors the island has to offer.

Reminders of a dismal past Camiguin is a volcanic island small enough for a day-long tour, with the activities starting in the capital of Mambajao. Vans and cabs are available in town for families and friends to rent for the day, its drivers armed with interesting facts and gripping trivia for the consumption of his guests. Known as the “Island Born of Fire,” Camiguin is home to seven volcanoes, one of which erupted quite violently in 1871, thereby plunging whole towns under its wrath. The Old Gui-ob Church Ruins (the canopied remains of an old chapel, belfry and convent) and the Sunken Cemetery (the submerged cemetery of old Camiguin now marked by a tall cross marker erected in the sea) are simple reminders of a dark fate shared by many of the island’s residents.

The Walkway to the Old Volcano, meanwhile, features life-size depictions of the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen of which lead to a majestic view of the island from the peak of Old Vulcan Daan. Activities surrounding Holy Week usually revolve around these sites, with people from the mainland camping and praying on its grounds. Surely, though, there’s more to Camiguin than broken structures and religious sites – attractions are available all year round.

Running on water

As if by magic, our tour guide, Frederick Solaña, kept pulling quotes from his imaginary notebook and came up with one for the rest of our day. “Camiguin is for everyone,” he said, and by that, he refers to the various water attractions we were headed to that afternoon.

Numerous natural streams and falls dot the mountains of Camiguin. Tuasan Falls, a 25-meter cascade of pristine water rush, is a favorite among adventurers and explorers as it can be reached only after a six-kilometer scenic hike up the slopes. Meanwhile, for those who relish the idea of a snack-out in nature, Katibawasan Falls, features a 75-meter drop of cold, refreshing water surrounded by lush forest greens and shrubs.

Man-made water parks are also not exempted from the tour, for Camiguin is the one place you can find fresh, cold, hot and soda springs all at once. The Sto. Niño Cold Spring Resort boasts of cold spring water sprouting from its sandy pool, as well as a spa where fish can eat your feet’s dead skin cells away. The Bura Soda Water Park, on the other hand, offers swimmers a refreshing view of Camiguin’s forests while bathing in a pool of soda water that’s sweet to the taste. The “pool-hopping” ends in Ardent Hibok-Hibok Spring Resort where the temperature of the water can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius, a relaxing oasis for tired and aching bodies longing for the warmth of nature.

But if there’s something aquatic Camiguin is most known for, it is the fact that the island is a famous snorkeling and diving destination due to the rich marine biodiversity that lies beneath. White Island, a lonely strip of sand just ten minutes away from the main island’s many resorts, is a good swimming and snorkeling site with fine, shimmering sand reflecting the daily setting of the sun over Camiguin. While Mantigue Island, a seven-hectare sanctuary and home to different species of birds and fruit bats, is a famous diving site and a home to hordes of live corals and schools of fish rarely seen in the country’s seas.

According to the province’s Tourism Office, Taguines Lagoon, a man-made pond for cultivating fish, will soon play host to a number of water activities like boating and kayaking for enthusiasts. Meanwhile, the nearby resorts offer packages and sports activities to the liking of many of Camiguin’s guests who are as addicted to the sea as I am.

Where water meets land, life meets expectations

A landmark of comfort and convenience for the past 17 years, Paras Beach Resort has played host to many guests, both foreign and local, who have come to appreciate Camiguin for the relaxing oasis that it is. Originally built as a private rest house of the Paras Family, the resort has expanded to accommodate people of all tastes through an uncompromising and unparalleled ambience situated at the brink of the island.

There are rooms for big groups of friends as well as small families, many of which feature a breathtaking view of the shore and the nearby White Island. Relaxing as the thought may be, my own room fused together the warmth of the island and the sleek, urban comforts of home with its neutral browns, earth-colored accents and native textures. The sheets and pillows are in stunning white and are of an incomparable softness, inviting me to just sleep the rest of my trip away, while floral accents and fruits are a soothing addition to the tableau.

Sitting with Snooky Tubiano, officer-in-charge of the resort, we were offered a delectable list of activities and amenities fit for any age and gender. According to Snooky, they “have water sports facilities like banana boats and jet skis, while those staying in the compound can play billiards and table tennis. We also provide event packages for those celebrating milestones in their life.” Regularly, they prepare wedding receptions in their hall, with the ceremony held on White Island itself. Soon, she said, the spa and fitness center will be built for the comfort of their guests.

Paras Beach Resort also provides tours around the island’s many spots, as well as mountain climbing hikes and van rentals. But if you are “looking for a perfect relaxation from the noisy and busy life in the city, feel free to stay in your room and appreciate the perfect ambience it has.”

Food and music across continents

My trip to White Island had me munching on sea urchins. Sold three for a dollar, the exotic sea urchin or uni to the Japanese gourmand is a delicacy eaten raw or with vinegar on the very shores of the sandbar. Ronald, holding a bucket of the spiny sea creature, said he sells dozens of it a day, especially on weekends when visitors to the strip are at a maximum.

Lunch in Camiguin is best devoured in J & A Fishpen by the Lagoon, where you can catch fish and have them cooked into any dish you crave for. Choose from selections of shrimp, tuna, lobster and groupers then have them heated or grilled while you zip across the Lagoon in the nearby two-way zipline, exhausting yourself in the experience before pigging out with the feast.

Dinner, on the other hand, must be a candle-lit experience in one of the many Italian-inspired ristorantes across the main road of Mambajao. Luna’s served us a rich olive oil-laden seafood pasta filled with a fresh catch of shellfish, while the ‘white island’ pizza is a cheesy, mouthwatering dish topped with meats and mozzarella cheese that stretches to infinity between the slices.

The Italian owner then invited us to his gig at nearby Paradiso, an ancestral-home-turned-music-bar where the island’s many foreign residents lounge after the work week. A livelier nightlife can then be seen in the center’s Rooftop Bar where the young and the hip spend their time until morning, while Offshore is a good place to end the night with a few bottles of beer and the lulling sound of the nearby beach.

No hint of bitterness

Our trip to Camiguin had us see the preparations for the Lanzones Festival, an annual celebration of the fruit the province is most known for. Students were seen preparing dance routines and tableaus for the parade, while homes are decorated with faux lanzones made from empty coconut husks and a few wrapping papers. Of course, their very yards are filled with trees teeming with the fruit.

According to Fred, tens of thousands of tourists arrive in Camiguin during the week-long celebrations in October, and thousands of kilos of the fruit are taken home by the same. The variety of lanzones in Camiguin proved sweet and succulent, without any hint of a bitter or sour taste. This is attributed to the healthy, volcanic soil of the island, defining Camiguin lanzones as the best of its kind in the country.

As we boarded the ferry for our trip back to the city, boxes of lanzones, pastel (a custard-filled pastry popular in the island) and peanut bars in tow, I caught a final glimpse of the mountains and the trees I have known to appreciate. The very irony in Camiguin is that this simple and uncrowded dot on the map could captivate so many, Filipino or not, with its history, attractions and its embracing people. Surely, Camiguin has captured my heart and I’m sure it will do so for many more visits.

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