Ships. Great big boats of every kind. Doubledecker yachts and cruise ships. Colorful sailboats, or white speedboats, and humble fishing boats. I love boats and I wanted to ride some. This was the main reason why I looked forward to going to Subic Bay, known to a lot of Filipinos as the former site of the United States Naval Base in Southeast Asia. I even hoped to see a warship, or a military ship, as I can only dream of entering one.
But upon reaching the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, I and my team saw that it is more than just a free port, or even a former naval base. Numbers speak when it comes to measuring progress. In the case of Subic Bay, the numbers gain even more weight, given the rich heritage of this destination in every aspect – history, culture, art, geography, natural resources and lifestyles.
Under the management of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, Subic welcomed about 5.7 million visitors and travelers in 2013. “[That represents] at least [a] ten percent increase every year in visitor arrivals,” shared Mary Jamelle Camba, SBMA tourism department manager. SBMA originally targeted six million for 2014, but as June came, figures already rose to 3.5 million. This means that Subic can expect 6.5 to seven million arrivals by end of this year, exceeding its targets.
Camba stated that since 2009, arrivals have not decreased in number, reflecting the continued growth of this freeport zone in various industries, including tourism. Subic, apart from its ever-present natural attractions such as dive site and birdwatching sites, has even emerged as a major sports tourism destination for triathletes and marathoners, apart from already being recognized as a corporate and business convention destination. Camba proudly adds, “We are declared by the Department of Tourism as the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) capital of Luzon.”
“Next year, we’re going to have the Festival of Festivals,” announced Camba, who describes the event as a “melting pot of festivals.” The goal is to bring in one location all the festivals of the country and showcase them to the rest of the world. She tells travelers to expect a major activity every week for a month during the festival: agri-fairs, street-dancing, music fests, foodfests, and a host of other attractions. For a moment, I wondered why she had not named ships and boats and yachts among those participating in this omnibus Philippine festival, but who knows? In this thriving destination where life is easy and good, I know I can always expect great possibilities coming to shore.
The Spanish were the ones who originally discovered the beauty of Subic Bay in 1868. During the American occupation, Subic Bay became the largest military installation outside of the US. After Republic Act 7227 (the Bases Conversion Act of 1992) took effect, thousands of Filipino Subic Bay volunteers finally seized the chance to build anew from everything that the conquerors left behind. But this does not mean that the people of Subic Bay just brushed away the traces of history. Key landmarks remain, while new monuments rise to pay homage to new milestones.
Along Dewey Avenue lined with mahogany, travelers will find San Roque Chapel, the oldest church in Subic. The current church that stands is no longer made up of the original structure, but the rebuilt church is still rooted on the exact site of the original. Crossing the avenue, one will find Tapan Park and the former Admiral’s Guest House. The park is named after Benjamin Tapan, a former leading commanding officer of the Navy Yard, and is where locals congregate for processions and fairs.
A short drive from Dewey Avenue would be Building 229, the Inang Laya monument and a towering Philippine flag. Built in 1954, the building used to be for the 7th fleet admiral, while the flagpole rises at 120 feet by the bay, the specs on its other measurements symbolizing the 8,000 volunteers of Subic after the bases were closed and the 18 heads of state that participated in the 1996 APEC Summit. The Inang Laya monument, depicted as a robed woman releasing a bird, honors the 12 senators who voted for the removal of the bases in the Philippines in 1992. Another park, Volunteers Park, exalts the names of the original post-bases Subic volunteers, all set in semi-circle walls of special granite.
Around 67,000 hectares comprise the entire Subic Bay area, but only 10,000 hectares make up the developed areas. All the rest is considered protected areas, proving SBMA’s success in showcasing Subic Bay as a model of ecotourism and conservation.
Among the most recommended nature attractions are Treetop Adventure of the Mangrove Park, Zoobic Safari and Ocean Adventure Park. At Treetop Adventure, I recommend the daring to try the Tree Drop, Silver Surfer and Canopy Rides, where visitors will be harnessed and brought across the forest in various styles, speeds and heights. Zoobic Safari brings guests in close contact with handsomely healthy tigers and other wild animals, after which they are sure to enjoy the famous boodle fight-style Zoodle Meal of grilled pork, barbeque chicken, java rice, fried eggplant, steamed okra, salsa, atsara, and alamang on banana leaf. My favorite nature and sea stopover, though, would have to be Ocean Park Adventure, where I saw a live dolphin show for the first time in my life and cried unexpectedly like a kid. For those who prefer a more athletic kind of natural sea adventures, they can try the wide array of watersports offerings at Networx Jetsports, where travelers seek attractions such as the hip aquatic hoverboard.
Going to JEST (Jungle Environment Survival Training) Camp and Magaul Bird Park exposed me to a cross between the natural and cultural sides of Subic. After an awesome 100-bird show, local Aeta trainer Jun Bagat taught me how to build fire with bamboo and make utensils from the same, after which I enjoyed Sinampalucang Labuyo (jungle fowl) and hot rice both cooked in bamboo tubes. At the Pamulaklakin Forest Trail, I danced with the Aeta villagers a dance depicting honey harvesting and fishing.
In Subic, everyone of any age can busy themselves with something worthwhile.
Those who seek reasonably priced accommodations may drop by and check out Subic Bay Travelers Hotel and Hotel Interpark. Those who want pampering should drop by The Ritz Tropical Spa for afternoon teas, jacuzzi baths, and full body one-hour massages. Athletic elders can choose to train at Remy Field’s oval and basketball court, while youngsters can enjoy art and science installations at Funtastic Park. The ladies can shop from the massive Royal Duty Free Shop, while the gentlemen can avoid suffering from shopping option paralysis by heading to the smaller Royal Choice Duty Free. No matter what, at the end of any activity, one never leaves Subic without sampling the best meals in their bestselling restaurants and hotels.
My first dinner night was over at Casablanca Hotel, where I feasted on Penne Al Salmone, Calamares Fritto, Beef Salpicao and the deliriously delicious orange-tinged Fried Ice Cream. Another one of our dinners at Vista Marina Hotel’s 56-seater Marista Restaurant is also remarkable for the buttery Prawn Scampi and Sizzling Squid a la Pobre, gingery Beef Broccoli and rich Oreo Cheesecake.
I had a healthy dinner night at Mango Valley Hotel, which in my opinion offers the best looking wood- furnished rooms under the most affordable rates in all of Subic. I enjoyed shabu-shabu at the hotel’s Hsin Coffee restaurant. Hotel manager Peterson Shyu revealed to me the secret behind its popularity: they make their own dumplings, meatballs and spinach noodles, and use only fresh Australian beef, lapu-lapu, shrimp and pork in an all-natural broth. Peterson’s love for Subic is among the most passionate I have seen, as he himself enthuses: “I live here but I still discover a lot of things.”
I recommend classic Filipino and Italian food from the Gerry’s Grill group of restaurants (which also owns the Court Meridian Hotel and fastfood-style Kusina Ng Gerry’s), and all-American dining at Meat Plus Café. My Chop Chop Salad for breakfast at Aresi was the most refreshing, while my Gerry’s Grill lunch feast of Nilagang Bulalo, Crispy Pata, Adobong Puso Rice, and Pork Sisig topped with crunchy chicharon was the most filling. At Meat Plus Café, I and my team had a diner-style lunch of US BBQ Short Ribs, double patty all-beef grilled burger with fries, Rib-eye Steak, oven-roasted beef belly chunks, and freshly baked apple pie.
For a nightcap, I recommend margaritas at 720 Bar of The Lighthouse Marina Resort. Lighthouse offers sunset cruises taking off at Subic Bay Yacht Club. Riding the yacht of Lighthouse owner and manager Zedrik Avecilla on our last Subic dusk, I finally had my dream-come-true close encounter with a visiting US military carrier ship. It was gray and gigantic. It’s been 22 years since the US bases left, more than two decades since we Filipinos took full control of Subic Bay. I sailed off into the sunset, seeing the prosperity earned and deserved by every Filipino who fought to keep Subic Bay alive at its most trying hours. I believe we all should go to Subic Bay to honor that feat.