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“Paracale. 16km.” I heaved an ecstatic, purgative sigh of relief as we finally came upon a junction where a road sign pointed out the direction to our intended destination. It was already an ungodly 2:30 AM, and I was just too eager to finally end our arduously long evening journey from Manila to the northern seaboard of Camarines Norte. The traffic that faced us throughout the first half of our trip and the interminable drive through dark, remote, tortuous and unfamiliar roads during the last half was already wearing me out and fraying my nerves around the edges.
I was driving the Nissan 2016 4WD X-Trail, a sporty SUV packed with some nifty smart technology and practical features. The driver console, with its push-button start and numerous steering wheel controls, threw an old-school driver like me fumbling about the first time I got on the driver’s seat, but the vehicle’s impressive road performance and easy handling promptly put me in pleasant terms with the vehicle. Its somewhat more compact and lower profile belies a rather roomy and comfortable interior, which made the lengthy drive to Paracale comfortably manageable.
At Paracale, my travel companion Emman and I waited out the rest of the early morning, getting whatever few hours of sleep we could manage to sneak in before our morning boat ride to the Calaguas Islands. There was ample cargo space at the back of the Nissan X-Trail for me to comfortably curl up and snooze. Emman meanwhile slumbered on the front seat.
The small town, which, as I’ve later learned, thrived off a medium-scale gold panning industry, was already fully awake when I roused from my sleep and saw a scraggly middle-aged guy curiously peering into the vehicle. His name was Andy, a handler called in by Waling-Waling Resort to assist us in getting our ride to Calaguas. After securing the car at some private parking area and grabbing some light breakfast at a local eatery, Emman and I were then off on a two-hour boat crossing.
Hardly heard of until recent years, the Calaguas group of islands has steadily gained considerable renown as an idyllic beach getaway, drawing throngs of visitors to its mesmerizingly shining strands of fine white sand and enchantingly clear waters. It was a Sunday, and the long stretch of beach at the popular area of Mahabang Buhangin on Tinaga island was littered with vacationers enjoying the allure of the place and parked boats strung out along the waters. Waling-Waling Resort’s general manager, Dino Sacay, a genial executive with an unpretentious, down-to-earth demeanor and deceivingly youthful looks, met us upon our arrival. He and his wife, Marge, were in the thick of sending off other guests who were checking out for the end of their weekend stay. Later in the afternoon, when the crowds had thinned out and the beach had quieted to a more languid stride, Dino commented how Mahabang Buhangin and most of the other parts of Calagauas used to be uninhabited and devoid of any artificial presence. He recounted how his father, Dr. Orlando Sacay, former president of the Boracay Foundation, first came to Calaguas and saw promise in its luxurious natural lure.
“When we first set up here, we were the only resort. There were no other cabanas or other huts,” Dino mentioned. “After two years of operating, other investors and other business people started noticing that we were doing well and started putting up resorts of their own.”
Since then, other players who came into Mahabang Buhangin had Waling-Waling as their benchmark, emulating and copying the latter in various aspects. Having passed by all the other neighboring resorts, I did see just how similar their constructions and property were to those of Waling-Waling. But what was truly impressive with Waling-Waling, more than just being the visionary pioneer in developing Calaguas as a sought-after destination, was an astute environmental and social conscientiousness that underscores its operations and corporate existence. Drawing lessons from their experience in running the previous Waling-Waling resort in Boracay, Dino’s father and himself developed their current venture in Calaguas to co-exist with the natural surrounding and the nearby communities. Their open-air cabanas were fabricated using light, native materials and purposely built without walls in order to allow seasonal typhoon winds to easily pass through the structures. Their food highlighted traditional Bicolano cuisine, with most of the ingredients procured directly from local grassroots suppliers and producers. And while the other neighboring resorts along Mahabang Buhangin started putting up tent cities along their beachfront to cater more to the mass market, Waling-Waling decided to keep careful control over its occupancy in order to maintain the serenity and comeliness of its place. Over dinner, Dino and Marge described how, amidst the increase of noisier tourists and weekend drinking sprees in the other resorts, they want their guests to enjoy and appreciate Calaguas the way that they had experienced it before mass tourism started encroaching into their shores.
“Our vision for the island is proper development. Proper regulations. Finding better jobs for the community. Proper development of local tourism,” Dino declared. “Our belief is that if we don’t develop properly, we’ll lose our product. Waling-Waling’s product is not just accommodations; it’s actually the whole Calaguas destination.”
There was indeed a patently tranquil beauty to Calaguas, something that I only fully appreciated during the following days when the multitude of weekend tourists had all gone back to their weekday routines. Mahabang Buhangin rolled out far like a bleached carpet, gleaming and open, its turquoise waters humming the lulling rustle of breaking waves. Our boat tour to the other nearby islands further proffered me glimpses to other parts of the Calaguas islands group. There were the rocky seaside pools of Balabag Maliit where we took a dip, the grassy knoll of Kaburnayan where we strolled for a scenic view of a cloistered cove, the private beach of Cumalasag Island where a cover of pine trees curiously grew, the coastal community of Sogod where we visited a local fish dealer who has made a modest fortune with his trade, and the expansive sandbar of Pinagkastilyuhan where the receded tide has exposed a magnificently vast blanket of white.
Exploring the inland of Tinaga Island, Emman and I had the company of one of Waling-Waling’s staff members, Jinggoy, an affable pug of a guy with an animated air, who guided us up the highest point of the island and down through rolling grasslands, passing by the coastal village of Mangkawayan. At Tinaga’s highest point, I took in the panoramic vista of the whole of Calaguas, feasting my eyes on the vivid seascape and relishing the strong summer breeze that swept over us. Down below, Mahabang Buhangin stretched out along the northern shoreline, its row of resort huts and cabanas assembled like threaded beads. I beheld how beautiful the beach was, yet at the same time regarded its fragility, how in a short time its pristine quality may easily be sullied and gone if hordes of visitors should further descend upon the place and destructive tourism practices would run rampant and unchecked.
Our last evening at Waling-Waling was spent on enjoyable chat with Dino and Marge over a sumptuous fare of grilled fish and traditional Filipino dishes. Dino told stories about his dad and about people he have met and worked with from when he started managing the resort brand in Boracay. He told stories of how people and places grew. He told stories about Calaguas, how it was and how it has changed. There were no TVs at the resort. No wi-fi. No evening entertainment, save for good old-fashioned conversation. There was only the star-lit evening, the soft murmur of the waves, the pleasant company of friends. This was the Calaguas that I appreciated. This was the Calaguas to which I hope I could still look forward to returning.