Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Samantha in the Philippines

Here in Taiwan, there is no time off from work for Christmas or New Year’s.  So, we Westerners were all excited to have a week off to observe Chinese New Year.  I packed my (huge) bag and left on a jet plane to the Philippines with five friends. 

Liza, Me, Vanessa, Megan, Conor, Janet

Thanks to Janet and her welcoming family, this trip was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.  Janet’s family picked us up from the airport, treated us to several meals, let us stay in their Manila and Anvaya Cove condos, drove us around the Philippines, and acted as our private guides to many parts of the Philippines!  
We woke up the first morning and headed off to Tagaytay to see Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano.  Taal Volcano erupted most recently in 1911 and has been active since.  There are 47 craters and 35 volcanic cones.  Apparently, it’s one of the world’s deadliest volcanoes.  Cool.  

Lake Taal with Taal Volcano in the background
After a bangka boat ride across Lake Taal, we saddled up on donkeys to trek up the island to the top of the volcano. 

Bangka boat ride on Lake Taal

Donkey ride up to Taal Volcano

Hi-yo, Silver!  Away!

At the top of the ridge, we looked out over the yellow sulfurous lake that lies inside the volcanic crater.  In the crater lake is another island.  Crazy!  We were on an island in the Philippines (which is surrounded by the South China Sea), standing on a volcanic island in a lake, looking out over an island in the crater lake of the volcano.  Did you get all that?  There’s an island in a lake, in a crater of a volcano, in a lake, on an island, in the sea.  Whoa. 

Island in crater lake of Taal Volcano 
Sulfurous crater lake

Sunset on Taal Volcano

View of Lake Taal from Taal Volcano

The next day, we drove up to Subic Bay to stay at Anvaya Cove resort for a few days.  I think we were all in shock at how beautiful the resort was.  There were very few other guests while we were there, so it was almost like a private resort.  Just look at these pictures!! 

Lounging on the beach 
Anvaya Cove


Anvaya Cove resort

Yep, that's real.

Pools at Anvaya

To reward ourselves for all our hard traveling, we booked massages at the spa.  Best. Hour. Of. My. Life.  That lady knew what she was doing (although I was more than slightly surprised at just how thorough the massage was....).
On our last morning at Anvaya, we kayaked out into the bay before saying goodbye with a ride on the zip line.  We ate one more delicious and unnecessarily large meal, then checked out and loaded into the car for a 5-hour drive north to Alaminos.

Kayaking with Janet.  (thanks for the picture, Vanessa!)
A trip with this group of friends isn’t truly complete without a ridiculous karaoke session, so it was off to late-night Videoke.  We were excited to have a larger variety of English-language songs to choose from than KTV in Taiwan typically offers.  Frank Sinatra and the Backstreet Boys can get a little old.....

Philippines debut!  (photo credit goes to Janet!)
The next morning, we all made a pact not to shower and loaded ourselves back into the car to go shopping for island provisions.  Supplied with a couple gallons of water and 17 pounds of fruit, we hired a boat to take us out to Hundred Islands National Park.  Lucky for us, Janet had ANOTHER family member willing and able to show us the ropes.  Cousin Howie and his “assistants” took care of us for the next two days.
Aboard the outrigger, boating away from the shore, we got our first glimpse of Hundred Islands.  In fact, there are 123 islands (124 at low tide!) in the park.  Of course we didn’t go to all the islands, but take a look at the islands we did see!  

Hundred Islands National Park 

Check out the mushroom effect!


Our first adventure was on Marcos Island, where we went cave diving!  Well, we didn’t really dive, but we certainly jumped!  After a short hike up the island, we came into a dark cave with bats flying all around.  With no fear, Conor jumped off the ledge and into the water below.  I was up next, but I was slightly less uninhibited.  Surprise, surprise.  It took me a couple moments of self-talk and a few hesitations before I finally took the leap.  The three seconds between my feet leaving the ledge and my head popping back up from under the water were some of the most terrifying and simultaneously exhilarating of my life.  I immediately wanted to do it again!  The rest of the gang jumped as well, and we all decided to go back to the boat, grab our snorkels, and jump again.  

Liza captured the moment before I jumped!
Next up was more snorkeling, this time in a giant clam bed.  I’ve been snorkeling before, but I’ve never seen such beautiful coral and colorful fish!  Oh yeah, and those giant clams.  Let me tell you, they were big.  The jellyfish were also plentiful, and that put an end to my snorkeling session.
Back on the boat, we headed over to Quezon Island, our home for the evening.  It was like living with the Swiss Family Robinson.  The island has a public picnic area and a little shop where you can buy snacks and drinks.  But we hard-core island hoppers decided to rent out one of the bamboo huts to sleep for the night.  After climbing up a set of carved-rock steps, we came to our private paradise. 

Inside the hut 
Our formal dining room

Home, sweet bamboo hut!

View from the "backyard"

Quezon Island

Public picnic area

View from the hut

This way to the store!

We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and drank maybe a few too many beers while watching the sunset.  I decided to swim out from the shore while the sun was going down, and if you have never been IN the ocean as the sun is setting over the horizon, I would highly recommend it.  Breathtaking.  After the sun was down, the stars came out.  At this point I think I had probably drank too many beers and too much tequila-coconut concoction, but I remember laying on the beach, looking up at the sky, and proclaiming, “There are stars BETWEEN the stars!”  You just don’t realize how many stars there are when they are always drowned out by ground light in the city!
As if the twinkling stars above me weren’t enough, the tide rolling in on the beach was also glittering!  Little blue specs of light washed up with every wave.  According to my research, this is caused by either phosphorus or bioluminescence.  I don’t have any pictures, but here’s a video of the phenomenon in Australia.  But the experience we had was much more awesome -- the tide was sparkling! 
The next morning, we woke up with the ocean breeze and set about relaxing and eating illegal giant clam.  Don’t ask where we got it.  No one had a watch.  Cellphones were all dead.  We were on Island Time.  
Some time in the afternoon, we packed our things and set sail for more Hundred Islands sightseeing.  Our first stop was a snorkeling/spelunking adventure in a “secret” cave.  We swam into a cave, fighting the current trying to smash us against the rocks and coral.  Once inside the cave, we stood atop a large rock and watched as bats flew above our heads (and probably pooped on us).  But this was not “secret” enough for our secret cave trip.  We were guided through an even smaller and more dangerous cave passage to a small hole just large enough for a set of broad shoulders to pass through.  Still fighting the current, I popped my head out of the hole and pushed myself out onto the other side of the island.  We had swam UNDER the island!  Crrrrrrrazy!  Swimming around the island to get back to the boat, we did more snorkeling and got stung hundreds of times by tiny jellyfish!
Our final hop was to Governor’s Island.  This island provided magnificent views of the national park.  I was told you can see 70% of the Hundred Islands from the viewpoint.  

Governor's Island 
Hundred Islands National Park



Governor's Island in Hundred Islands National Park

A quick shower, a little souvenir shopping, and a six-hour bus ride put us back in Manila for the weekend.  Our last day in the Philippines was Janet’s birthday, which gave us a perfect excuse to celebrate the person who made this entire trip happen!  Without Janet and her amazing family, there’s no way this journey would have been as exceptional was it turned out to be!  Salamat!  

Salamat, Janet!!

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