Later, I dust myself off at Sitio Remedios, a seaside compound of nine traditional balay-na-bato (stone house) structures that the property’s owner, Dr. Joven Cuanang, has relocated from other parts of Ilocos. Centered on a chapel, they date from the Spanish period, and have been lovingly refurbished; my quarters are fitted with antique furnishings and artefacts from Dr. Cuanang’s extensive collection.
I join the physician-turned-hotelier and some of his friends for a torchlit dinner near the water’s edge. The meal unfolds in a procession of Ilocano favourites, including pinakbet, a dish of bitter melon, eggplant, and other vegetables stewed in bagoong (fermented fish paste); and bagnet, deep-fried pork belly cooked to a crisp brown and served with tomatoes, spring onions, and more bagoong. A fount of local lore with a knack for comedic delivery, Dr. Cuanang keeps us all in stitches with stories of his childhood and of his fellow Ilocanos, particularly their legendary frugality. (“My grandmother used to dip the same slab of meat in boiling water for two weeks to flavor our broth!” he tells us between courses.)
Beneath the self-deprecation, it’s clear that Dr. Cuanang is fiercely proud of his roots. More than a just a high-end resort or a set of restored buildings, Sitio Remedios is about a man reliving his childhood. The beach we’re dining on was the same stretch of sand he frequented as a boy, and the houses are similar to the home he grew up in. Retiring to a comfortable bed that seems more a museum piece, I realize that the doctor’s nostalgia is contagious.
“Would you like to meet Imelda?” Dr. Cuanang asks the next day, a mobile phone still pressed to his ear. On the other end is the former Philippine First Lady herself.
I’m in the process of settling my bill, with plans to make an early start for the northern beaches of Pagudpud. But why not? It isn’t every day that you get the chance to rub shoulders with a woman whose shoe collection once numbered in the thousands. So I follow Dr. Cuanang into Currimao, where Congresswoman Imelda Marcos is addressing a group of health care workers at the local gym.
Standing at the back of the hall, I listen as she extols the efforts of volunteer doctors. Despite the years in exile, the failed presidential bids, and the protracted corruption trials, “the Iron Butterfly” has retained her stately aura, even at the age of 82.
Her speech done, she takes her place at the lunch table set up on the podium. Dr. Cuanang sits next to her, and motions for me to join them. As introductions are being made, my eyes wander to the table, widening at the mountain of food under which it groans. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I ask Imelda for a sound bite about Ilocos Norte, whose constituents she has represented since her landslide victory at the polls last year.
There’s a thoughtful pause, and then, “The President”â€”she still refers to her late husband thusâ€””used to say Ilocos was surrounded by the sea and the mountains, and when encircled by nature, you can be smart.”
And with that, my audience is over. Dr. Cuanang asks me to stay for lunch, but I need to reach Pagudpud before dark. So instead, I grab a slice of bagnet as I head out the door.
Beyond the congestion of Laoag, the Maharlika Highway heads north toward the rugged scenery of coast. At Burgos, I make a short diversion to admire the surreal beauty of the Kapurpurawan Rocksâ€”a formation of wind- and wave-sculpted limestoneâ€”and the venerable Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, first lit in 1892. From here, the road follows the gentle curve of Bangui Bay, and the craggy seashore morphs into a long crescent of sand where the blades of 15 towering windmills rotate briskly in the breeze.
Saud, one of the first beaches that I pass on my way up the Pagudpud Peninsula, is thronging with holidaymakers. Thankfully, my destination for the next two nights is not. At a turnoff, I finally leave the highway and follow a track to the crest of a promontory. From here, the views extend across a vast, translucent-blue lagoon fringed by a sweep of white sand. Off the far headland of the cove, a pair of islets known as Dos Hermanos (“Two Brothers”) punctuates the scenery.
This was the same vista that welcomed Philippine-American couple Mike and Alma Oida several years ago as they drove around the country in search of the perfect surfing spot. Laying their eyes on this picture-perfect scene ultimately sealed their decision to pack up everything, return to the Philippines from the U.S., and build their own resort at the end of Mairaira Cove. And that’s where I am headed.
Morning finds me in the water, practicing my paddleboarding skills in the lagoon. Apart from surfing (when the season’s right), there’s really not all that much else to do here, which suits me just fine. I eat, I sleep, I swim, I lay on the sand, and all too suddenly it’s time to go.
The final stop on my Ilocos tour takes me inland to the northernmost slopes of Luzon’s Cordillera mountain range. Around the tiny highland town of Adams, a traditional stronghold of the Igorot people reached by 14 kilometers of unpaved road, the views are stupendous, taking in wooded valleys and terraced paddy fields. These hills are well fed by water, and I manage to trek to three different waterfalls, the last of which, an eight-meter cascade called Anuplig, thunders into a two-tiered pool. Needing to cool off, I jump into the lower basin, and emerge almost as rapidly, spluttering expletives at the water’s surprisingly chilly temperature.
Back in Adams for a late lunch at a modest guesthouse, I’m served what passes for comfort food in these parts: fire-ant eggs, fried frogs, and river eel cooked in coconut juice. It’s surprisingly tasty, especially when washed down by the sweet local wine, made from wild bugnay fruit. On a bench outside the guesthouse’s adjoining tasting room, I pour myself a glass of the purplish liquid and settle in to enjoy the scenery.
“Not quite Bordeaux or Tuscany,” I overhear a table of Filipino backpackers snigger as they polish off their own bottle.
Maybe not. But up here in the fresh mountain air, looking across a range of lush, forested peaks, it tastes like ambrosia.
It’s a long (10 hours) but scenic drive along the Ilocos Highway from Manila to Vigan. Those wishing to skip that leg of the trip can do what the author did and fly from Manila to Laoag, the provincial capital of Ilocos Norte, on Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com), which services the route daily. From Laoag, Vigan is a 90-minute drive to the south.
When to Go
The Philippines’ wet season runs from June to September. The weather is considerably more pleasant on either side of these months.
Where to Stay
** Fort Ilocandia Resort Hotel: A full-service resort with casino, 9 km south of Laoag on the beach. 63-77/670- 9101; fortilocandia.com.ph; doubles from US$110.
** Kapuluan Vista Resort: Pagudpud; 63-920/ 952-2528; kapuluanvista.com; doubles from US$65.
** Sitio Remedios: Currimao; 63-917/ 332-0217; sitioremedios.com; doubles from US$116.
Where to Eat
** Leila’s Cafe: Vigan’s best place to fuel up, serving pasta, crepes, pastries, and frappuccinos. General Luna, Calle Crisologo.
** Playa Tropical Resort: The restaurant here serves excellent seafood, just down the shore from Sitio Remedios. Currimao; 63-77/670-1211.
Originally appeared in the June/July 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Northwest Passage”)