SIAR­GAO

THERE’S STILL TIME TO BEAT THE CROWDS CER­TAIN TO BE HEADED FOR IDYL­LIC PHILIP­PINE SURF CAP­I­TAL

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - TRAVEL + LEISURE - PHO­TOGRAPHED BY SCOTT A. WOOD­WARD

IF SMALL-TOWN SURF­ING CEN­TER SIAR­GAO IS­LAND ISN'T AL­READY ON YOUR RADAR, IT WILL BE VERY SOON. JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN PRO­PEL­LERS OUT TO THE EAST­ERN EDGE OF THE PHILIP­PINES, WHERE HAND-WO­VEN HAM­MOCKS HANG ON STILL-EMPTY SANDS, LAIS­SEZ-FAIRE BEACH LIFE SETS THE TONE AT BARS, IN BOU­TIQUE HO­TELS AND ON THE BREAKS—AND THE PA­CIFIC CUR­RENTS ROLL IN UN­IN­TER­RUPTED.

as we sat down to a lunch spread of chicken, grilled fish, and bowls of whole­grains and veg­gies. “Are you OK?” he put his fork down, concerned. I looked at the white-ringed pool straight out of San­torini sur­rounded by wo­ven daybeds and leaf-shaped loungers, and the green-green lawn dot­ted with over­sized four-poster beds and palm trees with swing­ing pods in the form of teardrops. The wide beach and the shal­lows stretched be­yond, con­tain­ing what looked like a gazebo about 800 me­ters off­shore and a dis­tant sand­bar out in the mid­dle of the hori­zon. The skies were clear, my chair was fac­ing the sun and I had just been handed a fresh co­conut spiked with spiced rum.

I was more than OK. I was in a par­a­disi­a­cal dream and I was ter­ri­fied I wouldn’t have enough time to en­joy it all be­fore I woke up.

We were hav­ing our first meal in Nay Palad Hide­away, a bou­tique beach re­sort on Siar­gao Is­land, at the east­ern edge of the Philip­pine ar­chi­pel­ago. I’d been try­ing to get here for years. A big part of the ap­peal has been that it isn’t any­where close to easy-ac­cess. You can only fly via Manila or Cebu, and six-plus-hour lay­overs have a way of keep­ing places off the in­ter­na­tional-week­end-jaunt map.

Siar­gao, in Suri­gao del Norte prov­ince, sits just above bread­bas­ket Min­danao but is far re­moved from any of the con­flicts that have plagued that larger is­land. Its nat­u­ral beauty at­trac­tions are akin to those you may have heard of in Palawan: rock pools, un­der­ground caves, lime­stone cliffs. But Siar­gao’s real draws are the seclu­sion, the so­cial life, and the surf. It is a fa­vored week­end get­away for those from Manila, who come to stay in the chill beach-shack ho­tels, hang in the laid­back bars and restau­rants lin­ing the main strips, and to zone out on the empty beaches. At the same time, as the di­rect re­cip­i­ent of un­in­ter­rupted Pa­cific cur­rents and winds, the is­land is the surf­ing cap­i­tal of the coun­try. With con­sis­tent long rolling tubes, Cloud 9 is the most fa­mous break, but there are sundry oth­ers. By sim­ply typ­ing those two sen­tences I’ve earned the ire of loads of surfers wor­ried about the wider world dis­cov­er­ing their sea­side se­cret.

In fair­ness, the con­cern is in­creas­ingly valid. This year Cebu com­pleted a ren­o­va­tion of its in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal; in Siar­gao there are plans to ex­pand the air­port and they’ve al­ready be­gun widen­ing the road that con­nects it to the main tourist hub of Gen­eral Luna—con­struc­tion that ac­counted for the only traf­fic we saw the whole trip. With Nay Palad, by far the is­land’s most lux­u­ri­ous re­sort, hav­ing just com­pleted a re­brand­ing that in­cluded adding a stun­ning three-bed­room villa that starts at US$3,300 per cou­ple per night, how long can the is­land hold off other devel­op­ers try­ing to ride a tourism tide?

SOUTH­EAST ASIA IS scat­tered with plenty of tiny des­ti­na­tions ac­ces­si­ble only by prop plane, but once you walk across the tar­mac into most of those air­ports you wind up in a room con­tain­ing a lit­tle bag­gage carousel. When I touched down in Siar­gao, I walked into es­sen­tially a load­ing dock in which ar­riv­ing pas­sen­gers waited for air­line work­ers to de­posit our bags di­rectly at our feet. Bus-ter­mi­nal chic. Yes, this was still off the grid. I was over­joyed.

In a happy co­in­ci­dence, Scott and I had booked our trip dur­ing a time that over­lapped with a wed­ding some of my friends from Manila were at­tend­ing. Our first night, we flagged a ha­bal-ha­bal—a mo­tor­bike taxi with an elon­gated back­seat—to meet my friend Steph and her hus­band Jonathan at a Basque-themed beach club called Bravo in Gen­eral Luna. We found them hav­ing tapas at a long ta­ble by the pool. Even af­ter dusk it was swel­ter­ing. We cooled down with glasses of Pinot Gri­gio loaded up with ice cubes.

Per­suaded to go to the full-moon party, we piled into a tri­cy­cle to a beach bar named Palaka that, by day, serves as a dive cen­ter. The beach, which I would later learn is the main dock by the cen­tral market, was filled with girls with bikini strings pok­ing out of their tops and guys with long hair in board shorts, all clutch­ing San Miguels as house mu­sic pumped. The word that might come to mind in such a sce­nario is “sketchy” but it wasn’t ac­tu­ally that at all. It was more like a high school dance… with a fire show. Siar­gao may be a surf cen­ter but its pop­u­lar­ity is rel­a­tively re­cent. There re­mained an air of in­no­cence about the party that was of a piece with the over­all vibe of the is­land.

It was a vibe I bought into fully when the smil­ing bar cashier nudged her plate of hot, hand-cut french fries at me. Who can re­sist hand-cut french fries from a stranger?

While I was blab­ber­ing about how whole­some and friendly Siar­gao had al­ready proven it­self to be, we got in an­other tri­cy­cle, this one prepped for a party: flash­ing lights, disco balls. We asked cheek­ily if we could pick the mu­sic and the driver handed over a plug for a phone jack. We wrapped up the night at inside-out­side pool hall Loose Keys. Our friends Az­iza and Al­lana were pass­ing and they popped in to say hi. It was as if the gods had con­spired to meet all my small-town ex­pec­ta­tions in one night.

FLOPPED ALICE-STYLE on a dou­ble-size, dou­ble-high Won­der­land bed, con­tem­plat­ing the position of the sun and just how I was go­ing to al­lo­cate my loung­ing time be­tween our vast villa and the rest of the re­sort, which we ba­si­cally also had all to our­selves, I heard my phone ring. It was Steph. “The wed­ding re­cep­tion is at the next ho­tel over from yours,” she said. “We can come early and walk down the beach to you.”

“Uh, no, you can’t,” I said, glanc­ing skep­ti­cally north­ward, where waves were lap­ping up at a promon­tory of trees that marked Nay Palad’s prop­erty line.

“Sure,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

The change of tide here is dra­matic, and was made all the more so dur­ing our visit by the full moon. The vast

I’M HAV­ING HEART PAL­PI­TA­TIONS,” I SAID TO SCOTT, MY PHO­TOG­RA­PHER PAL I WAS TRAV­EL­ING WITH,

flats at low tide re­minded me of a chil­dren’s book I used to love in which the main char­ac­ter has the abil­ity to swal­low the sea, and does so re­luc­tantly to help a lit­tle boy pluck fish off the ocean floor. The un­grate­ful kid doesn’t come back when he’s called, so the hero runs out of breath, has to spit out the wa­ter, and drowns the boy. When I told Scott this story, he said it didn’t sound like a good book for kids.

It wasn’t, but let’s just say the moral of that story was sup­posed to be that the ocean floor is full of peril. A visit to Cloud 9 will tell you that. The iconic wave breaks over a reef so far off­shore they built a 200-me­ter board­walk to reach it. A stair­case de­scends into the ocean at stand­ing depth, and you still have to pad­dle out from there. From the third floor of the view­ing tower, a tourist des­ti­na­tion in its own right, it looks, I was told, like a per­fect line of beauty. Fac­ing it from the wa­ter, it’s a thick hol­low tube that looks con­sis­tent and seems like it should be eas­ily read­able (by my in­struc­tor, I mean; I’ve only surfed like 10 times). But it also rolls in on what I’ll call the Siar­gao flats—long, reef-bot­tomed shal­lows that can cut you up big time. I had two fist-pump­ingly fun lessons, but I def­i­nitely would have been in and out if I weren’t wear­ing a pair of neo­prene sport socks. It’s crys­tal clear why they say this wave at its low­est is def­i­nitely not at its safest.

So, Steph, of course, was right: here in Siar­gao all that mat­ters is watch­ing the tide. By the time their paraw pulled up to Nay Palad a cou­ple of hours later, the wa­ter had re­ceded so much that they ac­tu­ally had to dis­em­bark a bit off­shore. No neo­prene or fish pluck­ing for them, she and Jonathan strolled up smil­ing. On the prop­erty’s west side, a board­walk wind­ing through a man­grove for­est fil­ter­ing un­be­liev­able magic-hour light brought us to the pri­vate three-story pier. Our beloved girl Fri­day, Flo Flo, fol­lowed with a cold bot­tle of Kiwi Sau­vi­gnon Blanc and a plat­ter of canapés, and we sat in swings as the sun faded. We chat­ted about how the wed­ding had been on Naked Is­land, the large empty sand­bar off­shore where Scott had done a sun-beaten photo shoot a decade ear­lier. Back then, he said, most of the ho­tels and bars we’d seen in Gen­eral Luna the night be­fore were just palm groves.

THE FOL­LOW­ING MORN­ING we found our­selves back at the pier. Nay Palad has five of their own boats, and the star is a plush, cus­tom-built yacht ca­pa­ble of nav­i­gat­ing the twice-daily low wa­ters of the man­grove chan­nel in which it docks. We cruised out the kill, pass­ing a vil­lage in front of which tiny kids were splash­ing in the shal­lows. Here I should point out that I know a trop­i­cal is­land is the last place you’re sup­posed to care about the Wi-Fi. Dig­i­tal detox. Be present. All that, yes. But some­times you need to, say edit sto­ries, or up­load your pics to the cloud… or to your so­cial me­dia so ev­ery­one can see how awe­some your job can be. Nay Palad is in a sec­tion of Siar­gao tucked un­der a moun­tain. They’re build­ing their own cell tower but, when we were there, the sig­nal on-site was spotty. We had no choice but to em­brace a de facto dis­con­nec­tion.

Nearly a kilo­me­ter out at sea, though, ev­ery phone on the boat started ping­ing. We were pulling phys­i­cally far­ther from civ­i­liza­tion while the reap­pear­ance of the In­ter­net was push­ing us vir­tu­ally closer to the world. Full ser­vice im­parted a weird feel­ing of re­lief and re­luc­tance. Once Scott and I got our What­sApp and In­sta­gram fixes, we tucked our phones back away to de­vote our at­ten­tion to the placid seas, the lush is­lands in the dis­tance in ev­ery di­rec­tion, the fish­ing boats we oc­ca­sion­ally slowed down to pass. We won­dered if build­ing that tower was go­ing to wind up help­ing to ruin the reverie.

Af­ter about an hour, we pulled up to a lit­tle spit of sugar sands ring­ing a hill of thin for­est. The wa­ter shim­mered Tif­fany-box blue speck­led with sea­weed-cov­ered coral. I wanted in ASAP, but the staff were all ready­ing our sup­plies to take ashore. It was car­a­van by pad­dle­board: beach chairs, bags of tow­els, table­ware, cool­ers filled with wine and beer and lunch fix­ings, and a bar­be­cue grill were loaded atop fat pad­dle­boards and floated to the beach. As soon as they were done, I hopped on one and set about ex­plor­ing our sur­rounds. Watch­ing schools of fish dart­ing through the trans­par­ent wa­ter, I could see why the strait be­tween Ma­mon, where we were docked, and La Janoza across the way is a cov­eted snor­kel­ing spot.

It seemed an in­or­di­nate num­ber of paraws had be­gun to ar­rive at Ma­mon—with chick­ens. I joked to our guide that they were prob­a­bly go­ing to eat them, and he said, “Some­times, but only if you’re im­mune to the poi­son.” It turned out there was a se­cret cock­fight­ing ring on this is­land, and some own­ers dab poi­son on their talons to give

their birds an edge. It was Sun­day. “The women go to church,” our guide said, “and the men can go to the fight.”

I ad­mired the lit­ter of out­rig­gers they left be­hind on the beach—a jelly­bean bas­ket of empty boats, the per­fect cliché Philip­pine is­land photo if there ever was one—from the gazebo our five min­ders had ren­dered five-star for us, lay­ing out a wo­ven table­cloth cov­ered with grilled shrimp, fish and chicken, car­rot salad, fried rice, fruit and a pile of co­conut choco­late-chip cook­ies Scott went bonkers for.

The sun­glasses-wear­ing chef tossed a wok of noo­dles over the fire and my heart melted a lit­tle, re­mind­ing me why I love liv­ing in South­east Asia, this DIY, tra­di­tion-blend­ing, just-fig­ure-out-how-to-get-it-done at­ti­tude.

IT’S A MIND­SET WE SAW in full-force on a very dif­fer­ent af­ter­noon, when Nay Palad was putting on a spay­ing and neu­ter­ing clinic in a nearby vil­lage (where they also spon­sor the el­e­men­tary school). They had flown in a few vet­eri­nar­i­ans from Manila, put them up at the re­sort, and put the word out across the is­land to bring their cats and dogs to get fixed. Those with­out a ve­hi­cle just had to call, and Kate, the re­sort’s bub­bly, Amer­i­can, man­age­ment trainee, would fetch the an­i­mals in her car­toon­ish big red dune buggy. I later learned that among the re­sort own­ers’ other projects is Com­postela, a sus­tain­able rain­for­est vil­lage they built for 500 for­mer scav­engers who used to live on a dump­site in Cebu City.

Know­ing about this com­mu­nity stew­ard­ship goes a ways to­wards off­set­ting the guilt of stay­ing some­where with such a high room rate. So does the fact that the re­sort is all-in­clu­sive from food and bev­er­age to day trips (a good pick is a sail to the karst-ringed, emer­ald-pooled So­ho­ton Cove, ac­ces­si­ble only through a hole in a rock when the tide ebbs). It is as­sumed you will treat the prop­erty like home. If you want a drink and there’s no bar­tender, just head back and pour it your­self; if you want to watch a movie un­der the stars, the staff will string a screen be­tween the palm trees. Air­port pick-ups are in a com­fort­ably kit­ted out, couch-lined an­tique jeep­ney. The spa is set up like a fairy vil­lage, and once you put on their be­spoke Turk­ish-towel, hood­ied and tassled bathrobe, you’re not go­ing to want to take it off. (I, in fact, spent half my trip in one. An over­packer in the best of times, I found my­self with three times as many clothes as I needed.)

They man­age this level of ser­vice by lim­it­ing the num­ber of vil­las oc­cu­pied by sep­a­rate par­ties to six. And in truth, the vil­las alone of­fer enough dis­trac­tion by sheer will of their play­ful, taste­ful lux­ury. Scott and I were able to share the new three-bed­room pad—com­plete with firepit, tree house and porch swing—be­cause there were two mas­ter bed­rooms, both fac­ing the pri­vate pool and the beach, and both with gi­ant bath­rooms whose ceil­ings were half given over to mas­sive rain shower heads, putting to shame any­one else’s def­i­ni­tion of rain shower ever.

NOT UN­TIL WE WERE nearly done plan­ning this trip did I re­al­ize Az­iza runs a travel agency that spe­cial­izes in Siar­gao. I just thought she was be­ing friendly. But she or­ga­nized the wed­ding ev­ery­one was in town for, and be­sides spend­ing her child­hood here on hol­i­day, her ties to the is­land stretch back gen­er­a­tions. She em­pha­sized how com­mit­ted she and other Siar­gao boost­ers are to not let­ting the is­land be­come an­other Bo­ra­cay—en­cour­ag­ing devel­op­ers to have proper ir­ri­gation so­lu­tions be­fore they build, tourists to par­tic­i­pate in or­ga­nized beach cleanups and vol­un­teers to sup­port Na­ture Kids of Siar­gao, which helps res­i­dents up­cy­cle and live more sus­tain­ably.

One evening, she picked up Scott and me in a paraw bear­ing her name, and her boat­man mo­tored us across the strait to Daku Is­land. It has a curve of beach fac­ing west to Siar­gao that is a fa­vored spot for sun­set-seek­ers. Sit­ting in the sand, we caught the last rays of the day, then walked through the vil­lage, amid the com­pet­ing din of sev­eral con­ve­nience stores-cum-karaoke huts. Az­iza’s mom was

on the porch and, though she wasn’t ex­pect­ing us, she smiled know­ingly, as if her daugh­ter brought back ran­dom strag­glers to en­joy her hos­pi­tal­ity reg­u­larly. She told us that she, too, had grown up com­ing to th­ese is­lands, her fa­ther hav­ing served three terms as a con­gress­man for the area. When they built this house in the 1990s, the fam­ily slept on mat­tresses on the floor, and had no elec­tric­ity, only turn­ing the gen­er­a­tor on at night. Her kids plucked sea urchins off the beach, fish from the ocean floor.

Dur­ing a lull in the waves on my sec­ond morn­ing out on Cloud 9, I had a cou­ple of min­utes to stop be­ing out of breath and ac­tu­ally con­tem­plate the is­land in front of me. Would this wave that made the place fa­mous con­trib­ute to its un­do­ing? The cool kids have been de­rid­ing it as “Crowd 9” for a while. Cer­tainly, I wasn’t sup­posed to be out here, but the lo­cals had a sys­tem. The real surfers stick to the big­ger side of the break. Be­gin­ners head to the other side where in­struc­tors can con­trol your boards and chat with each other over your heads like par­ents mind­ing kids on the play­ground. If my teacher, Doy Doy, changed his mind about whether I should try to catch a wave, he’d just pull back my leash and re­sume scan­ning the hori­zon for the next one. The mood on the wa­ter was con­vivial, there was an eti­quette. “Ladies first!” he’d shout to call dibs on a wave for me, and “last wave!” to sig­nal it was my fi­nal ride of the day, so ev­ery­one get out of the way, thank you very much.

I guess I didn’t em­bar­rass Doy Doy on day one, be­cause for this sec­ond les­son, he put me on a shorter board than I’d ever rid­den. When he called out “last wave”—even though I had told him to—my heart broke a bit, since it was also our last day in Siar­gao, and we’d be head­ing to the air­port soon. Az­iza met us at the pier to say good­bye. She and Kate had be­come pals dur­ing our visit, and they were hav­ing lunch. Dur­ing our six-hour lay­overs in Cebu, they sent Scott and me pho­tos of their whole­some is­land day, and said they were en route to Daku so Az­iza could in­tro­duce yet an­other strag­gler to her mama. We sighed. At least some­one was still liv­ing the par­a­disi­a­cal dream.

Nay Palad Hide­away's cus­tom yacht, docked off Ma­mon Is­land, an hour from Siar­gao.

Look­ing to­wards Siar­gao from Naked Is­land. CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Two cap­tains are bet­ter than one; an­chored off Ma­mon Is­land; a happy af­ter­noon at Mali­nao El­e­men­tary.

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