Apuao Grande Island (Mercedes, Camarines Norte)

Back on our boat, we still had time to visit Apuao Grande Island, the most famous of the 7 islands.  Located 10 kms. northeast of Daet and a 45-min. boat ride from Mercedes, we again made landfall at a beautiful stretch of white sand beach.  The island also has agoho trees (an evergreen species of trees that look like pine trees),  mangrove forests, a sandbar and a steep cliff (ideal for rock climbing) on the Pacific side.

Apuao Grande Island

Apuao Grande Island was also once home to the once high-end TS Resort, formerly operated by the Australian-run Swagman Hotel chain.  At its heyday in the 1980s, it had 30 non-airconditioned cottages with bath, a restaurant, beach bar, swimming pool, tennis court, gym, sauna, a 9-hole golf course and an airstrip.  Now abandoned due to lack of marketing push and typhoons, most of the solar-powered villas are leased to many expatriates who want to stay on the island.

Posing with Apuao Pequena Island in the background

From Apuao Grande Island, we crossed over to the 24.29-hectare Apuao Pequena Island (also called Apuao Munti Island) which is connected to Apuao Grande Island by a land bridge (during low tide).  It wasn’t low tide yet, but somehow we managed to cross to the other side despite the somewhat strong current.  The island has a 350 m. long shoreline, a 150-ft. high mountain and a campsite.

The campsite at Apuao Pequena Island

We didn’t have time to visit Caringo Island and Malasugui Island (the smallest of the seven) and their white sand beaches and, thus, we again boarded our boat for the return trip back to the mainland. The perfect time for visiting these islands is from late March to early May.  It was such a pleasant surprise to see how beautiful islands such as these have been kept from the national tourism spotlight for so long.  Maybe, next time, they’ll take notice.

Crossing towards Apuao Grande Island

Mercedes Municipal Tourism Development Operation Center: Mercedes Fish Port, Mercedes, Camarines Norte.  Tel: (056) 444-1261.  E-mail: discovermercedes@yahoo.com. Website: www.discovermercedes.gov.ph.

The Siete Pecados of Mercedes

The Siete Pecados

I again got an invitation from Daet Mayor Tito S. Sarion to attend Daet’s Pinyasan Festival together with events organizer Mr. Bernard Supetran.  Two days before the big event, I hopped on the 1 PM Philtranco bus bound for Daet.  Normally, the trip took just 8 hours but traffic due to road widening and repair projects extended my trip another 2 hours.  It was just about 10 PM when I arrived at the town, checking in at the Prime Suite Hotel along Vinzons Ave.  After a late dinner at a nearby Jollibee outlet, I met up with Atty. Debbee Francisco, of the Camarines NorteTourism Office, at the Miss Daet/Miss Pinyasan 2012 pageant held at the Daet Agro Sports Center.   Debbie scheduled an island hopping treat for us the next day.

Mercedes Fish Port

The next day, after breakfast, Debbee and Mr. Aldrin Sarion, a member of her staff, picked us up at our hotel and brought us to the municipal port of the nearby (7 kms.) town of Mercedes.  One of the most important and prosperous fishing ports in Luzon, this town, the fish bowl of the Bicol Region, is home to the third largest fishing ground in the country.   Mercedes’ large fishing fleet of 20-m. long basnigs supplies a large bulk of the catch of fish and shrimps to Manila.  We arrived in time for the lively early morning fish market (open from 6-8am).  At the port, we were welcomed by Mr. Victor John Orendain IV, a staff member of the Mercedes Municipal Tourism Development Operation Center.

Mercedes Municipal Tourism
Development Operation Center

Here, a boat (aptly named Dona Mercedes) was chartered for our morning tour of Mercedes’ picturesque Siete Pecados (“Seven Sins”) group of islands which comprises Apuao Grande, Apuao Pequeña, Canimog, Canton, Caringo, Malasugui and Quinapaguian Islands. Victor and Aldrin accompanied us on this trip and we brought along snacks and a tandem kayak.  Debbee stayed behind as she had to attend to their float for the festival.  On several occasions, while we were cruising along, we espied hundreds of flying fish doing their aerial acrobatics around our boat.  About 15 mins. into our trip, we passed (but did not land) by the by the crocodile-shaped Canimog Island, the largest of the 7 islands.  The island has a dramatic lighthouse where one can camp, a grayish sand beach and lush foliage which is home to thousands of huge bats.  Its  lighthouse, erected June 26, 1927, is one of the oldest in the Bicol Region.

Rocky Canimog Island and its lighthouse

About 30 mins. out of town, we arrived off the coast of rocky Canton Island. We also didn’t make landfall here as the island has no beach and has minimal vegetation.  However, the island is noted for its underwater Canton Cave. The cave is visible only at low tide and we were hoping that was the case as we planned to do some kayaking all the way to its entrance.  Disappointment was written in our faces as we neared the cave, still at its high tide mark.  Somewhat strong waves here would also have dashed our kayak to the rocks.  Oh well, maybe next time.   We proceeded on our way

Canton Cave

About 15 mins. later, we arrived at small Quinapaguian Island, this time making landfall at its nice stretch of white sand beach. The island offers a good view of the other islands and has a fish sanctuary where one can go snorkeling.  However, we weren’t there for the latter as offloaded the kayak from our boat, donned life vests, boarded the kayak and started paddling its calm, clear, blue waters towards the other side of the island.  This more than made up for our missed opportunity at Canton Island.

Quinapaguian Island
Bernard and I on our kayaking run

Mercedes Municipal Tourism Development Operation Center: Mercedes Fish Port, Mercedes, Camarines Norte.  Tel: (056) 444-1261.  E-mail: discovermercedes@yahoo.com. Website: www.discovermercedes.gov.ph.

Rufino Pabico Ancestral House (Daet, Camarines Norte)

Rufino Pabico Ancestral House

The Pinyasan Street Dancing and Marching Band Parade, along Vinzons Ave., had now passed us by and, before leaving, Lee, TJ, Bernard and I decided to drop by the two-storey, maroon and white  Rufino Pabico ancestral house, the only remaining relic of early 20th century architecture in Daet.  On hand to welcome us was the 75 year old Francisco Pabico Temoner, the grandson of the original owner. Mr. Temoner, I would later learn, is a retired General Manager of  the Camarines Norte Electric Cooperative (CANORECO) and a acquaintance of my father-in-law, Mr. Manuel L. Sta. Maria, retired Deputy Administrator of the National Electrification Administration (NEA).

Francisco Temoner at the grand staircase

Built in 1917 and the scene of high-society balls in the 1930s, the grand Rufino Pabico house was still well-preserved.  Within its well-manicured front yard is an octagonal fountain.  Like many typical bahay na bato (stone houses), it has a masonry ground floor and a wooden second floor.  Arches are predominant in front; from the ground floor colonnaded front porch, with its fluted square columns, all the way up to its second floor sliding capiz (oyster shell) windows, its arches decorated with intricate lacy (calado) woodwork.  That same woodwork can also be found above the windows and in the eave fascias. Between the window sill and the floor are ventanillas with sliding wooden shutters for additional ventilation.

The well-preserved interiors

The interiors are just as well preserved.  The grand stone staircase, with its marble steps, still has its rococo-style carvings while the alternately dark and  light-hued hardwood floor still retain their shine.  The ceiling is covered with wood carvings.  All these are complemented by a Cornish piano, pre-war chandeliers, wall paintings, vintage family photos and antique wooden furniture including silohiya (wickerwork)-covered chairs.  Novelties here include a now-unused wood-fired stove and a free-standing antique, enamel-covered cast iron bathtub.  

According to Mr. Temoner, during World War II, the house was used as a headquarters for the Japanese Imperial Army and, later during the Liberation, by American forces.  In 1995, a strong typhoon partially destroyed the house but it was soon restored to its original look. The house hit the limelight when it was featured in an article at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, written by our media colleague Amadis Ma. Guerrero.  Since then, it has been included in the list of places to see in Daet as well as in the province.  On June 19, 1997, the house was conferred the “Provincial Cultural Treasure Award,” as indicated by a plaque installed at the porch wall.   During the 2009 Pinyasan Festival, the Daet Kiwanis Club, the Daet Senior Citizens Federation and Reina Daetena hosted the Grand Tertulia de Daet at this house.

Rufino Pabico Ancestral House: Vinzons Ave., Poblacion, Daet, Camarines Norte

Pinyasan Festival 2011 (Daet, Camarines Norte)

Pinyasan Street Dancing Competition

My last visit to Camarines Norte literally hit two birds with one stone as we covered the 150th birth anniversary of National Hero Jose Rizal (June 19) and the Pinyasan Festival (June 15-24) which coincided with Daet‘s 428th foundation anniversary and the quadricentennial of its St. John the Baptist parish.  Daet Mayor Tito Sarion, who was a town councilor in 1993, started the town’s Pinyasan Festival. Back in the1990s, while attending a Philippine Travel Mart Convention, Tito conceived of the idea of promoting a local festival in honor of the Formosa pineapple, the sweetest variety among home-grown pineapples in Camarines Norte and a major fruit product. The festival has significantly boosted the popularity of the pineapple (its other potentials then only known by local farmers and traders) and fortified industries related to it.   Today, foreign firm Sunzu Agri-Development, Inc. has a pineapple processing plant at Brgy Caayunan in Basud while another newly-established agro-industrial firm (Flora Farms Integrated, Inc.) in Brgy. Pamorangon in Daet has ventured into the production of food and other products derived from pineapple. There is also a Pineapple Island Resort-Hotel (Calasgasan, Daet), a new bus firm (Pineapple Gold Express) and countless newly created food recipes that include pineapple as ingredient.  Neighboring Basud town and local cooperatives, with the help of the local government and national agencies, have created new fiber products and the popular pineapple pie,  a contribution to the One Town One Product (OTOP) program, harnessing local creativity in to exploring product possibilities extracted from the fruit and sustaining a now major industry.

Mayor Tito Sarrion

This year is the 19th edition of the festival and this would be my first Pinyasan. Our three-day (June 17-19) visit to Daet didn’t extend to June 23, the day of the Grand Float Parade, but we did get to see the Miss Pinyasan/Miss Daet 2011 beauty contest and the Street Dancing and Best Marching Band Competition the next day. We had just returned from our Calaguas Islands tour when Bernard, Lee, TJ and I were invited to cover the beauty contest’s Coronation Night.   From the Bagasbas Lighthouse Resort (where we were booked), we were brought first to the Terrace Grille for dinner.  Here, we espied the candidates and guest Ms. Universe runner-up Ms. Venus Raj as they were about to leave and met up with Daet Mayor Tito Sarrion.  The pageant proper was held at Provincial Gym.  Ms.  Abigail “Abby” Ortega was crowned as Miss Pinyasan.  Runners-up were Ms. Renei Victoria Almoneda (Miss Daet, also Best in Swimsuit, Festival Costume Design and Evening Gown), Ms. Nicole Anne C. Gange (Miss Tourism and Miss Photogenic), Ms. Princess Joy Burce (First Runner-up), and Ms. Erika Bianca “Ekaa” Lasay (Second Runner-up).

Miss Pinyasan/Miss Daet 2011 winners
The next day, all four of us had our lunch at the K Sarap Snack Bar along Vinzons Ave.  Right after lunch, we went out along the Vinzons Ave. (and, later, to the First Rizal Monument) to watch the Street Dancing and Best Marching Band Competition.  The winners of the Miss Pinyasan (minus First Runner-up Ms. Burce) and town officials in a float (led by Mayor Sarrion) also joined the parade.  There were also a number of karetelas bedecked with pineapples and flowers.  The winners of the Street Dancing Competition were Barangay Cobangbang (first), Barangay 7 (second) and  Barangay Lag-on (third).  In the elementary school level, the Best Marching Band Competition winners were Talisay Elementary School (first), Daet Elementary School (second) and Gregorio Pimentel Elementary School (third), while at the high school level, the winners were St. Francis Parochial School (first), Tulay na Lupa National High School (second) and San Roque National High School (third).
 
Best Marching Band Competition

First Rizal Monument (Daet, Camarines Norte)

First Rizal Monument

One of the highlights of our last visit to Camarines Norte (aside from the Pinyasan Festival) was the celebration of our National Hero Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary. Daet figures prominently in this nationwide celebration because it is the site of the first and oldest monument erected in honor of Rizal (though he never set foot in the town) in the country (antedating, by 14 years, the more famous one built in Luneta in 1912) and in the world.  Last June 19, some 1,500 youth of the province, all belonging to various schools and organizations, joined a mass floral offering at the First Rizal Monument, all vowing to keep the libertarian ideals of Rizal alive and to help contribute in nation-building.  A history forum, with Prof. Danilo M. Gerona of the Ateneo de Naga University, was also held there.

Plaque


The monument, at the corner of Justo Lukban and Magallanes Iraya Sts., at Rizal Square, Kalayaan Park (the park was said to be the site where the Katipuneros held their ground during the April 14-18, 1898 uprising), in front of the old municipal hall (now the Daet Heritage Center), is a 3-tiered, 20-ft. high stone pylon designed by Lt.-Col. Antonio Sanz, a soldier-artist and revolutionary head of the local government, and Lt.-Col. Ildefonso Alegre.  It was built through the financial contributions of the townsfolk of Camarines Norte and the Bicol regionOral accounts say that the base contains a time capsule containing the list of contributors to the project while some quarters and treasure hunters believe that there were buried treasures around it.

The groundbreaking for the construction of this sparsely decorated but impressive and majestic monument, near the bank of the Daet River, was done on December 30, 1898 (just two years after Rizal’s death), in observance of the first-ever Rizal Day (the first province to do so), decreed on December 20 by then Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo, and completed sometime in February 1899, shortly after the outbreak of the Philippine-American War. Its foundation is believed to have been made with mortar and coral stone taken from the demolished old Spanish jail where many patriots, in April 1898, were tortured and executed. The monument is rather unique as it does not bear a sculpted image of Rizal, unlike other monuments today.

Inscribed on the square podium, surmounted by a two-level triangle (the last one tapering off to a point), are Rizal’s popular novels, “Noli Me Tangere 1886” and “El Filibusterismo 1891,” and “Morga 1889,” a tribute to Antonio de Morga, author of Sucesos de las islas Filipinas, an important book on the Spanish colonization of the Philippines written in 1609 and later annotated by Rizal. Ironically, the Rizal Monument came to be known as “Morga Monument.”  On the sides of the triangle is a five-pointed star, an eight-rayed sun and the Spanish phrase A Jose Rizal (“to Jose Rizal”) and at the top used to be the all-seeing eye.  The front face contains a black metal plaque, from the then National Historical Commission, declaring it a National Historical Landmark in 1961. The monument has pronounced Masonic elements possibly because Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, Sanz, Gen. Vicente Lukban (head of Revolutionary forces in the Bicol Region) and many of the financial contributors were Masons. Today, the image of the First Rizal Monument is incorporated in the provincial and municipal (of Daet) insignias.

The Busig-on River (Labo, Camarines Norte)

Nipa palms along the Busig-on River

We left Quinamanukan Island by 3:15 PM, the mainland just a 30-40 min. boat ride away.  Upon reaching the mainland, our boat made its way inland via the wide but sometimes shallow Busig-on River (the province’s longest river system), its muddy banks lined with nipa and coconut palms and backdropped by the 997 m. high Mt. Balagbag (known as the “Sleeping Giant”).  Every now and then, small, outrigger-less and high-bowed bancas would pass us by.  After negotiating a bend in the river, we finally reached port by 4:30 PM.  Amable Miranda of the Camarines NorteTourism Office was already waiting for us there.  After dining on angko, a local delicacy I bought and shared with the others, Amable drove us to Tabea Reichan Restaurant at Vinzons town proper where we had our “late” lunch.  After picking up our luggage at the Municipal Guest House along Bagasbas Blvd. in Daet, Amable drove us to the nearby, upscale Bagasbas Lighthouse Resort, Daet’s premier resort, where we were to stay (my second) for two days.

Tabea Reichan Restaurant: Poblacion (just across the municipal hall), Vinzons, Camarines Norte

Bagasbas Lighthouse Hotel Resort: Bagasbas Blvd., Daet, Camarines Norte.  Tel: (054) 441-5855.  Mobile number: (0916) 520-6783.  E-mail: info@bagasbaslighthouse.com. Website: www.bagasbaslighthouse.com.

Quinamanukan Island (Camarines Norte)

While we dining on the boat, we were merrily on our way to our next destination: the low, flat and heavily wooded, 6-hectare and footprint-shaped Quinamanukan Island, off Brgy, Sula in San Miguel Bay.

Quinamanukan Island

We were within sight of the island and its 1,000 m. long white sand beach by 1:30 PM but we had to circle it for half an hour, looking for a suitable landing site, with the boatman carefully steering the boat away from the delicate coral reef. We were welcomed by Mr. Samuel Pajarin, the island’s caretaker, who led us to his hut on the island’s opposite shore, we having to make a short hike through a well-marked trail through a forest to get there.  While Samuel was making coffee for us, I donned a diving mask and snorkel to explore the stunning and impressive submarine gardens (stony, whip and soft coral, black coral, etc.) of the island’s 200-hectare marine sanctuary, a breeding spot for different kinds of colorful tropical fish. The island is also ideal for scuba diving as it has drop-offs going down to 1,000 m.

Pinagkastilyuhan Island (Camarines Norte)

Pinagkastilyuhan Island

After returning to our campsite from our hilltop trek, we proceeded to pack up our stuff as we were to have our lunch at the mainland in Vinzons town.  We shoved off and said goodbye to Tinaga Island by 11 AM but it seems our hunger for islands to explore hasn’t been sated.  With some extra gas to burn and lots of enthusiasm, in spite of the overcast skies, we leisurely made our way to the privately-owned (by a Dr. Valencia) Pinagkastilyuhan Island (also called Cinastilyohan Island), making a brief stopover to photograph some goats sheltering on rocky outcrops on another island.  After a 30 min. trip, we made soon espied Pinagkastilyuhan Islandbut couldn’t make landfall as the water was too shallow for the boat to navigate.

Wading shallow waters to get to the island

Thus, we had to disembark from the boat some distance from the shore, me, Bernard, Karla, Lan, Debbee and Angel having to wade through ankle deep to sometimes waist deep waters to get to shore.  It was already drizzling when we arrived, prompting Lee decided to stay behind in the boat to avoid drenching his camera.  I was the first to make it to shore, the others soon following my lead.  The sand, though not as white as in Mahabang Buhangin, was just as fine and inviting.  However, prior to exploring the island, Debbee had to get clearance from the island’s lady caretaker, it being a privately-owned island.    We went maybe a fourth of the way around the island, where two islands beckon offshore.  The nearest seemed reachable but wading towards it was impossible as, halfway there, the water already reached up to my neck.  So near yet so far.   

Dining, kamayan style, on grilled fish

After some photo ops, we returned to where we landed and waded back to the boat.  While we were gone, Lee wasn’t idle, buying 5 large pieces of fish and a squid, from some passing fishermen, for the rock-bottom price of PhP100.  As soon as we raised anchor, Lee had this fresh catch grilled by the boatmen on a portable stove.  It was now noontime and time for lunch and, soon enough, we were dining on this feast, kamayan style, which we complemented with leftover fried rice.  

The Church Bells of Paracale

The bells of Paracale Church

Our longest stopover was at the Church of Our Lady of Candles in Paracale, my second such visit.  However, my visit here was notable as this was my first time to climb a church bell tower (and two at that at each end of the facade). The towers were approached by first climbing a steep stair from the nave to the choir loft and, from there, another less steep stair, but with a very low opening, to the towers.  The left belfry has two medium-sized bells bells  while the right belfry has two big and older (circa 1888) bells and a small bell. One of the newer bells had a recognizable signature stating that it was cast in 1920 by the Hilarion Sunico Foundry (the foundry has made 176 bells since 1872 and its last known bell was cast in 1937).  Some of the bells have visible cracks and all are colored blue-green possibly due to oxidation.  The towers had panoramic views of the municipal hall and town proper as well as the mountains beyond.

Labo Town Proper (Camarines Norte)

About 15 kms. out of Daet, we again made a short stopover at the busy, 648.84 sq. km. (more than 25% of the province’s total land area) and first-class municipality of Labo (2010 population: 92,041, the province’s most populous) where Bernard and I bought some shades at the market.

Labo town proper

Labo town proper

From the market, I walked over to the nearby Church of St. John the Evangelist & Apostle and the modern, 2-storey municipal hall for my own photo ops.

Labo Municipal Hall

Labo Municipal Hall

The church has a 2-level, coralstone facade with a triangular pediment with a centrally located, semicircular arched statued niche and topped by a square bell tower.  The lower level has a centrally located main entrance with semicircular arched and flanked by fluted pilasters and semicircular arched statued niches.

Church of St. John the Evangelist & Apostle

Church of St. John the Evangelist & Apostle