Certain parts of the Philippines are firmly established on the tourist trail, but Heidi Fuller-love goes off the beaten track to visit the volcanoes and beaches – and sample the cuisine – of the lesser-known Bicol region.
The stabilisers on either side of our bangka outrigger slice through water that shimmers in the tropical heat like turquoise-tinted mercury as we glide away from the tiny, near-deserted port of Talisay. A small group of us are heading for Tugawe Cove, a small resort on Caramoan Island that belongs to an idyllic and little-visited archipelago on the south-eastern tip of the Philippines’ main island, Luzon. To get here we’ve had an hour’s flight from Manila, followed by a three-hour bus ride and now this two-hour boat-trip – in fact, this region is so remote that they have filmed reality TV show Survivor here.
When our boat finally slides onto the talc-fine sand of Tugawe Cove I half expect to be offered a handful of rice and a plate of grubs and be told to fend for myself. Luckily, however, Tugawe Cove is one of the most luxurious resorts in this region and, after hiking 197 steps up the densely wooded hillside, I discover charming individual chalet-style rooms, a restaurant serving local food and an infinity pool with panoramic views of the deserted cove beneath. It’s easy to see why this pristine group of atolls is being hailed as ‘the next El Nido’ by savvy backpackers.
Next morning the bangka takes us out for a day of island-hopping. Arriving at Pitogo Island we spot scarlet starfish, big as fists, tiptoeing over the seafloor beneath us. One side of this deserted island is covered in slippery pebbles and on the other the seabed is dotted with the mole-like mounds of poisonous sea snakes. “This is where members of Survivor were sent for some of their trials,” guide Miguel tells us as we clamber through razor-sharp grass to reach the top of a hill that offers breathtaking views of the tree-tousled islands surrounding us.
Sailing out again, past grey humps of granite that remind me of the rocky outcroppings in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, we head for Catanhawan Island. With more marine protected areas than other country in the world, the Philippines’ balmy seas provide sustenance for more than a million small-scale fishers. On Catanhawan a dozen bright-coloured outriggers pulled up on the beach tell us that one of the country’s numerous fishing communities inhabits this far-flung atoll.
The fishing village behind the beach is just a cluster of palm-roofed huts surrounded by jungle. There are bright flowers planted around bamboo palisades and a small shop selling sticky sweets and fluorescent bottles of pop. I watch a young woman sorting hooks from tangled fishing lines next to a group of pigs rooting in the dirt. We’re the only tourists here. All afternoon we swim and snorkel in blood-warm waters, then lounge on bright-striped cushions using our fingers to eat crisp-crusted chicken adobo and pork knuckle pata from plates made out of banana leaves. I feel like an explorer who’s stumbled across a virgin paradise.
We spend several lazy days in Tugawe, visiting other islands and picnicking on deserted beaches, before heading for Legazpi. The capital of Albay, one of the six provinces that make up the Bicol region, it is the home of Cagsawa, a 16th-century Franciscan church which was destroyed when the nearby Mayon volcano erupted in 1814, burying several hundred people who took shelter inside.
From Legazpi we drive past waterlogged rice paddies to Sumlang Lake. The pretty little lake framed by the 2,462m-high Mayon is crowded with Filipino families on a day out. A light breeze ripples the water as we head out on bamboo rafts to take photos of Mayon, which has been dubbed ‘the world’s most perfect volcano’. Back on land we watch a demonstration of local crafts: a local chef cooks pinangat – taro leaves stuffed with meat or fish – and cooks them in a clay pot, while a craftsman strips fibres from a type of banana plant called abacá, or Manila hemp, which he will use to weave everything from bags to table mats. We end the afternoon with a late lunch at lakeside restaurant Socorro’s, where we tuck into dishes of spicy pork Bicol express, plates piled with coconut and crab-meat dish tilmok, and vegetarian-friendly laing made with taro leaves simmered in a spicy coconut cream.
The Philippines belongs to the geologically and volcanically active Pacific Ring of Fire region and has more than 20 active volcanoes. Perfectly symmetrical Mayon is the most active of them all and there is a small plume of smoke spurting from the top of its cone as we straddle ATV bikes and head out to explore the following day. Our plunging, bucking bikes carry us along muddy tracks and through knee-deep streams to the base of the volcano and its lava wall, a vast black wasteland left by the eruption back in 1814. Then a zip line whizzes us on a short, but thrilling, ride through the tree tops and back to base camp.
Our final meal at Casa Simeon, a magnificent traditional wooden house built in the 1920s by the grandparents of the current owners, is like a trip back in time. We wander in wood-panelled galleries lit by stained-glass windows, and then relax in rocking chairs enjoying distant views of Mayon until dinner is served to a long wooden table. The food is inspired by family recipes that have been handed down through the generations. We have tinutungan na manok chicken cooked with lightly braised coconut milk and nilantang pili served Bicol-style: the nut, which looks like a large olive, is simmered with fermented fish to cook the surrounding pulp. We eat the pulp, which is creamy and delicious, and then crack open the nuts to crunch the fresh white pili nuts inside. “Few people outside of Bicol get to taste this dish,” owner Jessica tells us. It’s yet another unique experience that I’ve enjoyed in this incredible far-flung region, which is waiting to be explored.