BY RICKY MONTECILLO
I’ve always wanted to visit Dumaguete ever since I was a young flight attendant. I remember the best looking women passengers on Dumaguete flights, but I only got as far as the airport on turnaround domestic flights back in the day.
My perception of Dumaguete has always been equated with Siliman University and its writing workshops. I used to daydream about attending creative writing courses there but never got around to it. And so fast forward to a lifetime of working and raising a family, my wife Tina, daughter Samantha and I decided to go for it when Philippine President Duterte declared Monday September 12 a special Holiday in observance of Eid’l Adha, a Muslim celebration, making it a three-day weekend.
As usual, we didn’t know what to expect and how to go about touring Dumaguete. All I knew was that it is where the famous Siliman University is located. Instituted in 1901, it is the very first American run university in the country. More than this, we looked up the other sites via internet. Thank God for Google and those witty and informative travel bloggers!
The City of Dumaguete, as it is properly called, is in Negros Oriental. That Saturday, we took the 8:40 a.m. PAL flight from Manila to DGT. The flight took about 1 hour and 20 mins.
We arrived in the small airport and from there we took a tricycle to the GO HOTEL near the Robinson’s Mall. Check-in time was not till 2pm so it gave us time to change attire and go to the famous Apo Island first.
Going to Apo Island, we walked about 400 meters to the central CERES Bus Station. We boarded the bus going to Malatapay for 27 pesos each.
It took about 40 minutes travel time to Malatapay. From the bus stop, we walked a little towards the sea and booked a banca for 2500 pesos round trip to Apo Island, which we shared with 2 young back packers from Cebu.
Our banca was small (in hindsight better hire a bigger boat) but because it was already late the bigger ones had already left. The boat ride was only thirty minutes but the seas get kinda rough. A little bit more and I can say it’s scary especially since I am traveling with my wife and daughter.
And as we neared the Apo Island, Tina and Samantha were swooning! The play of colors, aqua, light blue and deep blue of the sea surrounding the island with the green hills, white sands and rock formations makes for a scene out of the Survivors TV series! We alighted at the far right side of the island by the Coco Grove Resort. From there we trekked a bit through the barrio and to the shacks by the beach front.
It was past lunch time so we ordered some fresh Jacks (talakitok) and fried chicken for lunch. Eating fresh grilled fish and hot white rice in front of the ocean is the best! Can’t take off the smiles on our faces. But even before the food was ready, I eagerly got a snorkel gear and life jacket to check out the corrals.
The corral reef was not so impressive, I thought to myself. “Is this it?” I didn’t go too far and I headed back for lunch.
And as I swam going back to shore, there it was to my right. I saw a turtle bigger than my Samsonite back pack swimming and feeding on the underwater moss. It was surreal. It’s the first time in my life to see a wild turtle while snorkeling! And I’ve been snorkelling all my life, from my younger days in Matabunkay, San Diego beach and Nasugbu in Batangas to the Hanauma Bay in Hawaii.
It’s like seeing a deer in the forest for the first time. It halts you and makes you observe. I stopped my swimming and let myself float, as I watched the turtle almost in slow motion. Wondrous! Even at my ripe age, I still marvel at natural wonders this world has to offer.
Excited, I headed off to shore and I told Tina and Samantha of what I saw. We ate our lunch and enjoyed the food. And then we got ready and suited up for snorkelling.
Ramz our guide, offered to hold my Iphone 6 protected by LifeProof water proofing to ensure we get pictures of us swimming with turtles. We entered by the shore and as soon as it was deep enough, about 4 feet, we started to swim with goggles and snorkel. And as soon as we went underwater there they were! One, two turtles! Swimming and feeding around us. Ramz quickly took photos using my cell phone.
Tina and Samantha were practically screaming with delight! Tina said afterwards that she thought we were going to see little turtles like the ones you see in the Pet stores in Cartimar! Imagine her surprise when she saw turtles as big as tables!
After sometime, Tina had enough and went back to the shack as Sam and I ventured further out to the sea. And oh as we went further, the corrals started to appear before us, colorful and huge formations and different kinds of fishes! It felt like we were already scuba diving. More than that, there were still more large turtles around swimming with us.
After about an hour and about 500 meters out from the shore, we headed back. The tides were getting rough and Sam had difficulty swimming back. Good thing, Ramz was a strong swimmer and guide.
It was soooo worth it! It was an awesome Apo Island experience! We had pictures and videos as proof and it was well worth it even if the LifeProof did not live up to its promise to make my Iphone 6 waterproof. It’s the last time I’m ever going to dip my phone in water! Water seeped through the LifeProof case, but luckily there was no damage to my phone.
The boat trip back to Malatapay port was more scary though as the waves started to get rough because of rains. Remember to get a bigger boat if you intend to go to Apo Island.
From the port, we took the bus back to the City and finally checked-in at the Go Hotel. We took the opportunity to freshen up and get some much needed nap.
The good thing about GO Hotel is it’s located right beside the Robinsons’ Mall. So for dinner, we just crossed to the nearby mall and ate at the Mooon (yes 3 Os) Cafe. A mixed Mexican / Native restaurant. Being a Saturday, there were lots of locals in the Mall and the Mooon Cafe was full. We ordered Sisig, Chorizo, Pork BBq, Dynamite chili and rice! Food was good and service was efficient. The place was a bit noisy because of the crowd but that’s what they say, “if it’s too noisy, you’re too old.” Believe it or not, the bill was only a bit more than 500 pesos!
The next day, we woke up really early around 4:30 am to take the bus to Bais. This is jump off point (bus station) where we took the tricycle to the port where we boarded a nice small banca for our Dolphin watching tour! We were excited as we hopped on the nice banca amidst the sunrising. This time the waters were calm. We were so eager to see dolphins!
The scenery was so beautiful, morning sun, calm seas and mountain ranges. But after about an hour, where are the dolphins? The boat captain and his mate were looking faraway trying to spot dolphins.
But after about two hours of scouring the bay, we decided to return and just proceed to the Manjuyod Sand Bars. We were so frustrated and we felt bad.
But then, our boatman told us after he got it a text from another boatman that they had spotted dolphins and we were going the area! Our hopes were raised and we looked faraway to where the other boats were. It took about 30 more minutes before we neared the other dolphin boat watchers.
And all of a sudden we saw the other people in the other boats shouting excitedly. Our boat steered to where the action was and finally there swimming right in front of our little boat were several dark colored dolphins! After hours of looking for them, there they were frolicking in slow motion, not one, not two but a whole bunch of them.
We wanted to hold the hands of time. We wanted to prolong the fleeting magical moment. It was well worth it! Etched in the adventure folder in our minds, “Save!”. Turtles then dolphins!
Next stop was the Manjuyod Sand Bars. It is a popular attraction in Dumaguete. Approaching the Sand Bar, there were also several other bancas already parked. It was a nice scene, it seemed like a park in the middle of the ocean.
As we parked our boat, some small vendor boats approached us selling fresh scallops, oysters, crabs sodas and beer! The tourist boats all had their portable grills and we had some scallops grilled as we drank beer and fresh crabs.
The sun was overcast and it was cool and refreshing. We also sat there in the shallow waters and then the rains fell. Tina exclaimed how good it felt being in the middle of the ocean in a sand bar, enjoying the cool water and having quality time with each other. The other visitors were also having fun, picnicking in their boats and swimming and jumping from their boats into the water!
We were back in the City after lunchtime and we rested first in the hotel before hieing back to the centro to hear the 5:30 pm mass at the St. Catherine Cathedral. The church stands beside the town plaza and it is also where the old Campanario De Dumaguete, the old bell tower. We heard mass even though it was in the native Visayan dialect.
After mass we went to the City via tricycle to have dinner. We went to the Rizal Boulevard. The boulevard is a must see in the City of Dumaguete. It is a quaint bay walk lined up with street lights and hundred year old acacia trees where lots of restaurants and bars are located.
Locals go here on weekends and there are good establishments in the boulevard. We ate in the nice restaurant called Casa Blanca. A very lovely and cozy restaurant. Food was very good and we ordered Deep fried Pork Knuckles, Tomatoe soup, garlic soup and Samantha had Adobo with rice. For such a classy place, and delightful food, the price was so reasonable. I am very glad to note that in Dumaguete, the food prices are very reasonable yet the quality is not cheap.
After dinner, we strolled along the boulevard and it was great to experience the local night out. There was one portion where the lots of them, were eating the local street foods such balut, squid balls, barbecue and the likes. There were also fruit vendors selling the local rambutan, lanzones and durian!
The following day, our last day, we went for a morning walk again in Rizal Boulevard and tour the famed Siliman University. The first American University in the Philippines founded way back in 1904. Dumaguete is most famous for the Siliman University. The campus was open to the public for free, all we needed was leave an ID at the gate.
The Campus was clean and orderly. And it preserved the old character of the buildings and the grounds. There is also a museum where we went.
Our flight was at 3:40 pm and before we went back to the hotel, Tina and I had a massage at the central park. There were youth masseuses in the corner of the park and we sat on their plastic chairs while they worked on our feet, head and backs.
From there we went back to the hotel to check out and then have lunch in Robinson’s. We ate at the Sans Rival Cakes and Pastries.We also bought our famous Sans Rival cakes and Sylvanas for our pasalubongs. Nobody goes to Dumaguete and returns home without these delicious sweets.
The three-day weekend gave us this wonderful break to again travel and spend quality time with each other. No stress, no schedules, just bonding and enjoying the province where the people seemed gentle and happy. The City of Dumaguete is an idyllic yet progressive city, a vibrant and quaint destination. For many years, I have always wanted to visit and finally my dream was fulfilled and it did not disappoint.