Beautifully Bicol

By Stephanie Zubiri (The Philippine Star) Updated October 17, 2010 12:00 The majestic Mayon Volcano dominates the landscape. It is a paradox of nature: peaceful and pleasing to the eye with its near perfection and yet that steady stream of smoke from above its peak is a constant reminder of its fearsome wrath and power. Like a mysterious, beautiful woman, she coyly hides herself under the clouds only to reveal sublimity in moments of clarity. You simply cannot take your eyes off her. No matter where you go, the thought of her lingers and haunts you. Touching down in Legazpi airport, coming down from the airplane, no garish tourism signs welcome you, just the awesome view of the volcano. Taking a boat ride off Bicol’s pristine coast line, shimmering blue waters contrasting with emerald green tropical lushness, Mayon towers over all, peering out into the Pacific eternally. Atop mountains and hills, or even strolling along the Embarcadero Mall, there is no escape from its presence. I was truly amazed by the beauty of Bicolandia. Black volcanic soil rich in nutrients begets the brightest green grass and luxuriant tropical foliage that blankets the hills and cliffs by the pristine seaside. Even in the rain and wind, which caught our last leg of the trip, there was something wistful and romantic that reminded me of dramatic scenes from Wuthering Heights. Going through the countryside to see the lava beds, I realized that I was in a micro-cosmos of Philippine geography. Volcanic formations, rice plains, tropical forests and coconut plantations, white-sand beaches and coral reefs, fishermen reeling in today’s fresh catch … everywhere I laid my eyes on something picturesque. I felt that rush of gratitude, that sense of pride in being Filipino — the recognition of luck and providence that I finally have the chance, more than ever, to discover my own country. In the past two months I’ve been to more places in my own country than I ever have growing up!
Love a lava:The majestic Mayon Volcano. Photos taken with a Canon Ixus

Bicol gave me a sense of hope for our country as I saw a region that really is trying to develop in a sustainable manner. The port was so clean that children were swimming and I actually felt like jumping in myself. Outside by the street there was a line of people waiting to ride an E-Jeep. And all this

time I also kept thinking about the different efforts made in Camarines Sur to develop ecotourism. Why was I in Bicol in the first place? The luxury resort Misibis Bay graciously adopted me as a guest chef for an evening and in return organized for me experiences of a lifetime! First of all, this resort is truly splendid. I am quite frankly pleased to see that a local brand can give international luxury hotel chains a run for their money. The place is tastefully designed and built to let nature in. Apparently the hotel was packed, but for some reason I always felt like I was the only guest there. The service is impeccable and the staff anticipates your needs. Everything feels cozy and friendly, like being welcomed into a home. I also admire their conscious effort to support sustainable development. At the end of the month they are even organizing a giant clam-planting event to help bring back the steady growth of the coral reefs damaged by past blast fishing. Recreation’s Arlie will take you on some fun dives where you can actually also make a difference by cleaning kelp or being a champion windsurfer — he can teach you how! F&B manager Rex makes the best margaritas with fresh lemon and frozen like a sorbet, and I’m sure Chef Dan’s concoctions will make you swoon.
My favorite breakfast: Dilis and danggit

I had an internal battle every morning: “Bed or breakfast?” The bed is like a giant marshmallow, enveloping you in pure, fluffy smoothness. I slept 10 whole hours straight on the first night despite the two-hour nap I had that afternoon. The only thing that kept me from lounging another 10 hours more was the breakfast. The true Pinay in me comes out during breakfast. Garlic rice, scrambled eggs, ensaladang talong and none other than crispy danggit, dilis, pusit and “new look” daing. My poor European boyfriend who accompanied me on the trip scrunched his nose every morning: “I can’t eat rice or salted fish this early.” I was so obsessed with the daing that on my last day, I actually attacked two breakfast buffets in two different hotels, Hobbit-style with second breakfast! Yikes! After two days of recreation (Misibis Bay has its own adventure park with a 600-meter zipline!), we spent some time in Legazpi City, where I actually got to meet some relatives. My lolo on my mom’s side is from Libon, Albay. I didn’t realize that we had so many relatives from the Calleja and Fernandez clan. The St. Ellis hotel is also such a surprise. This gem of a hotel is a lot more stylish and well maintained than many Manila institutions and the chef, Luis Jurilla, makes some really amazing comfort food. Apart from really soft beef short ribs Provençale and the super-tasty grilled chicken

arrabiata, the winner was the crispy crab wontons, hands-down the perfect blend of creamy seafood goodness and deep-fried indulgence. There was a little cucumber salad on top for freshness and Bicol-worthy spicy sauce. It was truly sophisticated and one of the foodie highlights of my stay. Above all, as with any trip or adventure, despite the food, the activities, the hotels and even nature, it was the utter friendliness and openheartedness of the people I met on this trip that topped everything. They seemed immensely proud of where they come from, passionate about their food and of course, rightfully so of their wondrous Mt. Mayon. But to be perfectly honest, despite all the pili nut-filled supots I took with me for pasalubong, I actually wish I had tried more local fare as, being in the kitchen myself, I had no real occasion to do so. And in my books, good laing is a good excuse to come back soon!

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