TROTTINGS = Trip Jottings

The Fox Trots: Travel Stories from The Fox.



Post-ATF Fam Tour

TROTTINGS = Trip Jottings


Organised by Department of Tourism. As programmed; see report for actual.

Program, main details (commercial names noted):



Flight Manila-Laoag on Philippine Airlines. Lunch at Cafe Ilocandia, Laoag, Ilocos Norte. 2-hour bus drive to Vigan, Ilocos Sur. Check-in at Hotel Luna, visit the hotel’s art gallery. Dinner at Cafe Leona.



Breakfast at the hotel. Vigan Heritage Tour, on foot. Visit Burgos Museum, which was the official residence of a martyr of Bagumabyan, Father Jose Burgos. Visit Burnayan pottery shop, which began with Chinese immigrants in the 1500s. Lunch at Cafe Uno. At Curimao, visit Marcos Museum and Paoay Church. Dinner at Sitio Remedios. Return to Vigan. Massage. Overnight at Hotel Luna.



Breakfast. Drive to Laoag. Check-in at Plaze del Norte hotel. On Laoag tour, visit the Sarat Museum, Burgos Museum, Bani. Lunch at Cafe Preciosa. Massage. Dinner at hotel.



Breakfast. To sand dunes – 4×4 jeep ride over sand dunes. Picnic brunch at Paoay Beach. Check-out of hotel. To Laoag airport for flight Laoag-Manila on Philippine Airlines.



Trottings; Travel Jottings On This Post-Tour At ATF.



The domestic terminal at Manila airport is clean and modern. There are even laptop charging areas – but with only Filipino plugs, not universal. And all retail outlets, six of them, were only F&B – nothing else. Internet connection was poor. Philippine Airlines tent-cards promote its own WiFi network at the airport, but staff recommend you use the airport’s one. There were two airport WiFis available, and it was not clear if both were official.


The flight was uneventful, but acceptable. Drinks and snacks (of unknown provenance).


Laoag’s airport is a small provincial airport, the region’s only commercial airport. Drummer-band to greet our arrival. Based on what I saw, the airport is expanding its terminal about double. At present it is a basic and unattractive airport from another era.


Laoag, capital of the province of Ilocos Norte (IN) at the top of Luzon island, is the Philippines’ northernmost large city.


IN is Marcos country. Imelda, wife of the deposed-late-president Ferdinand Marcos, is a local senator, and daughter Imee is governor of the province. Their other children are Aimee, Ferdinand Jr (‘Bongbong’), Irene. Bongbong is a senator in the national parliament.


We take a tour-bus from the airport to Paoay, where we have lunch in the Herencia restaurant, one of two restaurants in this big church square. The church is long, baroque style, and built before the adjacent church tower. There is a two-storey government building in the square, which houses the other restaurant.


Continue in the bus for about two hours to the Unesco-heritage town of Vigan in Ilocos Sur, not IN; one of six Unesco World Heritage sites in the country. Vigan is the centre of the cultural area, and also known for its old stone houses (bahay na bato) made from hard adobe stones.


We stayed at the Hotel Luna. Unfortunately, some people when they hear the name will think of Luna Park, and even to those that don’t it, it will not sound special. It is.


On the first floor is what is called a museum, but I would call a gallery. Two-almost-three rooms of paintings, sculptures, and other artefacts. Some modern (not modernist), some old, some religious. In other words eclectic, and impressive.


The hotel’s management should create a room/shop to sell works of local artists. Items in the gallery can be for sale or not, and those in the shop may not be collector’s pieces, but commercial works. The Philippines has many talented artists of all types.


Room rates are not low-provincial (lowest prices around P2000) but it a cultural gem. The overall style is comfortable wood. Unfortunately, though, it is a hotel and not a cultural centre. And thus because most rooms do not have windows to the outside or even to the atrium, that is a giant negative.


My room was well and stylishly furnished and equipped, albeit a bit cramped – as though everything (including a postered-bed) had to be fitted into the space available. For instance there was a 3/4-seat L-sofa, which has probably never been used apart from storage. The room was off one of the gallery rooms. Slightly awkward when leaving the room if there are people visiting the gallery rooms, although it also made me feel slightly special; perhaps people would think I was the owner?


The main tourist street in Vigan is about 1km long. Said to have originally been homes for Chinese traders, most are now little shops selling souvenirs, as well as eating places, and even some inns.


At the top end of the street is a big church, St Paul’s Cathedral, in a big square, Plaza Salcedo. And even a McDonald’s (and a Jollibee) – so the place must be OK! The area is somewhat unkempt – although I accept that 100s-years-old attractions cannot all be Singapore-neat-and-tidy – but attractive nevertheless.


The church was built in the 17th century, and is very big inside. (Sorry, I’m not qualified to describe eglesiastical (don’t look it up; it doesn’t exist) attractions or otherwise of churches; they are basically all the same to me – so either big, small, dark, etc.)


Outside the church are some Chinese carvings – reference to the Chinese presence (private, not government) during the Spanish times.


The square also houses a music fountain, next to the church. Somewhat incongruous for a Unesco heritage location, but obviously not everyone comes for the old culture, and you can’t eat culture either. (Hence, McDonald’s.)


There is 30-minutes free fountain show every night. There is also an airconditioned VIP enclosure, and a roof – which obviously our group had access to. The music varied from PSY to Beethoven (sorry, Beethoven to PSY). The fountain attraction was started two years ago, by the local government.


The local government has (unspecified) plans to add tourist attractions, and there is some work taking place. But the place is still isolated – being at least a 2-hour drive from the closest airport, Laoag, and nothing much else around – as this trip showed.


(Such comments are intended as constructive criticism. There is little point to saying this is a nice place to visit, and a foreign tourist spends three days and $750 and sees a musical fountain.)





Visit Syquia Mansion in Vigan, an impressive ancestral home, part of which is still occupied by descendants of a former president, Elpidio Quirino, a Chinese-Filipino. In the part of the mansion that we (and other tourists) could visit, were some impressive ancestral artefacts, furniture, and antiques.


At the Vigan Conservation Complex we visited is an arts and crafts museum, training centre for the local handloom weaving technique. There is also a small shop selling samples of the cloth, with prices probably 50% of Manila’s (low) prices.


The Museum of the North provides information on the local tribes in the area; many still live in the nearby Cordillera Mountains.


Visit the Cordilleras museum in Laoag. When it officially opens, entrance cost will be P50. The museum is interactive. Museum completed November 2015. Some comments:

-Pieces are exposed – meaning they can be touched, even picked-up. This will end badly. Pieces will be damaged or broken – not necessarily deliberately, but out of 500 who pick up a cup, one will drop it.

-All explanation signs are in English language only, whereas 90% at least visitors will be Filipino, and 25-30% will not understand written English enough to understand.


This visit was followed by a ‘cultural show’. Unfortunately, it is hard to explain how good this 15-minute show was – partly because of the often-negative sense of the words ‘cultural show’. The presentation was part of a play, with singing and acting, in period costumes. Because it was in Tagalog, and we had no information (in advance) of the story, I cannot say what it presented – although it was part of the Filipinos’ struggle for their country.


And so I can comment only on its artistic quality. Again unfortunately, I am no expert, but if it had been in a theatre, I would have stood up to applaud, and shout “Encore!”. Although this was in a provincial town in the northern Philippines, many Filipinos have extraordinary cultural talents (singing, music, painting, more).


Imee Marcos spoke to us, saying nothing special. (That is the major special skill of politicians.) But she was welcoming, cool (dressed in jeans), and so I liked her and, by extension, that the Marcos’s were maybe not that bad. (My thought processes can go like that……)


After her address, she stayed for photo-ops, amplifications, etc. She told me that 61% of the province’s revenue comes from Overseas Filipinos – which seems extraordinarily high and so I may have missed some qualifications there.


Prompted by me, she added that tourism is about 10% of the province’s revenue. And she also agreed with my growth projection of 20% in five years, but did not seem convinced. She said the province counted more visitors from China in the past. But since the points of contention (atolls/almost-islands in the South China Sea, long considered part of the Philippines, and now claimed and, some cases, defended and built-on by China), they no longer come.


They came mainly for gambling, not the culture – even if China (or, rather, people, not the government, so ‘Chinese’) figures in much of the local history. Also, times were more peaceful – possibly because it was built around trade. Today’s conflicts are built around politics and national pride.


She includes tourism as a priority for her province. But she also adds agriculture and industry, which rather devalues the priorities; not everything can be a priority. She talks of attracting hotel groups (although that rarely happens until enough visitors-come-guests are there, or they are subsidised). And also of creating access to the east of the area, across the Cordillera mountains.


I told her she should call the region ‘Top of the Philippines’ – top = best, and top = geographically. She added that yes, it is also a song – Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’.


But it is going to be a longhaul, unless Vigan (which is not in Marcos’s province) can be smartened up, and then more international visitors may come. Or perhaps start with a heavy push for domestic tourists.


In the Ilocos Museo museum in Laoag, not yet open to public, I told them they needed to protect the pieces on display – which most visitors will touch and move – against breakage and wear-and-tear.


At Bantay, just outside Vigan, we stop at another church – St Augustin with its bell tower. Climb to the top where there are 360d views of the countryside including the Cordillera mountain range one side, and the coast side on another. Pleasant interlude.





Visited so-called ‘Malacanang Palace of the North’ opposite a new hotel and conference centre, the Plaza del Norte.


Ferdinand Marcos was born in the area (at Sarrat) and in Batac there is a museum about him and in the adjacent mausoleum, his embalmed body.


The Marcos family used this as a breakaway residence until 1986. Then after he was deposed as president, it was taken over and run by the government, and then became a sort-of pro-Marcos museum, displaying aspects of his life. Was called Vigan House, changing its name to MP after 1986 and the ‘people revolution’ that deposed Marcos.


Also, the view over Paoay Lake is so beautiful and peaceful that it would be an inspiration.


Nice hard wood floor. Still not worn. And some red brick floor tiles. All well done. I told them they needed to put benches for people to sit. Everywhere there are signs saying Do Not Sit – which makes you think of sitting.


And they need to sell something to visitors. I guess they cannot sell statuettes or keyrings of Marcos, so it might need to be some kind of F&B outlet. It need not spoil the atmosphere and environment of the place.


Management told me that they could stage special events here, although I saw no details, so that may require a ‘personal’ approach.


This day we went to wind farm, of which there are three in the province. Ok, one was the first in the Philippines, but I cannot see this as being much of a tourist attraction for visitors, certainly foreign visitors. That said, we all took photographs of them – one set along a 2km stretch of beach, another in a sort-of tiny national park, including a walk to a set of rocks and things by the sea. Nice, but not really special.


There is a wind farm at Bangui on Bangui Bay. I note this because this is presented as a tourist attraction. And it seems to be, for domestic tourists. Road in this part runs alongside sea, making it a visibly pleasant trip.


The Bangui wind farm is big local tour attraction, but it is a rock formation. And it is by the sea, and windy and sunny, and a 10-minute walk to the site, with donkeys for those with no animal compassion. Costs P15 to get in.


It is said to be the first windfarm in Southeast Asia, and provides power for the Luzon island.


Bangui windfarm started in 2005. Was the country’s first; the Burgos windfarm is new.

The road down to Burgos is new, for this attraction. Many tourists here from Manila.

Bangui started in time of Marcos. There are 96 windmills in the whole province; the long term plan is to have 200.


Near Laoag there is a tourist attraction of open-jeep rides on sand dunes. One passenger in the cabin, and two stand in the back. But there is certain to be an accident one day, hopefully not too serious, from when some basic safety features will be introduced. Minimum needed are crash helmets (those in the back simply hang on), and possibly some sort of harness (although that might be worse if the jeep overturns).


There was also sand-surfing there.


Fun; a pleasant hedonistic interlude from our primarily-culture tour.


We stayed at Fort Ilocandia resort near Laoag. Big, and popular with Chinese tourists from the Philippines and China – partly because of its casino and grounds (for families). It has some sporting facilities including a golf course, and a mini zoo – which is not animal-friendly and should be either improved or shut down.






-Before the arrival of Spanish colonisers in the 1500s, the tribes of the region traded with merchants from China and Japan. The Spanish first settled in Vigan, which became the centre for the ‘galleon’ trade between the region and the Spanish settlements in Mexico, especially from Acapulco. Some towns are named from these times.


-Some in the region of Burgos, north of Laoag, are thinking of developing surfing resorts. From what I could see, the waves did not seem to be good enough for that, but this is not my expertise.


-Ilocos is considered an energy-producing province – hydro, solar, and now wind. The region produces rice, sugar, salt, tobacco.


-There is a village named Marcos, but named after father of ex-president Ferdinand Marcos. And also what is called, unofficially of course, Malacanang Palace of the North, on Paoay Lake.


-Just outside Laoag is a village called Vatican Of The Philippines because, say local commentators, it produces many priests.


-At the time of our visit, I noted many road works including a fair amount of bridges. That presumably is (literally) a concrete example of what governor Imee Marcos is doing to improve the infrastructure of Ilocos.


-The Philippines department of tourism has a director for the north. Moving from Manila, he has been in the region for 11 years.


-Sampled local dishes such as the longaniza (sausage), empanada (meat pie), bagnet (deep fried crispy pork crackling).


-Calesa (horse drawn cart) tour in Laoag and Vigan which, given my pro-animal sensitivities, I declined.


-We had a 2-motocycle police escort for all our bus trips, including those out to dinner in the evening. They rode ahead to clear the road for us. This ensured that on the 2-hour trip Laoag-Vigan, for instance, we saved at least 30 minutes.


-Many if not all of the restaurants we stayed at had their own WiFi. It seems standard. When you walk into a restaurant, you don’t first ask for the menu, but for the WiFi password.


-We did not visit, but from here some visitors might want to visit the Cordillera Mountains as well as Banaue, location of the 2000-year-old rice terraces. These are about 100km from Vigan.


-A good circuit could be Baguio, 100km southwest of Banaue, the Banaue and Vigan. But that misses Laoag and Ilocos Norte, which was the centre of my visit. Whoops.




The Fox

Trottings = Trip Jottings