July 13, 2004  (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit  -  It was one of those rare moments when, after a 45-minute flight from Manila, I deliberately allowed myself to be separated from my group and got lost alone in a place thatís both charming and elegant. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of the distant past.

So there I was, waxing romantic when I recently set foot at Fort Ilocandia Resort Hotel in Laoag, the provincial and commercial capital of Ilocos Norte.

The resortís thick, red-brick walls reawakened the film buff in me as I imagined scenes from movies where lovers whisper sweet nothings to each other. At the intricately designed fountain area of Fort Ilocandia, which is what greets the guests, I could almost see the ecstatic faces of couples taking their respite while the refreshing splashes of water flowed endlessly. In its splendid gardens, I imagined romance budding between sweethearts who promenade the bougainvillea-laced backyard of the hotel.

The more I allowed myself to wander alone, the more I wove yarns of love stories about Fort Ilocandia. Pardon my being dreamy and romantic here, but really, the resort is built out of love.

It was love for developing the countryís tourism that instigated former First Lady Imelda Marcos to build Fort Ilocandia in 1983. To make sure tourism up north would boom, the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) was mandated to spearhead its operations. After the 1986 Edsa Revolution, however, the resort was put under a private company. Since then, Fort Ilocandia, which sits at the 77-hectare area featuring sand dunes, idyllic beaches, and rainforests, has known many a master. Today, the resort is managed by Fort Ilocandia Resort Hotel Management Company Limited (FIRHMCL), the company that made sure total renovation and additional recreational and sports facilities were put up to be globally competitive. While Fort Ilocandia reeks of Spanish influence, it is a known fact that the resort was patterned after the La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco but guests who have visited both properties swear that Fort Ilocandia is even more beautiful!

The hotel grounds of 77 hectares make it one of the largest in Asia. It is easy to work up a healthy appetite just walking to breakfast from a room in the rear wing. Now the Fort is the favorite place of local tourists and foreign visitors, especially the Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans who come here to see the sights, swim, play golf and indulge in their favorite activity Ė gambling at the Casino Filipino.

The beachfront property has a lot of activities for guests who want to indulge in the outdoors. There are the sand bikes, which are rented by the hour and have their own circuit to start a race for any number of participants. You can also windsurf or surfboard, especially in the afternoon, when the wind and waves get bigger and stronger. Guests can also go diving, snorkeling, and banana boating among other water activities. The hotelís swimming pool is Olympic-size while its 18-hole golf course overlooks the scenic Paoay Lake.

The new management of Fort Ilocandia believes that accessibility is one of the major factors in developing the property into a major tourist attraction in the north. Therefore, there are now chartered as well as commercial flights to and from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Manila.

The architecture of the hotel was largely influenced by the Spanish colonial style. The 280 deluxe rooms offer a panoramic view of the resort. My roommate, CJ Juntreal of Manila Standard, and fellow STAR columnist Claude Tayag walked the brightly colored halls and admired the various works of art proudly hanging on the walls. At the resortís beauty salon, an expert hairdresser from Guanzhou, China does excellent haircuts, treatments and even rebonding. My group mates led by Bonjin Bolinao even had the chance to try their newly opened spa featuring foot reflexology by experts from China and the Philippines. Their huge dry sauna, stateóof-the-art steam and jet bath are simply delightful.

Dining at the hotel is never second best, to borrow a line from Beauty and the Beast. For dinner, we dined at the hotelís Chinese seafood restaurant which serves the most delicious sweet and sour fish, braised tofu, clams with tausi, Szechuan prawns, hot prawns salad and yang chow fried rice. If you ask Rep. Imee Marcos about her favorite food at Fort Ilocandia, it would be the goose wings, daomiao veggies with garlic and congee with fish and century egg. As for Ilocos Norte Governor Bongbong Marcos, his favorite includes rock lobster, steamed or sautťed in garlic. Imelda Marcos loves the banana bread at the coffee shop, which she takes home to Manila every time she visits.

After dinner, we tried our luck at the Casino Filipino, which is open 24 hours, and has multi-lingual attendants to assist foreign guests. The gaming area includes VIP rooms for discriminating guests. We checked out the lavish French Club, where the marbled wall shows the reflection of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Not to mention that the gold color anodize used in this hall is real gold. In the British Club, the hall is designed like the Buckingham Palace. Spanish influence is evidenced in the Taipan Club while in the Europe Club, massive columns and sculptures make one feel the heat from the Roman sport scene.

Like inquisitive students in a history class, we listened attentively as Fort Ilocandiaís charming executive Arlene de Guzman told us that long before the coming of the Spanish colonizers, the Ilocos region Ė then composed of the present provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra and La Union Ė was a thriving center of trade and commerce, and was renowned for its gold mines. Laoag was an established settlement when Juan de Salcedo arrived in 1572. In Laoag Pedro Almazan, a wealthy farmer, crowned himself king with the jeweled crown of the Virginís statue from the church. He made treaties with the mountain tribes in an effort to rebuff Spanish rule. The area suffered the abuses of the tobacco monopoly (1782-1881) and the Basi revolt (1807) began when the townspeople of Piddig rose in revolt when prohibited from making their beloved basi (wine made from sugarcane).

After a refreshing mini-lecture on Ilocos Norte, we toured Laoag. First stop: Gameng Ilocoís Museum, Irene Marcos Aranetaís pet project. Gameng is an Iloco word which means "treasure." Indeed, the museum is a treasure trove of everything that makes the region of Ilocos the "home of the brave and the land of the free."

We also went to Palazzo de Laoag Hotel, which is rising as the cityís newest landmark. Set in idyllic Vintar Road across the GSIS building, amid the fields and rustic charm of the city, the elegantly furnished and prestigious Palazzo captures the taste of the Ilocano for a cozy and stylish home. The impressive blend of luxurious interior and classic architecture is reminiscent of an enduring Spanish-dominated Ilocano heritage. According to gracious owner Nonong Ablan, "the hotel is your home, with a window to a heavenly destination of centuries-old baroque churches and architecture reflecting the grandeur and glory of the past."

While in Ilocos Norte, many a shrine, monument, and museum is waiting to be discovered. But beyond the tourist offerings it is also enriching to observe its people, the Ilocanos, among whom are revolutionary heroes like Diego and Gabriela Silang, Josefa Llanes Escoda and famous painters like Juan Luna. Trace the largest bulk of Filipino immigrants in Hawaii, California and Guam and you will discover that they are Ilocanos. Today, the largest number of overseas expatriate workers in the Philippines comes from the region. The land in this region may be tough but the Ilocanos will always prove that they are tougher wherever they may be.

Into the northwest, salt making prevails in Pasuquin, not far from amusingly nicknamed Seksi Beach. Cape Bodejar lighthouse, near Burgos town, is the tallest in the country and rewards a climb up a narrow, iron spiral staircase with a dramatic view of the northern coast. Of course, not to be missed out is Pagudpud, located at the northwest tip of Luzon, overlooking beautiful Bangui Bay.

When in Ilocos Norte, a culinary must for visitors is the fabled bagnet (very similar to lechon kawali), pinakbet and dinuguan chicharon. At the elegant Governorís Ball in the Fort, newly elected mayor of Laoag Michael Farinas and lovely wife Chevryll graciously invited us to visit Ilocos Norte again and enthused that if we let them know in advance, they would have their cook prepare all the tasty Ilocano dishes we wanted!

Indeed, this charming province endowed with beautiful people, rich natural resources and an interesting culture will surely satisfy a travelerís quest for adventure and history. What are you waiting for? Meet me up north and letís discover the ethereal charm Ilocos Norte offers.

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For more information on Fort Ilocandia, call 834-7219 or 834-7221 or (077) 772-1166 or log on at Palazzo de Laoag Hotel can be reached at (077) 773-1842; 773-1848 or

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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