, January 17, 2005  (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit  -  Sports tourism is alive and well up north! I may have visited Fort Ilocandia, my favorite five-star resort in Ilocos Norte, several times but this particular trip was a unique, invigorating, fun- filled experience one ought to try.

Upon arriving at the stately red-bricked Fort Ilocandia Resort in Laoag, the provincial capital of Ilocos Norte, I noticed the bright fuchsia bougainvillea forming balustrades down the ivy covered walls and the European inspired fountain shooting forth refreshing splashes of water on the well manicured lawn. As our gracious host Nixon Kua, assisted by Ronald Masayda, checked in for the group, I explored the nearby children’s zoo teeming with giant ostriches elegantly parading their black and white bodices while rare birds chirped in the backdrop. The sun was beginning to set as we watched the ball of crimson sink into the horizon creating a dramatic orange hued sky. Romance and adventure was so palpable as we excitedly anticipated the resort’s newest attractions like flying on a hot air balloon, parasailing, and riding the all-terrain vehicle (ATV).

To cap the evening, our group, led by Uncle Norman Turley who was visiting from California, my brother-in-law Benny Soliven, my best buddy and Allure’s Büm Tenorio, Fort Ilocandia’s regional sales manager Arlene de Guzman, Armand Padilla and our media colleagues Vic Lactaoen and Earl Bracamonte visited the elegant karaoke club within the hotel vicinity where we sang and serenaded each other till dawn. We hardly slept a wink when we heard the roosters crow. After a quick refreshing shower then a hearty breakfast at the hotel’s Garden Café, we raced towards the beachfront to board the giant multicolored hot air balloon. Like precocious children, Mel Martinez, Sylvia Goloyugo and I hopped on the hot air balloon carriage, or gondola, that would carry us to Neverneverland!

I took a deep breath as our hot air balloon slowly ascended from the ground. With the turn of the valve that regulates the propane into the balloon’s burner, a pillar of flame leaps up into the balloon with a roar. The experience seems surreal as you look down on the terrain, the over the 77-hectare Fort Ilocandia featuring sand dunes, idyllic beaches, rainforests, exquisite restaurants, spa, Olympic-sized pool, casino and shopping arcade,.

Hundreds of feet up in the pollution free air, I felt like Marco Polo, who traveled the Silk Route in search of exotic adventure. A sense of peace and tranquility permeated through me. As we soared higher, our hot air balloon ride made me realize how tiny a speck we are compared to the universe. Up there, I got a fantastic view of the charming province of Ilocos Norte that has produced an industrious people, imbibed with a rich cultural heritage and a glorious history.

Our hot air balloon guide gave us an aerial tour of Laoag, where a fusion of traditional Ibero-Filipino town planning exists. Boasting architectural styles from different eras, Laoag heritage buildings range from early structures such as the Cathedral of St. William to old tabacalera buildings. One shouldn’t miss a visit to the tabacalera and Gameng Museo Ilocos Norte and Tobacco Monopoly Movement. For a while I thought we could fly the balloon to Pagudpod to admire its idyllic coastline but our guide said we may drift off too far and end up in nearby Hong Kong.

As we slowly descended to the ground and gracefully landed on the Fort Ilocandia beachfront, it was time to check out the ATVs which are simply sand buggies that are very easy to operate, especially if you knows how to drive. A word of caution, though: Pace yourself if it’s your first time to drive these vehicles. Control the brakes when you hit a curve or see irregular terrain and wear your helmet at all times. Our group truly enjoyed driving our colorful ATVs through the coastal area exploring the oceanfront including the lush jungle. As we rested under a canopy of trees, cool air kissed our faces followed by a light drizzle. It was exhilarating, cathartic bliss. We exchanged jokes in this convivial atmosphere and as soon as the sprinkle of rain stopped, we continued our ATV tour of the forest.

As if that wasn’t enough, the daredevils among us opted to try the parasailing adventure. Strapped to a parachute attached to an open-air jeep, one seemed to fly in the air as the jeep begins to speed upon the sandy landscape. Mel Martinez and Benny Soliven simply enjoyed as they parasailed hundreds of feet above the ground while the rest of us tried to get photographs of their stunts. We proceeded to take a dive into the clear blue waters of the Olympic-sized pool as we leisurely watched them as they continued their parasailing that they swore became addicting.

The energy-packed day was capped by a dinner party hosted by Rep. Imee Marcos in her beautiful ancestral home where nostalgic photographs of former President Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos adorned the comely mansion. We returned the next morning to visit the grand mausoleum where the late strongman lies in state. A bronze bust of the former president stands at the entrance of the air-conditioned, dark oval room. In the center of the room, Marcos’ vacuum-sealed glass casket is dramatically lit and appears to be levitating what with the background music and antique candelabras. Handsomely clad in a regal, elegant barong Tagalog, Marcos looks like a dashing prince. A visit here is like a scene from a fairy tale book.

Another popular town is Paoay situated just south of Laoag. An outstanding feature of the town is Lake Paoay. Legend has it that a village lies beneath this lake. The lost village was reputedly peopled by affluent families who refused to aid a needy beggar. As punishment, torrents of rain flooded the community till Paoay Lake was formed. It is said that, to this day, fishermen catch fish with gold rings, a testament to the extravagant lifestyle of the people who once lived in the submerged village. The lake was declared a national park during the Marcos time. The construction of the Malacañang of the North, golf course, sports complex was completed as well.

A visit to Ilocos Norte is never complete without sampling its delightful cuisine. A hearty lunch of local delicacies was hosted by the gracious Chevylle Fariñas, president of Laoag City Tourism and Social Concerns Council and wife of Laoag Mayor Michael Fariñas. We sampled the delicious saluyot, dinuguang chicharon, bagnet, pinakbet, igado, gamet, longganisa among other local delicacies. It was a feast we would never forget as Chevylle and her staff invited us to attend their upcoming city fiesta dubbed "Pamulinawen Festival 2005." The grand celebration with the theme "One Family-One Vision-One Future" starts on Feb. 1, with the coronation of the next Ms. Laoag City Pamulinawen 2005 on Feb 10 taking centerstage. Chevylle enthused the fiesta promises to be a powerhouse of events depicting the city’s rich cultural heritage and global character.

Before we left Fort Ilocandia for Manila, we rode the hot air balloon again. As we went up the horizon, there was an invisible yet empowering feeling that enveloped me. Flying high in the open air, feeling the breeze on your face and feeling much closer to the ethereal heavens touched me in a way I never experienced before. A silent prayer offered to God and fervent wish for this new year was surely heard, for as the biblical phrase goes: "When you go near the heavens, I am there."

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For more information about Fort Ilocandia, call 851-4933 (Manila office) or fax 851-7261. For inquiries on Pamulinawen Festival 2005, call the Laoag City Tourism and Social Concern Council at (077) 773-1676.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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