MANILA, March 2, 2005 (STAR) By Archie Casilan  -  A sudden drizzle the morning after Christmas didn’t dampen our mood for an adventure. To swim and to wiggle in the pristine beaches of Panglao Island at this time of the year was like jogging around a Siberian prison camp with only a pair of boxer briefs on. Instead, Eleanor, my visiting cousin, and her family, together with my lawyer-cum-thrill-seeker-of-an-adventurer brother, boarded the newly-polished gray Ford Escape and zoomed 83 kilometers north of Tagbilaran, the so-called city of friendly people.

As the usual boastful sun hid behind a thick mushroom of a grayish cloud, we figured out that this particular day was perfect to revisit the world-famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol. However, there was a twist this time. To reach these phenomenal, some say mystical, hills, one has to travel the island’s eastern circumferential road, passing through the towns of Batuan, Sevilla and Carmen. From these towns, you will be mesmerized by just the awesome presence of the hills. You can trek up a hill or two, roll down a slope like a kid, or for Pete’s sake, even wail your broken heart out on a hilltop and wait for the echo to bounce back. But in the end, you pack your bags and go home wondering whether you are just like an ant lost in a labyrinth of humongous anthills.

However, we wanted to experience the majesty of the Chocolate Hills from an eagle’s-eye view. That’s why we cruised north of Tagbilaran toward the revitalized and lofty town of Sagbayan.

Bohol’s newest tourism boom is Sagbayan Peak. This five-hectare mountaintop resort and recreation center offers massive, spectacular viewing for nature lovers. Its viewing deck offers a 360-degree perspective of the Chocolate Hills plus the blue sea that separates Bohol and Cebu.

The two-hour journey along the north circumferential road was a smooth adventure in itself. At one point, we passed a speeding jeepney packed with a dozen of commuters sitting on the roof and a handful more clinging to an unstable steel railing attached on top of the door at the rear. Those who travel frequently around the archipelago would not be surprised by this sight. It is common in Aurora, Pangasinan, Mindoro, Quezon, Samar, Dumaguete, Cagayan, Tawi-Tawi and other provinces with little public transportation. However, this particular multi-cab was unique because it had an agile and brave fare collector. While the vehicle was speeding, he was sliding from one side of the vehicle to another, collecting fare from passengers. It was like a dangerous stunt in a Fear Factor episode. And there was no special rigging to keep him safe while doing his job.

Passing through the town of Calape was also another treat. The rows of tall Indian trees that line the town’s roads was simply eerie. Its main attraction remains Calape Church with its strikingly blue color and cylindrical roof. Passersby would surely think they’re seeing Disneyland.

We had heard all the tracks on the Billy Joel CD playing inside the SUV when we reached the foot of Sagbayan Peak. There was a muddy dirt path that spirals from its base to the mountaintop. By then, the sun had already come out and smiled upon us. Just as we thought, it was indeed a perfect day for a hike.

Café Baudillo is an imposing structure on Sagbayan Peak, with its spacious veranda and congenial ambience. We ordered lunches of beef, chicken and pork, although it was only 10 a.m.

There was a playground in the middle of a grassy field, while a flea market at a side offered native products and delicacies. While my companions proceeded up to the viewing deck, I rushed to the nearby Butterly Dome. I have always been amazed at how caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies. It’s a transformation from awkwardness to grace, from containment to freedom, from slow to fast, from earthbound to heaven bound. In a way, it epitomizes man’s struggles in life. The dome is home to many of these beautiful winged species.

At the deck, one can enjoy a view of the Chocolate Hills from all directions. The name "Chocolate Hills" is really a misnomer during the rainy, cold season. At this time of the year, the hills are all sea green. Why not call it Green Hills, then?

The high-powered telescopes on the view deck are a treat. With a 10-peso coin, you can have a view of Cebu City from across the sea for a minute or two. My minute or two were spent searching for a Loch Ness monster in the blue seas below to no success.

An hour later, we succumbed to the call of our bellies and returned to the café to feast on our orders. The classic Isak Dinesen short story "Babette’s Feast" came back to my mind: How the culinary expertise of one woman changed the lives of a family. Our feast might not have turtle soup as in the story, but the lomi soup was a superb substitute.

Our excursion might have been brief but I am sure the memories of the great mystery and majesty of these God-given hills to Boholanos will probably last a lifetime.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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