MANILA, December 13, 2005 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - The holiday season beckons as bright fuchsia bougainvilleas balustrade down ivy-covered brick walls and towering palm fronds sway to the cool breeze at the stately Fort Ilocandia Resort in Laoag, the provincial capital of Ilocos Norte. The Trevi-inspired fountain in the middle of the romantic courtyard transports me back to the Eternal City of Rome as its upward splashes of crystal-clear water sprays a refreshing mist on the verdant well-manicured lawn. The crimson sun sinks into the horizon. The sprawling sand dunes and fine sandy beach creates a dramatic orange-hued sky above. What a heavenly setting to match the congenial spirit of hospitality and revelry executed with such aplomb as no less than former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, her children Ilocos Norte Governor Bongbong Marcos, and Irene Araneta-Marcos, together with Lifestyle Asia president Sari Yap and Eliza Romualdez-Valtos, led the traditional welcome ceremonies as VIP guests from the diplomatic community were chosen to be honorary Ilocanos. After a hearty fill of sumptuous local Ilocano cuisine, such as the popular bagnet, pinakbet, local sweets and overflowing fine wine, folk songs were sung as fragrant and lovely leis were presented to Spanish Ambassador Ignacio Sagaz and his wife Aurora, Italian Ambassador Rubens Fidele, former Belgian Ambassador Christian Tanghe and wife Gul, Fuego Hotel and Propertiesí Alfredo Roca, Gemma Garcia, Instituto Cervantesí Javier Galvan, Patrick Jacinto, Store Specialistsí Nedy Tantoco, and Museo Ilocos Norte head Araceli Drake. Famed historian and author Ricky Jose welcomed everyone to the jovial festivity, a toast to the beauty of our culture and the hospitality we are known for.

A quick 45-minute flight from Manila to Laoag City or an eight-hour travel (like what STAR columnist Pepper Teehankee did) by land allows one to enjoy the beautiful coastal view from the province of La Union, up through Ilocos Sur to Ilocos Norte. The premier address here is the Fort Ilocandia Resort Hotel, built and situated on a 77-hectare area and featuring 280 deluxe rooms with panoramic views of sand dunes, idyllic beaches and rainforests. My roommate Malayaís Sandy Diez and I admired the Victorian-themed oil paintings that adorned the corridors leading to our well-appointed rooms. While Fort Ilocandia reeks of Spanish influence, it is a known fact that the resort was patterned after the La Ammonia hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, but guests who have visited both properties swear that Fort Ilocandia is far more exquisite. Since accessibility is one of the major factors in developing the property into a major tourist attraction in the north, there are chartered as well as commercial flights to and from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Manila.

One exhilarating way to appreciate this spectacular resort and the charm of the province is to try "flight seeing" via the hot air balloon like what winsome ladies led by Fort Ilocandiaís PR director Arlene de Guzman and Sari Yap did one sunny morning. It is only when one is aboard a helicopter, seaplane or, in this case, a colorful hot-air balloon that the phrase "birdís-eye view" suddenly acquires its full meaning.

After a graceful landing on the Fort Ilocandia beachfront, it was time to check out the all-terrain vehicles, which are simply four-wheel sand buggies that are very easy to operate. The beachfront property of the resort has many activities to offer guests who want to indulge in purely outdoor activities. 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 do windsurfing or surfboarding, go diving, snorkeling, banana-boat riding, parasailing or do laps in the Olympic-size swimming pool. Golf aficionados will enjoy its well-maintained world-class 18-hole course overlooking scenic Paoay Lake. Centuries-old trees in the middle of the bunkers are a unique feature of this spectacular golf course.

A city tour of Laoag and its vicinity proved to be educational and inspiring as well. First stop: Gameng Ilocoís Museum. This is Irene Marcos Aranetaís pet project. "Gameng" is an Iloco word meaning "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." The Museo Ilocos aims to preserve the wealth and treasures of the Ilocos region that reeks of a glorious history. Housed in a tabacalera warehouse, the museum was primarily designed to instill a sense of patriotism for the young Ilocanos, Yapayaos, Itnegs, Igorots and other citizens of the province. To help and promote the preservation of their museum, the Governorís Ball, which is an annual fundraiser for the museum, was organized by the local government, the Gameng Foundation Inc. and the Ilocos Tourism Board, in cooperation with Lifestyle Asia magazine. The successful gala dinner, held at the Sierra Madre Ballroom of Fort Ilocandia, celebrated the museumís fifth Foundation Day. The gracious hosts and their guests garbed in their elegant evening wear created from abel iloko, the indigenous hand-loomed fabric, enjoyed local cuisine with a nouvelle twist, such as spring rolls filled with jicama, carrots, shrimp dumpling soup served with biscocho, tanguingue ceviche salad, roast pork with garlic rosemary drizzled with San Nicolas molasses, and delectable local sweets. It was a memorable evening, a celebration of the rich heritage and gastronomic delights of the province.

Next morningís tour was a learning experience as our group listened attentively to our tour guide who shared information about Ilocandia. We learned that long before the coming of the Spanish colonizers, the Ilocos region, then composed of the present provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sure, Abra, and La Union, was a thriving center of trade and commerce. In 1572, the Spanish explorer Don Juan de Salved and his men landed in Vigan then proceeded towards Laoag, Curia and Bade. The inhabitants of the coastal settlements they found were referred to as "yolks," meaning from the lowlands. The Spaniards later called the region "Locos" and its people "Loans." Structures reminiscent of Hispanic times are the Tobacco Monopoly Monument, which was erected in 1882 to commemorate the Spanish Kingís lifting of the hated decree, the Sinking Bell Tower dating from 1783 and the St. Williamís Cathedral built in 1650 in Italian Renaissance-style. Cape Bodejar lighthouse, near Burgos town, the tallest in the country, rewards a climb up a narrow, iron spiral staircase with a dramatic view of the northern coast. A new attraction is the newly-installed North Wind Windmill project, a wind farm along the Bangui Bay shoreline. Power supply in the region will certainly be boosted by these wind turbines that produce 24 megawatts of hydroelectric power per hour.

We headed back to the town of Paoay, which gained international attention with the inscription of the Church of San Agustin as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Popularly referred to as the Paoay Church, its architecture features a unique re-interpretation of the European Baroque style by Filipino and Chinese craftsmen under the direction of friar-builders of the late 17th century. The newly opened Herencia Cafť, across the church, is a charming cafť with a cozy ambiance that serves delightful pastas, sandwiches, snacks and refreshments.

Another highlight of this sojourn is a trip to Pagudpud, located at the northwest tip of Luzon, overlooking beautiful Bangui Bay. Pagudpudís topography, a mix of ivory white and dark beaches, forested hills, rocky cliffs, waterfalls and a wild river cutting through the rain forest, has inspired many artists to create their masterpieces here.

This yuletide season, while the days are shorter and the nights much longer, one fascinating destination is Ilocos Norte. While this province pulsates with the regionís cultural and creative heart, it also offers urban efficiency of a modern metropolis. Timeless traditions, an embracing culture, romance, rejuvenation and respite Ė how much natural and cultural wealth does this haven hold? Come up north to experience such treasures unfold.

* * *

For more details on Fort Ilocandia, call 834-7219 and telefax 834-7221. Museo Ilocos Norte is located on Gen. Luna St., Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, with tel. no. (077)770-4587.

* * *

For comments and suggestions, e-mail

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved