SUN, BEACH, FUN AND ECO-TOURISM

MANILA, March 20, 2006 (STAR) By Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber - Glimmering turquoise water, long white sandy beaches bathed in sunlight, lined by high palm trees, chairs under sunshades in front of resorts and hotels Ė this is what pictures look like in travel magazines, and it is what a tourist can expect in Boracay.

The jump-off point to Boracay is Caticlan from where it is just a 10-minute ride by tricycle to the harbor and then approximately another 30-minute ride by boat.

The island has a longish shape with three main boat stations on the beachfront on the western side of the island and two main roads: the sandy road right next to the beachfront, and the back road behind the beachfront resorts where motorbikes and tricycles offer transfers.

The variety of resorts and hotels is huge ranging from the more rustic, friendly-looking informal resorts to the fancy five-star hotels.

One place to stay is the Pearl of the Pacific resort, located close to Boat Station 1, right on White Beach, with crystal clear, shallow water. It is walking distance to many bars where the "in" crowd hangs out at night.

On its wide compound, the Pearl of the Pacific has a pool and a hillside tropical garden. The spacious arrangement of accommodations on the hillside and on the sides around the pool allows guests to retreat from the busy, crowded streets with all their tricycles, motorbikes and vendors, and enjoy the tranquility and peacefulness of the tropical atmosphere. Different types of rooms are offered ranging from standard to the Maharlika with Jacuzzi, all air-conditioned, very clean, and well-equipped.

The restaurant menu lists a variety of dishes. On some days, it offers a buffet. But since they also conduct themed parties for groups, a regular guest might have to wait a while to be served on such occasions. Other than that, the atmosphere is welcoming and the hospitable staff quickly responds to any request.

To the Pearl of the Pacific belongs the spa called Neo-The Island Spa. Kenneth H. Tuazon, one of its operators, says "neo" stands for the new and innovative special treatments, which are neither offered in any other spa on the island nor in its branch in Manila. One of these island packages is the Island Detox, which my colleague and I experienced ourselves.

The treatment starts with a body cleansing, followed by a detoxifying brown algae wrap applied in the form of a massage. After being scrubbed with the algae, the customer rests for 20 minutes. By that time, we already felt so relaxed that we were about to fall asleep. The treatment is then finished with a 20-minute lymphatic drainage massage. After the two-hour treatment, we felt like newborn babies.

The cheaper but less professional version of a spa treatment is a massage right on the beach offered by local masseuses. Those massages usually take about 30 to 45 minutes. The advantage of a massage on the beach is lying under the shade of palm trees as you watch the sunset.

Among the many activities offered on the island are banana boat rides, para-sailing, kite surfing, scuba diving, skim boarding, snorkeling, and island hopping. Most island- hopping tours throw in some snorkeling, with masks provided for a dip. Islands visited on a typical tour include Crystal Island, Crocodile Island, and Puka Beach where many nice shells can be found.

To enter Crystal Island, tourists are charged an entrance fee. The fee is worth it since the island has a unique landscape of hilly, stony layers. There are a few small, sea-level caves that can be entered through narrow stairways. The islandís landscape is embellished with flowers and sculptures. On many island-hopping tours, lunch is included and will be served on one of the small islands.

Another tourist pastime is shopping. This makes Boracay fun, even on days when it is drizzling. The main shopping area is DíMall, which is located at the center of the island close to Boat Station 2. The stores offer beachwear and jewelry, as well as souvenirs. There are also a few stores that sell wooden and woven handicrafts. Items sold at the stores at DíMall have fixed prices that are often higher than bargains at the nearby market or from the vendors at the beachfront.

As a foreigner, I was offered, among other items, so many sunglasses, which were said to be Gucci. It made me think that this island must rake it in for Gucci. It is definitely advisable to compare prices and take some time before making a decision, especially for things that are offered at every corner, such as sets of pearls.

After sunset, the beachfront of Boracay turns into a romantic, properly styled place with dinner tables that are decorated with flowers and candles, and illuminated by Chinese lanterns in the trees. But on weekdays during the off-season, many restaurants and bars have a hard time filling up their places. Among the popular bars where people hang out are Pier One, Hey Jude, and Summer Place. Even these bars are sometimes quite deserted before midnight on some days during the week.

Weíve learned that it can also be fun to just hang out with the barkeepers who are not so busy at these times; they enjoy having a drink and chatting with their guests once in a while.

What many people regret about the island is that it has become more and more commercialized during the past years. Locals who have spent their lives in Boracay lament that so much of its natural flora and fauna had to make way for resorts and hotels. The island also has a problem handling the garbage left by the people who come and go.

Nevertheless, Boracay has gained much popularity that other nice places in nearby areas that have lots to offer visitors might be overlooked.

One place is Pandan, a city of approximately 29,000 inhabitants in the province of Antique, northwest of Panay Island, which is just across the sea from Boracay. This area offers a different environment than what tourists find in Boracay. It takes about 40 minutes by jeepney from Caticlan through a winding paved country road to reach Pandan City.

Pandan is a naturally preserved area. It is home to many species, among them the hornbill. The community of Pandan has an eco-tourism program, which is funded by the Local Government Support Program (LGSP) of the Philippine-Canadian Association.

Pandan tourism officer Jude D. Sanchez says the community-based eco-tourism program in Pandan offers a learning experience for both tourist and locals alike. He says that in contrast to Boracay, with its commercial-based tourism, Pandan is not dependent on tourists for its livelihood. The concept of community-based tourism limits the number of guided tours to just four each week. Each group has only 25 participants as a way to prevent mass tourism. In the two years since the program has been running, about 13 tourist groups have visited Pandan. He notes that the community intends to expand its tourism program to more travelers.

A must-see in Pandan is Bugang River, which is said to be the cleanest river in the Philippines. Our hospitable tour guide Rex Zaldivar led us on a hike to the riverís spring, Malum Pati. There is no clearly marked hiking trail to the spring. That is why it is recommended to have a guide who can help you through the steeper and rockier parts of the route. The hike is worth it; you are rewarded with the calm, clear azure waters of the spring where you can take a swim or a ride on a raft.

Natural awareness plays a key role in Pandan. The Philippine Endemic Species Conservation Project (PESCP) was established in 1996 in northwestern Panay to promote reforestation, to spread ideas of conservation, and to protect local species. The private organization is subordinate to the Association of Conservation and Development and relies on sponsorship, mainly from the German Frankfurt Zoological Society, but also from organizations around the world, such as the National Geographic in the United States.

Prof. Dr. Eberhard Curio, a well-known German ecologist and one of the managers of the project, says sustainability and the protection of threatened species can only be achieved by changing peopleís attitude towards the environment.

His colleague Thomas Kuenzel adds that their main task is "not to talk to people, but show them how to improve, and therefore empower them through practical help."

In order to do so, the PESCP employs professional people, many of them Filipinos who go to the communities.

Kuenzel notes that in Boracay, the local flying fox species has become endangered with the cutting down of trees and with the construction of resorts. The flying fox, which hunts at night, depends on trees to hide in and rest during the day.

The development of Pandan does not only concern natural preservation. For two years now, Pandan has its own library, the first library that was established in northern Antique.

The Leocadio Alongasay Dioso Memorial Public Library was founded by Leocadio Dioso, a retired United Nations official who initially furnished the library with his familyís book collection, setting it up on their property.

What makes the library so progressive for the region is its fully equipped computer room, where locals have free Internet access. The library also offers weekly storytelling sessions by local teachers, as well as public movie screenings.

With the library, Leocadio Dioso, who himself loved reading books since his childhood, wants to help the rural population improve its communication skills and their fluency in English. Dioso regrets that although English is an official language in the Philippines, many people use too much Taglish. He says the literacy rate is above average in the area of Pandan. Nevertheless, this doesnít apply to those living away far from city since it costs them time and money to come to the library.

Although Pandan does not offer as many activities as Boracay, the learning experience is guaranteed. A good tour guide will lead tourists to places where native handicrafts are made and sold, such as caba bags, which are much cheaper here than in Boracay.

Mag-aba Beach is also nearby. The sand might not be as white and as fine as in Boracay, but fresh fish is available directly from fishermen and can be grilled on site by a bonfire for a dinner right at the beach. Since there are no clubs and bars around, visitors might get up with the rising sun to start a new day.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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