MANILA, JULY 27, 2006 (STAR) C‘EST CEBU By Honey Jarque Loop - I must admit I have never flown on Air Philippines, because the opportunity never presented itself. Not until recently, when I received an invitation from Julius Jose Coching, area head Visayas sales of the airline, to join a familiarization tour to Legaspi.

Our flight departed on time, which definitely says a lot about the company, not to mention the well-trained and efficient, ever smiling stewardesses who attended to our needs.

Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Rafael Gonzales, Air Philippines senior manager for Luzon and Metro Manila; Manny Mendoza, Air Philippines sales Manila; and Maria Ravanilla, Department of Tourism regional director, who graciously hosted lunch at a quaint restaurant called Small Talk, which is known for its local cooking. A dish you must try include the tiny peppers, which rejoice to the nickname Bicol Express. These chilies liberally laced almost all Bicol dishes that are awash in coconut milk with bits of pork, fish, and crab fat. The pinangat with lots of gabi leaves is simply a must.

Without a doubt, the most interesting and well-known attraction in the area is Mayon Volcano, which towers majestically over Albay. Its beauty is also a reminder that such perfection has not been achieved without cost to human lives. In 1814, Mayon erupted with such massive violence it drove the inhabitants to take shelter at the nearby Cagsawa Church. When a mighty tide of lava flowed down into the church, sadly there was no escape. Cagsawa was 40 meters down the volcano, and some 1,200 persons perished. Today, only the church tower and remains of the church pediments are visible above ground, the rest of the structure having been buried under the lava.

Our next visit was to the Our Lady of the Gate Parish in Daraga, situated on a hill overlooking the town. Among the stone carvings, tufts of greenery sprout from unlikely places. The features that stand out most are the four spiral columns in its façade.

Daraga is the center for Filipino handicrafts, particularly abaca. Shops are filled with abaca placemats, bags, floor mats, and lamps. Other popular buys are the woodcarvings, bowls, pottery, and the local delicacy, pili nuts, which are so addicting.

Albay’s neighboring province to the south, Sorsogon, is the site for one of the highest concentrations in the world of whale sharks, known locally as butanding.

While there is no guarantee of a sighting, chances are you’ll see them in the right time and season. It can take only a few minutes after leaving the shoreline before you come across them. Our group luckily was there at the right moment and right place, and only a few minutes from shore, we were all fascinated by the appearance of the massive mammals. Seeing the butanding for the first time was an extremely exciting experience.

Although they are enormous in size and power, with lengths reaching more than 15 meters, they are remarkably gentle and docile enough that it is generally safe to swim among them. If you are not comfortable swimming in the water like Department of Tourism regional director Dawnie Roa, it is just as amazing to experience them from the boat.

Interaction tours provide the local community with an important means of livelihood, but let us not forget that the most important consideration is the well-being of the whale sharks.

We must remind ourselves that we are visitors to the butanding’s natural habitat, and it is our primary responsibility to ensure that our actions do not disturb or upset natural rhythms.

I shall never forget the thrilling and awesome experience of interacting with the whale sharks, but I doubt it I will have the courage to do it again. Once is definitely enough.

Air Philippines flies from Cebu to Legaspi three times a week every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday with departures at 9:55 a.m., returning to Cebu on the same day at 11:20 a.m.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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