JULY 2, 2008
(STAR) FROM THE HEART By Gina Lopez - Typhoon Signal Number Three — and I am in a nipa hut in Matnog, Sorsogon. In the background of thunderous waves and wind, the nipa hut starts shaking… the bed starts shaking… the lights go off. I think: Whatever happens, my Blackberry shouldn’t get wet. And I fall asleep.

By the time I wake up the next day, it’s lowered to Signal Number Two. The eye of the storm has passed, and I answer all these texts making sure that the kids and I are all right. The otherwise glacial Matnog Sea is still rocky and the wind is still quite strong. The weekend was meant to be spent bonding with my kids, away from the intrusive TV set and computer. Since I can’t do away with them, I do the next best thing. I venture away from them — into the spectacular natural resources of Sorsogon. I am with my sister Berta, my brother-in-law Ting and my nieces Dani and Alisa. Carina, Bicol ecotourism manager, is a bit apprehensive because she is not sure how Berta and her family will take to roughing it in Sorsogon. There are no five-star accommodations. It certainly doesn’t help that the weekend we choose is the weekend “Frank” decides to visit Sorsogon as well.

Last night she called me and said she did enjoy the trip. The family time was certainly good for the kids. All in all, it was good, as we gave pointers on how to further develop the place to accept visitors — without losing their character to attract commercial tourism. I actually quite like the term of Governor Joey Salceda as head of ecocultural tourism. And Berta quite rightly noted that we don’t want to be just another commercial tourist destination. Just put the right touches on what’s natural to make it special.

The highlights of my trip:

• From Legaspi airport, en route to Matnog, we had a sumptuous brunch at Fernando’s — with all the delicacies and dishes peculiar to Sorsogon. We were welcomed and cared for by the owner Cecilia. I told her, “You know what is the tourist attraction here? You.” And her staff. Cecilia embraces you like a mother hen, from the heart — and the food just tastes so much nicer when you feel cared of. It helped that the dining place felt very much like a home, with the kitchen and cooking in full view.

• Fresh uni and “current snorkeling.” This is my term for riding the currents, but close to the shoreline, and wearing snorkeling gear. Spreading my arms, I felt like Superman — Yay! It was quite fun. The currents were strong enough to catch a ride, but still manageable so that I could stand up when I wanted to and go to the beach. Sea urchins apparently abound where the current is strong — and Matnog has some of the strongest currents in the world! In fact there is a part of the sea where the China Sea meets the Pacific Ocean — and the rippling currents are a sight to behold. But what had us gasping were the whirlpools! And this giant whirlpool had me telling Karina, “Let’s go back and take a shot of that!” I have never seen a whirlpool soooo big! In the evening a Japanese Filipino inventor visited us. Unfortunately, I was asleep — resting an unsettled stomach. But Carina told me he brought graphs and data which very convincingly showed that there is enough current strength in Matnog to power the entire Philippines — and even neighboring countries at 40 cents per kilowatt hour! And to think that Matnog and most of Sorsogon has difficulty with electricity! Oh, and Ting said that eating uni fresh — with our own wasabi and Kikkoman Soy Sauce and chopsticks — is much better than any Japanese restaurant. Sex organs — that was what we were joking about as the uni was being eaten.

• The Lobster Farm. Ting and my kids love to eat, and the lobster farm was enough of an attraction that — since the seas were too unsettled — we took the jeepney to where the seas were calmer, and then a bangka to the farm. We got the lobsters but no one in the group was able to catch one. Ting remarked that descending in the lobster pen with the snorkel gear made them feel like they had a sharper sense of what was happening — and their antennae were ready to defend themselves.

• The San Benon hot springs of Irosin. I have never experienced hot water like this. And it came in torrents. It was such an experience for me — and I slept so well afterward — that I went back the next day. The second day we discovered a smaller pool that could contain the hot water. I insisted that my driver, who was experiencing aches and pains and a slight fever, immerse himself; and just like I predicted, he was up and about right afterward.

• The crystal springs of Palogtoc Falls. The water is crystalline — but, at the onset, icy cold — but once you muster the courage to dive in, the experience is stimulating. It’s like bathing in mineral drinking water. But there is something magical about the place, like being in fairyland. I could feel the elementals tickling my body… “Magical” is the best word to describe it.

• Bulusan Lake. This is like being in a time warp. We kayaked the length of the lake; it’s almost surreal. It’s a lake surrounded by a watershed, and quite an experience. I am so pleased that Governor Sally intends to protect it and develop it organically.

• Villa Luisa Celeste. An interesting point of the trip was this villa that romance built. The owner, Luis Freyna, is a retired sea captain and, in the name of love, he built this beautiful villa for his wife Raquel and named it after his two daughters Luisa and Celeste. On one side, one can see Bulusan volcano… At the front, one sees the Pacific Ocean. The food is very good. I had lunch and breakfast there, and for a reasonable price, one experiences a buffet that fills the senses and, just as importantly, fills the heart!

• In San Roque, Bulusan I stayed at the house of Vinchy de Vera which is surrounded by clear mineral springs, calamansi trees and has an awesome view of Bulusan volcano. The other group stayed at the house of his sister, Mari de Vera. Mari is a prolific and talented painter who lives in a charming old house. It reminded me of my maternal lola’s house. These old Spanish houses have an air of history to them. One can almost feel the ancestral spirits hovering in the woodwork. “Charming” is an apt description.

I could go on and on but let me end me end by noting a significant plus to the experience: the heart of the people. I will start with Governor Sally Lee. “Iron Lady” is what I call her to tease her — since she has been on crutches and in an iron-like cast for many months — and she still goes about her daily activities as if nothing has happened. There are some people I like from the moment I meet them. Sally is one of them. Her concern for the province is genuine and real, and her vision is the preservation of the natural resources of Sorsogon. That’s the best way to get along with me: to sincerely have a vision like that. I know that we can work together to make things happen. The care given by Celema, the wife of the mayor of Matnog and his daughter Maritess, was also notable. They are sincerely interested in improving the area so that visitors can come.

At the Balay Buhay Bee Farm in San Roque, Bulusan, my family was so impressed by the heartfulness of Sim, the manager. And I loved the cook and the staff: their softness, their warmth. I actually love the kitchen and the smell of wood-cooked meals. Berta joked that she liked the food so much she was going to pirate the cook. We got to have fresh honey, very healthy bee pollen, and freshly picked passion fruit juice. And all our meals were taken against the backdrop of a rustling river and crickets and silence. “Magic,” again, is the best word to describe the place.

“Magic,” in fact, is the word to describe all that Sorsogon has to offer.

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Those interested can contact AA Yaptinchay at 729-9127. You can email me at

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