CRUISING  AROUND  CORON  BAY  IN NORTH  PALAWAN  & BEYOND

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 8, 2008 (STAR) KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - Philippine tourism takes a big leap forward with the launch of the M/V 7107 Islands cruise ship that will provide passengers not only the full amenities of a world-class, touring love boat, but access to the wondrous seascape off Coron Bay in Northern Palawan, and beyond.

Owned and operated by travel industry visionary Steve Tajanlangit, the five-deck cruise vessel conducted its maiden voyage in time to catch Coronís town fiesta on August 27-28. It sailed towards the port town in Busuanga Island in dramatic fashion right before sundown, framed by a full rainbow.

Half the town welcomed the large ship to its docking berth, the same used by the regular Super Ferry that goes on a weekend sail from Manila to Coron thence Puerto Princesa and back. When the Super Ferry docks on a Saturday morning and again on Sunday evening, the cruise ship has to be anchored out at sea, past My Destiny, the private yacht of Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, who made sure to lead the fiesta celebration.

We missed out on the night he distributed all the parts of a humongous ďbandiĒ ó Palawanís bounty of cashew nuts encrusted in pakaskas or hardened brown sugar ó to the throng celebrating at the coliseum. But we got to meet the amiable Governor, together with his brother, Coron Mayor Marjo Reyes, and Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez the next night at the shipís disco party.

All the officials were obviously in excellent toasting terms with ship owner Steve, who has been putting a lot of investment into the province, just as he had in Boracay with his resort place. The newly reclaimed land by Coronís waterfront now hosts a four-story structure, the top three floors of which have been leased for a 24-room hotel to be operated by the same 7107 Islands company that operates the ship.

While Coron already enjoys a legion of modest lodging places as well as top-class resorts lying in coastal areas outside town, the waterfront hotel will feature capacious suites and first-class facilities.

Another planned development is a time-sharing condotel to rise on Ditaytayin Island, which has white-sand stretches on both its western and eastern flanks. The island welcomes visitors from Coron ó a four-hour cruise by ship or two hours by speedboat ó with a gleaming extended sandbar on its northern point.

Off this island is where we anchor on our second night, after a daylong cruise past various other islands and islets, each with a fringing coral beach that spells enticement.

Speedboats transport us closer to shore, where pellucid aquamarine waters reveal excellent coral formations under low tide. The boats canít come any closer, so that those who canít jump into the fathom-deep waters to swim and/or wade ashore have to be ferried in pairs in a small banca paddled by a native.

The elongated island has numerous beach coves as a grand menu. We check out several of these by skirting the sandy strips that alternate with rocky coastline, finally settling on the long beach on the eastern side, which lies mostly in shade cast by thorny aroma trees. Extending over a kilometer, it turns out to have a counterpart on the western side, easily reached by crossing the islandís narrow waist on foot ó only a little over a hundred meters wide, with a sandy path cutting through lush foliage. The western beach, a gently curving crescent, is alit with the afternoon sun.

The ebbing tide reveals various coral species under a foot or two of water. Some host a colony of sea urchins with long spindly nettles ó the variety locally called takong, as against the shorter-thorned tirik that is the kind one scoops out the delicious orange roe from.

Identical twins Bruce and Brian Tulloch, American partners who have based their Asia-Pacific resort-suites company in Angeles City, spot a baby stingray frolicking in the shallows. On our way to this beach, we had also seen a baby shark a few meters from shore.

Bruceís slippers had failed him on that coastline trek, snapping and causing him to fall with a borrowed camera right into the water. Making a swim of it, he impaled his right hand upon a sea urchin. Now refreshing ourselves with buko juice and mala-uhog slivers, we laugh over his serial accidents, especially when he confesses that he had followed a localís advice and peed on the affected hand to stay the swelling.

Eight of us had made it to the western long beach, thinking that others from the ship would follow. But it becomes obvious that the beach party at sundown would take place at the sandbar, for no one else comes. We fancy ourselves as a stranded party that now has to engage in survivor conduct. We tell the twins, who have grown concerned that no speedboat has come to rescue us from the trek back, that weíre voting them off. The reason is that Bruce canít make it back anymore, not without slippers.

Thankfully, a guide finally returns with word that a speedboat is coming to save Bruce from having to be carried back to the sandbar. The sunset ride around the island becomes a blessing, for the sky turns awesomely spectacular, especially above Culionís mainland. Bruce and Brian forgive the party for our missing out on the first few bottles of ice-cold beer.

As it turns out, the rest of the cruise party, numbering about 50, have had their fun with tug-of-war and other games played on the sandbar under the weakening sun. We make it back just in time to join them, plus the crew and staff that may even have outnumbered the guests, on the large pontoon tethered to shore. It makes for a floating dock thatís perfect for sundowner drinks and carbonara with toast. When it gets dark, we are all slowly towed back on the pontoon to the brightly-lit ship.

The M/V 7107 Islands was purchased from foreign owners who had used it as a training vessel. Itís been fully outfitted for cruise tours from Coron to Puerto Galera and Boracay for starters, as well as Malcapuya and Calauit of the Calamianes group of islands.

Boracay Piano Bar has a baby grand, a large LCD flatscreen for movies and videoke, and a lounge area for breakfast and lunch served from a buffet table in an adjoining anteroom. It leads to the prow where the pool deck also has table settings for al fresco dining, and chaise lounges for sunbathing.

A higher deck displays more of the same, as well as San Miguel beer tents surrounding a grilling area for barbecues. Still another deck, the highest, boasts of a roofed and bamboo-curtained spa zone with massage beds and wooden, half-barrel tubs for steaming in, Western cowboy or Japanese style.

On the lower decks are a formal dining room billed as Puerto Galera Dining Hall, the large theater-like Coron Bar with a stage for a music band, a central lobby to welcome guests, a souvenir shop, gym, salon, childrenís playroom, clinic, and 170 cabins with bathrooms to accommodate as many as 400 guest passengers. Some rooms have double-decker bunks while others have twin bunks or wider beds, and come outfitted with LCD screens and mini-refs.

Itís in the disco bar where everyone gathers on the Thursday night that climaxes the town fiesta. Tickets to the affair are made available to 300 residents and holiday seekers. An overflow crowd of 400 makes the scene, in addition to the 50 or so cruise passengers. Among the stroll-ins are Purefoods basketball players who tower over everyone. Theyíve conducted clinics in town as part of the fiesta arrangements.

We ask Gov. Reyes if heís concerned at all that Tubbataha Reefs has fallen from the top slots in the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World Internet voting contest. He says no, since Filipinos have all of next year to cast more votes that should propel the site ó Palawanís boast together with the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River ó to the choice seven by the 2010 finale.

Coron Bay might as well join that parade of wonders from Palawan. A pumpboat cruise to the Twin Lagoons, one of them hidden from view and accessible only by swimming through a hole in a rock wall half-submerged in water, turns into a special scenic treat.

Karst formations, or limestone outcroppings, dot the coastline or form islets that become endowed with foliage. It looks like a flooded Sagada, or Guilin in China, also hinting at even more towering karst cliffs in the El Nido area at the northwest end of Palawan.

The reflections the jagged gray rocks cast on the still waters complement the iridescent coral beds below. It is one more instance of cornucopia among our 7,107 islands, especially those off the beaten track.

Some startling white-sand beaches on the coastline and among the islets have palm-thatched gazebos maintained by the Tagbanua, where a visit costs 100 pesos for entry. There are pit stops galore: the docking station for the steep climb to beauteous Kiangan Lake, and more lagoons nestled among the limestone mountains. The area called Siete Pecados, for seven isles out at sea, hosts a snorkelerís or scuba diverís delight.

When the M/V 7107 Islands cruise ship becomes fully operational in October, it will privilege Filipino and foreign visitor alike with a marvelous experience. It certainly points the way to how the enchantment of exploration and discovery can be done, in our own islands, while basking in the lissome lap of luxury.

* * * For cruise tour bookings, call 752-8255 to 57 or fax 887 4590. You may also e-mail info7107islands@yahoo.com, or log in to www.7107islandstravel.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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