(STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - Sometimes, life grabs us by sur-prise with unexpected blessings that we treasure forever. All we have to do is take that leap of faith.

Two Saturdays ago, I was having lunch in our all-time favorite Kashmir restaurant — known as the crown jewel of Indian cuisine — on Pasay Road in Makati City. I had just savored the sumptuous vegetable samosas and chicken tandoori when I got a call from my sister Jaqui inviting me to attend the lighting ceremony of the 120-foot giant Christmas tree in Puerto Princesa City. I had the delightful gulab jamun desert (milk pastry in sweet saffron syrup) wrapped to go and in a jiffy, packed up my overnight bag and headed straight for the airport.

The nippy sea breeze emanating from the baywalk of Puerto Princesa gently kissed our faces. The darkness of the night was punctuated by the twinkling stars and the angelic singing of the 16 impressive choir groups who came to participate at the lighting ceremony — reminding me of the touching musical A Christmas Carol which I recently watched with friends. As if serenading the heavens, the symphony of powerful prayer reverberated as 40 precocious children played their violins and sang like winged seraphim.

This spectacular tree-lighting ceremony is a gift from Mayor Edward Hagedorn to his people. Celebrating God’s omnipotent blessings, all rejoice including the heavens — as evidenced by the smiling moon, a crescent-shaped slice of luminescence on that enchanting evening.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Nowhere in the Philippines is this more evident than in Puerto Princesa City under the dynamic leadership of Hagedorn whose life has been portrayed by no less than the King of Filipino Movies, Fernando Poe Jr. The good mayor has inspired his constituency to acquire a paragon image for the capital. The “city within a forest” has gained the recognition and honor as the country’s cleanest and greenest city — reviving the glory that was bestowed upon it a century ago. History, however, signifies that the name Puerto Princesa was given in honor of Princess Eulalia of Spain, born in 1864 to the reigning monarch Queen Isabela II and her consort, Dr. Francisco de Asis. In 2007, it was upgraded from component city to a highly urbanized city thus making it independent from the province.

Puerto Princesa City lies at the center of the island of Palawan. Considered the largest city in the country, it sprawls across 253,982 hectares of land and stretches 106 kilometers long. A place of natural beauty and idyllic charm, Puerto Princesa is now a portrait of a flourishing and peaceful city. It is envisioned to grow into a park-like city, a center for ecological tours and research and a place for healthful recreation.

Our gregarious group led by my sister Jaqui and her loving husband Boom Boncan explored the Underground River, a Unesco World Heritage site. High-powered lamps handled by expert guides illuminate these natural attractions. Just imagine stalactites protruding from the ceiling of a dark cavern, shimmering like chipped diamonds through the long stretch of watery highways. Enter the surreal St. Paul cavern — a fascinating passage through a subterranean world of interesting geological formations, cathedral chambers with massive stalactites. Hidden grottos, icy lagoons where the eerie silence is occasionally pierced by melodious sounds of water drops and shrill cries of swooshing bats resemble a George Lucas film set. Such beauty and grace is unfathomable; one must experience it to be able to comprehend it.

Boom enthusiastically explained that the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park can be reached by first traveling overland from Puerto Princesa to Sabang wharf, Barangay Cabayugan, 80 kms north of the city, then on motorized outriggers or speedboats for another 20 minutes. This magnificent Underground River flows beneath a spectacular mountain before emptying into the South China Sea and is considered the “world’s longest navigable underground river” at a length of 8.2 kilometers. Discovery channel will come alive as children encounter monkeys, large monitor lizards, and squirrels who have found their niche on the beach forest near the cave. As if that wasn’t enough, Puerto Princesa is also the gateway to yet another World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Marine Park off the municipality of Cagayancillo.

Close to the city is the Crocodile Farming Institute where tourists often stop for an educational tour. There is also a mini-zoo featuring indigenous rare fauna. Worthy to note, ABS-CBN Foundation headed by project manager Gerry Ortega assisted sustainable tourism sites include the surreal Iwahig River firefly tours, exploring the Pambato reef and Ugong Rock Climbing.

Our home away from home in Puerto Princesa was the cozy Asturias Hotel owned by gracious couple Wilson and Didith Tan. It’s a sprawling, Mediterranean-inspired structure with a huge indoor garden and a large swimming pool with Jacuzzi facing the rooms. Landscaped gardens surround the sanctuary of greenery, truly an oasis of tranquility and peace in the city. Well-appointed guestrooms will satisfy the most discriminating of travelers. Savor their chicken kinulob, pescados catch, tuna salpicao, seafood soup with lemongrass and for the sweet tooths — try their divine sylvanas which my sisters wolfed down in a minute. (As for me, I clandestinely snacked on my favorite gulab jamun.) Other restaurants you must try are Badjao seafood restaurant, Kinabutch for the best gising-gising (diced green beans in spicy coconut cream) and sizzling tuna steak with gravy; Inato for the most succulent chicken, Ka Louis for fresh seafood and Lotus Garden for great Asian cuisine. A visit to their fish market is also a must.

Marvel at colorful tropical reef fish and coral gardens as you snorkel at Pambato Reef and Snake Island, a long sandbar that slithers on the surface of the sea, much like the critter that bears its name. Another highlight is Starfish Island, where starfishes in varied sizes and colors abound. “Lu-li” — a short term for Lulubog-Lilitaw — is a tiny islet that is visible at ebb tide but disappears during high tide. A diving board here invites the acrobatic types to plunge into the depths of the pristine blue sea.

Exotic Pandan Island has good reefs near small drop-off points, an exquisite site for diving and snorkeling. Commune with nature onboard the Bacungan River cruise and watch the romantic sunset as thousands of bats make their way out of Bat Island in search of food on the mainland.

As the plane taxied on the runway in Manila, I recalled how this particular trip spontaneously unfolded. The serendipitous act of seizing the moment, casting your cares to the wind proved that sometimes the least-planned trips can provide such lasting memories after all. For me, Puerto Princesa will always be a place called home, hundreds of miles across the sea, where the warmth and cheer of the yuletide season beckon gleefully.

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For more information, please call Engelbert Alvarez of Puerto Princesa Tourism office at 0918-2504224 or visit website www.info.puertoprinsesa.com. Call Asturias Hotel at (048) 434-3851 or 433-9744 or its Makati office at 751-3615.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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