I was told that Dumaguete was popular with ex-pats. There are 4,000 of them in this city of 120,000 people. You don’t get a sense that they’ve changed it much. Dumaguete offers a taste of the real Philippines – cluttered, chaotic but always colourful. During my 48-hour stay in this seaport I found homes on stilts in the sea, enjoyed an hour-long performance of dolphins leaping out of the ocean and found the perfect retreat for the traveller who loves solitude.
Okay, it’s a long way to come. But once you’ve paid for your flight, you’ll find Dumaguete highly affordable. It is the low cost of living in the Philippines that has attracted many European and American relocators. Pensions stretch further here on Negros Island in the central south of the country. When you switch pounds for pesos you can enjoy luxury living – a good restaurant meal costs around £6. If you are prepared to travel the 14 hours from London to Manila and then take an additional hour-long internal flight, you will find that your money also travels much further.
As soon as you touch down at Dumaguete’s tiny airport you know you’re in the Philippines. The taxi drivers are touting for your trade the moment you reach the arrivals gate. Do your research and find out how much the journey to your hotel should cost. You’ll be offered the chance to name your price for a tricycle ride, because the locals know you’ll probably wildly overestimate it.
You should take a ride in a ‘trike.’ You won’t see these in Europe (I doubt they’d be road-legal!) and they’re part of the Philippines experience. It’s a covered motorbike with a sort of welded-on sidecar in which you and up to two other passengers can sit. It can be a cosy ride for those with, lets say, a fuller figure so make sure you’re travelling with a loved one or at least a close friend. The city centre streets are filled with these vehicles. From above they must look like multi-coloured ants, dashing in all directions. In the centre of town there’s even a ‘trike’ fire engine on display. The fire service roll call would have been shorter than Trumpton’s – they’d reach Pugh and Pugh but be lucky to squeeze on Barney McGrew.
I decided to face away from the direction of travel. Not to avoid panic at the pandemonium – I wanted to check that my luggage, left untethered on the roof, didn’t tumble off onto the road behind. As your driver weaves you in and out of the traffic, which comes at your trike from all angles, you pass shop fronts with similarly bold and bright paintwork – reds, yellows and greens. I passed a timber merchant where all the wood was bamboo. Next, a string of specialist shops – three stores selling only floormats for cars.
As the trike reached its top speed of 30km per hour, totally adequate for a city where vendors can meander between the motors and make a sale before the traffic moves on, I looked up at the tangle of electrical and phone wires overhead. And I thought unravelling my Christmas tree lights was difficult. There were literally hundreds of black cables twisted together and sagging between poles. I smirked at a billboard next to one of these fire risks. ‘Safety First’ it proclaimed. Then another road sign warned me that the area was ‘Accident Prone.’
The trike spluttered past another billboard, encouraging me to ‘Drive Safely’, a message sponsored by the makers of Tanduay rum. An odd choice of sponsor but passengers may well need some Dutch courage. Health and safety is widely promoted in the Philippines but there’s not much evidence that they practice what they preach. You can play a game, spotting events and activities that would have a British HSE official scribbling so quickly on her clipboard that it would likely combust.
The trike stopped suddenly with a shrill squeal of brakes. The driver had called into a petrol station where the attendant was now placing the nozzle into the fuel tank inches away from my left knee. I counted 26 of these unique motor taxis passing whilst my driver got his fill of the cheap, 50p per litre petrol.
In Britain we have trainspotters. I wondered whether Dumaquete has trike spotters. Every single tricycle is personalised with a bold colour scheme chosen by the owner. Most proudly proclaim the name of the operator’s wife or girlfriend. There are lots of good catholic names scrawled or painted on the bodywork – Maria, Rosa, Theresa. I guess the single drivers stand out because they have to leave a space where a partner’s name would go. It might help their love lives – the expanse of paint tells the world they’re available, making them a mobile match.com.
The trikes also contain the names of saints. The Philippines is a devout Catholic nation, after all. All around Dumaguete you’ll see billboards encouraging people to be honest and quoting bible verse. When you catch a taxi you’re more likely to see a crucifix dangling from the mirror than a sat nav. Given the fearless driving it might be considered a good investment.
Dumaguete’s number one attraction has a religious connection. The 1811-built Bell Tower is next to St Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral. It was erected to house bells warning of invading Muslim pirates and plunderers. Dumaguete comes from ‘Daguit’, which means ‘to snatch.’ The landmark stands on the skyline like a 30 metre grey, coralstone lighthouse. Each circular section of its body is narrower, like an extended telescope but with a red tile dome. The tower has generated its own industry, with a number of incense, religious icon and ornament shops touting for your business in the grotto at its base.
I had reached my hotel, the Santa Monica Beach Resort. It was now time to plan for my next Dumaguete adventure – one that required an early start.
I didn’t relish the thought of driving in Dumaguete. So I arranged to see the area with Philcan Tours. Philtraveltours.com. Canadian Gordon Mckissock runs this successful tour company. ‘Gord’ relocated across the Philippines from Boracay to Dumaguete, which is his wife’s hometown. And he told me he prefers the lifestyle here. Today was my chance to discover why Gordon thinks that this area is so special. Gord’s driver Jong met me at the hotel front desk at 5.15am. I was told that it was best to get up early to beat the 38-degree temperatures and high humidity. I’m glad I did.
I climbed on board our open sided mini bus – a ‘Jeepney’, which is the local cross between a lorry and bus. As it wound through the streets I got to see Dumaguete at daybreak. Even at this hour the roads were busy and people were brushing what little pavement there is or washing down the outsides of their homes. Men were carrying large bottles of water home on their shoulders for the morning washing and cooking. And the distinctive and pleasant smell of wood smoke filled the air. An hour later we were in the countryside and driving alongside paddy fields, providing another unique aroma. I’d never smelt rice ‘in the field’ before but for a few minutes the scent in the air took me back to school dinner days. The jeepney filled with the sweet, familiar smell of rice pudding!
One hour and 45km from Dumaguete, we reached the quieter and less developed city of Bais. We drove as far as we could to their port and onto a concrete arm that extended into the rich blue sea. We got out of the bus at the end, removed shoes and socks and walked into the water, so we could board a wooden trimaran. The small 8-seater was fashioned out of bamboo poles bound together with plastic ties and with a deck made of plywood. A yellow canopy strung across the top provided shade. Jong’s assistant pushed off using a huge bamboo pole, like a Philippine gondolier and the engine started up. It was nice bobbing along on the waves and after the early start, the gentle rocking motion, continuous purr of the engine and the warmth of the sun on my face almost lulled me into sleep.
Then, 45-minutes later there was an excited scream on board that brought me back into focus. One of a family of four Thai visitors, my travel companions, had seen a dolphin. Then we all saw it. It wasn’t the one. There were two, no, three. They were hard to count. Maybe half a dozen dolphins were teasing us by offering just a brief view of their dorsal fins. Then, just what everyone wanted – the group leapt a few feet from the water into the air. There were another four sightseeing boats on the sea near us and they soon latched on to our dolphin discovery, speeding over to get a closer look. Whether this disturbs the dolphins or provides them with some ‘hide and seek’ fun, I don’t know. But the dolphins soon vanished. Minutes later, they were back, 200 yards over on the starboard side. The show resumed and, once again, the other boats cottoned on and came over for the action, cutting us off. This sequence repeated ten times over the next hour. I think that everyone on board got the experience they wanted when they arranged the trip. I hope the dolphins enjoyed it too.
“I want to be alone,” said Greta Garbo, famously. Have you ever had the urge to seek solitude on holiday? There’s different ways of achieving it depending on your budget. If you dream of being stranded on your own desert island, watching the tides rise and fall and the sun set and rise in the knowledge that nobody will disturb you, I might have found the perfect place for you. But don’t expect room service, toiletries or even a toilet. It’s not actually an island either, but it could be the next best thing. Our Philcan Tours trimaran took us next to a sandbar on which five platforms stood high above the turquoise sea on steel legs, like mini oil rigs. Four of those raised areas were topped off by single storey traditional wooden buildings with thatched roofs.
I got off the boat and waded through the waist high, warm water to the small concrete platform on the sand. Wooden steps led the way from the concrete to the accommodation above. We’d timed it well. The sandbar is completely dry twice a day in the low tide but the water also rises above head height too. On entering the simple two-room unit on the platform I found an elderly man brushing the deck. Tour guide Jong had accompanied me up the stairs and he translated my questions for the caretaker, who couldn’t speak English. The unit had a viewing deck and bedroom. A bucket on a rope provided the ensuite and although fish could be caught and prepared there was no cooking facility. So self-catering guests would have sushi at sunset.
You’d need to bring everything you needed with you and room service wouldn’t be an option. Jong told me that the structure next door, the one with no building on the platform, was soon going to be a shop on stilts. I guess they’d really rely on passing trade! The original timber stilt homes had been used by fisherman and we passed another group of these around one mile offshore. Can you imagine living there in the middle of the ocean? It was hard to picture the full range of weather conditions on this sunny day with calm seas, but these self-catering stilt retreats had been rebuilt as more resilient following storm damage. They now stand on nine sturdy metal columns, rising 20 feet above the sand bar. I still wouldn’t want to test them against a tropical storm though. Whether you stay overnight or wade out onto the sandbar for an hour, standing upright in the middle of the ocean seeing starfish and sea urchins dart between my legs was a special experience.
Our last boat stop was at Talabong Mangrove Forest and Bird Sanctuary. It’s the largest remaining mangrove forest on the island with many varieties of the trees. After years of destruction, the locals are now realising how important these habitats are as nurseries for fish and other aquatic animals. I have to say I’m not overly excited by this plant, which to me is a boring-twisty, rooty-green thing. Sorry, I’m not a botanist. My interest piqued when Jong told me that monkeys live in the reserve. Sadly we didn’t see any. I would have liked a performance. They need to get a better agent. Maybe they could get the dolphins’ people to call them?
Philcan Tours offer a variety of trips around Negros Island, including my dolphin watching tour, as well as diving with whale sharks, fishing and mountain biking experiences. You can book on their website at philtraveltours.com.
I stayed at the Sta Monica Beach Club, part of the four-hotel group of ‘One-Of Collection’ hotels, a boutique accommodation provider. The resort is just ten minutes from downtown Dumaguete, the ferry port and airport. You’ll need a cab, car or trike to reach it as it is out-of-the-way, situated alongside a beach where you can see fisherman wade into the water with their nets. The hotel feels safe and there is on-site security with officials patrolling all night. The units are arranged as split-level terraced cottages with a comfortable and roomy king-size bed on the ground floor. Some of the rooms have a second double bed upstairs.
The hotel food is superb. I dined there on two nights and enjoyed choosing from their large choice of Filipino and western favourites. Pork and fish feature heavily. They also offer a selection of barbecued meats and seafood. I went for freshly caught squid, beautifully grilled and served with a tasty peanut satay sauce and white rice. And on my second night I picked a seafood pizza, which was topped with succulent prawns, sautéed whitefish, tuna and squid in a wonderfully garlicky white sauce. The pizza bases were tasty thin crust. All the mains options are between £4 and £7.
The pool is the resort’s centrepiece and it is large, big enough to swim lengths and wonderfully warm. It only seems to be used in the evening, so it could be yours to unwind in all day. An outdoor bar surrounds the pool, playing chilled-out acoustic tracks as you unwind with a cocktail watching the sunset. The hotel also provides free insect repellent made the traditional way from lemongrass. It works. Nice touch. You do have to be prepared for mosquitos in the Philippines but the hotel’s excellent, powerful room air conditioning appears to slow them down so they’re easier to squish.
Book at www.stamonicabeachclub.com