Hidden Island found

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013


NIGHTFALL was coming. Thousands of bats came streaming out of the neighboring island, flitting and foraging for fruits among trees growing on the side of a hill in Bucas Grande, located in the southern part of the Siargao group of islands in the Philippines.

I stood on the lookout, wondering at the majestic nightly migration of the flying foxes (Pteropus spp.), one of the world’s largest bat species. They flew over me, forming a moving ribbon of black across the dusky-rose sky, squeaking their high cries and filling the cool night air with their pungent odor.

Morning came with the distinct call of the kalaw (Rufous hornbill), and I emerged from my room, looking out to the teal-blue lagoon and the offshore islands. It was refreshing to walk across the charming wooden bridge floating over the lagoon, inhaling the sweet-smelling air, the scent of trees and marveling at the natural beauty and wildlife around me.

They got the name right: Hidden Island Resort is certainly off the beaten track, set on a remote island in a natural location in Barangay Doña Helena, 15-20 minutes by boat from the southern port of Socorro, and takes about 30 minutes to get from the Hayanggabon Port in Claver in the Surigao del Norte mainland of northeastern Mindanao.

Out of the landscape grows a jungle of a forest where the rare pitcher plant, the tiger kamagong (Philippine tiger ebony tree), yakal, lauan and mancono or ironwood, the world’s heaviest and hardest tree, thrive. It’s also a place where the Philippine giant fruit-eating bats, kingfishers, Rufous hornbills and other fascinating wild birds live in harmony above the rich coral reefs.

The Philippines is one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots where numerous species of plants and animals coexist. Siargao and Bucas Grande are just some of its 7,000 islands which have always held an allure for both local and foreign travelers alike.

Siargao, of course is famous for surfing, but beyond its fame as a surfer’s paradise, the island is blessed with a diverse ecosystem which includes teeming coral reefs, extensive mangroves, sea grass beds, and rich wild plants, birds and animals.

This protected area is one of the Philippines’ largest national reserves, covering an aggregate area of 276,896 hectares.

There’s Eden for anyone’s imagination and mine certainly comes close to Siargao - surfing in the pro-worthy Cloud Nine in General Luna, trekking to the waterfalls in Pilar and Santa Monica, discovering a colony of Pacific blue sea stars in Burgos, island-hopping in San Benito, cruising through the mangrove rivers in Del Carmen, watching for wild and endangered birds, tarsiers and civet cats in Dapa, and exploring the subterranean caves and hidden (jellyfish) lagoons in Bucas Grande.

In 2010, Roger Pimentel, a businessman from Surigao del Sur, opened the 22-room resort spread over 19.5 hectares, but with a total land area of 28 hectares. Guests can choose to stay in deluxe, superior, family, dormitory rooms (good for 10) or even a honeymoon suite, in stilt duplexes built over the water or cottages perched on a hill overlooking the lagoon. The resort attracts a healthy share of families on vacation, conference groups, local tourists, European backpackers and even Filipino film stars seeking privacy, peace and adventure somewhere far, far away from the ordinary world and the city life.

One morning, as I was making my way up the resort’s hallway perched above the water, I encountered Evans, Edith and other friendly resort staff members feeding fish in the cages down into the lagoon. The fishes popped their heads out, with their big mouths and protruding eyes. The sea turtle, almost a meter in diameter, came up to the surface of the water to gasp for air, then dipped back in again, swimming away gracefully.

Preservation

“When we started building the resort in 2006, we wanted to keep the live fishes in the underwater cages as part of the eco attraction. This area used to be a fish farm because I was in the aquaculture business for many years and exported commercial marine species to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Now, you can find below a giant Green Sea Turtle, shark, ‘langog’, ‘boras’ and lapu-lapu (grouper) weighing up to eight kilos,” says resort owner Pimentel.

Hidden Island, which has an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC), shares a land use agreement with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) involving the local community to ensure the sustainability of the areas and to prevent degradation of the forest. Here, Pimentel has found a place worthy of his conservation efforts. To rehabilitate marine resources, he tells me they have re-introduced the giant Tridacna clam or takubo, and placed 30 of them in the shallow part of the reef.

This gigantic, brightly- colored saltwater clam, which can grow to a width of three feet and more, is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, due to over harvesting and the aquarium trade.

La dolce vita

I have traveled to all nine towns in Siargao, and I must say that this one’s an extraordinary island getaway and one of the most affordable too, with group packages for holiday makers operating on a limited budget. Rooms start at P2,800 (less than US$70) good for two, per night, including breakfast.

I spent magical days sampling la dolce vita. I rowed the kayak out to the deep lagoon; swam with my childhood friend in 30 feet of water; snorkeled with plate-size, snobbish Moorish Idols, black, long-spine sea urchins, pillow cushion stars, jellyfish and blue-green parrotfish; discovered secret sandy coves and witnessed a bat migration.

Soon, guests can try wakeboarding and the new 730 –meter and 1.4 -kilometer cable zip lines high above the gleaming expanse of island-studded waters of Bucas Grande.

Other delights are the traditional Filipino food offerings, with an emphasis on fresh seafood – lobsters, crabs, demasado squid, lapu-lapu tinola (grouper fish soup), escabeche of fish, saang or spider shell sautéed in butter and chili. The restaurant is partly nestled in a limestone cave and I could hear the soothing sound of water lapping against the rocks beneath the bamboo floor.

After dinner, I walked down the hallway towards the water’s edge. I sat on a wooden raft, contemplating the islands, the moon and the sky awash with stars. Amid this picture of complete natural beauty, I have found solace and inspiration in this wild, beautiful, hidden island.(Christina Camingue Buo)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 05, 2013.

Lifestyle

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