I love Manila. It’s a great city with great restaurants, great people, great shopping and great affordability. However there’s one big problem with Manila that is never going to change.
It has. No. Beach!
The good news is the Philippines has some of the best beaches on the planet, some of which are not too far from the capital. If you’re after your fix of sand and sun, a little weekend road trip is enough to have you sorted.
The journey to Cagbalete Island starts before sunrise. A public bus leaves every morning at 5am which you cannot miss (it’s from the JAC Liner terminal in Cubao). It will take you straight to Mauban in Quezon, where you’ll jump on the ferry to the island. For reasons unbeknownst to me, we decided to take the longer, roundabout route, with a 4am bus to Lucena, followed by a second bus to Mauban. What fun is life if you don’t do things a little different now and then?
It’s a refreshing bus ride to Lucena. The buses are modern, probably with a TV playing The Fast & The Furious, along with reclining seats and a working AC. After a short 3 hours, you’ll find yourself at the Lucena bus station, with a wealth of Filipino food to appease your growling stomach.
From there it’s another 2 hour bus ride, heading to the town of Mauban. Here’s where the real journey begins. It’s an old and weathered bus, which chugs along at a snail’s pace. The seats are hard and unforgiving. The only AC is the open air windows and the panels vibrate with the rattle of the engine. But it excites you, because there’s not a single foreigner on this rickety old bus. Hell, there’s hardly any other people on it, and that alone tells you that something good lies ahead. The road less travelled is always the most rewarding one, and the road to Cagbalete Island seems to be hardly travelled at all.
The bus ride offers a pleasant glimpse into rural Philippines. Staring out the window is like a filmstrip of banana trees and beautiful greenery, minimalist houses and bunches of laughing kids playing outside with nature. After a slow but easy two hours, the bus finally pulls into Mauban.
Mauban is everything you expect it to be. A tranquil little town, where people live in peaceful simplicity. There are no rush hours here, no valet parking. Smiles? Yes, lots of them. Something tells me that’s not a coincidence.
As we make our way through the town, it seems common to buy meat, fish and vegetables at the market to take with you to the island. I’m sensing there is no McDonald’s where I’m going. However, for us there’s no time to shop; our bus has arrived late, and the boat to Cagbalete is leaving any second. For all we know, it’s already gone without us.
A trike takes us to the ferry and we rush out onto the jetty, stopping at the ticketing booth to pay our fares. I scamper to the boat and hurry on board, relieved that it’s still here. After all, we’ve arrived 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time.
I’m a fool. This is not Singapore. Things here run on island time, where 30 minutes late is not late at all. We’re on time, maybe even early. Patience is a virtue, and these people are among the most virtuous I have met.
As workers continue to load up the boat with the daily crates of food and water for the island, we indulge in some of the local treats being sold on board. The damage on a lumpia is 8 pesos (20 cents). Those $3 spring rolls at home don’t seem like such a bargain after all…
The 45 minute boat ride is wet, crowded and bumpy. I tough it out.
As we pull up to shore the local kids swimming in the ocean jump onto the side of the boat and squeal at me in Tagalog. They are tanned to a chocolate brown, and talk at me with urgency. I smile and hide behind my sunglasses. I later figure out they were simply offering to hold my bags for me, perhaps for a negligible tip.
I’ve made arrangements to stay at Dona Choleng Resort, around a 15 minute walk from the dock. Funnily enough, the owner of the resort is on board the ferry with me, so we follow him through the back alleys and out into the open brush. More than once, we need to wade through puddles of thick, sandy mud. It’s all part of the fun.
Arriving at Dona Choleng is a refreshing change to the crash and bash of Manila. A collection of bamboo huts line the resort on one side and a handful of cabins line the other, with a private white sand beach lingering just a couple of footsteps away. A hut is 1,500 PHP ($33) for the night. I have no problems with that.
Scattered throughout the resort are open air bamboo cabanas, where meals are served and you can relax with a drink at night. Not a bad way to enjoy the island breeze.
I’m fed well at Dona Choleng. Our stay is fully catered; 800 pesos ($18) for 5 meals a day. At a resort? Yes, at a resort. I need to find more places like this. $18 at home barely gets me an uninspiring salad.
During our first meal I start craving for coconut. In a flash, the staff hunt some down and cut them open, right before my eyes. I eagerly down the juice and devour the flesh. It’s magic. I’m convinced that a coconut a day keeps the doctor away. Apples only pale in comparison.
After the gluttony it’s time to hit the beach. It’s November; high season is long gone. We literally have the entire resort to ourselves. Unsurprisingly, the beach is gorgeous. The sand a floury white, the ocean clear and warm. I float in the water and watch the clouds roll by. The freedom is intoxicating. An empty beach is good for the soul.
I sit down one afternoon with the owner Ryan who tells me the story of the place. Dona Choleng is the name of his Great Aunt, who more or less owns the entire island. Consequently, all the resort owners on the island are related. It’s a new resort, built in 2012. The condition of the place reflects that. He tells me I’m lucky I’ve arrived in November; earlier in the year around Holy Week (March-ish) he has over 200 guests at the resort, mostly high school students camping out along the beach. In another decade, that would’ve been heaven.
I ask him about the local people and he explains there is an indigenous population living on the far end of the island, known as the Dumagan (I have no idea how to spell it). I’m intrigued. I ask if I could go visit them but he advises against it, mainly because they’re so far away.
On our last day, Ryan heads back to Quezon to take care of some business, but before he leaves he offers to upgrade me to the resort’s luxury cabin for the night, for free. I make a mental note to remember his kindness, and somehow let him know it’s not forgotten (Thanks, Ryan!) Filipino hospitality is second to none.
After two days of beaching, feasting and eating coconuts it’s time to get back on the road to Manila. However, not before a quick pit stop. Ryan recommends I stop by the town of Tayabas, to eat at a traditional restaurant known as ‘Kamayan’. I have no idea what it is, but I’m going.
After checking out we trek back across the island, one of the resort staff leading the way. He brings us to the loading spot and bids us farewell. As he walks away I call him back and offer him a tip, to which he looks at me in utter surprise. I smile and urge him to take it. His reluctance makes me want to tip him even more.
After arriving back on the mainland I sample a local specialty on the way to the bus stop. The pancit habhab; noodles on a banana leaf, with a piece of pork and a quail egg. Easy, unpretentious food gets me every time.
We jump on the bus to Lucena, but alight in Tayabas to fulfill our side mission. We hail a trike and drop the name “Kamayan”. He nods as if he knows exactly where it is. A good sign. After a good 15 minutes out of the town centre we arrive at a restaurant called Palaisdaan. Despite the different names, I’m somehow convinced we’re in the right place.
It’s serene. Floating bamboo rafts, connected by a maze of bridges and a waterfall to watch over it all. Am I even in the right place? I don’t care. We have a shameless feast.
With full stomachs and happy hearts, we board the bus back to Manila, sleepy and worn, but also refreshed. Who knew two bus rides and an empty beach could be so inspiring. Thanks for the memories, Cagbalete Island.
Heading to the Philippines?
- If you’re looking for affordable accommodation in the Philippines, I highly recommend using Agoda. You won’t find better prices elsewhere.
- For reliable and fuss-free travel insurance, I always book with World Nomads.
- For more useful websites for cheap flights, accommodation and more, you can check out my Resources page.
This post is not sponsored and I paid for my trip and accommodation in full. You can read my disclosure policy here.