36 hours in Albay

Albay promises non-stop adventure, from Mad-Max style rides on an all-terrain vehicle across muddy fields and river to soaking up the sun on Vanishing Island

By Monica De Leon. Photos by Christian Sangoyo

An ATV ride up Mt Mayon
469km southeast of Manila, is one of six provinces in the Bicol region. It is mountainous with few fertile plains and valleys, and some coastal areas. The province’s main industry is agriculture with crops such as coconut, rice, sugar and abaca, growing abundantly in the area. Handicraft is another major industry. Two of the province’s attractions are Mt. Mayon and the region’s local cuisine, mostly spicy and coconut rich. Albay’s airport is a jump off point to Sorsogon and Masbate.

Day 1, 4:30am. It’s an early start. Coming from a visit to neighboring province Masbate, we take a two-hour fastcraft ride from Masbate port to Pilar port in Sorsogon. The sun’s up today, making us feel cheerful.

6am. From Pilar port in Sorsogon, we drive out to The Oriental hotel in Legazpi, Albay, from where we quickly check-in and enjoy a hearty buffet breakfast.

10am. From the hotel, it’s a 30-minute drive to Tabaco, from where we are to ride a boat and check out the waters of Albay. Our first agenda for the day is to see the Vanishing Island off Malilipot in Albay. Vanishing Island is a sandbar in the middle of Lagonoy Gulf that only exposes itself only certain days in a month, depending on the tide. Today is the last day of the week that it will expose itself for tourists to enjoy.

Tour operator Ana Banadera tells me that she accidentally discovered the sandbar in 2014, and later on named it Vanishing Island. After 30 minutes of boat ride from Tabaco port, we dock and get off the boat, welcomed by two sea stars in the water. We have arrived at the Vanishing Island. The view is breathtaking; the sandbar is exposed. I see three boats, with all its passengers, mostly families with kids, basking in the sun and sandy beach in the middle of the sea.

Vanishing Island, moments before the sea water empties out
The sandbar in the middle of the sea that is Vanishing Island is almost completely exposed
Sea stars are a common attraction on Vanishing Island along with small fishes like parrotfish. Banadera tells me that at low tide, the water almost empties out, totally exposing the sandbar.

If the Vanishing Island is not in season, Bandera takes her guests to Sitio Cabungaan where there’s a cream sandy beach of about 1km with gentle slope, clear calm waters, coconut trees in the backdrop.

Sitio Cabungaan's cream sandy beach
The rocky end of Sitio Cabungaan's beach

It takes about an hour by boat to get to Guinanayan Island in Rapu-Rapu, a privately owned island with an idyllic beach. During our visit, only the owner’s brother and family, helpers and pet dogs are around.

The beach is a cream patch of sandbar, which has a beach on one side of the island with gentle waters but with an abrupt drop a few meters from the shore. From there, you get a view of Bacacay, part of Cagraray Group of Islands, and Galicia Island, part of Rapu-Rapu.

The idyllic beach of Guinanayan Island
The second beach at the back is quieter. It looks more like a painting to me than real life — with barok-barok trees in the foreground, the water so calm it’s almost lifeless with a lone fisherman getting off his boat.

The second beach at the back of Guinanayan Island

There are bamboo huts by the beach where we are to have a boodle feast (a military style of eating where food is placed on top of banana leaves). We share a glorious feast of fried squid, boiled crabs, duwal fish, stewed adobo style — all freshly caught just a few minutes ago — and down it with fresh coconut juice.

We are reluctant to leave Guinanayan Island so we overstay and forego a visit to another tourist spot.

8pm. It’s a long day. After docking at Tabaco port, we drive out to Martha’s Kitchen, a homey restaurant that offers delicious local meals. The menu changes daily, depending on what owner Philip Barja finds fresh and available from the market each day. 

Martha's Kitchen's main dining

Cocido, a local fish soup dish. It's one of the dishes you can get at any given time at Martha's Kitchen

After dinner, we head back to The Oriental for a much sought for bed time.

Day 2, 8am. My companions and I each hop on a 500cc ATV and ride away. The two-hour ride that will take us one third up Mt. Mayon is hardcore and offers a different kind of high. We pass through muddy terrain, rice plantations, lots of grazing cows, occasional workers quarrying hardened lava to turn into gravel, massive dried out river aptly called dry river where the lahar flows in heavy rain, and trails narrowed by thickets. Halfway through, a rainbow appears in the grey sky. The closer we get to Green Lava, the cooler the temperature gets, and when we finally reach our destination, it starts to rain hard. We are drenched and cold to the bones but the view of the whole Legazpi just takes our breath away.

The exciting part of ATV rides up Mt Mayon includes passing through rocky streamsMt Mayon's Green Lava trail is called such for its plantation that grew in time covering the hardened lava brought about by an eruption in 1986

To get there, book a flight on Cebu Pacific Air and Philippine Airlines. Both carriers have daily direct flights from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. Albay is less than an hour’s flight from Manila.

Book island hopping tours with Tabaco Travel and Tours. The Vanishing Island is seasonal so make sure to check your dates with the tour operator. www.facebook.com/TabacoTravelAndAdvenTours/. May to July is the best time to visit.

For ATV rides, book with Bicol Adventure ATV, which offers rides that start anywhere from P699 for the simple Cagsawa Trail using a 150cc ATV to the more advanced Black and Green Lava Trail at P5,000 for the 500cc ATV . +63917 571 4357, +63922 868 2589.

The Oriental's deluxe twin city room
Book a stay
at The Oriental Legazpi on Taysan Hill in Legazpi City, if you want to a place where you can get fantastic views of beautiful Mt. Mayon. The Oriental has modern rooms with either a view of Mt. Mayon or the country side and the city furnished with modcons like flatscreen cable TV and WiFi, and modern bathroom with enclosed rain shower. It also has an array of facilities typically found in deluxe hotels like a fine dining restaurant, a fitness and wellness center, and function rooms. +6352 480 0383. 

For an overnight stay at Guinanayan Island, rent a tent, which costs P150 for two to three people, and P500 for group of up to 10 people. Travel time is anywhere from one-and-a-half hours to two hours, depending on the sea conditions. Boat hire, which you can arrange with the resort or from the port is P5,000, roundtrip. Meals, mainly composed of fresh seafood, are a steal at less than P1,000 for a group of about six. 

Contact Albay’s tourism office at +6352 481 0250.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller March to May 2016. Updated June 2016