Get your bearings
Sorsogon, located 542km southeast of Manila, is Luzon’s southernmost province. It faces the island of Samar in the Visayas and has 14 municipalities and one city, all coastal except for the town of Irosin. The province, famous for the whale sharks that feed in its waters, remains relatively untouched by tourism. Sorsogon is rich in natural resources and its major crops are abaca, copra and pili, a type of nut. It’s also known for producing the best hemp in the Bicol region.
Day 1, 11am
The weather turned sour just as we arrived at the airport in Legazpi City, Albay, but we didn’t allow it to dampen our spirits or wreck our plans. We decided to go on a one-hour drive to Donsol in Sorsogon, 59km from Legazpi, in search of whale sharks, known locally as butandings. I’m told there are over a hundred whale sharks in the waters of Donsol. There is no official number. Whale sharks sighted here are the size of a bus, anywhere from 4m to 12m.
Donsol’s whale shark interaction tours are well organized, with a butanding interaction officer (BIO) assigned to each tour boat. Sightings are not guaranteed and the BIOs see to it that tours do not disrupt the whale sharks’ feeding time.
Before the tour started, we were asked to register and watch a short audio visual presentation about whale sharks. Then we were off on a boat with our assigned BIO called Salit. Two hours passed and not a single butanding. “There may have been a butanding out there. With these grey skies, we cannot tell because it is difficult to make out their shadows in the sea,” says Salit.
We decided to cut our trip short and head out instead to a snorkeling site nearby. Salit and I jumped into the water and he showed me corals of all sizes and shapes, healthy and thriving. I saw a parrotfish, angel fish, and a few more species I couldn’t identify.
Donsol Bay is a one-and-half-hour drive from Legazpit City in Albay. Whale shark watching is year-round but best done from December to May. Book a tour with Donsol EcoTour. Fees include a registration fee of P100 (about US$2) for locals and P300 for foreigners plus P3,500 for rental of a boat for up to six people. The tour is open from 7:30am with the last tour at 2pm.
We headed out to Buhatan village in Sorsogon City for a romantic river cruise operated by the local community under the Buhatan River Eco-Adventures Service Cooperative. It stopped raining and the moon, almost full, cast its glistening light on the river.
We hop on a bamboo raft the shape of a shoe box cover. It’s fitted with cushioned seats with lots of throw pillows surrounding low tables at the center. As the raft sets sail, we are offered fresh fruit juice and local treats of roasted pili nuts, pili polvoron or powdered pili nut, and deep-fried chili and cheese in spring roll wrapper.
In the growing dark and as the raft lulls us to sleep, our tour guide starts painting us a picture of Buhatan River. The river is 3.9km long, home to kingfishers, bluebirds, and white herons, and along its fringes are healthy and established mangroves, the oldest said to be 35 years. Its waters are shallow but rich in marine life — oysters, shrimps, crabs and fishes. Late afternoon is a good time to cruise for some bird watching. At night from 7pm until around 10pm, the river comes to life as thousands of fireflies light up the mangrove trees.
The cruise lasts for about one hour, and ends with dinner at a floating bamboo restaurant at the mouth of Sorsogon Bay. We feast on the day’s catch from the river — steamed mud crabs, grilled tilapia, steamed oysters, and shrimps. At the center of the restaurant is an enclosed pen where guests can catch wild shrimps, which the restaurant can cook for them.
9pm. It’s back on the raft. Our guide starts talking about how much bigger Buhatan River’s fireflies are compared to those found in Iwahig River in Palawan. Suddenly I start seeing two mangroves light up like Christmas trees as its resident fireflies come to life. The fireflies do seem bigger than those I’ve seen before. We stop and come close to one huge mangrove tree full of fireflies, mesmerized. I make out blue, green, yellow, and yes, red fireflies.
The best time to go is from April to December. Book a Buhatan river tour with the Buhatan River Eco-Adventures Service Cooperative for P2,500 (about US$56) for 10 people, including snacks onboard. You can also pay P50 for oyster harvesting, P10 for shrimp catching, and P100 for two people for an hour of kayaking. For dinner, book at least a day in advance.
10pm. We arrive at our home for the night, the homey Siama Hotel, a modern tropical resort in a garden setting with minimalist rooms and infinity pool located in Bibincahan, Sorsogon City. There we are treated to a fine dinner of local dishes and forget our yearning for the bed – bitter melon salad with honey-calamansi vinaigrette, creamy taro leaves cooked in coconut milk, chicken barbecue and clam soup.
Rates are from P6,600. Visit Siama Hotel.
Day 2, 6am. It’s still dark when we left for Matnog port, about one hour’s drive south of Sorsogon City. From there, we are heading out to see Sorsogon’s beautiful beaches.
9am. Our first stop is Juag Lagoon Marine Sanctuary, set in a cove run by Alex Geneblazo. Juag Lagoon is surrounded by islets and as our boat comes nearer I notice the water becoming clearer, exposing the seabed.
There are fish pens underneath interconnected foot bridges built on stilts. We see various species of fish, some up to 12-inch long. They surface above the water to eat the feeds thrown by our local guide. When we reach the fish pens we find huge groupers, trevallies. We are given masks and are invited to jump into the water, about three meters deep. I plunge in and found myself surrounded by schools of fish. They don’t seem to mind sharing their space with me. I see giant clams and hold in my bare hands a 12-inch long sea cucumber, a long-time resident treated more like a pet.
Today, swimming with the fishes in Juag Lagoon is no longer permitted but it’s still a worthy stop. It’s like seeing a giant aquarium but in a natural setting and you are allowed to feed the fishes.
Visit Juag Lagoon Marine Sanctuary’s Facebook page. The visit at Juag Lagoon is free of charge but a donation is very much welcome.
10am. We’re back on the boat again, headed for Subic Beach, known to many as Pink Beach because of its pinkish sands. The locals say it’s like Boracay but without the crowds.
From Juag Lagoon, we took a boat for a 15-minute ride to Subic Beach. It was a windy day and the waves were strong. After a few minutes, I cught sight of a beautiful pristine cove with about a kilometer stretch of pinkish white sand beach. It’s Subic Beach, facing San Bernardino Strait, which opens out to the Philippine Sea. Right beside Subic is a smaller version of the cove the locals call Subic Liit (liit means small in Filipino).
The water looked so inviting that I waded right in, but decided against swimming any further seeing the current was quite strong. It was still quite fun just hanging out with friends on the beach for a seaside lunch and a bottle of lukewarm Red Horse beer from a local store.
Boat hire for island hopping costs P1,600, good for 10 people. Tours include stops at Tikling Island (10-15 minutes away from the port), Juag Lagoon (20-25 minutes away from the port), Subic Beach (30 minutes away from the port) and Juag Lagoon). Contact tourism officer designate Oliva Gacis Rumba at tel+63928 520 5362. Tourists who are going on tours are advised to register first with the tourism office in Matnog.
3pm. We headed back to Matnog port and set off for Gubat Bay, about an hour’s drive. Rizal Beach, part of Gubat Bay, is one of Sorsogon’s best kept secrets, a surf destination with a 3km long beach with powdery grey sand, gently sloping soft seabed with shallow waters stretching far out to sea for some 50m. It’s ideal for beginner surfing but also attracts experienced surfers.
The beach by Gubat Bay is run by Lola Sayong Eco Surf Camp, a community based surf camp founded by Noli John Mercader. The camp was set up to give teenage kids something to do with their time, keeping them away from trouble.
One of the teenage boys at the camp gave me a crash course on surfing, but after a few attempts to stand up on board, I decided to call it a day.
The surf season in Gubat is from September to January. The rest of the months are ideal for longboarding only. If you want to surf at Lola Sayong Eco Surf Camp, or simply enjoy the beach, you have to pay a P25 environmental fee. A one-hour surf lesson plus use of surf board is P350. For overnight stays, simple open-air cottages cost P850 a night, tents P150. There is a pitching fee of P75 for those bringing their own tent. Communal toilet and showers are available on the site. Visit Lola Sayong Eco Surf Camp on Facebook.
How to get there
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Legazpi City. From the airport, take a jeepney or tricycle to Legazpi City Grand Central Terminal where there are commuter vans and jeepneys that ply the various towns of Sorsogon.
Read about the Top 5 amazing things to do along Sorsogon’s coast.
Here’s our full review of Siama Hotel.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller March to May 2016. Updated September 2016