Atlantis Dive Resort – We headed to the beach with a detour to the Embassy to pick up some spending cash, went in circles around the airport and finally hit the South Superhighway to Batangas where Lea Beach and the boat pick-up would be to Puerto Galera. Two days later we were return, ready to face city life again.
Just as a warning, I'm long winded. Like you didn't know that already.
Day 1 - The drive was actually quite enjoyable. For a (very short) time we were flying on the Skyway and the sensation of moving faster than 25 mph for longer than 15 seconds was so liberating! We drove to the end of the South Super and made our way for another hour along roads with stalls selling buko (young coconuts), carved wooden furniture, vulcanization services and everything in between. Following the directions off the resort’s site was an exercise in patience and until the road was traveled did we realize that they had done the best they could. Well, they could have been a bit more specific in distances, but the markers were what they were… for example, “turn left at the lion monument” meant just that, a small concrete statue of a lion under a sign for the local Lions chapter. Until we actually saw it though, we would guess if various oddly shaped markers were the ones we were looking for, which provided plenty of amusement.
The kids were excited about our trip. I think the city was wearing on them as well and Nicholas especially was talking about the beach the days prior. Did he remember what a beach was? I’m not sure, but it didn’t matter, his excitement was infectious. So after a few wrong turns, a couple of harsh bumps and plenty of amusement provided by Ian when he thought we were looking for a flower mill instead of a flour mill as a checkpoint, we arrived down a tiny dirt path at Lea Beach. Goats abounded, boats were lazily rising and falling with the passing waves from other boats and there was no where to park but on a little patch of scraggly grass next to an open hut. Trusting our vehicle to the goats (I didn’t trust the men who seemed to be permanently planted inside the hut), the resort boatmen loaded our bags, we said a farewell to our wheels and headed into open water for the hour long voyage to Atlantis. We were only 2 hours late.
Jonathon had gotten weary on the drive and true to form had fallen asleep about 15 minutes before we’d reached Lea Beach. Ian has the remarkable ability of picking up a sleeping child and transferring them without waking them. I’ve mastered it from the car to the house, but he managed to get Jonathon onto the boat, through the boats roar to life and onto the cushie seat with a sweater for a pillow. He slept the entire hour to Sabang Beach. Nicholas was understandably wary of the whole thing. None of the other kids had been on a boat before and Nicholas reacted as expected, with great thrill as long as he was firmly attached to his parent of choice. This would change over the next couple days to being content as long as a parent was easily accessible.
Armed with our suitcase filled with 5 changes of clothes for everyone (3 day trip X 6 people X beach sand = gobs of clothes), the beach bag of swimsuits/sandals/floats/sunscreen/sunglasses, my backpack with books/camera/medicines/directions and Katherine’s backpack with school items and Barnaby Bear, the engine died and we floated quietly up to Sabang Beach. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. The water was littered with boats of all sizes. The beach was angled, small, and rocky, with strips of black dirt and streams of runoff pouring down from the shacks that butted up right to the sand. Where was our hotel? Oh, behind the ramshackle strip of restaurants, sari sari stores, gift shops, and SCUBA rental fronts. So my first impression was of a dirty non-swimming boat beach with a waterview-free hotel room. Ugh.
We were staying at the Atlantis Resort which I discovered (obviously) is not a beach resort, but a SCUBA resort. Big difference. People in SCUBA gear all over, all day and nary a beach bum. Our room was the Flyntstone Room. It is tough finding a place that can house six and this was no exception but we made it work. With a queen for the adults and a set of bunk beds, (the girls were on top and the boys on the bottom) once the kicking stopped bedtime actually went quite smoothly. We were all exhausted enough each night to sleep like rocks. Well, mostly. One night Rebecca had a bad dream which had her (and me) up repeatedly, and another night it got too cold with nothing but a sheet to cover up. That was remedied the next night when the power kept going out and eventually the air conditioning unit quit working altogether. The town of Puerto Galera is powered by, get this, a power barge. The one providing power during our visit was not functioning, so the resort was relying on generators which were not constant. The water supply was also questionable. It wasn’t unusual to be unable to finish a shower with hot water or flush the toilet at all. All quirks of island living in the Philippines.
Bags unpacked and bunk beds dutifully explored via the tree carved ladder, we had some lunch at the resort restaurant before changing into swimsuits and setting out to find a beach. A beach that was swimmable and playable. Asking at the front desk wasn’t all too helpful from what we could figure. We were told it was a 10 minute walk… that way. There was the boat beach, there was a path. Do we go on the path and through a big rock? Is it 10 minutes by foot or by boat? We started walking and because we were clueless, we succumbed to the hailing of a boatman. All aboard and we set up. Past one beach, past another beach, into a bay and out again. I wasn’t pleased. With no idea of who these people were or where we were going, with minimal English skills on the part of the navigator only the constant reassurances we were going to “white beach” which was always just around the next bend, I convinced Ian to tell him to turn around and take us to the La Laguna beach near Sabang. It was far from ideal but it was close by and I knew we could walk back to where we started. Forgive me for being untrusting, but I read the Gracia Burnham book and no matter how unlikely it was for us, I didn’t feel that chances were worth taking. We are, after all, Americans and that is no longer a safe thing to be in any part of the world. Where it once offered a level of protection now it is more like a target for more than the beggars.
It would turn out later in our trip that Long Beach is a strip of white sand, also called White Beach, and that it was just around the next bend where families went to play. Not like the folks at the hotel desk told us that when we asked this first day where a good beach to go was located.
So La Laguna it was. Not a white beach but room for us, plenty of shallow water even Nicholas could get through, and more beach treasure than we knew what to do with. It’s the first time I’d been on a beach littered with coral of all designs and colors and while it made digging painful (the “sand” was mostly slivers of broken shells and chunks of coral), it was gorgeous to sift through. The water was extremely salty and swaths were filled with seaweed that led to great screeching fits by Katherine saying she’d been bitten by sea worms or sea sponges. Jonathon stayed in the shallows closest to the beach and even though he had a couple tumbles into the sea, he had a great time floating in the water as though he was doing push-ups.
A couple hours later we trekked back to our side, changed up and entered the Relax Thai restaurant for dinner. It was the night of the great England-Australia Rugby World Cup and the pub across the alley was showing the game, so periodically we were treated to raucous cheers, followed by musings on who was actually winning. The food was good, even if Rebecca did have spaghetti. Again. Barnaby Bear (the 2nd grade mascot who’s the luckiest of the crowd as he tags along for all the trips the kids take) shared Katherine’s meal of glass noodles and finally we were too exhausted to do anything but get some soft serve ice cream from the German shop down the way and then head to bed.
Atlantis Resort Day 2 – We were supposed to wake up at 5:45 to get a boat and go dolphin watching (No Guarantees!). At 6:30 I shook Ian and we agreed that we’d put it off for Sunday. Five minutes later, a knock at the door told us that the boat was waiting. That is one small drawback to a population built on the service industry. You almost can’t get away with not doing what you said you’d wanted to do in the first place. Well, with the boat waiting we shook the kids awake. Jonathon responded with “Boat? Yay!” accompanied by a little happy dance and clapping. Did I mention how tolerant all the kids were of our trip activities? All four of them were exceptional.
Onto the boat with some breakfast in hand from the minifridge and we looked for dolphins. OK, we knew what dolphins looked like from Virginia Beach, but were these the same? Not quite. We were looking for black dolphins, with the adults the size of our boat. Not easy to miss and I guess I didn’t have to squint at the water like I was apt to do, as though they’d be flying fish. It was a pleasant boat ride, but with the late hour and the slightly choppy water conditions, we saw three dolphins. That’s only if you compile all our “sightings” as the one I saw no one else did, the one Katherine saw no one else did and the one the guide saw no one else did. It was a bummer.
Back at the resort we had a real breakfast then relaxed for a bit in the room before our next stop, SCUBA introduction for the adults! We needed someone to watch the kids while we were SCUBAing, so the front desk provided a live body (someone’s sister I think), and they all hung out by the pool while we had a little classroom time on the basics of “Don’t do this or you’ll die”, then donned our suit and flippers and goggles and weight belts and 4000 pound jackets with all necessary tubes and gauges and, oh yeah, air. The kids were well-behaved during our prep time and thought we looked pretty funny.
We subconsciously understand at all times that humans do not breathe underwater. When you put in a mouthpiece and breathe from a tank above ground, you know that you aren’t breathing the outdoor air. You can actively think that the tank is providing what you need. You can even tell yourself that as long as you continue to breathe through a tube, it doesn’t matter where you are. But there is a part of your brain that still reminds you that you are in the open air, and you are breathing the way you should be.
With SCUBA, perspectives change a bit. Your face goes under water. Not too bad. Followed by your head. OK a little weird. Then the instructor says to kneel on the bottom. Suddenly, you are surrounded on all sides by a substance that should be making you choke, but you aren’t. It almost gives you a sense of claustrophobia, or feeling off balance and a fright of turning around and feeling lost, or maybe the thought flickers by that without that little tube you were be drowning. No matter what passes through your mind, there is little else to say other than it really takes getting used to and Ian and I both experienced moments of panic when we realized what the heck we were doing.
We passed our practice in the pool understanding and using handsignals, the kids went off the room for the ½ hour we’d be in the open water, and we waded out to the point where the sand and seaweed dropped off.
Not far from the shore a floating bar was positioned directly over where the coral reefs began. Looking down through the water, the two dimensional image is one of clear water interspersed with shadows and shapes of all sizes. Taking the plunge with our gear in place, it was like opening a pop-up book. Spiny sea urchins the sizes of our heads were nestled in among the vast purples and pinks of various corals and sea anemones. A moray eel would poke out its head while schools of striped butterfly fish went by, interspersed with shimmery blue fish and long, thin, needle-nosed fish. We were allowed to touch a blue starfish while trying to avoid touching (aka knocking into) anything else.
We discovered the hardest parts of SCUBA diving for beginners like us. Getting down to the bottom was a huge challenge and we finally succeeded with much help from our guide forcibly dragging us down. Once on the bottom, staying there was difficult in the beginning and moving about was nigh impossible without flailing about and succeeding in scattering all the fish. We finally calmed down and were able to enjoy the surroundings once the instructor took hold of my arm and I consciously tried to avoid kicking Ian. At one point as Ian tried to evade my frantic flipper movement, the back of his hand met the surface of some corral and was scraped pretty thoroughly. It provided a great story opportunity for the kids, of a shark that attacked us and daddy beat it off with his bare hands. I have no idea of the kids actually believe the tale, but it still lingers in their minds. It was more interesting than the tale of daddy being bitten by something. Neither the teacher nor I believed him and yet a week later the spot was a red oval that still pulsed with heat. Hmm, maybe he wasn’t kidding.
After 30 minutes of awe (fuzzy awe in my case as I wasn’t able to wear my glasses), we resurfaced, removed our flippers and walked back to shore through the fields of seaweed. I staunchly carried my tank as far as the steps then wimped out and had some aids help me get it off so I could climb up. I was wiped out, Ian was not. It was a great adventure, one I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do. Me, the future marine biologist 10 years ago, has decided that boats are not my thing, water is too cold and wet and while fish are pretty I don’t really want to spend gobs of time studying them in the field. Perhaps a lab position would have suited me with fish in a tank.
So we changed, paid the babysitter, had lunch and put the boys down for a nap. At 2, I shook the girls because now it was their turn. Rebecca was still iffy on whether or not she really wanted to do it, but putting the ball in her court with “You don’t have to, Katherine can do it by herself” sealed the deal. They donned their miniature gear (Rebecca’s rolled up at the wrists and ankles) and proceeded to the pool for their SASSY introduction. Scuba Assisted Surface Swimming for Youth is exactly that. The kids don’t go below the surface, but with their face masks and air tank, they can see the underwater life. The pool session went well, with Rebecca doing better than I expected, even if she continued to swim so she could see the teacher and that meant she kept swimming directly into him. Katherine had some issues with her mouthpiece but discovered later it was that she wasn’t creating a good seal with her lips. They both did well enough to go out to the floating bar, and spend a ½ hour swimming around while I sat in a little boat and chatted with the boatman. The kids came back and I was so proud of both of them for taking the chance and experiencing something truly new both physically and mentally.
Back on dry land once more, the girls changed and we decided to go to the Bondi Beach Bar for dinner. It was right next to the hotel with a view of the water and dusky sky. The food was excellent and everyone ate very well. The boys though had been kept watching everyone else have fun all day, so a promised dip in the pool followed our meal. The kids and Ian were only in for about 30 minutes as a dinner party was being set up pool-side and we didn’t want to be around when the guests showed up. Bedtime was looming, Katherine had some homework to do (a saga in and of itself as she hadn’t brought a pencil, we couldn’t find one anywhere even at the front desk, and she didn’t want to do her work in pen on some practice paper to transfer later. It was frustrating for everyone and eventually we said she’d just have to do it at home), we had story time, and everyone crawled under the sandied covers and conked out.
Atlantis Resort Day 3 – Another beautiful morning greeted us as we finished packing up most of our items and stepped out at 7 a.m. This being our last day we wanted to spend the time at the beach. The same boat that had taken us on our failed search for dolphins would be taking us to a small strip in a cove for a few hours before departure. We meandered down to the German shop and bought a bunch of cinnamon twists and a baguette for a beach breakfast. The boatman had told Ian the day prior that he would purchase some water and sodas as well. All was well and good until we clambered into the boat with our beach basket overflowing with items we didn’t really need, until he said that he’d forgotten the drinks at home and we’d stop by on the way.
OK, let’s go back to the other trip where the boatmen were saying the beach was just around the corner.. and the next.. and the next, until I convinced Ian to tell them to turn us around and go somewhere I felt more secure. With a bunch of kids and completely out of our element, we are taking huge risks by using these boats and trusting other people that they’ll take us where we want to go, and that they’ll bring us back. Call me crazy (I know you want to), but there was no way we were going to stop at this person’s house, no matter where it was, and I was going to be OK with it.
Ian prevailed this time though, and off we went, even as I glowered and repeated that we simply could have brought our own water bottles. As it turned out, his house was just around the bend, he did indeed have the drinks he said, and our next stop was a patch of sand that presumably would be our own for the morning but for the vendors that would float by.
Oh yes, vendors. Vendors on boats that would stop at the beach peddling their wares. Giant shells, coral necklaces, barbeque, massages and hair braiding. Nothing was odd or unavailable. I spend a good amount of time smiling and saying No Thanks, and eventually the tide dwindles to a few staunch men and women who kept a place at the line between the beach and foliage. While Ian was in the water with the kids, I did request that the girls get their hair braided (here this meant a small section of hair wound up tightly in some vibrant string), and the boys each had a bracelet made with their names. It was all going well until Nicholas’s bracelet was done and it was spelled wrong. The creator showed me the paper I’d written on and wouldn’t you know, I spelled my own child’s name incorrectly. Hey, it has charm and now there’s a great story behind it. Nicholas noticed right away though that his name does NOT have two Os in it but he allowed me to put it on his wrist anyhow.
The water was shallow rather far out, so while I could convince the boys to stay fairly close in, the girls and Ian were all over. Katherine had a real trial holding on to one of her floats and at one point we thought it was lost as each step she took toward it the float moved further out to sea. Ian did manage to rescue it but not without getting stuck in some seriously heavy seaweed muck and snapping a strap on his sandal. Next time, she gets only the board with the wrist attachment.
Everyone had been well sunscreened, so when the time came to leave our little piece of paradise, the only thing the kids took back was a level of exhaustion and contentment. OK, and a few thousand pieces of beach treasure. Well, everyone was sunscreened I thought. Turns out that the one who was in the sun the most only did what he could reach by flinging his hand over his shoulder, and his belly. The rest of him was scorched and he was a good bit uncomfortable the following days. Live and learn I suppose. He suffered the same fate as I did in Hawaii.
A short boat ride back past the hills of towering palm and coconut trees and under an expansive blue sky, we preordered lunch, hopped in our communal shower, completed quick pack-up and check-out and we were back on the boat to retrieve our car. We hoped, or as Ian would say “Nothing we can do if it isn’t there!” Jonathon slept the whole way back as I planned in my head the various alternatives for the possible absence of our van. A helicopter ride back to Manila would be quite an ending to our little foray to Mindoro Island. If we ever go back to Puerto Galera I definitely want to make it to Tamaraw Falls. It’s a full day trip as it is 20km away from the waterside town and just didn’t fit into our plans this time. We did the touristy thing of buying t-shirts and a couple souvenir postcards (actually, we’d planned on mailing the postcards but we should have done it day one instead of attempting it during the check-out rush).
Barnaby Bear had come along for the trip. He is Katherine’s class mascot and goes on all the trips with the kids. We took pictures of him at the beach and having dinner. The newer the adventure the better as he’s been around a while and has a notebook where his days are recorded. I’m sure he’s been to Puerto Galera before, but since no one else was traveling that weekend, he came along with us. Actually someone else was traveling that weekend. We knew that Ryan and Laura were heading the same way we were, but it was only afterwards that we learned they had stayed at Coco Beach, right next to La Laguna where we’d been the first day, and the spot that Katherine kept asking to visit. I’d told her that it was a resort beach and we couldn’t just play there. Seems that Laura and Ryan had come over to the little town Saturday night looking for us in the hotel restaurant. Of course that night we’d eaten at the Thai place. They’d also gone dolphin watching Sunday morning and had as much luck as we had, and they’d done the SCUBA bit on Sunday by the floating bar. Maybe next time our paths will really cross! Until then we chuckle at all the near misses. Nicholas really wanted to SCUBA but he’ll have to wait until he’s 5. It’s a long time to be patient for a little guy.
Obviously our car was there or this would have been a huge rant and for the P50 parking fee we were released from the scraggly patch of grass and herd of goats to head home on a pleasant 2 hour drive.
And until next time, we’ll keep in our minds the images of crystal clear waters and a stunning array of beauty off the coast and on of Oriental Mindoro. The kids had a great time and Ian and I returned to our home city (well, for another 18mo or so) rejuvenated.